The old Patriarch called for a chair and gently welcomed me into the rowdy circle of young men, pouring me a cup of tea when they became too persistent with their whisky bottle and waving them away like pesky flies when their glances lingered. He spoke not a word of English and seemed indifferent to my labored Vietnamese, content to pluck pieces of candied ginger from a nearby dish and present them to me on the end of a home-made toothpick. He was thin-chested and stringy, but his carriage was ramrod straight and the look of calm confidence on his grizzled face commanded more respect than all the bulging biceps I had seen in crowded Western gyms.
A loud young man, the self-appointed spokesman of the rowdy crowd, plucked insistently on my sleeve. His village Vietnamese, liberally diluted with whisky, was unintelligible. He shouted repetitiously into my ear in the hope that sheer volume would overcome my ignorance. I pulled out two pocket dictionaries and offered one to my host. He gave a tiny, sideways jerk of his head, barely noticeable, that told me he had no use for the written word. I looked around the table, making eye contact with each man, hoping for some receptive glimmer. There was none.
I had seen this happen again and again in a country that boasted ninety-five percent literacy, among the highest in the world. Even those who could sound out a few syllables had never seen a dictionary, and leafed through it like a paperback novel.
Their conflict with the written word ran deeper than poor schooling or the lack of books, libraries, newspapers and even comics outside of the larger cities. Written Vietnamese, in its current form, was barely two hundred years old. It was created by a French Jesuit missionary, Alexander de Rhodes, who romanized the ancient Chinese script in order to make the Bible more accessible to an almost illiterate population. The various tones were depicted through hats and accents, squiggles and dots above and below the vowels. His scheme was wildly successful and his new text became standard usage after WW1.
But no language matures in two short centuries and the dialectical differences between north and south compounded the difficulties of hammering down the spelling and pronunciation of a fluid and developing tongue. The most common signboard word in Vietnam - "to fix" - fix bicycles, Bic pens, disposable lighters, shoes, motorcycles, flat tires, furniture and watches, had nearly a dozen written incarnations: "sua", "chua", "rua", "xua" and so on. To find such a word in the dictionary was an impossible task. And, I had heard, each province was aggressively proud of its pronunciation, refusing to accept a national spelling that did not adhere to its own local dialect.
My companions were getting rowdier, and apparently stuck on the question of my earning power, which I had avoided answering. I gathered my shampoo and soggy clothes, accepted a final piece of sugary ginger from the twinkly-eyed old man, and disappeared.