Sunday, May 3, 2009

Life as a Dao Minority Girl

It's 11 am and the My Dinh bus station is already swampped with holiday travellers returning to their hometowns for a long weekend holiday break.

My friend and I make our way to the bus towards his hometown of Ha Giang province, one in the Northeastern throes of Viet Nam. After being crunched in the first row of the bus. I turn to look behind me at the many pairs of glazed eyes. Several are averted into plastic carsick bags. The bus seems more like a solemen transport to an unknown destination than Hanoians making their way home for a relaxing weekend. I almost begin to feel lightheaded and naueous myself as the bus incessently pounds his horn while taking the approaching curves of the foothills at an uncomfortabley fast speed. I seem to be the only one anxious at the driver's breakneck speed and my concerned eyes find my friend's. "This bus must go to Ha Giang and then return to Ha Noi before dark," he says with a resigned voice of fact. I fold my elbows and rest my forehead on my crossed arms. I look down trying to drown out the noise of truck honks or at least bring them to a dull drone.

My friend nudges me to prepare to get off and informs the driver to stop. The bus slows as it lets off two passengers, unwilling to come to a complete halt. The forlorn passengers seated crossed legged on the bus floor must look hungrily at one new open seat. But I don't dare turn down to affirm my thought, only to catch my backpack that the bus attendant hefts toward me.

After a family meal, I settle into my weekend in the countryside.

Tieing up my mosquito netting and tennis shoes, I start my day.

Breakfast is Pho Chua, a dish that is not found in Ha Noi and one that I have not eaten yet. It is the ingredients of pho, delicious beef noodle soup, without the beef broth but with the sweet and sour fish sauce liquid that I have come to love. I am always happy to discover a new Vietnamese dish. The variety of this cuisine is truly something to celebrate.

Motorbiking up the mountain is our first activity of the day. Rain has muddied the path and I wonder if I should have brought along my helmet. Dark clouds empty onto the mountain and soak my shorts and shoes. Past the waterfalls and mountain springs, we come to a small lake. Large huts quientessential of Vietnamese ethnic minorities dot the shore. Finding shelter under one hut, we park the bike and climb the steps to the hut's open living area.

I sit cross-legged on the mat and drink Vietnamese bitter tea from my miniature teacup. I look out past the open air windows at the lake, the mist, the green tea plants. I seemingly could spend hours with a pot of Green Vietnamese tea. It's affect is calmly arroussing. Perfect for good conversation or meaningful comtemplation.

We meet some friends preparing lunch in a nearby hut. I dry my shorts by the fire and watch the defeathered chickens roasting on peppermint bark sticks. Lunch includes four sliced and diced chickens. People place food in my rice bowl as is polite and customary. My new friend, Tuan, next to me takes some sticky rice, molds it into a small ball and hands it to me. I accept this gesture with a smile along with the numerous shots of Vietnamese ruou, or glorified vodka, that he invites me to. I can't say no as one after another from the friendly group lift their tiny glasses to a toast. Tuan moi Emily. He lifts his glass. I am bound to reply with some social Vietnamese grace. Emily moi Tuan. Drink. Even before someone proposes another toast, someone else has already filled my glass from one of the white porcilen bowls containing the Vietnamese spirit.

They string the chicken heads on a wire and hold them in front of my face. I strunch my eyes and shake my head. Everyone laughs.

It goes like this for another hour.

Wine.Chicken.Rice.Wine.Chicken.Cucumbers.Rice.Wine.Wine.Cucumbers.Sticky Rice Ball.Wine.Chicken.Cucumbers.Wine.

Tuan asks me if I can see the future in a chicken foot. "Khong" I shake my head and puff out my cheeks as I sound out the Vietnamese for No. Too bad, as he plucks the talons and chews on the cartilidge.

I sleep off the early afternoon drizzle in a small Ethnic Dao hut spraweled over a comfortable wood slated mat.

As the rain subsides, I am dressed in traditional Ethnic Dao fashion. The Vietnamese girls help me tie the silver plated vest and wrap the red cloth around my waist before expertly wrapping my head into the black and red headdress. I giggle in the mirror at my blonde hair peeking though the scarf. A tour guide takes me and my friend to the Dao village.

I feel rather flustered visiting these people dressed in their own traditional clothing. It might as well be last year's Halloween's costume for me but a tradition passed down through many generations in their eyes. Nonetheless, they smile. Dep! Beautiful! One woman admits that now, the Dao people only wear such traditional costumes for special ceremonies and festivals as one outfit takes two years to properly prepare. We meet two old Dao ladies on our walk and they stop to pose in a photo with me. One woman is half my height with legs like that of a marathon runner. The other has a full set of black-stained teeth from chewing betel leaves. I pose for another picture by a water-operated rice thresher. I might as well be the poster child for their model community: boasting traditional clothing and their main source of livelihood.

I feel reluctant to take off my new outfit. The girls giggle and reach up to help me unwind the brightly colored cloth bands from my headscarf. Putting away another life I could have been born into.