Smaller than California and settled for millennia, how can Vietnam even have a frontier?! But that's what the Central Highlands were until very recently. Some of the heaviest fighting during the Vietnam War prevented Vietnamese from moving there en masse, but now they're swarming all over. With nearly a hundred million people on so little real estate, no parcel can be left unmolested.
Moving in, Vietnamese build Buddhist temples to assert their culture and sanctify their presence. In Krong Buk, an unfinished temple features a huge Buddha on its roof, visible from a quarter mile away. A lot of money is being put into this. At the back of the temple compound, there's an artificial mountain range, with Guan Yin, the widely venerated female bodhisattva, standing in a grotto at the top.
Next to a tiny pond, there are, rather surprisingly, ceramic statues of Chí Phèo and Thị Nở, two physically repulsive, destitute and outcast characters from Nam Cao's 1941 short story. Their brief love affair is one of the most poignant and well known in Vietnamese fiction. You know you've written a classic when even the illiterates know your characters. Of course, many people only know of Chí Phèo and Thị Nở from the film version of the story.
For four months now, I've been living in the Central Highlands, in Ea Kly, a merely functional town with no attractions to speak of. There is a hotel, but it's meant to be rented by the hour. A pleasant cafe attached to it is empty most of the time, for locals don't want to be suspected of enjoying some extramarital loving, just for drinking a cup of coffee with condensed milk.
This is a region settled by desperados, outcasts and the dispossessed. Over duck meat and rice wine, a 47-year-old man, Hĩnh, told me, "We were poor in the North, but it was even worse here, at first. Back then, our people had to go into Rade orchards to steal cassavas, jackfruits and whatever else. Starving, you must steal, and that's that. Some people couldn't take it, so they tried to go back North, but many simply died!" Hĩnh laughed.
Dropping by last week, I found Hĩnh and half a dozen men sitting cross legged on a straw mat, eating tiny snails which they poked and twisted out with toothpicks. There was just enough meat in each gastropod to dip in the spicy and garlicky fish sauce. While everyone drank the home-distilled rice wine with shot glasses, constantly refilled, the bare chested Hĩnh downed his with a beer mug, and it was only a Monday.
These people are rugged and resourceful. I met a native of Thừa Thiên, near Huế. At age 14, he hopped a train to reach the Central Highlands, 260 miles away. Doing all sorts of physical work, he made enough money to bring his parents down, get married, buy land and build a house, plus a shack near a lake where he now fishes.
Entering this crude, messy dwelling, I was greeted by the quacking of many penned ducklings and the cluck, clucking of a hen, about to hop on the only bed. Three hammocks were slung at chaotic angles, plastic bags hung from nails and two blacken pots sat over a wood fire.
For lunch, the wiry middle-aged man grilled up some fish, just caught, with the grill half of an electric fan's casing. The slightly seared, succulent fish was then placed on banana leaves, to be wrapped with assorted leaves, plucked from nearby trees. Quang Nam noodles with chicken [mì quảng] were also served, and moonshine was brought out in a jerrycan. Sitting on the ground, under lush, towering trees, a dozen people enjoyed this feast. It was one of the best meals of my life.
Leaving his much nicer house mostly empty, he spends the bulk of his time in this primitive, out of the way shack, and I suspect it's because he's still a frontiersman at heart.
Over civilized, with our lives codified to the smallest details, we find innumerable ways to regain, if only fleetingly, our more savage or spontaneous selves, so we go camping, hunt, visit foreign lands where our actions are decoupled from familiar meanings, join the army under false assumptions, lose ourselves in pornography, binge drink until the darkest hours, pull our pants down at less than ideal moments or enroll in a naked yoga class, etc.
Just moving away from the known can be thrilling. In Roughing It, Mark Twain describes the beginning of his journey West, "The stage whirled along at a spanking gait, the breeze flapping curtains and suspended coats in a most exhilarating way; the cradle swayed and swung luxuriously, the pattering of the horses' hoofs, the cracking of the driver's whip, and his 'Hi-yi! g'lang!' were music; the spinning ground and the waltzing trees appeared to give us a mute hurrah as we went by, and then slack up and look after us with interest, or envy, or something; and as we lay and smoked the pipe of peace and compared all this luxury with the years of tiresome city life that had gone before it, we felt that there was only one complete and satisfying happiness in the world, and we had found it."
The frontier is where the hold of civilization, tradition and the state are weaker, and nowhere was this felt more exhilaratingly than the American West. Discussing Twain, George Orwell wrote in 1943, "The raftsmen, Mississippi pilots, miners and bandits whom he describes are probably not much exaggerated, but they are as different from modern men, and from one another, as the gargoyles of a medieval cathedral. They could develop their strange and sometimes sinister individuality because of the lack of any outside pressure. The State hardly existed, the churches were weak and spoke with many voices, and land was to be had for the taking. If you disliked your job you simply hit the boss in the eye and moved further west [...] The American pioneers were not supermen, and they were not especially courageous. Whole towns of hardy gold miners let themselves be terrorized by bandits whom they lacked the public spirit to put down. They were not even free from class distinctions [...] But at least it was not the case that a man's destiny was settled from his birth. The 'log cabin to White House' myth was true while the free land lasted. In a way, it was for this that the Paris mob had stormed the Bastille, and when one reads Mark Twain, Bret Harte and Whitman it is hard to feel that their effort was wasted."
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