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Under the Banyan Tree in Vietnam

Under the Banyan Tree in Vietnam

Thursday, February 01, 2024, 17:28 GMT+7

The elderly lady loops the handles of her plastic bag of water spinach over the handlebar of her bike, edges it gently over the curb and into the street, laboriously climbs aboard, and pedals off into the darkness.

I’ve seen her dozens of times, perched on a small stool outside the gold shop, cutting her spinach. She always wears the same stern, weary expression, as if this hectic world is becoming too heavy a load.

If I catch the lady at just the right time, she’s bagging up her work, the gold shop is closing, and the little girl has appeared. 

At her age I fear her husband is no longer with us; if he was, he’d probably fetch her after work.

But when that little girl appears, the old woman’s face lights up like a pinball machine!

They chatter back and forth, the elder providing support, issuing instructions and warnings, while the youngster ignores it all, continuing her joyful banter. 

She’s guarded from all evil, protected by everyone, including me, as – kids being so clever – she is well aware.

They all know me, I often sit in front of the little shop beside them called the ‘Banyan Tree,’ nursing a beer.

The little girl became outgoing over time despite being shy at first – probably she doesn’t see many Westerners. The old woman and her sidekick (sister?) are equally curious but preoccupied with their water spinach, such that any spare glance or comment is directed at the little girl.

But to the kid I’m a subject worthy of great study.

She’s old enough to talk fairly well – probably four years old – with clever, beady black eyes that never leave me; she’s fascinated. At first, she would stay a safe distance from me, studying my every move, then cycle closer and closer until she was practically in my lap; eyes riveted. 

She’s seen people like me in the media but in real life it’s an exciting novelty.

I suspect the gold shop is managed by the old woman’s son or daughter because there’s a couple working there each day – parents of the little girl?  

They must be connected, otherwise what would two women be doing peeling vegetables all afternoon in front of a gold shop? 

Each evening the couple squeezes shut the accordion-style iron gate across the front of the shop and gets on a motorbike to go home, the little girl sandwiched in between her dad – the driver – and mom behind; it’s the safest way to protect that priceless little cargo.

By then I’m on my second or third beer, chatting to the owner of the Banyan Tree. She sells fruit drinks, beer, and sandwiches along the ever-popular riverside promenade under the big tree that lends its name to her shop.

She’s lonely these days, I hear her mumbling to herself as she sits beside me. No wonder, her loving son is absent, away studying somewhere as is the current trend.

I guess he’s in his early 20s, when he’s around he wheels a steel and glass display case onto the street and parks it at the corner, selling fried sweet potatoes.

Her mother has also been absent for a few months – Madame says she’s at home in their province because it’s too cold here in Da Nang, not easy for me to comprehend because I still sweat while walking around most days. 

Mother usually sits in pole position directly in front of the café with a miniature boom box which plays old ‘broken heart’ country songs. I don’t understand the words but I know exactly what they’re about: lost loved ones or people in poverty forced to abandon family and friends to seek work in the big city, it’s always the same sad story. 

I’ve sat there and watched many times, mother knows every word of every song, hits the right tone every time. She’s been doing this for a long, long time.

It occurs to me that all these women are without men in their lives, probably widowed. Mom is about 75, the spinach ladies a bit younger, with Madame herself probably in her mid 50s.

Other countries have made numerous attempts to take over Vietnam over the last half-century or so, during which time all three were young and newly married or barely still single.

First came the original Indochina War with the French in the late stages of the Colonial Era during the 40s and 50s, partly in parallel with the Japanese occupation of Vietnam during WWII. Then the Americans followed suit and stayed until the 70s. Finally, the Chinese tried repeatedly to invade Vietnam spanning an entire decade ending in the early 1990s. 

It was one conflict after another for several decades with all intruders ultimately rebuffed, but the total human cost to the Vietnamese was immeasurable.

Foreign dignitaries, please take note, these people do not give up, will never give in; if only one is still standing, you will still not be assured of victory.

It’s ironic that this story is set on the banks of the Han River in Da Nang, precisely the spot where the French landed and stormed the city in 1858, but were rebuffed, later returning and renaming it Tourane.

So, although the series of wars covered the second half of the 20th century, colonial rule had started almost 100 years earlier.

The first U.S. landing during the Second Indochina War (known to Westerners as the Vietnam War and to Vietnamese as the American War) was in Da Nang in March 1965. 

So, what do those women think of all the countries who intruded?

Those women have survived, but it's like an amputation; they're intact but there's less of them than there was before.

If anybody has a solid case to dislike foreigners, especially Westerners, it’s the Vietnamese, but that’s not the case at all; indeed, it’s quite the contrary.

I move in several little circles of locals, most of whom speak little English, some none at all. 

I'm pampered and coddled, constantly watched over such that if anyone thinks I’m in need of something, the appropriate instructions are given to whomever is responsible. 

It’s nothing to do with money, for sure more of the others’ hits the table than mine.

Westerners are perceived as the purveyors of all things great and new, hence the warm welcome. 

That sentiment has its limits, at least for some. As in every land, some prefer their own people’s company to that of foreigners; not everyone has an international flare or the patience to deal with strange languages and customs.

In that context, the Vietnamese would be excused for having any negative sentiments about the four countries that tried to take them over during these last 50 years, and foreigners in general (you never know what will happen in the future, these people have good grounds for suspicion) but you’ll never feel it. 

Such resentment surfaces from time to time directed at the Chinese, the most recent aggressors, who continue to increase their presence in disputed areas of the East Vietnam Sea.

I hear grumblings and see negative feelings surface when the locals are confronted by the typically boisterous and overbearing gaggles of Chinese tourists, but they tough it out, take the money.

I left Banyan Tree early, as usual, looked back and waved at the little girl and her parents. The parents focused on getting everything on the motorbike but the girl was waiting for me, staring, and waved vigorously.

I walked a few steps, then for some reason turned and looked back again; she was in the same position and shot me another wave.

Nearly everybody everywhere we go loves little kids, but I get the feeling here it’s even stronger, everyone looks forward to a brighter future, it helps forget some of the darkness of the past. 

They need these kids, they’re anxious to pass the baton to them.

To those spinach ladies and Madame Banyan Tree, that child symbolizes the future, the image of hope, happier days, and prosperity.

Rick Ellis

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