Trails and trials of the writer who walks
Mai’s economical Vietnamese feet leave a neat line of flip-flop imprints on the slippery, and very narrow, rice paddy parapet. An imaginary safety line joins them to a spot between my eyes. I dare not glance at the plunging staircase of mud baths on my left, or at the semi-submerged water buffalo on my right. Nor must I look up any further than the basket on Mai’s back. I hope it contains lunch.
With the rice season over, the women of the H’mong tribe are nurturing a human crop and, at the moment, we all look like Charlie Chaplin attempting the single beam event.
“You walk good, Very Old Mama,” says Mai, reaching out an indigo-stained hand to pull me at last on to dry land.
Very old? Mai’s nut-brown face is ruched like the terraces themselves yet her flip-flops glue themselves to slopes shiny like potter’s clay whereas my German-technology boots are acting like untrained puppies. When at last I dare to look up, I see the Fansipan mountains dizzy-dancing in hula-hoop clouds, rice terraces swirling below them like ribbed skirts, flowing and pooling into every niche of the Muong Hoa valley.
“Mama okay?” Mai asks, helping me out of an unorthodox yoga position.
On our descent to Ta Van village we rest by the plunge pool of a waterfall that begins somewhere above the clouds. Clinging tenaciously to a boulder and clinking gently in the riffle, is a net containing bottled drinks. Mai produces an opener and collects money.
Before long, a smiling group of girls and women come flip-flopping up the rocky path in a colour-burst of indigo, fuchsia and viridian, and eagerly press us with their exquisite handicrafts.
“No buy them,” urges Mai, ignoring scowls from her H’mong sisterhood, “You buy me. I help you.” This is when I realise I have entered into a contract with this lady, and it’s not lunch in that basket, it’s a mobile shop.
With the extra weight of Mai’s artisanship in my backpack, I’m glad it’s all downhill to the village. In our host family home, the pho stockpot has aready mulled the air with cinnamon and star anise. I so envy the young wife who is able to rinse water spinach in a bowl from the position of a comfortable squat. (I’ve been practising this and generally tumble backwards). Outside, a milky-eyed great grandmother grinds choyote into a mash – sitting on a low stool in deference to her age. I pity any salesmen of rising-recliners round here.
The next morning, as we set off towards the Red Dzao tribal village, top trader Mai joins me bearing a gift – a bamboo walking cane. (Loss leader?) Her basket reminds me once more of lunches – free ones that don’t exist.