Dusk in Vietnam

[This is a short story I wrote in 2005, after visiting northern Vietnam. I was struck that a millennia-old agrarian way of life was in

the process of dying, and wanted to write an ode to it. The story is about the demise of traditional Vietnam, at the hands of capitalism.]

 

          Sleepfalling from the Milky Way through pearl-gray mist and periwinkle sky, floating as clouds in currents of wind, brightshining down upon mountain-peaks star-yearning, glow of the gloaming reflected in mountain-snow golden as sun-kissed ocean sheen to the horizon, undulating twilit horizon comforting sleep on the rocking waves like a lullabye, an eternal pendulum swaying back on waves of time in the water of the azure sky coursing toward land to sail in cerulean meadows, wade through waves of grain, walk through harvests of sunlight, drift on rippling tides of wheat moon-begotten in the silvery bloom of night, swimming motionlessly through clouds of dew yet to descend upon blades of grass in the pre-dawn stillness blanketing the land like a dream of womb-enfolded immortality or cosmic stasis in the spaces between stars where nothing hovers but three atoms of spacetime fused with a universal symphony of echoes of light spraying out to infinity in purple splashed on a canvas of clouds which are soaked in the crimson-flecked dreams of Earth’s origins…

          The phone rang. Stabbing him. He picked up the receiver, “It’s eight o’clock sir, you wanted a wake-up call, time to get up, your tour starts at nine, breakfast is…” His eyes closed and he drifted into his pillow but not before turning it over to the cool side…

 

           It was a chilly morning and the valley was shrouded in mist. Steam collected between the hillcrests, sank to the river, evaporated in the sky. It was mysterious, legendary. The sun did not warm him. He had forgotten his jacket. He stood with two Japanese girls and an American man waiting for their tour guide in front of the hotel on the edge of the town overlooking the valley.

“It’s a cold one,” the American said. The two girls whispered. “But what a view.” The girls giggled. “What’s your name? I’m Clyde.”

“Martin,” he said.

“My name is Midori,” said one girl, “and she is Hiroko.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Nice to meet you.”

“Are you from Japan?”

“Hai. Yes. Konnichi wa.” She giggled.

Konnichi wa.”

“How long have you been in Vietnam?”

“Only one week.”

“It’s beautiful here.”

“Yes very pretty.”

“But too cold.”

“I hope it warms up.”

“Hanoi was warm, but up here I guess we’re higher up.”

“Yes.”

“Are you girls in college?”

“Yes.”

“What do you study?”

“Drawing. She study painting.”

“I bet you’d like to paint this scene, wouldn’t you?”

“Oh yes. So beautiful.”

“I wonder where our guide is.”

          Tribal children from tiny villages in the valleys congregated around them, dressed in handmade and hand-dyed indigo cloth, speaking English, offering handmade necklaces and bracelets to anyone who would pay one dollar. The friendly ones shook hands with the Westerners, their small Vietnamese hands and dark Vietnamese skin callused from years of inclemency pressing against the cold white skin of the tourists. The weather didn’t seem to touch them. They ran happily along the streets in the drizzle, into and out of internet cafés and restaurants and hotel lobbies without self-consciousness, banging their palms against the windows of buses arriving with fresh loads of tourists, yelling “Hello! Where you from?” through the glass. Upon receiving no answer from heads turned self-consciously away they redoubled their efforts. Perhaps the diffident Westerners were put off by the irreverence, the mischievous delight that sparkled in the eyes of these children who seemed to be laughing not sympathetically with the excited newcomers but a trifle maliciously, as if they were looking at ugly foreign objects of contempt. –Probably, though, that was only a fabrication of the Western imagination, which felt at once superior to this backward place and beneath the people who lived here, who had not known modern comforts and thus were made of sterner stuff than overfed tourists. Even so, their enthusiasm proved infectious: skeptics found themselves being won over, rolling down their windows to say hi, making a few polite comments and being bombarded with questions in return.

          Even at this early hour the town was full of movement. Dozens of motorbikes weaved around clusters of tourists—motorbikes being the preferred Vietnamese mode of transportation. The streets were too narrow for more than an occasional bus or jeep. Natives driving by paused to shout at tourists “Hello! Motorbike?”, hoping someone wanted a taxi. If a pedestrian on the sidewalk briefly stopped walking, whether to look at a beautiful Vietnamese girl or to admire the scenery, motorcyclists shot over to him. “Hello! Motorbike?” Two minutes later, if he was lucky, he might have succeeded in prying himself from them. His destination was in all likelihood the town square, which was edged by rows of weather-stained colonial houses adopted by the Vietnamese for their own purposes, whether as stores or as homes. These colorful, artificial, geometrically shaped relics of the European past might have struck visitors as out-of-place in a land so untamed, primordial, where myths still seemed to reside in the heaven-descended vapor—a land where the world was perpetually being reborn—if everything else had not contributed to the eclecticism of the environment. People wearing tribal costumes they had woven themselves talked to people dressed as gangsta rappers; concrete high-rise hotels towered above wooden huts; SUVs drove over paved streets as young children carrying logs hiked barefoot up mountain passes.

           The buses pulled past an old church from the colonial period, still intact but beginning to deteriorate, its Corinthian columns marred by chipped curlicues and severed acanthus leaves, its gargoyles noseless or headless, its steps worn blunt by generations of feet. In the shadow of the ruins was a small marketplace composed of a dozen wooden stalls each with a makeshift roof sheltering an old woman from the heavy mist. Here and there a person dressed in American clothing pulled a bill from his wallet and handed it with a smile to the shopkeeper, placing papayas into his bag at the same time. She barely acknowledged him. He walked away with the same smile stuck on his face. He turned around and gazed up at the church. “Wow,” he said. He took out his camera and took a picture of it; then he looked over his shoulder towards the old woman, gestured at the church and shouted “Very beautiful!” This time she granted him a smile.

           The buses drove down the main road in the small town that served as the base for foreigners trekking through the mountains. Tourism was the main source of revenue for the area. Three hotels had been built in the last ten years; with the resultant influx of travelers, stores had sprung up quickly along the main road. Two internet cafés, several souvenir shops that also sold umbrellas, a pharmacy, five small restaurants, and three bars. Their owners spoke minimal English and the employees only a little more, but in the rare cases when gestures were not enough, children could be called in from the streets to translate. They had learned English not from books or in school, but from the visitors themselves. Since toddlerhood they had lived in the presence of the pale strangers, taking weekly or biweekly trips from their villages in the wilderness to the town. Over the years they had absorbed the foreign language, even some Japanese, with relative ease. This also partly accounted for their startling friendliness, more pronounced even than that of Western children, as the friendliness of the adults was greater than that of Western adults.

           As Martin waited for his tour guide, one of the children engaged him in conversation. A young girl, not pretty, with splotches on her skin, but charismatic and excitable. She walked over to him and said “What your name?”

“Martin. What’s yours?”

“Lê.”

“Lê? What does that mean?”

“It mean…shy.”

“That’s not a good name for you!”

“Not good name? Why?”

“You’re not shy, are you?”

“No, I not shy. I talk a lot. My friend say I talk too much. ‘Shut up!’ she say.”

“Ha!”

“Where you from?”

“America.”

“Oh! Where?”

“Near New York.”

“New York! Big city. You big city boy.”

“No no, small town boy. I’m from a small town.”

“You like it here?”

“Yes, very much. You’re lucky to live here.”

“How long you stay here?”

“Only three days.”

“O too bad. I wish you stay forever.”

“Yeah, me too. We don’t have places like this near New York.”

“You live wit me in village.”

“Would you let me live with you?”

“Yeh of court. My mom like American.”

“Well I'd love to live here," he said, "except it's freezing right now! I left my coat in Hanoi.”

“Stupid.”

“You’re right. But Hanoi was hot. I thought I wouldn’t need it here.”

“I not cold. Warm.”

“How?”

“Becaut my tough skin.”

“You’re outside a lot, aren’t you?”

“Alway. Helping mother.”

“What does she do?”

“She make bratelet. And clothe.”

“You help her dye your clothes?”

“Yes. Hand very blue. And she keep animal.”

“Farm animals? Chickens?”

“Yeh.”

“How often do you come up here?”

“Every weekend. To sell bratelet. Then go back to village.”

“Is it a long walk?”

“Many hour. Maybe eight.”

“Why is everyone wearing the same blue clothes?”

“Color of Black Hmong. My people.”

“Oh, your ethnicity! I forgot, this whole area is Black Hmong, isn’t it? I love those big silver earrings all you girls are wearing.”

The guide arrived. “So sorry, so sorry!” he said. “Ma name it Duong. Sorry for late.”

“I have to go now,” Martin said to Lê. “It was nice to meet you.”

“Bye.” Lê started a conversation with another American.

        The four travelers and Duong set off. They walked for twenty minutes on a dirt road where their view of the surroundings was obstructed not only by the fog but also by large European houses, as it had been earlier by the three hotels located side-by-side on the edge of a cliff. The guide did not talk much, and when he did, it was hard to understand him: his Vietnamese twang was unusually thick, and he clipped words that ended in ‘s.’ Midori and Hiroko whispered and giggled to themselves, too shy to approach the Americans. Martin was absorbed in his own thoughts, most of which revolved around his forgotten coat in Hanoi. Clyde was the only one who talked continuously, alternately with the girls and with Martin. His pattern of conversation was to ask a question, such as “What countries have you been to?”, and then to follow it up with a long discourse on himself. The girls were perfectly happy to listen and laugh after every sentence, but Martin found him tiresome and merely grunted during pauses. “I just came from Laos,” Clyde said, “but I like Vietnam better because Laotian women are tiny.” “Huh,” Martin said. “I mean,” continued Clyde, “Vietnamese women are small too, but differently. They’re like petite. Lao girls are short and not so pretty.” “Mmm.” “But I remember—this is funny—I remember a time when I was taking a bus in Laos in the middle of nowhere, a long bus trip, like a day, over dirt roads and stuff, cliffs, and we got stuck in mud, a huge puddle of mud, and the driver just couldn’t get us out for the life of him, and we were stuck there for like nine hours just standing in the road waiting for someone to come…” “Wow, that sucks.” Martin wanted to talk to the girls, whom he found adorable, but whenever he tried to speak to them Clyde hijacked the conversation, his voice drowning out Martin’s. So Martin contented himself with contemplating their features. Midori resembled a doll, with airbrushed cheeks and unwrinkled skin. Hiroko had a more mature look, as well as a more approachable, with a friendly smile always playing about her lips. She was tall and buxom; she wore tight clothes to accentuate her curves, a trait that seemed to contradict her shy personality. Midori had less to show off but followed her friend’s example anyway, wearing skin-tight jeans and a tanktop that exposed her midriff. Martin couldn’t help appreciating their wardrobe, though at the same time he thought it incongruous for such girls to adopt the attire of Britney Spears.

          He remembered seeing them for the first time the previous night, a few minutes prior to his first real insight into Vietnam’s tribal culture. They were dressed then for the chilly evening, wearing jeans and sweaters. He was sitting at a small table in the basement of his hotel, which served as a bar and restaurant and was decorated with oriental rugs and furniture. On this particular evening the rugs had been rolled up and the tables moved so that a large space in the center of the room was bare. Dim lighting created a sedate atmosphere, which was lost, however, on the young villagers scampering about the room, running outside and dashing in, laughing as they played games in disregard of the adults’ solemnity. Twenty or thirty tourists and some Vietnamese were seated, sipping wine, waiting for the concert to begin. The two Japanese girls hesitated in the doorway as all eyes were momentarily fixed on them. They smiled nervously. Martin loved this Asian trait of modesty, this remnant of Confucianism, which was so becoming in women. The two regained their composure and walked to a nearby table.

           Meanwhile the first performer had taken his place in the center of the room. He was a small, dark man, wearing the clothes of the Black Hmong; in his hand was a flute-like instrument made of bamboo. His leathery face bespoke a life lived in the wilderness, unaccustomed to recitals before American tourists. With no words he raised the instrument to his lips and began to play. A hush descended over the audience, even the children. At first, Martin heard only harsh exhalations, random, unmelodic and unmusical. They were crude and senseless, not beautiful. In some kind of ugly minorish mode. Neither legato nor staccato. Hollow, airy, lacking the liquid pith of the flute’s tone. He looked around at other people’s expressions; they were as blank as his. The performer himself looked blank: his eyes staring sightlessly ahead of him, his fingers the only part of his body that moved. He was just standing there mechanically. Martin continued to watch his fingers for want of anything else to do.

          Suddenly he realized that those wiry fingers were the real music behind the notes. They were the theme, the melody. If they and the man himself were ignored, the sound could not be understood. It did not exist in a vacuum, unfolding impersonally through a mathematical logic that determined the proper chord-progressions and the nature of the climactic moments and the resolutions in the cadences; it was an expression inseparable from what was being expressed. In a flash, as he listened to the whispers rasping sweetly from the carved piece of bamboo, Martin saw that this music was not supposed to be “pretty.” It was supposed to be a way of life. It was how the peasant conversed with nature, how he sublimated and humanized the forces he confronted daily. These tones that sounded so artificial and dissonant in a bar would have sounded harmonious if played among rice paddies beneath a starry sky.

            A minute later the man picked up something that looked like a banjo and placed a green leafy thing into his mouth. Without waiting for the applause to die down he started strumming the banjo and blowing into the leaf. The result was a noise that, under normal circumstances, would have so offended Martin’s aesthetic sensibilities as to make him flee the room. The whistle shrieking from the leaf tried to follow the pitches being plucked on the banjo—successfully, most of the time, at least to the undiscriminating ear. The strings seemed out of tune, though: some were flat, some were sharp, and when their tones lingered a moment they sank. The melody sounded improvised. It wasn’t even much of a melody, more like a repetitive series of notes in an exotic minor mode. The ensemble struck Martin as amateurish and childish, more than the preceding had.

         When the man finished his song, another performer joined him in front of the audience. A young woman. She was holding a long bamboo flute, longer than the first one. No one noticed, however; all eyes were riveted to the girl herself. Something about her was transcendent. She was petite, probably just over five feet, frail, her skin opaquely translucent. Her body, while not emaciated, was unnaturally thin. Her bony arms were lined with shadows of her veins. Smiling, she nodded to her companion, who nodded back respectfully. The audience waited. Then, as the girl raised the flute to her lips, Martin realized what it was that gave her such an ethereal look: she was deathly pale! Her face was wan and sickly beneath its beauty. The angular cheekbones, which may have been visible due to malnutrition, gave her sharp, defined features that seemed to express a strong character. Yet she looked sickly, undoubtedly: the contrast between her dark costume and her skin color was appalling. It made her luminous, though; he felt as if he were in the presence of an otherworldly being. The impression was strengthened when he heard the first sounds emanate from her flute.

           They were in a high register, the range of the piccolo—but with a full tone, reflective of the instrument’s size. Not shrill, not harsh, but soft and gentle. Fluttering, from frequent tremolos. Feathery. They seemed to mimic a bird-call, though one with an exquisite timbre and an exceptional range. The melodic thread they spun was bright and pleasant, neither major nor minor. Again Martin felt that he was listening to something being played in a milieu alien to it, before an audience spectating stony-faced, approaching it with a critical Western eye; it belonged outside in daylight in a field of dandelions, with children dancing around it. Perhaps as men harvested crops nearby. Soon the male performer joined with his banjo and the solo became a duet. It was a contrapuntal interlacing of two lines borrowing motifs from each other, spontaneous but too harmonious not to have been thought-out beforehand. As the song meandered along, increasing in complexity but not losing its charm, Martin saw that the people around him were beginning to enjoy it. There was still the same collective sense of ‘I’m listening to this only because I’m in Vietnam and it’s something that as a tourist I’m obligated to do,’ but beneath this veneer of otherness was an instinctive reaction against it. The foreigners were engrossed in the primitive pastoral strains—and in the mystery of this small young woman standing in a halo of light as she conjured nature in a hotel basement…

          “Look out!” Clyde shouted. “What are you doing, man?!” Martin raised his eyes from the ground just in time to see a jeep rumbling towards him. He ran to the side of the road. The jeep rolled past, bucking and lurching over the bumps and craters in the dirt. “Were you day-dreaming, dude?”

“I guess so,” Martin mumbled.

“You gotta be careful.”

“You okay?” Duong asked. “Very clote—clote call!”

“Sorry.”

“When are we gonna be able to see the valley?” Clyde asked. “I’m tired of these houses and trees.”

“Soon,” said Duong. “After that bend ahead. Very clote.”

           Martin separated himself from the two men and walked over to the women. They were chattering in Japanese but stopped abruptly to smile at him.

“How are you?” asked Midori.

“Excellent! It’s starting to warm up a little, don’t you think?”

The girls looked at each other as they vigorously rubbed their arms. “No. It’s cold!”

“Well, when you’re wearing that! You look like you’re going clubbing!”

“So sorry…clubbing?”

“I mean, like you’re going to dance in a nightclub in Tokyo.”

“Oh!” Hiroko laughed. “Yes. It was bad choice.”

“You look like Britney Spears!” he said. They giggled, interpreting it as a compliment. “Do you like Britney Spears?”

“Oh yes. Very sexy. She so good dancer. I like American stars.”

“Me too,” interjected Midori.

“Ah. Yes,” Martin said, “American music is popular everywhere.”

“So, many Japanese listen to it. And try to play like them.”

“Japanese people watch MTV?”

“Oh yes! Very much. Very cool!”  

“You actually like it?” he asked, skeptical.

“Of course,” said Hiroko.

“You’re not just saying that to be polite?”

The girls laughed. “No! Very cool.”

          Martin stared at them. He was about to follow up with more questions when a clearing appeared in front of them. No more trees, no more houses obstructed their view of the valley. They were silent as they contemplated the scene.

           It was like New Zealand, Martin thought, but on a larger scale. The terraces on the hills covered in amber stalks of rice added a human element to the grandeur. They were geometrically regular, as if God had hired an architect to build a stairway to heaven, who had soon quit for lack of materials. The golden carpet of rice-stalks on the surface of each step lay at a hundred-degree angle to the green grass growing vertically, so that a color sequence of gold-green-gold-green undulated its way around the hillsides up to the summit. “Earth-waves,” Martin whispered to himself. “Frozen waves undulating upwards.” Periodic human figures waded through the gold fields to harvest the rice, which was then carried to the base of the valley, near a narrow river, and placed in shallow baskets that were shaken in the wind to separate the chaff from the grains. The whole scene, thought Martin, was from a different time, an epic time, though rumblings of tractor-trailers and jeeps and dynamite explosions in the cliffs where a road was being built proved to him that modernity reaches even into the bowels of the wilderness.

          Soon they began to descend into the valley. They followed a winding dirt road of steep decline past half-naked children who stared at them curiously and endearingly. The Japanese girls took pictures constantly. After a while Duong told the four of them that they were about to see a family’s house on the side of the road, where they could buy souvenirs or just look around.

“We’ll stay there short time,” he said. “We have many plates to go.”

“Plates?” said Clyde. “Whadya mean?”

Martin translated. “He means places. We have to see a lot today, in only seven hours.”

          The house in question was a small hut, wood with thatched roofing. The four tourists walked onto the porch, where a young mother was holding her baby and a grandmother and five other people were sitting. Martin thought it inappropriate to invade their home like this, with Duong explaining to him their customs and how they lived as if they were exhibits in a zoo, but they didn’t show the slightest embarrassment or irritation. Indeed, they appreciated the foreigners’ presence: it was a chance for them to sell the bracelets and necklaces they had made. Martin and the others walked inside the hut to look at its two rooms, which were bare and comfortless, as the natives followed them and repeated robotically the one English phrase they knew but could barely pronounce: “Hello you want this, hello you want this, hello you want this…” “No thanks,” said Martin, trying to turn away—but they grabbed him again and out came “Helloyouwantthis” as bracelets were thrust in his face. His buying one only encouraged the others to descend on him. He looked over at Duong for help, but Duong just stood in the corner oblivious to Martin’s desperation.

         The hut, which was similar to all the huts in all the little villages that speckled the landscape, had a floor of hard dirt, a few wooden stools around two small fires, and two beds (or rather, platforms) with hard bamboo mats on which everyone slept. There was no chimney: the smoke seeped through the thatched roof. The guests found it a surprisingly cozy, if uncomfortable, home, providing adequate shelter from the wet cold outside. Duong told them that the women usually sat around one of the fires preparing food, while the men sat around the other fire and talked as they smoked tobacco and marijuana from long bamboo pipes.

         At length the visitors succeeded in prying themselves from the natives, who were saying “Helloyouwantthis” as enthusiastically as they had been ten minutes before. The Japanese girls waved goodbye as they descended farther into the valley…

 

           Clyde became less talkative as the morning wore on; he complained of aching muscles, fatigue, chills, a runny nose, and nausea. “I wonder if I have malaria!” he said. “I haven’t taken my pills in a few days, and I was bitten by a big mosquito yesterday! It’s the mosquitoes that carry malaria, right?” Staggering along absorbed all his energy, which was perfectly fine with Martin. The group became quiet, sunk in the rhythm of the hike, as the sunlight warmed them.

          They followed a path along the floor of the valley through fields of tall grass and hemp, which the villagers used to make their clothes. There were also wide swaths of green grassy land next to the river and ponds, where they rested periodically (sitting on large stones in the water or along the shore), watching men thresh and winnow the harvested rice nearby. As the baskets were shaken the husks floated away in the breeze; only the seed remained. A closer look was now possible, too, of the terraced paddies up above: men were cutting the stalks with scythes, then bundling them into sheaves. Duong told Martin that these sheaves had to be thrashed to get the rice out of them, after which it would be spread out on the ground to dry in the sun. The threshing and winnowing was the final step in the process.

“What are the earlier steps,” asked Martin, “before the harvesting? What is the work like?”

         “Hard. Many part. Make paddy, put water in, clean it…then make dry…use animal—buf’lo—make it flat and wet, make ready for rice, put seed…and many other part. Difficult to tell.”

“It sounds like back-breaking work.”

“Very hard and long time.”

          They continued walking. Hmong women passed them with baskets on their backs full of hemp or indigo plants or stalks of rice. They all wore the same dark blue clothes, the same large silver earrings, and some had colorful, intricately woven armbands. Midori took pictures of them, picture after picture, pictures of the male children bent low under stacks of wood, of the female children carrying infants on their backs, of elderly women hunchbacked like question-marks. Hiroko, too, was an appendage of her camera, pointing it at every plant and every person she saw. When they walked by a dilapidated school-building near an open field she ran inside to take a picture of the dark and empty interior.

          Martin, for his part, was lost in thought, wondering what it would be like to live here where life was seasonal and cyclical and nature was a spirit to be worshiped. A place where the rhythms of life were the rhythms of nature and had been so for hundreds, thousands, of years, changing not with the centuries but with the seasons. What would winter be like here? What would it be like to construct terraced paddies year after year and plow them with buffalo and tend them for months until it looked as if they had been created not for one’s sustenance but for purely aesthetic reasons, being as beautiful as anything Martin had ever seen? What would a sunset look like here, with warmth shining on warmth, gold on waves of gold, as vermilion streaks stretched across the sky from the sun low over the mountains? It would be a hard life, yes, and he did not envy these people; but it would have a simple beauty, a Tolstoyan simplicity. To the Western mind, in any case, the thought of being one with nature in the shadow of mountains had shades of sublimity.

         The travelers came to a village of six huts spread over seventy or eighty yards. Chickens, pigs, dogs, and naked children ambled aimlessly; a wizened old man sat on a wooden stool; an elderly woman sewed underneath six or seven pieces of indigo cloth hanging from beams attached to her hut; younger women welcomed the travelers with smiles and friendly questions. The huts here were larger than others they had passed and more sturdily constructed, with wooden, not thatched, roofs. Martin looked inside one of them and even saw a small television; middle-aged men sat around it in silence looking at the white images. He was amused that they had a TV but no bathroom: a hole in the ground behind the hut, not at all private, served as the bathroom. The kitchen (or what functioned as a kitchen) was only a few feet away, on the other side of some wooden planks.

          He was struck by a thought, a question that demanded an immediate answer. He walked over to Duong, who was trying to comfort Clyde as he rested in the grass complaining about his condition.

         “Duong,” said Martin, “where do people have sex around here? There’s no privacy! And what are relationships like? Do men and women get married?”

“Yeh. Married. Girl fifteen or sixteen, young.”

“How do marriages happen?”

“Girl and boy come town, meet.”

“What?”

“Love market in town on weekend.”

“Love market? How does that work?”

“Boy see girl, if he like, sing to her and she sing. Next week see again—if parent say yes.”

“So, girls and boys gather in the market and look at each other?”

“Yeh.”

“And if a boy sees a girl he likes, he goes up and sings to her?”

“Sing and talk.”

“And if they like each other they’ll come back and meet again later, if they get their parents’ approval.”

“Yeh.”

“Interesting. That’s a lot simpler than in America! But where do couples have sex? There’s no privacy here.”

“Sex very quiet, in house.”

“So a married couple has sex in the house where their children and parents live?”

“Yeah.”

“Wow.” Clearly these people did not have Western self-consciousness about their bodies.

           In fact, the more Martin saw of them, the more he liked them. As he ate lunch in the village with Midori and Hiroko he had to answer dozens of questions from eager children and young women, questions about America, about his love life, about his impressions of this place. Occasionally the natives’ imperfect English led to some amusing misunderstandings. At one point, a girl named Anh asked, “How old can you drink in America?” “Twenty-one,” Martin said. She was shocked. “You can’t have asshole until you’re twenty-one?!” When Martin burst out laughing she realized her mistake, and everyone around them teased her about it. Anh was very outgoing, but she was merely an extreme version of all the young people, who all projected curiosity and wide-eyed friendliness—including the shy ones. The little ones were simply adorable, staring and smiling at him with as little self-consciousness as their older siblings. Even the adults, the elderly, the men—almost all were welcoming and cheerful.

            Martin found it strange, indeed, that many of the adults seemed nearly as happy and bubbly as the children despite their shrunken size and premature agedness. Thirty-year-olds looked like fifty-year-olds, wrinkled, crooked, diminutive, half-toothless. Yet their smiles beamed like an eight-year-old’s. Despite all the hardships of life up here in the mountains they seemed happy, childlike as Hindu sages. Martin called to mind, randomly, Maxim Gorky’s autobiography—he had read it recently—which described the wretchedness of Russia’s proletariat during the Industrial Revolution, and he realized that there were in fact two kinds of poverty: the humanizing and the dehumanizing. Gorky had grown up in a factory-culture for which humans were fodder like in a war, less valuable than a hunk of metal; Anh and Duong and Lê lived in a society that was poor, very poor, but was centered around a community of relative equals who lived in the lap of nature’s luxury.

         The sun had passed its zenith in the sky now and the day had gone from cold to almost-warm. The travelers pressed on, over fields and hills, up onto the terraces where men were working. There was a footpath beside the crops which they walked on. Martin took some pictures of the area from this vantage-point because he thought it looked like a three-dimensional painting, or a visual transcription of the second movement of Beethoven’s fifth piano concerto. (That comparison seemed odd to him, but it surfaced in his mind so he wrote it down later in his journal.) He heard the noise of heavy machinery somewhere in the distance.

            Later in the afternoon, when everyone was getting tired and the hike was almost over, they came to another village (the fourth they had seen). It offered the same sights and smells they had grown accustomed to, the not unpleasant earthy smells of old weather-exposed wood, fires in firepits and smoke soaked up by thatched roofs, mud and wet grass and autumn. Martin was about to rest on a stool when a young woman emerged from a hut and walked in his direction. He stood up. ‘She looks familiar,’ he thought. ‘Have I seen her somewhere?’ Then it came to him: she was the one who had performed in the concert last night! Her white face with its vaguely sad expression was unmistakable. Evidently she lived in this village. For a minute he stood there dumbly; she disappeared into a hut and reemerged seconds later. He was disturbed, again, by her wraith-like, ethereal beauty. She walked slowly with her bare feet barely making an imprint on the earth; she stopped and adjusted her black hair slowly, loosened it from its bun so that it fell over her shoulders. Just as she was about to reenter her hut Martin coughed and walked toward her.

“Excuse me,” he said gently, “do you speak English?”

She turned around and smiled. “A little.”

“I think I saw you last night in a concert. You were playing a flute or something.”

“Yes, that was me.” Her accent, surprisingly, was not very noticeable.

“You did a great job. That was the best part of the concert.”

“Thank you.”

“How did you learn to speak English so well?”

“I learned it from Americans like you. In the market. My parents helped me too.”

“That was wise of them. They knew English would be a useful skill to have.”

“Yes, it is more useful every year because of travelers.”

Martin liked watching her talk. But he didn’t know what to say.

“How often do you go to the town?” he asked.

“Every weekend. I sell blankets that my mom weaves and I play music for people.”

“Do you enjoy it?”

         “Yes, I do.” She smiled with her eyebrows wrinkled in puzzlement. Martin was starting to feel foolish and self-conscious. Why was he talking to her? What had he hoped to accomplish?

          He looked around. Duong and the Japanese girls were off behind a hut talking to some women; Clyde was lying on the grass with his face exhausted from the strain of the hike. Men were still threshing rice hundreds of yards away even though dusk was approaching; some were singing, the wind carrying their voices to the village. Their songs had no recognizable melody and seemed to interfere with each other, but somehow that was perfect. Any other way of singing would have seemed out of place. This was mountain-music, Martin thought—the spirituals of North Vietnamese peasants. Neither plaintive nor uplifting, they were a musical expression of the harvest.

          Martin felt the rice wine he had been offered a few minutes ago swimming in his head. He hadn’t had much but it was strong, stronger than Western wine. He turned to the girl again and looked at her thin face. That’s why he had wanted to talk to her, he remembered: he wanted to say, for some reason, that she looked different from everyone here.

“What’s your name?”

“Dào,” she said.

He paused. He couldn’t tell why he was so curious about her.

“You live in a very beautiful place, Dào,” he said. “You’re lucky.”

“I think so.”

“Is this your village?”

“Yes, I live here with my parents.”

          He was attracted to her, to her aura of separateness and aloofness. Suddenly he was sick of the pleasantries, the fakeness; he wanted to talk to her like a friend, a real human being. She looked at him expectantly, clearly wondering where this conversation was going.

           “Sorry, I’m a little tired from the hike,” he said. “I just wanted to say hi because I recognized you. And also, I can’t help saying that you look—pretty, and…interesting.”

“Thank you…” She smiled.

         “I’d like to talk to you longer, but I have to go. Can I just ask… The reason I recognized you is because you look different from other people I’ve seen here. You’re whiter…even whiter than me…and, I don’t know, you have an unusual brightness and beauty.”

          Her smile dissolved. She looked at him intently with sad eyes. “You’re different from most people too,” she said. “Most people don’t talk about how I look.”

“I’m sorry if…”

        “No, it’s okay.” She looked away for a moment. It seemed to Martin that this girl was very self-possessed for having lived in the countryside all her life. “I look this way because I am sick. Very sick.” She sighed and looked up at the layers of amber grass to her left, the terraces on the hillside. “I will die soon, I think.”

            Martin gaped at her. “What? You will die?”

           “Yes. I am sick.” She lowered her eyes as Martin stared in disbelief. Her words echoed in his mind: “I will die soon, I think.” What? This situation had become suddenly surreal. Maybe the alcohol was influencing his thoughts too. But he felt inexpressible sadness as he absorbed what she had said.

“You…you’re…”

“I’m sorry, I have to go,” she said. “I must help my parents.” And she turned around and disappeared into her home.

         ‘What just happened?’ Martin asked himself. ‘She’s going to die? When will she die? Can she be helped somehow?’ It was so unreal he didn’t know what to think. Instead he just gazed at the mountains in the distance and listened to jeeps driving on dirt roads above, and dynamite explosions in the cliffs.

NOTES OF AN UNDERGROUND HUMANIST

© 2014-2019 by Chris Wright