Viets have an earthy, robust humour that reminds me of my native Sheffield. On arrival in Kon Tum I found a hotel that seemed OK and told Slim, the lad on the desk, I wanted a motorbike in the morning.
“We have. one hundred-fifty thousand a day.”
My eyebrows arched.
“I was paying just hundred thousand in Hoi Anh.”
It had taken me fifteen hours by minibus, motorbike taxi, so-called sleeper bus (nobody got a wink) and minibus again to get from Hoi Anh to Kon Tum.
Deadpan beyond his years, Slim met my gaze. The sincerity of tone and butter-wouldn’t expression could easily be taken at face value.
“You want to go to Hoi Anh for the bike?”
* * *
On Saturday, the day after my encounters with Charlie’s Hill and John Bull, I rode to Y Cham, a Jarai village seventeen kilometers south of Kon Tum. Rough Guide says to take a human guide as its cemeteries, the village’s main draw, can be hard to find. I found my first within minutes and was happy to be on my tod. Guides spin your head with useless factoids.
Anyway I rarely bother with cultural tours, not even alone. As my good friend Anni once said to me, “you’d be less interested in the Taj Mahal than in the cleaners there”. (True, though I’d taken the precaution, on my first visit in 1974, of saving a tab of strawberry fields for the occasion. Smart move though I say it myself. The place blew my mind.) But these tombs do interest me on several counts, which I’ll go into in my photo essay on the subject. Here I just want to pick out two things. One, these bone orchards are full of personal touches. The Jarai have for the most part let go the practice of feeding dead rels through bamboo poles driven into their tombs, opting nowadays to leave food above ground. After a few years this stops, the souls being deemed to have moved on. But the Jarai still place artefacts associated with the deceased atop the grave. The crash helmets, rusting bikes and decaying bed-heads are oddly poignant. It’s the very banality and transient trashiness of ordinary things that tug at the heart, when death has called, as marbled pomp never can.
A second aspect of interest is syncretism. Voodoo is the best known example of the phenomenon but I first encountered it in Guatemala, where the Maya fused the Catholicism of their conquerors with traditions of their own. I’ve seen devotees of the chain smoking San Simon petition his effigy, lighting candles to indicate their hearts’ desires: white for health in a child, yellow for a good harvest, red for love, black to wish ill on an enemy. Not quite what the Vatican had in mind but when the conquistadors tried to discredit San Simon by dubbing him Judas Iscariot, the moniker was cheerfully taken up with no lessening of esteem for the tobacco toking, rum quaffing super-dude and all round good egg. Syncretism strikes me, non expert and non believer, as offering useful windows on the ontology of religion.
I spend an hour photographing, then it’s back on the bike. At a rubber plantation two young women flit from tree to symmetrically arranged tree, painting spirals on the bark where I presume – they speak no English – they’ll tap the sap when the time comes. Yes, they smile, I may take pictures. No, they giggle, I may not expect to be considered right in the head.
I emerge from cemetery two, just as easily found, to spot three girls of eight or so hiding up a tree. They laugh in delight when they see I’ve rumbled them. The photos are great and mum, drawn by the commotion, thinks so too. She’s a bit of a looker so I have to snap her to make it a full house.
Later I’m photographing coffee bushes bursting with white bloom whose scent pervades the air and draws butterflies by the thousand. I’ve seen coffee grow on three continents but not before in flower. A small truth dawns on me as I take in greedy lungfuls and marvel that, despite having clocked up no fewer than sixty-one spins round the sun, no one ever saw fit to tell me the scent of coffee blossom is virtually indistinguishable from that of jasmine.
* * *
That evening I consult the date on my iPod, something I’ve so far studiously avoided, to find that the days of my idyl are numbered. To be precise, I have just four left, excluding Thursday when, early afternoon, I begin the long haul home.
At seven-thirty next morning a taxi drops me at the bus station on the edge of town. I buy a ticket for Buon Ma Thuot (“Boo-won-mat-oo-wot”), broadly in the direction of Saigon, but the bus doesn’t leave till eleven-thirty. Leaving suitcase at ticket office I go walkabout in the already hot sun, kilos of camera gear on my back.
Outside a hospital a hoarding depicts man sneezing into thin air – bad. Next to him a woman does the same but daintily and, more to the point, into a hankie – good. Large Viet print says (probably) that coughs and sneezes spread diseases: trap the germs in your handkerchief.
And from sun-baked pavement in twenty-first century Asia I’m transported to East Cheam, 1960, with Tony Hancock singing the English version to the tune of Zion, City of Our God. Or if you prefer, Deutschland Deutschland Uber Alles.
* * *
At a pavement cafe I down two coffees. Good morning Vietnam. I pay, carry on wandering, confident of my sense of direction. I come across a builder’s gang laying concrete on the red earth. They shout and whistle at my appearance but for all the raucousness there’s a softness rarely encountered in the west. They josh one another as I take photos and of course they do the two finger thing. No, not that one.
I’m walking in circles. Next time I see the builders, two of them are shoving one another with gusto. I smile indulgently: good to see the old spirit of horseplay alive and well; the same humour that once sent many a first-day apprentice at Sheffield rolling mill, forge or foundry out to the shops for elbow grease, sky-hooks or can of striped paint.
Wait a minute though, that was quite a biff the tall one just threw. And the other guy’s wince didn’t look pretendo.
Right, not horse play at all then. Now I really do feel at home.
Except I’m completely lost. And nobody round here speaks a word of English. Nor does my drawing of a bus impress or, more to the point, enlighten the motorbike taxi man I look to for salvation.
Don’t quit your day job, his lugubrious features counsel.