BaBe National Park is a large tract of land that surrounds the largest natural lake in Vietnam. It is not a huge lake, nor does it have much wildlife, but we did enjoy our time there.
The Vietnamese eat everything that moves and much that doesn’t. As a result, there are no longer shorebirds, ducks, gibbons, monkeys, squirrels, snakes, or most small mammals. But there is an effort to teach local populations how to live in ways that affect the environment less.
The Tay, Dzao, and Hmong people all live in BaBe. There are actually 3000 people living in villages on park land. We stayed at the guest house at the headquarters and on the first day, took a boat across the lake and then hiked about 15km. The best and most interesting people experience happened to us that day. We stopped at a village school and visited the teacher’s quarters with books and pencils, etc. I met a woman teacher and we connected pretty much instantly. She had no English but it didn’t matter a bit. She is 44 years and teaches 25 students. She lives (as do the other 7 teachers) apart from her husband in order to teach there. She was assigned to this village but everyone who is assigned to these places says they volunteered to serve there. I am not sure what they mean. (Remember when Khanh said there was no conscription in Ho’s army? Well later on he said that everyone had to volunteer their children, except for the last boy. Not conscription? sounds like it to me)
Anyway, she has taught there for 7 years and sees her husband once a month. There were 8 teachers altogether and they live in a plank building, one room each. Dirt floors. They grow a garden and raise chickens. She wanted us to stay for lunch and we accepted. In the end, we spent 3 hours there, and learned a tremendous amount about each other. She had only ever had contact with one westerner before. It was in Hanoi. First she taught for a few years, but when her children were small, it was too hard to be away from them. So instead she returned to Hanoi and sold stuff from a pushcart. Her only contact with a foreigner was when a Spanish woman followed her all day long once. She presumes the woman wanted to learn how she earned a living but since neither could speak to one another, she wasn’t sure. Having Khanh to translate was a wonderful thing for her and us and the rest of the teachers. The men teachers took Toby off to drink rice liquor and the women and I cooked or rather I watched her cook. She sang to me in a lovely voice.
Many times, I will hear a beautiful voice singing. A woman or a man will sing to themselves as they work on the rice paddy, it is captivating.
She served rice, a sausage her father had made her during the TET celebrations, some greens and a sauteed fruit from the forest that tasted like a cross between an olive and a mushroom. It was heavenly. The camera came out and everyone in the village had their photos taken, they had never had any photos of anyone taken before and when they get them in the mail, they will be thrilled, I am sure. One girl got her wedding dress on for the photo, a traditional Dzao outfit of reds and greens that was stunning.
The photo sessions took an hour and eventually we had to leave. All of the teachers walked with us for an hour and a half so that they could go visit another group of teachers for the afternoon. Their school only had morning sessions so the kids could work in the fields in the afternoon. On the way, we talked and talked and she sang and taught me the refrain for the Vietnamese national anthem.
Towards the end of our time together, she asked me about the war. She said that she was born in 1961 and her mother dug holes in the dirt for her to hide in when the bombs came. She has a vivid memory of the bombing of the north and even mimiced the gun sounds and the noise of the planes as they approached. It was chilling. Most of our exposure so far has been with veterans who all come up and talk to Toby, recognising him as being roughly the right age. We had not spoken before (or at least it was never mentioned) to people who were children during the heavy bombing of 1971. She was not a fan of Richard Nixon and mentioned that but also was quick to say that neither she, nor any of the Vietnamese people hold individual Americans responsible–governments are different than people. And certainly here that is as true as it is at home. Moving a government in a different direction is like trying to climb Mount Everest. The government here is largely ignored, people are just trying to scratch out the best life they can.
Rather than risk another power outage, I am sending now.
Much love to you all,