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Travel Stories






Eating on the Battlefield: Dien Duong, Vietnam

I walked across the pavement, sun burning down like the fires of hell, no respite. Women walked by covered from head to toe, long-sleeved shirts, cloth face masks, pants, socks, shoes, long gloves and conical hats to deflect the sun’s rays. They cannot afford sun block, nor is it effective in such blistering daily heat - so their days are played out sweating under layers of clothes. They are not tourists looking for a good tan. They cannot be careless with the blazing beast that knows no seasons. I cross the street, the heat stored in the black asphalt beating upon my legs and feet - heat from above, heat from below. I step over the concrete median, my foot landing in a pile of sand. I too wear a long-sleeved shirt and pants, sweating and wishing there were some other way to escape the sun. I wear sun block, a hat (not conical) and sandals, my feet crossed with white stripes from the straps, the exposed skin darkened. I walk by several piles of gravel onto newly turned dirt that will soon become another lane on the road.

The house I walk towards belongs to two generations of boat builders, a 77-year-old grandfather and his 45-year-old son. His son’s two young children play in the yard. I have visited them before to say “hello”, but other than that we are strangers. The old man is sitting on a board weaving thin strips of bamboo. His legs end at the knee, little pockets of flesh gathered like purse strings at the end. His son is working on a thuyen may, a large bamboo boat with a motor. The bamboo has been woven and sits in a large frame, waiting to be turned into a finished product. A young boy of three or four stands in the sand laughing and saying, “Sin chao, sin chao, hello.” I return the greetings which only makes his glee greater. His sister appears on the concrete front steps of the house and sticks out her tongue at me. I stick mine out in return, and she giggles.

The old man looks up at me with kind eyes of acceptance, as if a tall long-limbed white girl is the most normal visitor one could expect in rural Vietnam. He moves off the bamboo he is weaving, using his arms to easily get about. Looking up at me with expectation he points to the spot where he was moments ago, motioning me to sit down. I have been accepted with no questions asked; he wants me to weave. So far no words other than “Sin chao, hello” have passed our lips. Our eyes talk as I sit down. He walks around on his hands gathering strips of bamboo for me, and then leans over to teach me the pattern of the weaving. Watching him, I quickly realize that the pattern is under two, over three, under four, over three. However, I don’t understand how he knows where to begin; he seems to choose a random starting place. Thus every time I begin a new row I look up at him questioningly, waiting for him to show me where to begin.

He is chain-smoking, the cigarette hanging from his lips as he observes my work. Out of an old blue collared shirt with holes poke his thin arms. He wears shorts, letting the stubs of his legs hang out. I can’t stop myself from thinking about his legs, postulating how he lost them. “The Vietnam War,” I think. He smokes saying “OK!” with great enthusiasm when I finish a row. The two kids mimic his “OK!”, laughing as they repeat it. I sit on the square of woven bamboo, and realize that each row begins with the two strips of vertical bamboo that overlap the horizontal bamboo strip only once. It changes every with each row. “OK!” he says happily as I begin a row myself.

I can smell myself, the dank sweat clinging all about me. It emanates from my clothes, which have accumulated days of sweat and then been washed just enough to get wet and multiply the force of the smell. This is the reality of my body, one I don’t have to face in the heavily perfumed, perfectly groomed Western world. My own humanity confronts me; I breathe it in, finding something in the smells of my work comforting. In the hot sun or among a group of people I find my own smell and the smell of others indistinguishable. Humans become much more easily accustomed to different environments than they would think.

After an hour my nail bed are raw, some bleeding. There is a small cut on the knuckle of my pinky caused by my hand scraping against the dull-knife sides of the bamboo strips. I keep moving my legs from one side to another as they get tired of being stuck under me. The children that were previously happy have burst into tears for reasons unknown to me. The little boy hits the girl in the head, though not hard. The boy wails and wails until the old man, their grandpa, reaches clawed, long-nailed hands into his pocket and pulls out 2,000 dong. The girl runs into the open front room of the house, grabs two hats and returns. Hats on they walk to the market, crying stopped, to buy snacks.

After two hours I am getting the hang of weaving somewhat, though I still make mistakes. He looks at my work, motions me off the mat and fixes whatever is wrong. He then swiftly, with memorized movements, uses a wooden mallet to beat the woven strips closer together. There is comfort in the repetition, but I am also getting tired, thinking of water and a snack. “If this tough old bird of a man can work for hours on end”, I thought “then I can’t let myself tire so quickly.” If he didn’t need water, then I would go without as well. And yet I knew that this was not my life. I worked happily because it was a new, thrilling experience from me. Would I be so happy if I had to repeat this task every day for a lifetime? I was thinking of food, ice cubes, anything cold. I found so much joy in good food. What would I do if I had to eat rice for every meal? Would my joy disappear, or would I find a new cause for happiness? Thinking of food reminded me of a previous conversation with an old Vietnamese man who had fought on the sie of the Americans in the Vietnam War. He said, “The Americans were hard to fight with because they were always taking breaks to eat during battles.” I could envision this perfectly, myself eating as bullets whizzed by. It wasn’t much past 10am and I was already contemplating lunch.

In the third hour I became almost mechanical, not thinking - just doing. I dearly wanted to be useful to this old man, to learn from him. My hands were getting a little shaky. The girl brought me out some tea; the sugar in my blood steadied my hands. I gulped it gratefully, but saved some. To my surprise the girl immediately took the cup away. My eyes devoured the last bit of tea as she walked off. The old man looked at me expectantly and pointed to the bamboo strips. He expected me to work, and I put myself to the task. Occasionally I looked at the kids, the boy small with silky hair sticking up and a smile to charm monsters. The girl has short hair, scabs on her knees and eyes shiny with happiness. Both wear old, stained shorts and t-shirts and entertain themselves for hours playing in the sand or throwing small green fruits at each other. Their crying was intermittent, but much more often they were laughing.

Most of the time I was looking down at my work; my hat was cutting off the full range of my vision. The old man had the hair of a child who had just woken up from a nap, black with only a little gray and sticking out in every direction. His childlike hair was paired with his silent but thoughtful instruction of me.

I worked. He handed me bamboo strips. He smoked. I wove. After some time he pointed to the house across the street, the house I had come from that morning. He said “an chua (lunch)” and told me to return at “mot gia (one o’clock).” I walked out into the waves of heat, going back to the house of another boat builder who had invited me to lunch. When I returned to work at 1pm the old man was sleeping. Back out on the hot pavement I thought about the meaning of work, of a life spent in routine, routine and heat.

By Alice Driver

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