“We have a saying in the north”, Sa tells me. “We let our young people go south to fight. So many never returned, and now we wonder why they went.”
There’s a sheen to his boyish features. A dash too of the manic in his voice and a glint to his gaze I haven’t seen before. We’re at the family table, eating and putting away egg-cup sized shots of corn wine, except ‘wine’ is a misnomer. This is pure hooch, distilled in the hills by Sa’s parents and more commonly referred to by their son under a name I guess he picked up from an American. “Philip”, he urges, “one last shot of moonshine”.
I’ve had four last shots since the five I‘d intended to stop at. I’ll have a thick head tomorrow for sure, despite the litre of water I’ll sluice down before laying head to pillow, but now’s not the time to stop. Things are getting interesting.
“I’m forty-two, born in 1975.”
(In Vietnam a child is one at birth.)
“The year the war ended”, I offer. I mean the civil war. The French were done for at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, while the Americans threw in the towel in 1973.
“Exactly. When I was a boy the government told us Vietnam was the greatest country in the world. Simply the best.”
I hold my tongue. This is no time for Tina Turner. Sa knocks back another shot and nudges the innocent looking plastic water bottle toward me. I take last shot number six, savouring the burn to the back of my throat as it goes down.
“So what I want to know …”
Now there’s no mistaking the edge to his voice.
“… is why we were always hungry? Why there was never enough rice?”
He looks to me as if for answer. Valiantly, I have a go.
“Because for so many years America punished any nation friendly to Vietnam?”
He brushes this aside. Yes, of course there was that aspect to the matter but he refuses to accept it as full explanation.
I like this man. He runs the guest house, in the hills two kilometres above the town of Bac Ha, where I’ve been staying this past five days. The scenery is stunning; distinguished by conical peaks in all directions that rise to over 3,000 metres, by picturesque terraced farms on the lower slopes and by the country’s richest diversity of ethnic groups: their women in multi-hued resplendence, each tribe identifiable by a specific colouration and pattern, their men favouring western dress or – we’re close to the border with China – the Mao cap and militaristic khaki tunic that becomes these handsome, unassuming folk.
I got here on Saturday, the night sleeper train from Hanoi having deposited me before dawn in the gloom and drizzle of the border town of Lao Cai. There, one of the most extraordinary coincidences in all my years of travel took place, eclipsing even that blistering 1974 day in Afghanistan when in the full heat of the noon day sun I walked down Herat’s deserted main street – mad dogs and Englishmen! – to find myself eyeball to eyeball with the twin brother of the man I’d for the past year shared a house with in Sheffield, England. So what could trump that? I’ll tell all another day.
From Lao Cai to Bac Ha is a two hour bus ride, one long and winding climb into the mountains. In Hanoi I’d booked a couple of nights at Sa’s place, highly rated on Trip Advisor, but had no idea how to find it. There’s a problem, fast encountered by all visitors to this beautiful country, in asking directions. Viet is a homophonic language – I hear tell it’s exceptionally pun-rich – and as if that weren’t enough, features a proliferation of proper nouns barely distinguishable even in the westernised written alphabet. Which means they don’t necessarily hear what your execrably intoned request was meant to convey. My first stab set me on what I‘m sure was a well intentioned wild goose trail. My second and third met with blank looks. After half an hour or more I found a hotel on the main street. A friendly man with good English knew exactly where Sa’s Guest House is. Far from being the 700 metres I’d originally been told, it was, he assured me, two and a half kilometres. At which he fished out his cell phone. Ten minutes later, Sa turned up in person to scoop me and bulky suitcase onto his motorbike.
Sa’s House, as it is known, is a dream: bamboo built on stilts, simple and clean. From my window I look up at the mountains, down on well cultivated gardens: at rows of cabbage that give way to plum trees of haiku elegance, at chickens on the pecking scavenge. The three dogs and nine cats are neither for the pot nor pets but act as, respectively, sentries and mousers. To my surprise, Sa has told me that dogs for eating fetch a higher price than goats, while a big working dog can fetch fifty dollars. Sa has lost three in the past to “bad boys from the city” – hence the gates now locked at night, and the high perimeter walls studded with broken glass.
Meals are superb even by Viet standards, all the vegetables from the garden. Entertainment? When not wandering the hills on foot I’ve been out on a hired motor bike to visit outlying villages – each a visibly different ethnic makeup – and to the gorgeous Chay River; all sparkling turquoise punctuated by white-water where it speeds through limestone ravines, and by menacing swirls of jade on the slower and deeper stretches. You can see pictures from these forays in my last few posts. Today though I’m simply chilling: wandering dusty streets, sitting over a coffee to watch the sleepy town at work, or lounging on the veranda back at the ranch …
And tomorrow? After seven nights here – five more than intended – I’ll take the afternoon bus back to Lao Cai and from there the night bus, past Hanoi and onto the coastal city of Hai Phong. From there I’ll see what the northern coast has to offer but I intend to come back to Bac Ha and Sa’s House in the autumn, when the harvest is gathered and skies newly rainwashed are clearer for the photographer.
A few words on my walks in the hills and my encounters – this is what travel is all about – with locals, many of them farmers at the plough. As ever, smiles and verbal exchanges work wonder, each using his or her own tongue. The vibes are always cordial. This is a people yet to lose the natural human curiosity that takes pleasure in fellow human beings from far off lands. In any case, often as not my arrival brings an excuse to take a break
In the coffee/rubber rich Central Highlands the wealthiest farmers have tractors costing a king’s ransom. Here, even supposing anyone could afford the outlay, they’d be of little use. Far more effective is the buffalo, a particularly big and strong specimen costing up to sixty million dong – £1,650 – and the most valuable item most peasant farmers will ever possess. To see them at work is really something. In the ploughing stage they are driven back and forth across a short, designated stretch of steep hillside, every step turning up a prodigious quantity of the clay-heavy soil. It’s poetry in slow plodding motion, thrilling to watch, knowing this way of tilling the earth hasn’t changed in thousands of years – even if, stopping for a break, the ploughman will likely as not whip out a cell phone to pursue a boundary dispute or assure a sweetheart of his undying affection. After the ploughing comes the harrowing and this looks to be good clean fun. The instrument of choice is like a stacking pallet whose business side is studded every few inches with spikes, also wooden, each six inches long and tapering to a point. The whole is placed spike-side down on the newly ploughed earth, while the farmer gets to stand on its upside and be pulled along like a water skier. Well, OK, maybe not quite so fast but I’m sure it’s a joyride till the novelty wears off. And as with the ploughing, it bloody well works.
But see how easily I digress! I was speaking of Sa, and the night he invited me in to take dinner and moonshine with his family … of his life story and boyhood bafflement at this conundrum of the greatest country on earth, wherein rice was on short ration and children went to their beds hungry.
“1991: Berlin Wall comes down.”
This was not good news for those countries, from Cuba to Vietnam, suddenly bereft of aid and protection. Sa was now a teenager contemplating life choices. For his parents these were few and simple. Either he followed them into farming, or found gainful employment in such as construction. On his notion of building some kind of business, they poured derision. He must drop this foolishness, they urged. Such dreams were for the children of apparatchiks, not hill farmers. But Sa did not heed them, and one consequence of his unfilial strongheadedness is that he now supports them in their dotage. In their late sixties, they’d have to struggle unaided to the age of eighty, when they’d qualify for the state pension of $10 a month. Meanwhile he gives them $60 a month. And buys their moonshine. Another time I‘ll tell how this kind yet steely man – who as you have guessed is not what you’d call communistical – pulled it off. For now though, I’m talked out. And Sa’s young son has come up to say it’s supper time; my last one here. For now.