MullerHitchhiking Vietnam
Page 196

We were hiking high up in the Tonkinese Alps along the border to China. Jay was ahead of me and came upon a run-off ditch across the path. Just as he was jumping over it his sneaker lost its purchase and he slid two feet down the slick clay wall.

"Are you all right?" I asked. He seemed to be having trouble climbing back out.

"No," he said, way back in his throat. I jumped down behind him and caught a glimpse of his leg impaled on a bamboo stake. He hung suspended halfway down the wall, like an insect struggling on a pin. I gave him a push from below and he scrambled upward, his leg finally sliding free.

The wound was two inches wide and twice as deep, angled into the muscle right below his knee. It was barely bleeding but Jay's face was bone-white and he was panting with pain. We were several miles' hike from Phuong To, eight hours by bus to Lao Cai and a twelve hour train trip to Hanoi - and from there by plane to Bangkok. It didn't look good.

"I guess I'd better hike," Jay said heavily and levered himself to his feet.

We took the shortest route down. At the first village I spotted a horse and hammered on a nearby door to negotiate its rental. The farmer came out, noticed the blood that had begun to soak the lower cuff of Jay's pants and demanded an absurdly high price. When I agreed he immediately doubled it. In the meantime two women who had been watching the proceeding disappeared into their huts and re-emerged with half-finished tunics. "Buy embroidery!" one shouted and tugged on my arm. I agreed to the farmer's second price and asked him to saddle the horse immediately. "Buy embroidery!" both women demanded, increasing their volume and hauling away on my sleeves. A saddle, the farmer informed me smugly, would run me as much again as the horse. "Embroidery! Embroidery!" the women screeched and thrust their handiwork under my nose in case I hadn't gotten the point. Jay called me over and told me, his voice ragged with pain, that he'd rather walk. The wound would bump against the horse's side and the negotiating process was sure to take at least an hour. If I could just cut him a staff...

He hobbled away while the women hurled imprecations at us and the farmer gradually lowered his price until we were out of earshot.

Jay lowered himself onto the filthy flophouse cot and I plied him with painkillers, then hit the apothecary at a dead run. They had neither curved sewing needles nor catgut, but were well stocked with anesthetic and eventually pulled out an ancient Chinese glass syringe. The village doctor, they told me, could provide whatever else I needed.

"Where is he?" I asked.

They pointed down the road.

A half mile and a dozen breathless inquires later I was directed to a narrow courtyard where an old woman slowly swept up unhusked rice.

"A tourist man is badly hurt," I said in Vietnamese. "There is much blood. I need the doctor - please."

"Where is your man?" she demanded. I indicated the flophouse. She thought it over. "Is he your husband?" she asked, then "where did you learn Vietnamese? How long have you been in North Vietnam? Do you have children?"

I reworded my request, emphasizing that Jay was on death's door.

"How old are you?" she replied and invited me in to tea. I had just assigned her to the ranks of elder-child when a young man shuffled out of the house. She immediately explained to him with perfect clarity who I was and what I wanted.

"Where did your friend get hurt?" the young fellow wanted to know. He demanded all the details, down to the size and shape of the wound. Finally, his curiosity was fully satisfied, he pointed me in the direction of the doctor, yet further down the road.

"Is it near enough to walk?" I asked.

He nodded yes, while glancing over my shoulder at the T.V.

"Then you may show me the way," I said. To my surprise he led me back towards the flophouse rather than down the road he had initially indicated. On the way he stopped to buy a stick of sugarcane, then paused to chat with two young girls on bicycles. We walked another quarter mile before his sense of purpose began to falter and he cast about for a convenient place to rest.

By this time a nearby road crew had gathered around to find out what had happened. I asked them hopelessly for a doctor. They discussed it among themselves.

"He lives in Dien Bien Phu."

"He'll be back tomorrow."

"He won't return until next week."

"There is no doctor."

By this time I was already halfway to the apothecary, calculating antibiotics, dental floss and whether I could bend a sewing needle if I held it to a flame.

The pharmacist mysteriously insisted I visit the next door tailor shop before he agree to serve me. Three seamstresses waved me inside and listened with little squeaks of excitement while I retold my story. They waved their hands at a nearby couch and bade me sit for tea. The doctor, I reminded them curtly.

"Yes yes," they said, "he's here, now drink your tea."

"Where is here?" I asked.

"Your Vietnamese is wonderful," they said enthusiastically. "Does your friend speak as well? You must bring him here to talk to us."

"Where is the doctor?"

They pointed down a long hall. I could see nothing but a man in grimy overalls dismantling a voltage meter. I went back to see him.

"Yes yes," he said and waved a pair of pliers at an empty bed. "The doctor is here."

I had just decided to return to the apothecary and squeeze the necessary items bodily from the man behind the counter when I noticed an ancient stethoscope lying amidst a rusty box of nails, a can half-filled with oil and a glass of dirty yellow water with an old syringe and a dead fly floating in it. Some forceps too, peeping out behind some balled-up wire. This really was the doctor's office. I squatted and described the accident.

The doctor listened, nodded, and smiled. He didn't stop working on the voltage meter until it was in pieces on the floor. Then he excused himself to wash his hands and comb his hair. "Let's go," he said.

"You've forgotten your medical kit," I pointed out.

"No matter," he replied. How could he know what he might need before he'd examined the patient?