Dong was our guide in Sapa; a young man from central Vietnam. We walked for two days together, up hills, down hills, on roads, muddy paths and across streams and through rice paddies.
“In football, James, the men up front striker. the men in middle, mid field, what are the other men in front of the goal called in English”?”
“Ah thank you very much James, defenders, I remember that, thank you very much.”
“What team do you follow Dong?”
We were walking down from the town of Sapa, onur second day together, through the slippery paths in the jungle. Over muddy tracks, past small houses, across streams; in moments like these I can’t help but think of the war here, of the men I know who served here, who walked down paths like this on patrol.
“Was your father in the war?”
We walk on, the valley villages emerging in the mix below. We are walking with a family of four from New Zealand, their young girls are troopers but we are taking a few breaks which is also fine with me. We stopped for water, looking down on the valley.
“Was he army or VC?”
“Army. He fought for seventeen years.”
Seventeen years? 1958 – 1975? 1963 – 1979?
“He spent most of that time in the jungle, one time, Americans dropped bombs on them, he was with 11 other men, all other men died but my father lived and then he got lost in the jungle for five days.”
I was trying to think of what to say exactly when he went on.
“He couldn’t find water so he drink his pee pee. He still have bullet in his head.”
Other than making a note to spring for the water at the next village, I don’t really have anything to add at this point in the story, except, bullets?
“Shrapnel from the bomb you mean?”
“Yes bomb bullet in head, they can’t operate. And they cut off the fingers on his left hand.”
I should have quit on the drinking of the pee pee and the death of 11 of his comrades. We slowly trek further and further down the hill, the sweat starting to pour out of me. We’ve been walking for a few hours by this point, seventeen years to go.
What’s amazing is that Vietnamese can tell you these stories without any rancor, it’s just part of their past, part of their lives. I am surprised he doesn’t push me off the path into the valley below. Somehow I feel like I would deserve it.
“But we are lucky family. My brothers and sisters we were born during the war but no Agent Orange, we all have all our arms and legs, so lucky family.”
We walk down the path into the bamboo again. It’s quiet out here. At the end of the day, we say good-bye, I tell Dong to give his father my greetings.
“Oh he like that, he loves Americans.”
Grace and forgiveness, in Sapa, Vietnam.