A Mad Tea Party between Hội An and Nha Trang

Seeing how I have not made any post in the past 3 months presque, I should just fold. But I finally have some free time, and a scene from Vietnam is coming back to mind quite vividly.

June 17, Anna and I started driving south from My Khe beach, headed in the general direction of Nha Trang. We were rolling our coughing steed, Lucky the motorbike, on the scenic route suggested by Vietnam Coracle , mostly smooth sailing on the bigger/well-paved roads, galloping and trotting on the smaller sections, dirt tracks and uphill slabs. (More on Vietnam Coracle some other day.)

We were on a small road, pulling up a hill side. The gradient was like 12%, a little uncomfortable for our Lucky, and the road was very empty. We reached the top and saw a valley stretch ahead, wrapped by the hills and the sea.  There was what looked like a small village on one side, and boats out on the sea. The water was sparkling blue in the sunshine. An idyllic paradise — or at least, a great place to stop for lunch. We were hungry, and sped down the hill.

As we drove through the village, we realised how sparse it was, and how little developed. There were a couple of houses around a square, and from here, the road ran lengthwise against the seashore as far south as the eye could see. Houses were sporadically placed on the western side of the road, and on the eastern side – nothing but shrubs, sand and then the sea. We were really far from the regular tourist circuits at this point.

But we were hungry and wanted to stop at an eatery. The only place that seemed to match this criteria was a little roadside joint, and we stopped there. A group of about 10 Vietnamese men were having loud drinks on one side and as soon as we sat, they got excited to see us. We asked the shopkeepers for some noodle soup and were waiting for it, when one of the men from the other table came over and hinted that we should join them. He did not speak english, so it was all mimes. We hinted that we really want to eat. He returns, and soon another guy comes over. He speaks some English: “Hellloo! Where you from? Come, drink beer!” When we repeat what we told his friend, he agrees “Ok, now you eat, then come drink beer!” and then follows that by fetching 2 beers.  “After, we go to water” he adds, and imitates a kid flapping their arms around.

So, we ate. Once that was over, we talked and decided that they really wanted us to join them. We walked over, and sat with the men, and were immediately handed over a pair of glasses with ice cubes in them, ready to pour in some beer – the Vietnamese way of drinking beer. We were not very foreign to these customs by this point. The young guy who spoke with us earlier introduced everyone. Lou was the only one who spoke English, having learnt it when he worked a few years in the British Virgin Islands. The others only knew some select words that they’d drop every now and then. They were a mix of all ages, looks and loudness and the one sitting two seats away from me in the left was garbed in a military shirt. He was also missing most of his right arm.

He lost it in the war, we found out. We couldn’t understand which war exactly, but he wasn’t too fussed about it. In fact, none of them were — about anything. They were the most friendly lot, and in the next 2 hours we spent there, they treated us like long lost kinsmen. They constantly poured beer for us, and fed us the juiciest picks from their plate of some green leaf mix and snail, dipped in cilantro-lime sauce. The conversations were filled with laughter, excitement, a lot of confusion, and also cheer. Only Lou spoke some English, who translated as best as he could, but that did not stop the rest of them from chiming, in combinations of Vietnamese, hand signs, and laughter.

Every now and then, we’d stumble too bad on the language gap and have a few moments of relative quiet and musings. We’d look at the countryside, a village of mostly farmers and fishermen. We’d look at the ocean, a few hundred meters from us. The clear beautiful water of the South China Sea, nothing but fishingboats on the surface. The empty shore. Then, one of them would simply raise his cup and we’d all join in on the collective calls of “một, hai, ba, vô!”  and drink some more. The cheering would go on. Every 10 minutes or so, the armyman would give me a thumbs-up with his only thumb, and declare “Vietnam bon. Canada, bon!” (bon ≈ good). The guy across the table would pose for pictures, even when I wasn’t taking one. A man on the right chose the best of the snails and picked them off their shells for Anna. The one to my very left had quietly taken my phone and saved his number there, and mine in his. It was the Mad Tea Party, and we were really in wonderland.

We still had a bit of way to go though, and departure was imminent. It was also a little uncomfortable for Anna to be the only female in this crowd of 10 men. Whenever we’d try to say goodbyes, they would start protesting. Lou suggested that we have a few more beers, go flap around in the ocean, and then we could go to his parents place to watch football (EUFA Euro 2016 was happening in this time period). Perhaps even stay the night and have dinner there. Grateful though we were for this hospitality, we did want to leave. And so tales were made of having to go somewhere to meet someone, and with vague words of returning the next day,  we said our goodbyes and started driving, only so tipsy.

Actually, we only drove for another 10 minutes or so before stopping on the side of the road and running towards the ocean. That was the best beach I’ve ever seen, if I can call that undeveloped seashore a beach. I saw nothing around us save some fishing boats and the boats were too far to care about, so I took off all my clothes and jumped into the water. Floating on that mystic blue, gazing into the clear sky, feeling the sun on my face and seeing Anna there — that was one of the best moments of my entire summer. It was special, and trying to describe it in words feels futile compared to how I felt at that moment. That, there, was heaven.

 

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In the end, we drove on. That night was spent at a beachside hostel in the little town of Bai Xep, a place special in itself. The journey towards Saigon kept going, and this was not the first nor the last time that we were invited by a group of Vietnamese people to join in their merriment. But it was quite something. Although that scenic route is posted on the internet, it is not too comfortable to reach the little village of Lo Dieu, and few foreigners must make it. We were a specialty to those friends of ours, and they were special to us. Unfortunately, we lost one of our cameras further along the journey, and with it, all video and most photos of that afternoon. The only remaining evidence are the words on my notebook, and a strange phone number in my contacts.

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