An hour out of Can Tho by bus along the old Route One we stopped just somewhere along the highway, or so it appeared to me. A team of motor scooters appeared, summoned by a call from Hai’s iPhone. We settled ourselves on the backs of the scooters, and were told how to do xe om – the “hug ride” – and then we were sailing along a path into a village completely hidden from the highway. Another first thing for me in Vietnam, riding the scooter, and I loved it.
Along the way I saw egrets in the stream, by ones and twos, but as we walked across an arched concrete bridge I saw many more in the trees. And then I heard them – a chittering that came from everywhere. Like gossamer scarves they rose and settled above us in the treetops, fretting and fussing.
A tightly wound metal circular stairway led to an observation deck where we looked out on what must have been thousands of egrets, as well as a sizeable cohort of night herons. The story is they started to come here when the family threw rice husks out for the few that were there and the others came for the safety to raise families, some of whom we saw being tended in the trees.
The village takes pride in the project and helped with the gift of land. We met the family who live among all this activity, guardian angels of the trees and birds. They have invoked the help of the gods by building a shrine oriented in the feng shui direction to bring luck and protection to their creatures.
I sat in a thatched shelter and looked out of the dense trees to an expanse of rice paddies beyond, and then another stand of trees. Enveloped in life, I understood, perhaps for the first time, what had been the personal geography of war, the sensory experience one person might have had in this space. My too-keen imagination imagined all too well what it might have been, in another time.
We rode our scooters only part way back so as to walk through the village. Hai stopped at a house and asked permission for us to come in for a visit. We met the woman of the house, a beautiful lady of 77, and her sister, daughter-in-law and shy, eager grandson. They took us to their front room where their altar stood. While we chatted, the daughter-in-law brought in a joss stick, lit it, and put it in the urn on the altar.
The woman said she had retired now because her knee and her ankle were giving her trouble. I put my hand where she showed me, memories of the clinics I had been a part of on my last trip flooding back to me, with time only for the most fragmentary prayer for healing. She said we had to come back and visit her but we should come back soon because she did not think she could live for ten years.
We began our goodbyes and she went to the side of the altar and produced a plate of boiled bananas and offered them to each of us. We took them, sensing a sacrament, and bowed and smiled our way back across her little bridge.
On the path Hai told us the bananas had been an offering for her dead husband. Giving them to us meant we had been blessed, we, our journey, and our families. Of course I reveled in the blessing, honored by its gift, but I was thinking about the joss stick. They had lit it because we had arrived, Americans, this time bringing only open hearts.