Outside Hội An
In his sojourn to Hoi An, the writer comes across an old, dignified woman. Her hair was gray and held back from her face by a ragged string. Her eyes were shriveled and small, like two raisins. The writer, James Roth, describes at length his brush with this woman from Hoi An.
On a trip to Vietnam several years ago I had the opportunity to stay in the Than Binh Hotel in Hoi An, just south of Danang, which had been a U.S. Marine Corps Airbase during the war. Because of its history, Hoi An is a UNESCO site, which wasn't the reason I went there, however. I just wanted a clean room after backpacking down through southern China into central Vietnam. Hoi An, an old city, on the Thu Bon River, is lined with stone warehouses, where silks, porcelain, and spices were kept when there was an active trade with China, Japan, and India, during Vietnam's pre-colonial period. Now the city is a major tourist destination that is awash with Westerners who barter with Vietnamese shopkeepers over the cost of tailor-made suits and dresses. None of this history, or buying a shirt, interested me, and so one day I rented a motorbike and rode out toward the distant green hills.
When I came to a particularly graceful home set up on a hill, I stopped the motorbike to admire it. The naturalness of the home's setting was what I liked most. It was as if the land and the home had gown together, one complementing the other. A line of reed-thin palms, like the bars of a jail, stood between me and the home, as if offering some protection. The red tile roof had faded into a soft pastel, and the walls, a chalky kind of masonry, were painted an aquamarine green that issued an invitation of escape from the stupefying heat. None of the windows had glass; the wooden door was gray, and weather beaten.
As I was admiring the home, someone stepped out of the front door. An old woman waved to me. I had no idea what she wanted, but knew I had to find out. I walked up the hill to her. The nearer I came to her the smaller she seemed. She was about the same height as the hoe she was grasping. Like her, its handle was hard and dry, cracked by the sun. She was wearing rubber sandals and a white pajama-like outfit of cotton gossamer. Her hair was gray and held back from her face by a ragged string. Her eyes were shriveled and small, like two raisins. She was gnashing on betel nut.
She said something to me, but I had no idea what, and, seeing my confusion, she gestured toward the door of her home. I thought that she was going to offer me some tea or water, perhaps even some melon. I could feel the blistering heat on the back of my neck and forearms.
I stepped inside and was immediately struck by the room's austere dignity. Before me there was a small table, covered by red vinyl, and next to it a hardwood chair. Set on the table, as if positioned purposely for a still-life painting, was a battered thermos, a blue plastic pot, and a couple of red cups. Hanging on the wall over the table, all clustered together, there were two photographs, one of her and the other, I assumed, of her husband. There was also a certificate or diploma of some kind and a very large electric clock. The photographs had not been taken when either she or her husband were young. Both had gray hair. She had on a simple black blouse, and a necklace of what resembled pearls hung from her neck. Her husband was wearing a white shirt open at the neck. He looked a bit uncomfortable and unsure of himself. I guessed that he might have been a schoolteacher or government worker, because of the certificate or diploma. There were no photographs of children.
She began to mumble to herself. Betel juice seeped from a corner of her mouth. Then she began to sob. I felt that I had intruded and turned to leave, puzzled at why she had invited me into her home, but then she nudged me, pointing at the wall, and gestured that I should take a photo. I took a couple of photos, but they seemed lifeless without her in them. I put a hand on one of her bony shoulders, to try and position her in a photo, but she covered her face and would have none of that and pulled away from me.
Once again, I turned to leave, but she began to wail and blocked the door, thrusting out a brown, sunbaked hand. Now, at least, things were clear. I gave her some money. She demanded more. I don't know how much I ended up giving her, maybe the same amount as a night's stay at the Thanh Binh, and then she allowed me to leave.
I returned to the motorbike and headed back to Hoi An. When I came to a coffee shop on the bank of a river, I stopped and found a chair in the shade of a large tree and had an iced coffee and watched the fishermen who were at work. Sipping the coffee, I continued to watch the fishermen cast their nets and draw them in against the strong current in the enveloping dusk of another day, hoping that the nets would be full of fish, but they never were.