Hitchhiking Vietnam - A Woman's Solo Journey in an Elusive Land
An excerpt from Chapter 28:
My journey took me in a great loop to the border of China and across northwestern Vietnam, always in search of a village where I could settle for a while. I passed the battlegrounds of Dien Bien Phu with nary a glance but spent hours walking in the moonlight amid the growing paddy fields of Lai Chau, watching the fireflies dance over the dense green shoots. I spent a day making roofing out of sharp-bladed grass and a night tossing and turning from the thousand red-raised cuts along my arms. I sat with an old woman who seemed to laugh without end while she made toothpicks, her enameled teeth flashing coal-black in the afternoon sun. I followed footprints as flat as a duck?s webbed feet, with fallen arches and rough-ridged scars, and discovered a village whirring with hand-pedaled cotton gins and perfectly spun thread. I never knew quite where I was and didn?t really care. The road would take me onward. In the meantime, there was always hope that I might find a place to put down my pack, where there was rice to weed and harvest, fish to catch and meals to share.
The bus climbed up and up, winding along drop-offs so steep that straggling vegetables barely clung to the hillsides. I caught glimpses of tiny hamlets nestled deep in the mountain folds, their checkered fields glinting in the morning sun like flashing strobes. Without thinking I got off the bus and hiked down a narrow dirt road. At its end I found the village of Mai Chau, an island of tidy huts and fruit trees in a rippling sea of the greenest green I had ever seen.
Walking down its main street I discovered Tau ? or perhaps he discovered me. He was sixty-nine years old, lean and leathery with short gray hair that grew straight out of his head like porcupine quills. His wife had sad eyes and a friendly, hopeful smile that belied her proud back and capable hands. They sat together on the doorstep of their elevated house, and when I greeted them they immediately invited me up for tea. Their home was in the center of the village, overlooking the only dirt road wide enough to allow two buffalo carts to move side by side.
We talked and drank through the afternoon. He had worked the fields his entire life and raised six strapping children. Their support had eventually earned him an airy house, an intricately carved double bed, a hand-dug well, and a shallow cement fishpond filed with gasping fish and floating cigarette butts. He now spent the better part of his day sitting on the floor beside his living room window and watching the goings-on in the village below him. The fishpond was close enough to spit into. In the evenings a long procession of ducks marched down the lane and toppled into the cool water, to splash and flap and jostle happily while waiting for their daily dole of rice.
The village itself was as immaculate and well-cared for as Tau?s house, with trash-free lanes and well-bred buffalo that scarcely twitched their tails when children climbed up on their heads. Elaborate scarecrows adorned every field although they seemed more ornamental than useful. The village?s homemade shotguns and a well-developed taste for meat, no matter what the source, had long since taken care of any birds.
When evening came, Tau invited me for dinner, and afterward, told me I could stay. The days meandered by and almost without my knowing it, collected into weeks. It was the planting season. Every morning a vast, slow-moving migration took place as houses emptied and whole families wound their way along the foot-wide paddy dikes to work their fields. I joined them, stooping for hours over the flat wet ground, my legs sunk into the silt up to my thighs as I separated the bundles of rice seedlings and poked each three-inch stalk into the silky mud. The women around me worked with machine-like speed, their nimble fingers tuned to the exact dimensions of a healthy plant, their eyes no longer needed to ensure its proper place in the mud. My initial, painstaking efforts and wobbly rows were greeted with muffled laughter and improvements pointed out with delighted claps and cries of wonder. When my planed seedlings toppled into my huge footprints, they pretended not to notice until my back was turned. Then they dug them out and smoothed over the holes, looked up and smiled as though nothing had happened.
When the sun dipped under the mountaintops, the women planted their last few seedlings, put their hands on their hips, and painfully straightened their backs. Everyone shouldered hoes and empty baskets and joined the growing flood of villagers returning home. They stopped at the deeper channels and rinsed off the mud, their lower legs emerging white and wrinkly from the daylong immersion in silt. It seemed a simple life, filled with the rhythm of the seasons and the daily growth of the all-important rice. The work was hard but unhurried and their lives held few surprises. They could look into the future, at any given month or time of day, and tell you exactly what they would be doing. They knew where they had been born, and where they were going to die. They did their chores cooperatively and in relative harmony. As much as such a thing is possible, they seemed to have created a place where the individual worked toward the good of all.
Somewhere between the paddy field and the afternoons spent drinking tea with Tau, I found the Vietnam I had been looking for. In this tiny village not yet touched by the modern world, I discovered an ancient and universal celebration of community and family. I knew at last why I had come halfway around the world in search of this?because it had been lacking in me. Although it seemed much easier to create community in a place like Mai Chau, I knew there was nothing here I couldn?t find in America, if I just took the time to make it so.
I would return with many memories?of an old man patiently shifting rocks to build a new field for corn; of the peace offering of a conductor for whom the past had become nothing more than a reason to share bread; of the women climbing hand over foot down a mountainside, balancing their loads with strong backs and serene courage; of a Zao patriarch who could look around and know that what he built would shelter his children and his children?s children long after he had gone on to join their ancestors.
But most of all, I would take back a sense of place, and understanding of what I had left behind, and why it means so much to me.
It was time to go home.
Karin's Journey Featured on the PBS Web site.
A Behind-the Scenes Look at What Really Happened:
Learn about smuggling endangered animals (and getting caught); arrest etiquette; when to use the Vietnamese medical system; discovering rubies; driving the train; the law of tonnage (give way to buses, terrorize chickens).
The Globe Pequot Press, 1998; 5 ½" x 8 ½"; 288 pages, 8 pages of color, 7 maps
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Published on 1/1/98