Hitchhiking Vietnam
life in vietnam
Lifestyles: Thumbnail Sketches

A MEKONG COUPLE...The rituals of forty years
"The old man and his wife were making lunch, cheating nature of her quota of sweat by moving with economy and a complete lack of haste... He squatted against the back door, eviscerating several fish and laying the bones out in the sun to dry. She stoked the brazier with explosively dry kindling and laid on an immense black wok puddled with congealed cooking oil. He brought the fish to the fire and they transitioned as smoothly as a ballet, in a ritual perfected over forty years of marriage and unchanging daily chores.

She showed me how to peel the skin off a celery-like vegetable, its flesh spongy with moisture. We plucked apart ivory-white flowers, pulling off the stamens until our fingers where sticky with bright orange sperm.

When we sat down to eat the old man spoke to me for the first time, offering to adopt me as his daughter since I clearly had no parents of my own. His wife smiled and nodded agreement, and I felt privileged at the thought of becoming a part of their gentle home."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

AN OLD FARMER... with excellent teeth.

"At last we pulled over at a large house with a stone floor and two fishponds in the front yard. Chau embraced the old man sitting on the steps with understandable familiarity - it was his father. He shared Chau's flat, almost concave face and wide forehead. His teeth were unnaturally even and in far better shape than Chau's. He motioned us inside while he gathered the last of the stove kindling that had been put out to dry in the afternoon sun.

Chau had six brothers and three sisters, including the lovely young girl who was padding flat-footed through the parlor, herding a gaggle of ducklings that flowed around the rickety furniture like the incoming tide. His mother's picture stood on one of the altars, behind a much larger plastic bust of Chairman Ho. "She dead ten months before now," Chau said, in the simplified Vietnamese he always used with me. "She die of," he thought for a moment, "stomach." He lit a cigarette from one of the incense sticks. A plastic coke bottle of hard liquor appeared and his father took out his teeth. I left them both to a long, smoky reunion.


When I returned from my walk the old man was sitting alone in front of an ancient T.V.. I pulled up a chair and sat with a white chicken that had kept vigil under my chair all through tea time and thus become my friend.

The show was a Chinese import, its half dozen characters dressed like Hindu deities with flowing robes and powdered white faces with bright red lips. They popped in and out of the story with loud boinging noises, and never failed to wreck havoc on anyone in peasant's garb. The Vietnamese voice-over was done by one translator, so even the bear-like warrior spoke in a shrill, high-pitched squeak.

It looked like a comedy but the old man sat, grimly silent, and played with his teeth."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

AN ENTREPRENEURIAL DAD...with six unmarried sons

"We had barely gotten back on our bicycles when it began to pour. Fung waved us under a nearby eaves to wait. We were soon joined by an unusually hefty, dour-looking man with a horseshoe of hair around his graying head. His face broke into a smile when he heard where I was from and he welcomed me back from a war I never fought. His name was Vu Dat, he was forty-six and the father of six sturdy sons. They had followed each other into soldierhood and were now scattered throughout the Mekong in rundown wooden barracks, drilling for a war he hoped they would never see. They must have been in their twenties, too young for Cambodia and too distant to have fired a shot when the Chinese came tumbling over the border north of Hanoi. They were the first generation of children who had had time to drill before they died and he was the first generation of fathers who could speak of them without sorrow in his eyes.

But without war there were few promotions, paltry salaries and no perks. Their father was clearly well off in his dapper plastic rainsuit and shiny motorbike, but even his burgeoning construction business couldn't support six new families and a score of offspring. By mutual consent none of the young men had yet married, agreeing instead to save themselves for whatever wealthy allegiances their father could arrange. He invited me to visit them.

I pointed dismally to my guides. Vu Dat snorted with contempt at their long nails and slicked-back hair, clapped my free hand firmly onto his shoulder, revved his engine and we were off.

I caught a brief glimpse of the astonished Chau and furious Fung, and then all my attention was needed to control my bicycle, one handed, through the road's potholes and oils slicks at motorbike speed. I didn't dare look back. I would certainly pay for this, but by God it was fun.

My conscience eventually got the better of me and I reluctantly let go. Vu Dat waved a cheery good-bye and sped off in search of other marital material for his gaggle of ambitious progeny."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

SIGHTLESS VISION ...on the streets of Hanoi

"The two blind men I saw stumbling slowly around Hoam Kiem lake each day were bristling like hedgehogs with all manner of brushes and brooms. One was always in the lead and the other used his free hand to blow a whistle before crossing each street. They seemed to know every stall and cyclo stand, every bump and crack in the sidewalk, and navigated with unerring accuracy. I followed them for a while, determined to resolve a burning mystery; how did they know what they were being paid, in a land where the bills were all uniformly tattered and, more importantly, all the same size? After several blocks the shorter one turned and beckoned me forward. Embarrassed, I put the question to him. He laughed and offered me a clue; he knew I was a Westerner from the cadence of my footsteps, and a woman. He told me exactly were I had first seen him, that my camera was both expensive and heavy, and that my accent put me in Hanoi for less than a month. I offered to buy one of his brushes but he said no, I would have no need of it. In the end he accepted nothing but a handshake, and left me wondering how long I would have to wander the streets of any city before I could see the world with such remarkable, sightless vision."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

BLOOD ...dedicated onto death

"A Taiwanese businessman sitting at a nearby table waved me over to have breakfast with him. He was taken aback that I was wandering the world so far from the protection of my family and inquired, somewhat abruptly, about my blood type. "A", I said. He nodded knowingly. "You are being driven by your blood," he told me. Asians had long ago mastered the art of blood-divination, and applied it both to their politics and their social relationships. "Have you heard of the suicide squadrons of WW2 Japan?" he asked. "They only took pilots with blood type A. They were single-minded and dedicated to their cause, even unto death."

With his verdict ringing in my ears I packed my bags and set off to hitchhike a thousand kilometers in a great loop around northwest Vietnam, to the border of China, across the Tonkinese Alps, and beyond."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam


THREE VIETNAMESE POLICEMEN...secretly learning English
"It was indeed a lovely village, nestled against the serene and muddy Red River. Water tumbled merrily along bamboo aqueducts and fell into mossy barrels. An old woman walked behind her buffalo, picking up wisps of hay that dropped from his wood-wheeled cart. I ducked inside the guesthouse to drop off my pack. I snatched up my camera to capture the last few rays of sunlight and ran smack into three policemen drinking whisky in the sitting area behind the receptionist's chair. I backed away. They saw me at the door and waved me over, and I was trapped.

They were bachelors and had only recently been assigned to the tiny village. They lived on the second floor of the guesthouse and had their tea every morning with the lady of the house. They jostled and muttered among themselves, then decided to entrust me with their carefully-kept secret. "We are learning English," they whispered solemnly. When I offered my services they broke into huge smiles and whipped out three dog-eared texts, all unintelligible rejects from the Czechoslovakian school system. We spent the next two hours laboriously enunciating a string of b's and v's and k's the likes of which my tongue had never encountered. By the time I finally escaped to a shower and some food I was sure they would never learn English with the resources at their disposal, and they were equally certain that I had never spoken it in the first place."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

A CAMBODIAN FAMILY... lost in time.
"I was on the road in another eight-hour downpour, pushing hard to reach Vinh, when the motorbike's engine coughed and quit. An old woman who came out to see what the dogs were barking at took pity on me, standing wet and miserable in the rain, and called her husband. I was chatter-teethed with cold, my thin wet blouse conducting the chill wind directly to my bones. The old woman directed me to an empty back room with the banked remains of a fire. I stumbled about, struggling to persuade the dying embers to burst back into flame. The wood, stacks of roots still damp with earth, smoldered endlessly while I blew myself into apoplexy and the nearby pig slowly asphyxiated.

The family must have noticed the tendrils of smoke seeping through their woven kitchen wall because they sent their youngest daughter to check on the damage. She took over with consummate grace and in no time at all had a cheerful little blaze dancing among the ashes. Without waiting for a thank-you she was up and gone. I couldn't imagine what made her hurry so. Curious, I forsook the fire and crept over to the living room to peer inside.

The entire neighborhood was sitting in absolute silence on the floor, staring slack-jawed at the smallest black-and-white TV. I had ever seen. The picture, though riddled with static, was apparently a rural family drama set on an Australian cattle station. An unhappy little girl with flying pigtails and dirty petticoats raced on and off the screen, followed closely by a coolly sympathetic priest and her endlessly tearful mother. The voice-over into Vietnamese was all done by one female narrator, so the little girl sounded surprisingly mature and the priest a trifle absurd. The faint echo of the original soundtrack was recognizably German, though both the credits and the actors were English. By the time the last embrace had faded into a view of the windswept hills I was equally slack-jawed and cross-eyed from trying to follow the snowy picture and unchanging monologue. I was completely unprepared for the general stampede that followed as three generations of extended family rushed to the fireplace to have a look at the second most interesting thing around - me.

They bombarded me with questions about the film. Why weren't those rolling fields being used to plant vegetables? Anyone could see they would support a fine crop of cassava or upland rice. Why did they not light incense after the little boy died, to help guide him to his ancestors? Did my mother also cry so much, and how many cattle did my family own? I struggled frantically to field the endless queries and impatiently tugging fingers, though I couldn't seem to understand a word from anyone except the little girl. Eventually an older auntie, frustrated by my apparent indifference, leaned forward and shouted, "Lao! Lao!" into my ear. I looked to the little girl, who laughed and pointed at her grandmother. "Kampuchea", she said, then indicated her aunt and various other relatives, "Lao". They were, she explained, all recent newcomers to Vietnam, having migrated from Laos after fleeing the killing fields of their Cambodian homeland. The grandmother, who still remembered the ripening corn left behind to the marauding Khmer, refused to learn Vietnamese and now wished only to be buried in the small family plot, an impossible thousand miles away. The second generation had successfully mastered Laotian but did not have the energy to struggle with yet another foreign tongue. The little girl, after less than a year of local schooling, was their only mouthpiece to the outside world. She sat, immune to the shouted demands and pinching fingers, and simultaneously translated my sentences into both Laotian and Kampuchean in one of the most impressive linguistic displays I had ever seen. When I fumbled too long in search of a word, she gently tugged the dictionary out of my hand, guessed at what I was looking for, found the word in Vietnamese and showed me its English translation.

Hours later I went to check on the Beast, still stubbornly silent despite the tender ministrations of a half dozen young men. I nudged them aside and kicked it over a few times, and to everyone's amazement it roared to life with a loud crack and a long string of explosive backfires. The crack was the heavy kick-starter, its joint neatly split in two, lying in the dirt between the wheels. Never mind, it was running. I stuffed the pieces into my pocket and leapt on board, calling out my good-byes to an unheeding audience. The next show had come on and even the old man had disappeared to sit in front of a gray screen, to listen to a voice he didn't understand and dream up questions that had no answers."

Excerpt from Hitchhiking Vietnam

A Communist Romance || Lang Ly