Dharma bumming, Zen lunatic-ing and kicking around on pieces of ground far from your hometown…
If a man shits in the woods and no-one’s there to hear it, does it make a sound?
It wasn’t even six in the morning but everyone was already on their way to the market. All their incredible colors were splattered across the dark grey road in the form of skirts, stockings, shirts, vests, scarves, hats and headwraps slowly seeping out of the mountains, valleys, rocks, rivers and dirt roads, joining a long line moving across the cliffs.
It was a grand procession to the king’s palace as if for a coronation. This kingdom-no-more was spread out over vast swaths of the karst plateau and was coming together on the once-lonely road as a thick fog hung over the shiny black rocks and limestone mountain greens hung over the heads of the women, children and men that walked the alien-cement miles made wet from dew and drizzle.
In the hills were goats camouflaged to blend in, though the earth tones were interrupted now and then by a bright neon rainbow reaper or two – sometimes as many as five or six – getting work done in the rocky corn fields at dawn. Some of the houses and shacks and rice/corn fields were kilometers from roads, and some of the grandmothers walked 15-20 kilometers with 80 kilograms strapped on their backs to the market.
This road from Tuệ’s to the kings palace – we followed him and his nephew on motorbikes – was again more remote than the others we’d taken and the dress was more lively way out here.
There was no sun to speak of but that only brought out the dazzling, dizzying colors of the women even more.
There was no uniformity to their dress: plaid bandanas, thick scarves wrapped into chin-straps around hats and plaid headwraps, hijabs, headscarves, lots of stockings (white, tan, black, light salmon pink), grey and white hair hanging down to the temples and brushing across the wrinkles of foreheads from under warm cloth…they were mostly H’Mong but the different colored H’Mong tribes wore different kinds of dress as did those from other tribes (Dao, Tay, Nung) and their sub-groups…
A H'Mong "baby-dangler" at the market. Photo: Olof
We arrived to a scene at the wild market. It takes place in front of the Nhà Vương (King’s Palace), which was built with the help of the French to house the region’s last H’Mong king.
The palace is nestled at the bottom of a preposterous valley that the high mountain road wraps around and on the other side of the market is a tiny village of concrete homes, not traditional H’Mong. They call the place Sà Phìn.
When I’d first come here in 2005, the buildings weren’t there, just the King’s house. A tour guide we met said the new homes were built for the last of the king’s ancestors in 2006. They used to live in the palace.
The first thing we did was sit down with Tuệ and his nephew for morning pork noodle phở.
Another delectable batch and there were three girls standing by the phở stand whose eyes could not keep off us but did not say a thing…you could tell they wanted to ask us to buy what they were selling (sticky rice xoi out of woven basket-bags) but they didn’t…a H’Mong fellow sitting beside us started pouring rice wine for everyone and so we drank with him and things got merry pretty godamn quick.
It wasn’t even 8 in the morning. After the noodles – and all the incredible people-watching that entailed – Tuệ told us to “đi chơi chợ” and so we went to go “play the market,” Tuệ and his nephew wandering off in a direction and the two of us gringos in another.
This place was smaller than the Meo Vac market but more crowded. The women – stout, big and rugged – paid us almost no mind at all.
I mostly just watched them bargaining, buying and selling. Most wore these very comfortable-looking slippers that from a distance looked a little like hard-leather pilgrim shoes – with a belt strap and buckle across the foot – but up close you could tell they were just super-comfortable soft cloth.
They had chiseled faces that were stern when stern and light like feathers when they smiled soft smiles.
I noticed their dirtied stockings with mud splattered on the their shoes and ankles, sometimes up on the calves and shins, from working in the fields that morning or from walking the long road to the palace.
The muddiness was alive and I thought sexy, the dirtiness a contrast to the pristine and immaculately patterned sequined blouses, vests and scarves that were wrapped around their heads and over hats or headwrap-turbans. It was cold and I was jealous of the scarves around their chins and necks. No one wore gloves in the cold.
A girl eats noodles at the Sa Phin market. Photo: Olof
After Olof had gotten his requisite shopping done (this time he bought a beautiful black vest embroidered in fantastic light and dark blue patterns and other H’Mong garb to add to his already rich collection of men’s and women’s wear. He was dressed at the height of H’Mong fashion: black beret, black mandarin shirt, an array of vests and jackets, black VC pants…all that made him different were his juggernaut Doc Martin boots).
We were still feeling jolly from the rice wine so we sat at a tiny rickety wooden table built by clever amateurs and ordered a giant bottle the of Chinese beer we saw everyone drinking.
It was a hearty second breakfast at about 9am. We were sitting with two ancient-looking poets in berets who were already red-faced and happy. They were probably our age and I have no idea if they actually composed poems or not but you know what I mean. One had a thin light mustache and long hair under his beret. Their wives and daughters stood in back of them, every once in a while taking a sip of an unattended open beer that was on the table, or a shot of the wine the men were drinking.
We smoked some thuoc lao and passed it to a group of grandfathers and godfathers sitting nearby. Tipsy old ladies would stoop down now and again to rip the giant bong as well.
At one point, a passerby mistook Olof for a H’Mong friend. The energy throbbed around us, the sounds ringing in our ears, the smells tickling our faces and the whole thing opening up our hearts and minds in the form of giant silly clown-smiles plastered on our white mugs.
We watched the way the women and men and girls and boys twirled their chopsticks and blew on their piping hot noodles and the way the women tended their small fires in the winter wind, mud on their ankles and smoke in their faces, unladylike they crouched astride the braziers…
A H'Mong woman eyes jewelry amid the hustle and bustle. Photo: Olof
We wandered and wandered some more, catching a half-drunk H’Mong woman waddling out of the bushes near the parking lot after a piss.
She first grimaced and then smiled, as if to say “yeah!”, and I wandered off into the forest to do the same.
On my way back I passed a mud and concrete house with a young girl on the porch staring at me.
She wore a long black dress with a plaid orange shirt and a pleated sequined gold vest topped off with a dark green sparkling headwrap-turban. Our eyes met and as I walked by the house she walked along the long porch, both of us moving as slow as possible and not breaking eye contact until I slipped in a pile of cow shit and nearly crashed to the ground.
A cow nearby grumbled and looked at me with cows’ eyes (the ignorant all-knowing eyes that feel instead of see and glow in the dark) as I regained my footing. A water buffalo walked by and up towards the girl, looking back at me and gesturing for just an instant without breaking its slow stride.
The girl’s smile was wide and now she crouched by the door to get a better look at me. As I moved down the path she stood up again in the dark doorway as I continued, my rubberneck twisted as far as it would go to keep my eyes on her giant white glazzies. I don’t remember if I walked out of sight or if she went in the door first, but eventually we weren’t looking at each other anymore.
The author sitting down for a second breakfast of Chinese beer at 9 in the morning. Photo: Olof
Olof and I walked to the steps of the Nhà Vương to get a view of the market below. A military delegation of about 12 men in uniform appeared, videotaping the scene with old Soviet-North Korean battle-tank-style VHS recorders from 1991.
But once they saw us, we were all they filmed, their smiles even bigger than ours.
The market was dying down and people were starting to leave as a few Vietnamese tourists paid for tours of the palace.
H’Mong families gathered their belongings and each other for the long walks/rides back home. The most beautiful women had either the youngest or oldest husbands and were taking them home stumbling drunk…
Tuệ appeared with his nephew and gave us a satisfied look when he saw how content we were to be sitting there watching.
“Ok,” he said. “Follow the kid. I’ll pick you up on the other side of the hike.”
And so follow the kid we did, along a dirt path that reached around the tiny Nhà Vương village into the hills of Sà Phìn.
Once out of sight of all buildings, it was just us and the kid and a fellow traveler or two who passed us on the mud road now and again. Soon the fog and black rocks and the silence of the trail took over with a kind of shocking beauty. The tops of the mountains were high up and we were way down below.
Where there were no rocks there were hemp fields and corn fields. Where there were rocks there were small patches of hemp and corn and on the less-steep hillsides (most were too steep) were rice terraces sprinkled about.
The road turned into a steeper path up a valley and we stopped where an old H’Mong lady had set up a couple of stools under a tarp with beer, wine, tea and thuoc lao.
We opted for tea and smiled with her silently. She started chatting with the boy and he was digging showing us around.
It was drizzling again and her tarp started to hang low under the weight of collecting water. Eventually a small part busted and sprang a leak, water splashing down on our hot tea and the table. We overpaid and moved on.
The path climbed and dipped and eventually became the twistiest nonsense rocky Dr. Suess road that we’d seen yet. It zigged and zagged leading nowhere and everywhere. There were no huts for it to lead to, it appeared to have been dug for the sole purpose of this hike alone. Twisting around on it, I remembered Cummings:
seeker of truth
follow no path
all paths lead where
truth is here
We would reach small uninhabited valleys filled with no one and nothing (except all the things: rocks, mountains, creeks, bushes, crops, maybe an animal or two, dirt and earth) and out of nowhere would appear reapers and their gentles calls to one another over chasms, songs in the wind.
The mountains we walked around looked like giant breasts popping up out of the ground and Olof was the full-on H’Mong man walking the hills, getting more and more curious looks from people on the road as we carried on.
At one point we reached a pair of breast hills that were actually known locally as “the two breast mountains.” When we passed a set of three similar hills I thought about naming them after Paul Verhoeven...
At the end of the 7km, Tuệ was there waiting with our bikes at an outpost and we drove home to his house for more wine in large bowls and another feast that’s difficult to recall.
I remember there being some steamed bamboo and bitter leaf soup and a curry dish of some sort on the floor. It was as we relaxed with toothpicks, tea and tobacco after the meal that we reached a precipice of sorts. We’d been peeing in Tuệ’s backyard for days, but as Olof and I put out our cigarettes simultaneously we looked at each other and knew exactly what the other was thinking.
“So, where can we make a revolution around here?” asked Olof.
“I don’t know, but I definitely have the rumblings of agrarian revolt echoing in my bowels.”
We knew then exactly how silly it had been to have been holding it. The dissatisfied workers were now at the gates! How stupid to be holding it for so long out of fear of nature. Holding onto anything is like holding your breath, you’ll suffocate, said a wise man. Let go! Let go!
We chuckled and I politely asked Tuệ where might be the best place to release the forces of cosmic change upon this small part of earth and universe.
Tuệ pointed towards the hills and his nephew handed us toilet paper and led us out the front door of the house.
“Cross the road or not,” he said. “Just go wherever.”
So we split up and each hiked up into the hills a bit. The hills were jagged with the black pre-historic rocks that were also cornfields. They were beautiful. Beautiful mountains, beautiful cornfields and they would make for a beautiful commode under the dark blue sky that was not quite black after the sunset.
Once I was out of sight and had found my spot among the corn and rock, I remembered the yogic practice of shitting on train tracks, an exercise I’d been taught by redneck uncles in the Texas backcountry and again by blackneck brothers from other mothers (from forever) in the backwaters of Kerala…and I also remembered the words of a great Vietnamese poet:
I’m a little sad
So I rise up to the stars
And take a shit
I dropped my pantaloons and shrunk into a crouching squat, wind blowing where it doesn’t often blow, looking up at the very few stars – and maybe planets and moons – that had begun to appear like holes to heaven through the fog. There was silence and a gentle breeze of crisp air, Old Good Air.
In a childish meditation I slowly slipped the surly bonds of earth and arrived at the high untrespassed sanctity of space. I had no thoughts – only feeling and knowledge – as I added my own 500-billion-year-old piece of shit to these 500-billion-year-old rocks and mountains.
* Jon Dillingham wrote his bachelor's thesis on the (poor) American press coverage of the Vietnam War and used his graduation money to fund a trip through Asia that never left Vietnam. He spent eight years getting married (and divorced), getting a Master's Degree in Journalism at the University of Southern California (AKA Clown College) and editing every state-owned English-language endeavor in Saigon. About a year ago he snapped, gave away all of his things and headed North to đi phượt--an expression that translates, roughly, to abandoning the material world on a motorbike in pursuit of enlightenment (at best) and relaxation (at worst). These are his chronicles. He can be contacted at email@example.com