Atavistic Laughter

“At the same time it should be noted that ancientness is a great validator among the people of your culture, so long as it’s restricted to that function. They esteem the values and traditions of wiser, nobler ancestors and deplore their disappearance, but they have no interest in living the way those wiser, nobler ancestors lived. In short, ancient customs are nice for institutions, ceremonies, and holidays but Takers don’t want to adopt them for everyday living.”

~Daniel Quinn, Ishmael

I rocked into the mountain village of Sa Pa, Vietnam by bus. It dropped me off in the belly of a cloud. The edge of the world was a stone’s throw away in every direction. I drank the cold, misty air with pleasure. It was a welcome change of atmosphere from Hanoi, and the rest of Vietnam, and the prior nine months of stewing in the hot, sweaty tropics.

Instead of Tuk Tuk drivers and tour guides swarming the bus it was traditionally clad village women. One tailed alongside me as I wandered through the mist. No plan as per usual. By that time Uncertainty and I were old friends. I was comfortable coasting on the seat of my pants.

The woman wore a thick-weaved black coat and pants, both trimmed with brightly colored beads. She had on a plaid cotton bandanna, and carried a wicker basket filled with something bulky but light. And on her feet were bright green Reebok running shoes. It’s an odd look; these women wearing outfits of a bygone era, with sneakers on their feet and smartphones in their hands.

She dove right into the pitch, as I knew she’d done a thousand times. And I plainly declined every offer as I’d done a thousand times.

In the everlasting war between irritated foreigners and intrusive solicitors, I sympathize with the later. I am far more put off by the complaints of tourists who insist on casting themselves as victims harangued by the local merchants. Their complaining reveals their immaturity. Their offense either comes from an embarrassing sensitivity to the realities of travel, or from a stubborn self-absorption. I think many are unable to step enough outside their imaginings of a polite, courteous society in order to give these solicitors a firm, but non-hostile “no.”

That is all it has ever taken for me. In fact I often don’t even have to speak. I think words offer false hope, something for them to respond to. I’ve deterred hundreds of salespeople with nothing more than direct eye contact, a wry smile, and a slow but unmistakable head-shake. Just keep walking and offer no hope of a sale. You waste no time, and cause no offense. I lose all respect for those who get twisted in frustration by the locals just trying to make their living.

So there I was, all alone, wandering the damp streets of Sa Pa, in a dome of white mist, with a village woman selling me home-stays for 600,000 dong (~30 USD). I was happy as can be. I politely explained to her I was at the end of my trip and operating on 250,000 a day. She offered 500,000. I told her I was at the end of my trip and operating on 250,000 a day. She offered 400,000. I stopped along an esplanade to admire fog figure skaters dancing upon the still lake. The woman disappeared.

Eventually I found a room with two big, lumber bunk-beds, brick mattresses, and large cozy blankets. A bed cost 100,000 Dong a night. I booked the first two of six nights.

So in Sa Pa I spent a week enjoying the fresh, cool air; rare commodities in Southeast Asia. I ate Pho for breakfast for 40,000, and feasted on a homemade dinner of green beans, rice, fish, scallop potatoes, Miso soup, and tea for 50,000. Some 12,000 dong beers and 35,000 dong bags of crackers rounded out my expenses.

I spent the idle, filler hours reading, watching episodes of a series, and writing. But I mostly wandered up and down whatever little trail I could find, and exploring every alleyway in town.

I spent nights chilling in the ‘Why Not’ bar with the owner Bing, a good man, a man of style and substance. He hooked me with his demeanor. A man of small stature, but of great presence. He stands straight, yet casually. Bing has eyes that promise friendship, and a smile that nods agreement. He shoots pool like a machine, but takes awhile on his last ball to give patrons a chance.

The bar itself is everything I could want in one. Neither cramped nor large, there’s one well-maintained pool table and an upper-deck lounge area. There’s a fireplace across from the bar for when the nights are cold and wet. And the music was to taste. There was also an Asian toddler who epitomized cuteness and a rascal dog that wagged about. Both added great charm to the place. All in all a great, cozy bar.

So why Sa Pa? What is the attraction that sucks in the tourists? It’s the rustic, traditional villages. Vestiges of an old society held intact for their novelty. Relics preserved for their commercial value. A cultural anachronism pervading as a sideshow for the entertainment of tourists. Those tourists that venerate old societies, find them quaint and interesting, but only to admire from a distance.

I find it shallow. It’s a cultural industry packaged and wrapped up by capitalism. It’s a stuffed fox. The substance all eroded away, appropriately, by the pull of modernity. So now there’s just the hollow, empty shell of style. Nothing more than theater. It’s laughable.

I cannot regret missing out on the experience, especially since I carved my own. I discovered my own diamond of substance among the ruff.

Despite my contempt for the tour industry, I am always friendly with the locals, talking amiably as they follow me around town. I’m always upfront about my non-interest, so not to waste their time.

I enjoy talking with them. With mothers almost half my age carrying babies they say are their second. To children with rough, stained hands from knitting macrame toys. Their fingers made strong enough to crack walnuts. I especially like the mamas; the older women who project a casual buoyancy. They sell with all the same enthusiasm, but seem less attached to the outcome. Thus more friendly.

It’s with a group of four mamas that I made my authentic experience.

The clouds had cleared, come back, and cleared again since I’d been in Sa Pa.

On the clear days the town is majestic, surrounded on all sides by towering green peaks, like a jewel in the center of an enormous crown. The air is warm and fresh. Cultivated flower beds bloom in purples and yellows surrounding the small lake. Vietnamese tourists crowd them to take selfies.

I was walking off a big bowl of Pho along the same esplanade as before when four mamas approached. They did their spiel. And I declined. But then I simply sat on the lakeside bench beside them and chatted awhile.

It’s not difficult to charm locals. You’re not selling them a used car. You’re not seducing them into marriage. All you have to do is show a genuine interest. And sincerity¬†is my bread and butter. It’s my greatest vice.

So I talked to them, and before long they invited me for some local beer. I assented and off we walked away from the main tourist drag.

We sat down under a corrugated sheet metal roof, on plastic chairs, at a wood table. A server brought a pitcher of that same light lager that goes by many names, but is the exact same, throughout all of Southeast Asia. The kind that tastes neither bad nor good. That you can guzzle to quell a vicious tropical thirst. That you can drink with ice because dilution doesn’t matter. Heavy refreshment with a light buzz is what you get.

This particular brand had a mild sour after taste. But it was slight enough to be enjoyable. The beer was served with sliced cucumber and salt.

And so we sat there and toasted and drank and munched. As we talked I told them I don’t come to villages to do the typical tourist things. I come to see the people as they are.

I asked them how they felt about the exhibition of their culture. They were unanimously good-spirited about it. They enjoyed it as actresses enjoy a theater act. They could live their lives well enough without the facade, but it adds cash flow. Of course they wouldn’t wear such funny outfits or carry such silly baskets. Nor would they do things as archaically. But they do because the tourists want to see. And they don’t mind showing.

I was happy to hear that it wasn’t a giant disparagement. Let the ignorant be enchanted by these ‘ancient’ people. Let the locals improve their station in life, and have a little fun doing it. All is well.

There is more authenticity in rubbing shoulders with the locals for a few minutes than there is spending heaps on a trite tour. Money has a way of interfering with human connection. And that, I think, is what most people are really trying to buy.

Those mamas became real people to me. Hopefully I became that to them. No longer were they quaint little village women. No more was I a walking wallet. We were people sharing smiles.

I loved talking with them, which involved much gesticulating and monkey-talk and assumption. But I also loved watching them talk with each other in their own tongue. I watched their eyes light up with laughter. A laugh, sparked by the words of one, would cascade through the others in a wave that would sweep me up with it. Somehow it didn’t matter that I was oblivious to context. That is wonderful. That is joy.

And isolated behind the language barrier, I’d have the time to turn inward and reflect on the perfect contentedness I found. A lone pair of blue eyes at a table of Vietnamese farmers. On a warm early-Spring day in a mountain town near the Chinese border. With an beer in my hand and a bummed cigarette between my fingers. That’s where I’m alive.

Thank you for reading.


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