Chicken Village, Vietnam
As we approached, the villager looked up briefly but didn’t acknowledge our presence. Squatting, he continued to mould the reddish brown clay into a brick. The slapping noises reminded me of baby’s bath days. His opaque thighbones lay beneath a layer of drum tight, transparent skin, which his knees strove to pierce.
This man was building a home. Love and determination in equal portions shone from the half-finished wall he was toiling on under a sluggish sky. Earlier, we had disturbed the reverie of a montagnard, barefoot, clad only in baseball cap and shorts, carrying a stick and a tin kettle, on one of his infrequent sorties from the nearby hills. The villagers were in awe of him, eager to explain to us that the mountain dwellers had only recently begun to descend, now that the government had ceased to deny their culture.
The villagers are very hospitable. I sipped a cup of the most disgusting tea I have ever tasted, unwilling to offend, as we sat on tiny stools and listened to the tale of the tragic bride who had gone off into the hills in search of a three toed chicken in order to impress her antagonistic in-laws. Unable to complete her quest, she had died of a broken heart alone up there in the mist-clad rises.
As you approach Chicken Village, salt patches and coffee bushes line the dirt road, and a six metre stone statue of a chicken appears to confirm the legend. No-one in the village believes it, yet no-one knows why else the statue was ever built.
Vietnam is nothing if not enigmatic. What appears to be naivety is a mix of stoicism, optimism and tenacity. For a people who worship their forefathers, the destruction of tombs and graves must have been horror, yet the Vietnamese seem to have retained a happy disposition despite the turmoil of wars, adversity, and the spoiling of their land. No guide book could have prepared me for the poignancy, purity and truth which seem to rise from this land like an early morning mist, linger in the peoples’ faces, and sink again into the moist soil to rest with their ancestors until the next day.
We met a ‘mad monk’ who writes and illustrates Zen poems in his monastery to the north of Da Lat. I gazed into the primordial eyes of a giant turtle and held his flipper as he imbued me with his wisdom. I watched enviously as a group of stoned Americans partied loudly on ‘Mama Hanh’s Love Boat’ near Nha Trang, and I wandered amidst the silent ruins of a once great palace in Hue, the former capital.
I still use the bag I bought in Chicken Village. Each time I open its drawstring fastening I see an anxious little boy, holding his hands behind his head, his flip flop sandals on the wrong feet, in tie dyed tee-shirt and cotton trousers, leaning against the plank wall of his home, and I wonder what the future holds for him. Have I improved his fate by spending my cash in his village, or have I taken away the dignity which is his birthright?