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Fishing and Friendship: China Beach, Vietnam

We woke up at 3:45am, walking out into the clear night, stars bewitchingly bright and unhindered by city lights. There were cottony wisps of clouds floating in between the night sky and land, somehow neither here nor there. The moon was a thin crescent, but brilliant, turning the waves silver as they curled and broke neatly on the beach. My husband Isaac and I sat down facing the water to await the appearance of a fisherman who he had befriended. There were already some men on the beach gathered around a pile of embers glowing red in the night, a pinpoint on the dark beach.

Around 4:30am Isaac spotted the dark form of the fisherman and went up to ask him if he could go out fishing in the teacup-shaped bamboo boat. Under his breath Isaac had been practicing the needed Vietnamese phrase to communicate the question to the fisherman. I sat on the beach as Isaac helped the man drag the surprisingly heavy boat into the water. They both hopped in and paddled away. Welcomed by darkness, they disappeared. I had tried to take a picture of their departure, but the digital screen reflected back at me only the darkness of night and the faint outlines of a wave washing up on shore.

The fisherman's tiny wife walked over and squatted down beside me, her body nestled into the side of mine like a small child. I was surprised by the close physical contact, but also warmed. She began talking excitedly when I said a few words in Vietnamese, and so began the funny ritual of our sing-song conversation, us talking about our husbands' at sea, but in a broken way, lots of gestures and laughing involved. After 15 minutes, she motioned to me that she was going back to sleep, both hands clasped together like a pillow beside her head. She told me she would return at 6:30am.

It was around 5am, the light beginning to streak across the sea horizon, but the moon still firmly above my head, keeping its hold on the night. In the early morning light men were coming out to swim, jumping into the waves. The volleyball court filled with adults and children yelling and laughing. Suddenly in this pre-dawn light the beach had come alive. As I turned around to watch the volleyball game I was literally plucked out of the sand by a bevy of fast walking women headed down the beach for their morning exercise. One small older woman grabbed my arm, laughing and motioning for me to join the group. Her grip was firm, pulling me out of the sand. Her joyful invitation was accepted immediately and I thus joined a 50-something-year-old group of women on their morning walk. The tiny plump woman who had pulled me up excitedly began talking to me, her English about as good as my Vietnamese, a few words on each side.

She was energetically patting me, laughing at my height and her shortness, petting my stomach and comparing it to her own, patting my stomach more as if a seal of approval, taking hold of my hands and getting me to pump my arms like a power-walker. Periodically she would shout "Numbah one!" happily, as if to say something nice about me or us as a whole. We walked for a good 40 minutes before turning around. On the way back all the women stopped and sat down in the sand, motioning for me to join them. These small, plump ladies in flowered hats and shirts then began all manner of exercises: sit-ups with legs thrown in the air, yoga moves with legs over their heads. I sat and watched the sun rise. My friend was to the left of me laying down and throwing her legs into the air. She pointed to her abdominal as if they needed work, then motioned for me to join her. I was content watching the ocean.

After 10 minutes or so we all got back up and prepared to finish the walk. The women gathered around me and talked rapidly, my friend asking me in English "Why husband?" I thought perhaps they had meant to ask where my husband was, so I replied that he was out in a boat. My friend said, "No, no. Why husband?" I wasn't sure exactly what they wanted to know. I blurted out "because we love each other.” They seemed satisfied with that response, or just ready to move on, and began to walk.

My friend continued to look at me and say "Numbah one!" I laughed with glee. These ladies were so full of joy; I felt lucky to have been picked up off the beach and included in their morning ritual. As we approached the end of the walk, the teacup bamboo boats were sailing in, washing up on the beach in twos and threes. By now the sun was out, but temporarily hidden behind a cloud. At its most stunning the sky was afire with smudges of orange and pink, purplish clouds suspended in the air, seemingly close enough to touch, to pull down and eat like cotton candy.

The bevy of women invited me back to walk the next day, smiling and giggling as they walked away. I turned back to the water to see Isaac and the fisherman coming towards shore. When the teacup washed up Isaac and the fisherman tried to lift it, but it was incredibly heavy and took a few tries. With 800 meters of net the man had caught only about 30 tiny fish, some as small as minnows. They sat, insignificant looking in a circular pan, shining in the sunlight (value of fish: 5,000 dong = 0.35 USD). Isaac set up a time to come out with the fisherman the following day, and I sat on the beach smiling.

About the Author: Alice Driver is spending the year working and traveling with her husband Isaac Bingham as he studies indigenous boat building in Vietnam, Thailand, Malaysia, New Zealand (Tokelau), Peru, Bolivia and Ecuador. Next year she will finish her Masters degree in Hispanic Studies at the University of Kentucky. Her first academic article appears in the winter 2007 issue of Romance Quarterly.

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