November 17-19, 2015
Early morning, as the sun begins to shine brightly on the nearby fields, the distant mountains are still unseeable. The long planted plains stretch out toward the west into a bank of low lying mist that billows up to become thick, dark cloud, creating an early day contrast against the bright sun shining from the east.
Somewhere in the nearby vicinity, perhaps from a school, a temple or even someone’s home, traditional soft Vietnamese music floats through the air and it is lovely mingled with the chorus of song birds, the sound of oxen trudging through the fields and the roosters continuing their crow. Bands of ducks are working their way into the paddies and the clouds begin to reflect themselves in the pools and the narrow strips of water that snake through the region. This is the Vietnamese countryside and already, I am in love.
We are near Phong Nha National Park at the Phong Nha Farmstay, a lively but relaxing hotel with a backpacker sort of vibe, situated in the remote village of Cu Nam.
Wanting to explore the area on the afternoon of our arrival, and bicycles being our only option for transportation here, we take them out for a stroll and start to make our way through the quiet country lanes in search of the esoteric Pub With Cold Beer (yes, that’s the actual name of the place) that has acquired a reputation among visitors in the area.
An hour or so later, after a few missed turns on the bumpy dirt lanes we eventually find the place, beautifully situated above the river and yes, the beer is relievingly cold. This, however, is not the entire draw of the ‘Pub”, which is literally out here in the middle of nowhere.
For travelers wanting new experiences, this eclectic place apparently became known for its chicken… not so much for the way it’s cooked, but for what happens before the cooking.
The deal is, you choose your chicken from the coop and then, if you so desire, you either slaughter it yourself or watch its demise. Obviously, I opted out of this activity… in fact, I couldn’t be anywhere near the event and I found myself a little rattled by the whole thing. Lochan had talked the talk, but when it came down to it he opted to take photos instead, and I couldn’t even look at those… particularly after being told how they kill the bird in a rather inhumane manner, which I won’t specify here.
I had several minutes of pause when I thought this might finally be the moment that pushed me off the fence and into the land of vegetarianism, but I did end up trying the chicken, having heard the freshness and grilling made for an outstanding meal.
My verdict? Mediocre at best, which was perhaps instant retaliation for my hypocrisy of thought and deed. I really did wonder if it was the preceding kill that altered my taste perception, but Lochan confirms that it just wasn’t that good, and I leave wishing I’d passed on the entire thing, but knowing that this too, aside from the tourist novelty, is but another part of the eating culture here in Vietnam, which I will continue to see in various forms over the next couple weeks.
The afternoon shadows are starting to elongate and in this river valley night will come quickly, so we must now start to find our way back home. As darkness falls, these uneven dirt roads become increasingly precarious and borderline dangerous without any real street lights to speak of, but I am loving the opportunity to see village life as the evening unfolds.
Many of the houses here are full of splendor… beautifully architected two-story homes with monstrous doors made of gleaming, hand carved woodwork. Whether fronted by a modest porch or a spacious veranda, all the wide doorways open up combining indoor and outdoor living space, giving you a glimpse of life inside.
Most often the entryway is on display, holding the sacred alter space that occupies each abode. In correlation with the home itself, some alters are large, others rather small, but all are adorned with abundant offerings… candles, incense, plentiful flowers, money and food… and they are all beautiful.
Regardless of whether the homes speak of wealth or poverty, grandeur or simplicity, there consistently lies the outline of hard work that surrounds the property.
Rich gardens of every possible vegetable, large banana trees and perfectly aligned rows of corn and sugar cane grow tall and fill every available space between structures. There are numerous animal coops and stalls that the residents roam in and out of and there are sheds with hand operated grain-grinding machines or places to chop wood, and frequently, even out here, small roadside stands selling sundries and snacks and flowers galore. The implications of hard work are clear, but so is the creation of a self-sustained life, and it is not only admirable, it is enviable.
But the work is put aside for now. Now it is time to socialize with family and friends as the world here settles into its nightly rhythm that is both peaceful and playful. Open flames glow warmly, and the smell of burning wood permeates the air. There are card games, music, loud, happy conversation and of course, food. A lot of it.
Evening is perhaps the most obvious family time here in the countryside, although I believe this is true for Vietnam in general. Family is the single ingredient that creates the overriding theme of community in this country and it is with a sweet sort of yearning that I watch older children caring for the young, grandparents parenting the babies and the general overlapping and intermingling of generations… and the calm of night only highlights all this wealth that has nothing to do with money.
There are two reasons people come to this remote countryside: to visit the caves in the nearby National Park and to relax. After thoroughly enjoying the former, I now get to enjoy the latter.
My friend Lochan has now departed, off to India for a wedding, and I must admit, after spending so much time in that culture, I would love to have gone to an Indian wedding. But I cannot say I am unhappy to be staying on by myself in Vietnam for almost two more weeks. This country has already charmed me and there is so much more yet to discover.
I am up early and decide to explore by bicycle before the heat sets in. This morning, a fresh, pre-dawn rain has muddied the dirt road and I alternately ride and walk my bike through the village, which gives me more time to absorb all the glorious detail.
When the heat of late morning starts to become too much, I return to my awaiting hammock, diving into a much needed day of doing nothingness.
To the west, as the day starts to cool and dusk starts to lay itself over the land, layers of green and mist and smoke and cloud begin to create sublime dimensions on the horizon… shades of light and dark spread over the flat, wet land that gives way to rolling hills and farther away still, limestone peaks covered in rich verdancy.
Like dawn, this part of the day is alive with activity. Through the wet greenery, herds of lumberous oxen slosh and graze, slowly motioned toward home by the farmers following from behind. Children run loudly on the borders between fields, half-helping, half-caring about the chores at hand.
In the western sky the thick cotton clouds that have covered the sinking sun start to create an ethereal glow that now casts itself onto the million little ponds that these fields have become. Eventually everything starts to become one of a billion shades of mauve or grey, darkening its hue by the moment.
On the ground, greens are no longer apparent but enough light remains in the opposing eastern sky for the top edges of high clouds to be highlighted brightly for their final glint of the day before turning their own shade of grey.
This is always the time of day that moves me most, the timeframe that holds metamorphosis, when one thing is discernibly and distinctly becoming another. It is a form of alchemy that can be seen and if you’re really paying attention, felt.
This beauty is, of course, not exclusive to the rural lands of Vietnam, so perhaps it is because I’ve seen so much beauty in the last several weeks that I am so connected and resonating with it so deeply out here, or perhaps it is simply because I have the time to articulate these feelings that they seem so big. Regardless, the loveliness is incredibly stark tonight and it inspires a rich contentment inside the deepest parts of me… and for that, I am incredibly grateful.