Smaller than California and settled for millennia, how can Vietnam even have a frontier?! But that’s what the Central Highlands were until very recently. Some of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War prevented Vietnamese from moving there en masse, but now they’re swarming all over. With nearly a hundred million people on so little real estate, no parcel can be left unmolested.
Moving in, Vietnamese build Buddhist temples to assert their culture and sanctify their presence. In Krong Buk, an unfinished temple features a huge Buddha on its roof, visible from a quarter mile away. A lot of money is being put into this. At the back of the temple compound, there’s an artificial mountain range, with Guan Yin, the widely venerated female bodhisattva, standing in a grotto at the top.
Next to a tiny pond, there are, rather surprisingly, ceramic statues of Chí Phèo and Thị Nở, two physically repulsive, destitute and outcast characters from Nam Cao’s 1941 short story. Their brief love affair is one of the most poignant and well known in Vietnamese fiction. You know you’ve written a classic when even the illiterates know your characters. Of course, many people only know of Chí Phèo and Thị Nở from the film version of the story.
Each culture is its own universe, with an infinity of moving, funny or appalling references inaccessible to outsiders. The Rade living nearby would not be able to identify Chí Phèo and Thị Nở, nor do they know the significance of any street name in their rapidly reshaped landscape, but their children will, for they’re being Vietnamized in schools.
For four months now, I’ve been living in the Central Highlands, in Ea Kly, a merely functional town with no attractions to speak of. There is a hotel, but it’s meant to be rented by the hour. A pleasant cafe attached to it is empty most of the time, for locals don’t want to be suspected of enjoying some extramarital loving, just for drinking a cup of coffee with condensed milk.
This is a region settled by desperados, outcasts and the dispossessed. Over duck meat and rice wine, a 47-year-old man, Hĩnh, told me, “We were poor in the North, but it was even worse here, at first. Back then, our people had to go into Rade orchards to steal cassavas, jackfruits and whatever else. Starving, you must steal, and that’s that. Some people couldn’t take it, so they tried to go back North, but many simply died!” Hĩnh laughed.
Having endured all that, Hĩnh now has a reasonably spacious house, plus land on which he grows black pepper, avocadoes and jackfruits, raises chickens and ducks. To make money, he paints houses mostly, but also does farm work for hire, like most people in Ea Kly.
Dropping by last week, I found Hĩnh and half a dozen men sitting cross legged on a straw mat, eating tiny snails which they poked and twisted out with toothpicks. There was just enough meat in each gastropod to dip in the spicy and garlicky fish sauce. While everyone drank the home-distilled rice wine with shot glasses, constantly refilled, the bare chested Hĩnh downed his with a beer mug, and it was only a Monday.
These people are rugged and resourceful. I met a native of Thừa Thiên, near Huế. At age 14, he hopped a train to reach the Central Highlands, 260 miles away. Doing all sorts of physical work, he made enough money to bring his parents down, get married, buy land and build a house, plus a shack near a lake where he now fishes.
Entering this crude, messy dwelling, I was greeted by the quacking of many penned ducklings and the cluck, clucking of a hen, about to hop on the only bed. Three hammocks were slung at chaotic angles, plastic bags hung from nails and two blacken pots sat over a wood fire.
For lunch, the wiry middle-aged man grilled up some fish, just caught, with the grill half of an electric fan’s casing. The slightly seared, succulent fish was then placed on banana leaves, to be wrapped with assorted leaves, plucked from nearby trees. Quang Nam noodles with chicken [mì quảng] were also served, and moonshine was brought out in a jerrycan. Sitting on the ground, under lush, towering trees, a dozen people enjoyed this feast. It was one of the best meals of my life.
Leaving his much nicer house mostly empty, he spends the bulk of his time in this primitive, out of the way shack, and I suspect it’s because he’s still a frontiersman at heart.
Over civilized, with our lives codified to the smallest details, we find innumerable ways to regain, if only fleetingly, our more savage or spontaneous selves, so we go camping, hunt, visit foreign lands where our actions are decoupled from familiar meanings, join the army under false assumptions, lose ourselves in pornography, binge drink until the darkest hours, pull our pants down at less than ideal moments or enroll in a naked yoga class, etc.
Just moving away from the known can be thrilling. In Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the beginning of his journey West, “The stage whirled along at a spanking gait, the breeze flapping curtains and suspended coats in a most exhilarating way; the cradle swayed and swung luxuriously, the pattering of the horses’ hoofs, the cracking of the driver’s whip, and his ‘Hi-yi! g’lang!’ were music; the spinning ground and the waltzing trees appeared to give us a mute hurrah as we went by, and then slack up and look after us with interest, or envy, or something; and as we lay and smoked the pipe of peace and compared all this luxury with the years of tiresome city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it.”
The frontier is where the hold of civilization, tradition and the state are weaker, and nowhere was this felt more exhilaratingly than the American West. Discussing Twain, George Orwell wrote in 1943, “The raftsmen, Mississippi pilots, miners and bandits whom he describes are probably not much exaggerated, but they are as different from modern men, and from one another, as the gargoyles of a medieval cathedral. They could develop their strange and sometimes sinister individuality because of the lack of any outside pressure. The State hardly existed, the churches were weak and spoke with many voices, and land was to be had for the taking. If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west […] The American pioneers were not supermen, and they were not especially courageous. Whole towns of hardy gold miners let themselves be terrorized by bandits whom they lacked the public spirit to put down. They were not even free from class distinctions […] But at least it was not the case that a man’s destiny was settled from his birth. The ‘log cabin to White House’ myth was true while the free land lasted. In a way, it was for this that the Paris mob had stormed the Bastille, and when one reads Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Whitman it is hard to feel that their effort was wasted.”
That freedom is long gone, for the state always catches up with the pioneers to impose its endless rules.
One of the oddest escape from civilization stories I’ve come across is of a Korean who lived in the Central Highlands for twenty years and left behind fifteen children, all with one woman, a Rade who died of a broken heart soon after he left.
When his daughter-in-law told me about this character, I said no way, for South Korean soldiers only arrived in Vietnam in the 60’s, but she insisted that he was indeed Korean, so I figured he must have served in the Japanese Army during World War II. The man stayed behind and lived among the Rade, in a house on stilts with no electricity or running water. Women walked around bare breasted. When the Vietnam War became increasingly savage, the old Korean finally went home, to die.
Near the end of the Japanese occupation, up to two million Vietnamese died of starvation, a calamity barely registered even in Vietnamese history books. Though my grandma lived through this, she never talked about it until her last few years, as dementia unblocked distant memories and loosened her tongue. Many Vietnamese, though, can cite their own experience of near starvation from the 1980’s, before the government finally wised up and backed away from a state-monopolized, micro-managed economy, i.e. socialism. My poet friend Phan Nhien Hao told me that when he was in college during this time, he desperately craved food all day long.
No strangers to food insecurity, Vietnamese don’t tend to waste anything edible, and this is even truer of rural areas, where farmers and fishermen grow, raise or catch food. To them, this earth is but a vast menu, and just about anything that moves can be butchered and marinated.
Vietnamese are not squeamish. Until half a century ago, nearly all of them were farmers, and even today, a typical housewife goes to the market to see all sorts of animal carcasses displayed, as well as skinned frogs still alive, purple and wriggling, to show how fresh they are. Goats are traditionally killed by beating, so they can sweat out all their funk. Nature, often stinking, is never far away.
Vietnam is still far behind the West in the flight from nature and against it, but this is to its advantage, I believe, for its people still retain the essentials to endure whatever comes next.
One of our employees, Mr. Long, had a cat that failed to catch any mouse for an entire year and, worse, often wandered off, so he decided to slaughter it and invite half a dozen people over. I brought a case of Saigon Beer.
Cat can’t touch dog, I’m sorry. One of the best Vietnamese essays ever is a paean to dogmeat. It’s a chapter in Vũ Bằng’s 1952 book, Miếng Ngon Hà Nội [Hanoi Delicacies]. Whimsically ecstatic, he compares the fragrance of dogmeat to that of a young woman, and dogmeat stewed in plum wine to Johann Strauss’ The Blue Danube Waltz! In an often quoted passage, Vũ Bằng states that, “nine times out of ten,” a lovelorn incipient suicide would change his mind if you would just treat him to dogmeat.
Increasingly urbanized and westernized Vietnamese are appalled by such culinary habits, needless to say, and my own wife has even threatened me with divorce should I persist in devouring dogs, cats and squirrels, but no man should have to choose between his significant other and dogmeat. It’s not a fair contest, to the wife. Like any adulterer, I just need to keep my vice secret, that’s all.
Some of the best, most vigorous Americans ever loved dogmeat. Lewis and Clark’s Corps of Discovery digested over two hundred dogs, and their diaries are filled with accounts of buying or bartering dogs from Indians. Patrick Gass on October 11th, 1805, “Here we got more fish and dogs. Most of our people having been accustomed to meat, do not relish the fish, but prefer dog meat; which, when well cooked, tastes very well.” William Clark on October 23rd, 1805, “we purchased 8 dogs, Small & fat for our party to eate, the Indians not verry fond of Selling their good fish, compells us to make use of dogs for food.” On and on, it goes.
Merrywhether Lewis on April 13th, 1806, “I also purchased four paddles and three dogs from them with deerskins. the dog now constitutes a considerable part of our subsistence and with most of the party has become a favorite food; certain I am that it is a healthy strong diet, and from habit it has become by no means disagreeable to me, I prefer it to lean venison or Elk, and is very far superior to the horse in any state.”
An Indian even mocked them for eating dogs. Lewis on May 5th, 1806, “while at dinner an indian fellow verry impertinently threw a poor half starved puppy nearly into my plait by way of derision for our eating dogs and laughed very heartily at his own impertinence; I was so provoked at his insolence that I caught the puppy and thew it with great violence at him and struk him in the breast and face, siezed my tomahawk and shewed him by signs if he repeated his insolence I would tommahawk him, ther fellow withdrew apparently much mortifyed and I continued my repast on dog without further molestation.”
The first Americans had to be more savage than the Indians to overcome them, but then civilization settled in, so that by 1783, Benjamin Franklin could already quote an Indian elder complaining, “Several of our young People were formerly brought up at the Colleges of the Northern Provinces; they were instructed in all your Sciences; but when they came back to us they were bad Runners ignorant of every means of living in the Woods, unable to bear either Cold or Hunger, knew neither how to build a Cabin, take a Deer or kill an Enemy, spoke our Language imperfectly, were therefore neither fit for Hunters Warriors, or Counsellors, they were totally good for nothing.”
If Lewis, Clark and their men were, say, vegans, they could not have made the expedition, but of course, Westward Expansion itself is now seen as deeply shameful by many Americans, so it would have been better had this genocidal and land grabbing venture never happened, but they don’t really mean this, ensconced as they are in some leafy suburb, built over Indian bones. “Give the native Americans back their land,” many even demand, knowing it won’t ever happen, and they’ll get indignant if you say “Indians” instead of “First Nation.”
Ever the realist, Orwell wrote in 1942, “No one, in our time, believes in any sanction greater than military power; no one believes that it is possible to overcome force except by greater force. There is no ‘law,’ there is only power.”
And, “All left-wing parties in the highly industrialised countries are at bottom a sham, because they make it their business to fight against something which they do not really wish to destroy. They have internationalist aims, and at the same time they struggle to keep up a standard of life with which those aims are incompatible. We all live by robbing Asiatic coolies, and those of us who are ‘enlightened’ all maintain that those coolies ought to be set free; but our standard of living, and hence our ‘enlightenment,’ demands that the robbery shall continue.”
Vietnamese understand perfectly that power underpins all human relations, so they act accordingly. There’s a proverb, “The smart eat men, the stupid are eaten,” so life’s first aim is to avoid being devoured.
Though it has been the most aggressive nation for over a century, the United States insists on defining its domineering streak, war profiteering or even sadism as selfless benevolence. We’re only destroying this country to save it from itself.
America’s internal critics, however, goes entirely the other way by denouncing force in all circumstances. Plus, there’s no homeland to defend, for we are all one in universal brotherhood. Absolved by such correct thinking, they can root for the disfigurement or destruction of any society, including their own.
With no frontiers left to speak of, lunatics moon at mars while the sophomoric are vehement that a more forceful push for socialism would finally deliver utopia. Me, I believe the future belongs to those who are ankle deep in mud.