From Vietnam, With Love
A plane lands in Hanoi and immediately, you know this place is unlike any you’ve seen before. The air is dense and hot, heavy with humidity that will not break until the monsoons come… maybe not even then.
The streets are bustling with no order or logic and the traffic consists mostly of small scooters. Even well-dressed women in high-heels and office-ready skirts put helmets over their hair and head to work, zipping by in busy streets.
A short drive north of the city, things become slow and quiet. This is the village of Bat Trang, where pottery is not just a craft, but a way of life. Open air workshops reveal women working with clay.
The air smells like clay. Pottery is sold out of roadside stands lining the dirt path through the village.
There are even entire markets devoted to selling all types of pottery— everything from the large and elaborate to the small and practical. It is clear that pottery has been the art of this region for centuries. It takes time to perfect a craft, and this village has taken the time to do so.
Northward still, the roads follow along mountain cliffs. No guardrail, only courage will comfort as the driver swerves to follow the curves of the cliff. There’s a sense of ascension—a steady upward climb, journeying farther from the safety of flat ground. But if you can get past the fear, the landscape will take your breath away. Everything is green and glowing as the sun catches on that heavy, heavy air. Exotic flowers peek from behind oversized leaves.
The insects, too, are larger than life, as they feast on sugary star fruits and the sweetest grapefruits you’ve ever tasted. At the bottom of the mountain, a handmade boat with a sputtering motor moves slowly across a still lake, carrying a handful of school children, dressed in uniform, to their school building on the other side. The only concrete building in the village; the school is a daytime escape for the children who live in mud homes with shoddy thatch roofs.
In the Lung Tam district, the craft is not with clay, but hemp fiber, as pottery shifts to textile. It takes just one month for a hemp plant to mature from seed, and the stalks grow taller than most of the women who cultivate them and harvest with machetes in the dead heat of day.
The sun dries the stalks and women comb the fiber for use on their looms. This is just one way they live off the land.
Chickens run freely along the roads or are kept in coops to provide eggs for a morning breakfast spring roll. An old woman sits on her porch and cooks on a simple griddle, heated and set atop sturdy rocks. First she pours a rice flour liquid onto the hot surface, where it sizzles for a moment before turning opaque. She fills this with fresh herbs and the freshly scrambled eggs.
These little gems are gently wrapped and eaten alongside homemade chicken broth, leaving no part of the animal to waste, and finished with more fresh herbs bought from the local market, where vegetables and fruits sit simply in crates, still covered in the earth that bore them. Her smile lights up in her eyes. She lives a simple life, but a happy one. And she finds so much joy in serving breakfast to passersby every weekend, and will invite anyone to sit over a cup of tea on her porch. And this warmth is shown by everyone. Hospitality is normalcy. Everyone is family here and when someone falls ill, there is sure to be a visit by a neighbor to share food with them. In a place where most people have nothing, everyone gives what little they have, because they have nothing to lose.
But no matter how rural the village, no matter if electricity is scarce, there is no escaping the memory of war and the presence of communist government. Megaphones are perched in every village and sound messages every day, sometimes several times a day. This technology is a stark contrast to the simple lives that continue much in the same way as they always have. Other cultures have left their mark in different ways. Ornate Catholic churches with stained glass windows tower over bamboo huts. Statues of the Virgin Mary stand alongside sculptures of Buddha, because beliefs and histories are important here. Traditions withstand even the most intense monsoon as the rain pours in through the roof, falling into the pot of rice wine, set out to brew in the center of the family’s one-room hut.
And at the end of the day, it all comes back to family. Even if there is no direct blood relation, these small communities will look out for every person around them, even strangers. This is a unique kind of joy.