In Marseilles, I met an illegal immigrant from Nghe An. He said his boss and housemates in Paris were all from the same province. Long known for its poverty, Nghe An leads Vietnam in the ratio of people working overseas, with most never returning. In fact, so many have become illegal in South Korea, Vietnam is blocking 11 Nghe An districts from sending people there.
Last week, I was in Nghe An for a three-day wedding. The one-hour-forty-five-minute flight from Saigon landed me at an airport, Vinh International, with no other planes. Across its empty tarmac, we walked to the new, airy terminal. Outside, there was a large, colorful mural of Ho Chi Minh being applauded by citizens and soldiers, and presented with flowers by two children. Flying over Uncle Ho’s head, a plane dropped nothing.
Nghe An is Ho’s home province, so in Vinh (pop. 500,000), his 39-foot-tall granite statue lords over Vietnam’s largest square. As I shall explain, much space was available.
Going into town for lunch, I noticed many houses had roof spires that evoked nearby Laos. Across the border was Xiangkhouang, the most heavily bombed Laotian province during the Vietnam War, with American planes pulverizing all but one of its temples, some dating to the 16th century. As the starting point of the Ho Chi Minh Trail, Nghe An was also pummeled, with Vinh leveled by more than 4,700 air strikes.
On the way to the wedding, I passed Truong Bon, where on October 31st, 1967, American bombs hit a road repair crew. All 13 victims were under 20, with 11 of them female. Perhaps it’s because most were only teenage girls, they’re honored with a huge monument that attracts a thousand visitors daily.
I walked into a spartan roadside store to find some skinny old guy behind a lonely glass cabinet.
“Yes, uncle, I just came up from Saigon. Have you been?”
“More than twenty years ago,” he grinned, showing only a few teeth.
“Where were you in Saigon, uncle?”
That’s over 200 miles north of Saigon, I thought, but close enough. Similarly, many southern Vietnamese routinely refer to all of northern Vietnam as “Hanoi.” Many would even say, “Will you come to Hanoi or Vietnam?”
The wedding was in Quy Hop, an idyllic city of 119,000 that’s ringed by mountains, with a serene lake downtown. Its chief economic activities are stone quarrying, tin mining and logging, resulting in fantastic wealth for some. I walked pass quite a few ridiculously fine houses, including a marble mansion boasting a huge roofed gate that’s made from a single block of stone. I also talked to a man whose daughter, working in Saigon, could only afford to visit him once every few years. “We’re still very poor,” the sun-baked man sighed. Among crotch-high sugar canes, his wife poked around with a hoe.
Unlike much of Vietnam, the water buffalo is still widely used as a draft animal in Nghe An. In tiny, remote Van Loi, however, school kids now wear jeans, with nice backpacks, something I never saw while visiting similar villages in 1995.
At the first banquet, a 57-pound goat was slaughtered, and that’s enough food for seven tables. Every bit of the goat used for a variety of dishes, including blood pudding. A local specialty is “hill chicken” [“gà đồi”], but this mountaineering fowl was so tough, I couldn’t develop a taste for it. For breakfast, locals prefer eel congee or eel soup, eaten with bread. Both are sophisticatedly seasoned and quite hearty. They drink a bright green “stabbed tea” [“trà đâm”], that’s made from freshly crushed leaves of exactly the right age. If too old, the tea darkens, and if too young, it’s bitter. Stabbed tea originated with the Tai, one of 36 ethnic minorities in Nghe An.
A Quy Hop custom requires you to shake everyone’s hand after each toast, and that night, I shook so many hands, it made me groggy for all of the next day. The crazy folks of Quy Hop can sure down their banana wine, much of it home brewed. Women, too, knocked them down. Outdoing the rest, a construction worker guzzled his from a beer mug. Over the next three days, I had to repeatedly decline his aggressive toasts, and once, he freakishly bounded out of the dark as I walked down an empty dirt road in Chau Dinh, miles from the wedding. “Oh come on, just a few! My house is right there!” I had to peel his fingers from my arm. Glancing at his dwelling, I spotted two pool tables under fluorescent lights, his wife’s side business. Along with alcohol, volleyball and procreation, it’s such a village’s chief diversion.
Heroin, though, is Nghe An’s most troublesome addiction, and it’s growing. Smuggling it from Laos, many locals make the news. In 2015, two Nghe An brothers were executed for trafficking 450 pounds of this nodding, passing euphoria. Armed with just a knife, two motorcyclists were caught on January 31st with 15 pounds of heroin and 11 of crystal meth. Since having over 1.3 pound of dope means a mandatory death by injection, they’re done.
I had come to this wedding knowing neither the groom nor bride, only the bride’s brother’s Saigon boss, but it was more than enough, for as soon as I showed up, I was warmly welcomed into the endless carousing. Generous, gregarious and down-to-earth the 43-year-old Saigon boss is very well-liked, and this pervasive affection spilled over onto me.
I was told that the bride had been deeply withdrawn and clearly possessed by some demon, literally, until she was cured by a renowned fortune teller, “He can even tell you when you’ll die, brother. Once he told a perfectly healthy man that he would die four days later, and sure enough, the man went to sleep that night, feeling perfectly normal, but he never woke up again.” At the wedding, the bride was gracious and self-assured. As the Wagner came on, she stood beaming on stage, next to her man.
To plan any important occasion, most Vietnamese consult a fortune teller for the best date, and even time. In real life, however, events can take unexpected turns. In Quy Hop, locals will recount with mirth one recent wedding. After arriving at the bride’s house, the groom’s party wasn’t let in, since it wasn’t yet the auspicious time. Unfortunately, it rained hard that day, so after several rebuffs, the groom’s angry father ordered his people home. On the way, they stopped at a café where there was a pretty, pleasant waitress. Impulsively, the old man asked, “Would you like to become my daughter-in-law?” After she said yes, the wedding went on as planned, but with a different bride.