Boxing Day ’13

Comfort and Pain in the Vietnamese Hinterlands

by Hồn Du Mục

The evening of Christmas Day, I received notice that we would be taking a bit of a road trip in the morning. Despite my having heard nothing of it up to that point, it was made clear to me that the plan was well in motion and the result of an overwhelming consensus of opinions…other than mine, of course. My participation was assumed.

As it was my car we would be taking.

And I was the only one who knew how to drive it.

The “we” of the moment included some family, a close family friend, a family doctor, and a friend of the doctor who owned a hotel where we were heading. It would be flattering to think that their confidence in my involvement stemmed from knowing me and my fondness for the destination so well. It would also be foolhardy. Stay in Hanoi long enough and it just starts spitting out these all-but-random assortments of people and places to go for reasons never entirely explained. I just happened to dig this spot we were heading to.

You do not fight it.

I was told that the departure time was 10am, meaning the first person was likely to show up around 10:30. We might leave sometime before noon.

The group gathered as assumed. Casually late. In no hurry. Jovial.

Along with the expected bags, a cooler was packed with an assortment of Hanoi delicacies. Whether we were taking them along as essentials of our own travel or in order to re-provision an unnamed associate was never clear. At least we had good coffee.

One of the final pieces to be loaded was a large suitcase. The gear of several attendees had been consolidated into it. It was heavy. Lifting it into the back of the vehicle, I felt it go. A troublesome muscle in my lower back. It had turned up sore before, on mornings following unusually long drives or unbroken hours spent hunched over a computer. These instances arrived unannounced. This was different.

I stood at the back of the car and ran over likely scenarios. At best, I had just lightly strained it, and I’d be sore but functional in the morning. It could be a tear, but I expected significant immediate impairment were that the case. I did a few stretches and walked up and down the street. A twinge, but manageable.

We loaded up and hit the road.

With each stop during the five-hour drive, it was a little tighter. While the others snacked and smoked cigarettes, I paced in the courtyards of roadside restaurants, sipping my coffee and seeming anti-social.

It was largely fine while driving. Eventually, the highways gave way to two-lane blacktop through foothill villages, which gave way to a winding asphalt climb to a dirt and gravel road showing signs of past landslides and battered guardrails. Passengers joked that the constant steering and back-and-forth swaying of the drive’s final half hour would have me cured upon arrival.

The “hotel” was much as I remembered. It consisted of a main hall and kitchen surrounded by out buildings and semi-detached wings of rooms extending down the mountainside. It was cold, no more than a few degrees above freezing. The sun had set during the mountain climb.

Everyone exited the car with the stretches and subdued exhalations of a journey completed. Condensing vapor appeared as breath in front of each face, and its novelty prompted exaggerated shivers and shouts: “Lạnh Quá!”

It was cold.

I added a layer of fleece and walked around a bit before heading inside. My back had noticeably tightened. I needed to get warm. The main hall had the only heat sources, a pair of fireplaces where everyone had congregated.

Our home for the night was one of a handful of hotels and guest houses near the top of the mountain. The final kilometer or two found these buildings evenly situated every few hundred meters. There was nothing suggesting a central cluster, most felt uninhabited, in varying states of disrepair. No supporting businesses existed between any of these buildings. It was unclear at a glance if anyone actually came here at all.

I loved it like this.

Our own dwelling could pass itself off as a lodge, were its owners or any of their guests concerned with such distinctions. In addition to its sprawling layout and focus on a firewood-heated central hall, the entire grounds were unmistakably blunt and gritty. The bricked-in walls remained exposed both inside and out, hardened globules of mortar frozen in their unfinished drift toward the ground. Sections of sheet metal roofing rattled and snapped in the high elevation winds. Door knobs and window latches had been replaced with all manner of on-hand convenience following past traumas.

And the fireplaces. The center of much attention on the freezing mountainside. They felt like afterthoughts. Rather than being built into the wall of the structure, they were free standing in the middle of the room. Two of them. They sat on opposite ends of an elongated rectangular space, a bit farther from one another than each was from an end wall. Despite what appeared to be chimneys stretching upward to the ceiling, smoke poured from them into the room. They might have just been concrete boxes attached to solid support beams. A mezzanine level just above was held up by these columns cum chimneys. Scrap lumber full of rusty nails served as firewood.

When I asked the proprietress what was on the mezzanine level just above us, she stared at me, looked up, then turned to one of my acquaintances as if her answer needed some translation or that she needed confirmation she heard me correctly. She mouthed uncertainly, “Nothing.”

In true Vietnamese fashion, hardly a moment’s rest had settled upon the group before a meal was in the works. All conversation bent toward the đặc sản on display: a 45 kilo hog of local origin slaughtered upon our arrival, indigenous herb and vegetable varieties, and the local rice spirits clear and strong. Animated discussions of horticultural techniques, medicinal properties, and regional character coursed through the group the way you might find a doomed football club dismantled and rebuilt in the pubs of its long suffering fans.

To the uninitiated, such talk seemed to rise in swells of bitter, angry speech, only to suddenly disarm the listener as the waves broke in fits of laughter and back slapping. Those with a passing familiarity of the scene would know it as the buzz of so many Vietnamese gatherings. And for the fully initiated, this march of words to and fro, with its accents both brash and beatific, could mean only one thing: hunger.

Dinner was served at a pair of foldout tables set up next to one of the fireplaces. Parts of the pig which had been cut and drained of life right in front of us lay served five different ways. Plants from adjacent slopes seasoned the pork, filled side dishes, and colored the thin broth poured over rice. I sat, leaning forward, elbows on knees, knowing that as soon as I had sat down and began cooling off, bad things started going on in my lower back.

It seemed best to find a warm place to lie down after eating. I could no longer stand upright enough to stay loose by walking. Instead of heading down several flights of stairs to the planned room, I was taken to an auxiliary room detached from the main building, just across the front courtyard. Helped into bed and covered with blankets, I was left with a glass and the bottle of wine opened at the end of dinner.

In most instances, I would judge being left alone on a remote mountain with books and a surplus of wine ideal. My body just would not cooperate. I struggled to find a comfortable position. Soreness was turning into spasm. A narrow band of spasm inducing movements were growing in scope by the minute. Soon, it was a challenge to move at all without pain. When the children who spied my retreat to the room paid me a visit to shout hello and imitate my labored movements, they left the door to my room open. Open to the freezing mountain winds. A mere two meters away, and I could do nothing about it. I had to call for help. I needed to get back into the main hall and near one of the fires.

It took five minutes of trial and error to find a sequence of movements that did not engage my damaged lower back muscles, but did result in moving my ass off that bed. The shivering alone could bring on the spasms. I was shivering a lot. Once on my feet, I walked back across the courtyard, crouched over with the heel of each hand driven into the corresponding knee. I could not begin to straighten my back. A courtyard that just twenty minutes before seemed a lovely distance from the building with all its smoke and noise now required a trek that spun thoughts of not-so-distant eras when such injuries in such a place would mean an all but certain, and very cold, end.

Half way across I asked the person steadying me if she’d remembered to grab the bottle.

In the main hall, my reappearance, crumpled as it were, sparked the group into activity. Suddenly, everyone was a doctor, including the obstetrician who rode up with us. Debate raged over treatment protocols as I crouched in front of the fire. Options were limited. The nearest pharmacy was a good 30km drive down the mountain and into town. Attention was focused on what could be scrounged from the kitchen and the dusty cabinets in the main hall. I knew they did not want to see me in pain, but I could not shake the sense that, collectively scrambling for a remedy, on an all-but-barren mountainside, in the middle of the night, for a friend in need, called forth a harmony and purposefulness not always evident among them or any group.

They simply could not have been any more in their element.

At that point, I let them call the shots. I considered suggesting that I sit in my car, as in Vietnamese outposts like this, a soft, comfortable chair was about likely to turn up as a mobile pharmacy. Before the suggestion could be made, I was being moved to a space that had been set up adjacent to the actual fireplace opening. The fire pit’s odd, free-standing form suddenly held great promise: I could lean against its heated side wall to warm my back. I sat on a blue plastic stool and commenced doing so immediately. The activity and discussions did not cease. Soon, a pan of hot water, ginger, and herbs was at my feet. My socks came off before I had a question formed. I was told to sit back, put my feet in the pan, and get warm.
Someone handed me a tumbler full of Malbec.

“Me —d i — cine. Uống đi.”

The amount of attention involved was embarrassing. A steady stream of coming and going kept the pan of water at my feet hot, my cup of wine topped off, and the air filled with animated talk. Trips to this mountaintop had always, for myself at least, been made to get away from the crowds. Arriving in the chill of winter only increased the likelihood of finding the place empty. Evenings spent next to the fire with a glass and a book. Days on a trail that wrapped around an overgrown slope. There would be little of that on this occasion, and the sooner I chose to roll with that inevitability the better.

The pan of water had warmed me past the point of shivering, and the concrete wall I leaned against had fired new life into my back. I sat, reminding myself that I had little cause to be disappointed with the outcome of a largely unplanned trip that I only learned about 24 hours earlier. I leaned back and reveled in the building around me, standing as it does half-finished in an aborted tourism project that just has not quite given up the ghost. The mountain itself one of countless others rising in unending sequence from there all the way through the Himalayas. Even the ruins of the long-abandoned French military mission, a grandiose folly of a century before, lacked much of the haunted gravitas similar piles of rubble inspire elsewhere in the country. Stone upon stone, now fallen.

Eventually, a mattress and blankets were spread out for me on the floor in front of the fireplace. The coals were fueled with fresh timbers. They all seemed just oversized enough to settle in the night and roll out onto where I slept. For a makeshift alarm, I set a pair of empty wine bottles on plastic stools directly in front of the opening. With luck, a falling piece of timber would need to go through them to get to me, and the sound of the bottles falling on the room’s tiles would be enough to rouse me.

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