Not long ago, I had the opportunity to visit a friend’s hometown in rural Viet Nam, near the central regions. Three of us traveled; a university student from Tazmania who I’d come to befriend, the girl whose hometown to which we were headed (also a dear friend), and myself.
The following is a brief recounting of what happened, and how it has – in ways both surprising and unsurprising – it has influenced my writing.
And, it should be noted, that this marked the first time an American or an Australian (or any foreigners for that matter) had ever visited this part of Viet Nam and, furthermore, weren’t just passing through. I heard that once, and only once, since the War, had there ever been a foreigner – a Chinese person – visiting this area, and he had been denied any lodging and sent on his way.
So, to state it more clearly, my friend and I were the first Westerners to ever come to this part of Quang Tri Province since the Vietnam/American War.
We took a 1-hour flight from Sai Gon to Hue, the historical capital of the country, then took a taxi to the bus station. From there we boarded what they called a bus, though in truth it was a van that served the same purpose. For a the equivalent of a few dollars each, we traveled as far as it was from my old hometown in Upstate New York to New York City (a fair I fondly recall costing as much as $25.00, one-way) — 3ish hours of bumpy under-construction highway and, after turning off the main route, we came upon dusty, sometimes-paved roads.
We passed through the narrowest part of Viet Nam, where I could practically see the border on one side and the coastline on the other. I could look out the right-side window, to the east, where rice fields stretched across flats that seemed to end at the horizon, where an unseen ocean acted as a border. Looking out the left window, to the west, I could see the mountains of Laos.
After finally arriving, our host-family treated us with royal hospitality, and any translation responsibility was left entirely to my trusted friend. My and the Tazmanian’s Vietnamese is limited (and furthermore, the pronunciation of the local dialect varies greatly from south to central regions), and the English skills of the family hosting us was virtually nonexistent. To our great enjoyment, the Tazmanian and I learned a host of new words in a very short time.
Vegetarianism is not common in the region, though to my relief they did have some concept of what that meant. Word was sent before our arrival that I don’t eat meat, and as such local-made tofu was prepared for me every day. Legit, local tofu – đậu phụ (dow-foo) – I even visited the neighbor’s house in which the stuff was boiled, churned, and pressed.
The woman there made it every day, and appeared to produce it for the village. Bricks of it cost us quarters, and the first time they wouldn’t even accept payment, happy as the lady was to provide me with something to eat.
The area was populated almost solely by farmers, and Communism has destroyed any sense of spirituality (except for the worship of Ho Chi Minh, of course), such that Buddhism is pretty much nonexistent – thus few if anyone practiced vegetarianism by extension. In any case, the host-family was more than willing to accommodate me, the tofu eaten being hands-down the best I’ve had in my entire time spent in Asia.
The vegetarianism was much easier to understand than my lack of fondness for drinking.
They drink beer every night, and loudly, and proudly, proclaim that they “drink the most beer in all Viet Nam.” I’ve heard this rhetoric in other regions, leaving me no choice but to conclude that the Vietnamese people to derive a sense of honor/pride from what privileged foreigners might label as widespread alcoholism. Recognizing that everyone says this, usually with a beer bottle in their hand at any given time of day, I merely shake my head at why this is something to be proud about in the first place.
I’m not fan of beer, and this is something many Vietnamese have great difficulty understanding.
“You’re a man. Therefore, you drink beer.”
There really isn’t room for argument as far as they’re concerned, since it is such an embedded ritual at this point that beer is drunk with most meals (and often in between). To have a visitor – particularly one of a rare and unusual-looking breed such as myself and the Tazmanian – inevitably called for drinking beer from one house to the next much in the same manner as people go bar-hopping.
As such, I am repeatedly thrust into the situation of “Hey, you’re a foreigner, drink beer with us.” And after repeatedly making it clear that I don’t like to drink (I am especially sensitive to when someone forces it on me, something that happens frequently here), there is at least half a chance that they’ll disregard my odd and clearly unmasculine behavior as some oddity among foreigners.
My Tazmanian comrade, on the other hand, drank more often than me, which mostly placated their incessant desire to fill me with cheap, disgusting alcohol. I knew, of course, that nearly every gesture of this sort was made in an act of welcome and hospitality, but the concept of “No thanks,” to drinking beer is about as clearly understood as “No thanks, I’m full,” is understood when at the dinner table visiting your grandmother’s house.
It takes anywhere between hours and days for this concept to sink into the heads of people I meet.
The house in which we stayed was a mere fifteen minute walk from the beach, where we went almost every day for a swim in warm, bathtub-temperature saltwater. The beaches were far from pristine, and more than once I witnessed local farmers’ children playing with hunks of styrofoam in the water as makeshift toys; garbage washed ashore from the sea or cast aside by locals.
You could erect massive statues made of the all the empty bottles we stepped over, and the thought crossed my mind, and seeing as this was even remotely a tourist area, there could only be one source left from which the trash accumulated. Sun-bleached propaganda posters looked to do little in preventing locals from littering or cleaning up the beaches.
In spite of these unignorable details, I loved going to the beach, and as I said we went almost every day – once even late at night, where I discovered to my initial horror the bioluminescent plankton. It was mode rad.
We were awakened by roosters nearly every morning, and my Tazmanian buddy had the presence of mind to bring several sets of ear-plugs with him, and only on such mornings as I employed the little foam wonders was I able to sleep later than 6:00am. But not before developing a distinct lack-of-fondness for a particular rooster, however, that sounded like nothing short of a dinosaur.
That one godsdamn chicken sounded – no joke – just like this fellow here, an orc from Lord of the Rings. (1:42 – 1:44)
This in fact inspired a section of prose for my novel-in-progress, where a character is rudely awakened by an intrusive chicken. It served to fill a hole that otherwise had me stumped for months, and after inadvertently being accosted by the crowing of proud chickens, I managed to get through another of my frequent Blocks.
No building in the entire village was made of wood. In what I have learned to be the typical Vietnamese fashion, every structure is built of rebar-enforced concrete. I even came across “picket fences” along the road that were designed to look like your typical wooden fence as seen on T.V., but made out of slabs of painted cement bolted together.
No doubt the better to withstand the yearly typhoons I’ve heard stories about.
Days before being assured that no rain would come to the region during our stay, a perpetual downpour came upon us that lasted for half a week. During this time I found myself largely confined to the house, which was much to my enjoyment as the air got significantly cooler and I, at last, had some time to simply do what I hoped to do on this excursion: spend some time writing.
I did manage to churn out about 2,000 words of prose, which is pretty good compared to the last few months, and some, like I said, was in part inspired by that godsdamn chicken. But nary a moment passed when I went unbothered, whether by the family summoning me to play cards games like Blackjack, eat a meal, play with local children or just to accompany someone on an errand.
I met the Town Drunk, a man who spoke slurred gibberish that was “Not Vietnamese.” But much to my own amazement, another individual, a boy of fourteen who, from a clear though unidentified mental handicap (he was taken out of school on account of his inability to learn), fit the trope, cliche, whatever, of the Village Idiot. I found myself wondering whether this was something uncool to ponder, because regardless of the boy’s condition, there was only one like him, and the setting seemed apropos for the stereotype. He, also, was described to “talk a lot but he doesn’t actually say anything.”
As someone thoroughly familiar with mental handicaps (which has instilled in me a deeper-than-average sensitivity to the word “retard”), I found him interesting, but there were more barriers between us than culture and language.
I ate tamarind on the roof of their house, saw a seaside sunrise, played with kids (both that of villagers and goats), walked along dry riverbeds and drying rice paddy fields, and traversed massive sand dunes. We even delved into what remained of an old Viet Cong tunnel, dug under a hill and still quite stable, a place where sound and light did not travel more than ten paces, and using nothing more than the lights of our smartphones, we plumbed its depths before having to turn around and come back out.
Through it all, us foreigners were met with warm greetings and frequent invitations to eat, drink, and play. I had very little time to myself, which was expected and oddly appreciated.
From this experience I derived a small pile of inspiration, as well as simple “down to earth” concepts of how things are made and how people live in a less-than-urban setting. These aspects of life readily and easily translate to writing fantasy, which more often than not takes place in a medieval-esque world devoid of plumping, laundry machines, and freezers.
Even just going somewhere, like the dunes or the tunnel, brought more reality to how I might later describe such scenes. Sand squeezing between my toes or damp air pressing against my lungs, a spike of seething, genuine hatred towards an unevolved fowl.