We left the bus in a dusty lot and walked into the village. The path wound along a stream that widened from time to time into pools reflecting the roofs and trees. The homes had their own distinct space and yet they interlocked in a tightly-woven pattern. Our hostess, a young woman attending art school in Hanoi, led the way, eager to bring us to the home of her grandparents.
The walk lulled us. Some of our group dawdled, forgetting the social niceties in the spell of the calm. The lovely vistas were more than photo ops, although we didn’t know what else to do with them. As with so much in Vietnam, the partly-screened houses and balconies, the layered trees, and the curve of the paths simultaneously lured and concealed through a process of attraction and misdirection.
Along the way we met a man and stopped to chat. The occasional motorbike passed. We turned into a lane of one-story houses and then into a courtyard surrounded by small buildings and sheds where the family emerged to greet us and bring us inside. Our hostesses’s grandfather was a Viet Minh veteran and we had been anticipating this visit for many days. Extra chairs were brought and set alongside the carved wooden furniture. Coffee and tea were offered and plates of fruit passed.
The burden of social occasions usually fell to Anh, who had to translate constantly, but this time he was helped by the granddaughter whose English was excellent and who lovingly admired our host. She could sit all day listening to his stories, she said, for he held so much of their history. The man, whose smile lit the room, had served at Dien Bien Phu and had known General Giap.
I expected the introductory remarks to be the ceremonial prelude for some storytelling for us. I knew only a little about this time and would love to have learned. But the ceremony took a different turn. There was the lengthy presentation of a gift to the veteran, a speech that became an end in itself. Neighbor children appeared and distracted some of the group with their friendliness and accessibility. My mind wandered.
I watched the women, charmed that (at least from what I could tell from the body language) the mother needed the daughter to help with some kind of set-up with the cell phone. The two conferred in a way I understood, the mother happy to have her daughter home for a conversation of any kind. During a lull in the talk, I got up and went to a lovely piece of furniture with a case that held some of the veteran’s momentos. I confused that case with the family altar, until Anh explained. Of course, the altar would be for someone who had died, but the grandfather was a living memory-keeper.
I could have said something, I know that now. I could have asked that we hear about the campaigns against the French or the mentoring of the younger warriors in the American War. But I was under the spell of the village, or had grown suddenly shy and did not know if it was my place. I let the occasion unfold, just trying to take it in.
It was not until I got home and looked at my photographs that I realized – the one I wish I could have talked to was her, the veteran’s wife.