Hot Date Pho Ya’

Red-Dao-PeopleHot dates and hot steamy—but ultimately limp—noodles are two concepts that don’t always go well together, but they defined a pleasant event in my life some twenty-odd years ago. You see, I wasn’t exactly the first guy off the starting-block in the dating game way back when way back where. That’s because women scared me to death, everything they were and everything they represented, mostly ‘otherness’ written in large letters and emblazoned across the sky by out-of-work crop-dusters looking to make an extra buck in the off-season.

But then when I realized that their ‘otherness’ was not defined by their femaleness, or vice-versa, and that for the most part females were people almost just like you and me, then that opened up a whole new world of possibilities, and suddenly life became easier and less scary, too. I’d just have to find my otherness in other ways, I guess. Itinero ergo sum. I travel, therefore I am.

So I decided to put all my fancy theories to the test back in 1995 (or was it 1996?), during a visit to Sapa near the Chinese border in northern Vietnam. For those of you who’ve never been, it’s a lovely hill town probably best known for its spectacular Black H’mong and Red Dzao hill-tribes. The H’mong are known, among other things, for their hand-spun handwoven indigo-dyed hemp fabric, while the Red Dzao are probably best known for their embroideries… and ‘love market’.

It’s true. The night before the weekly market, the women hang out and hook up with guys, presumably from other villages. That keeps the species healthy, hybrid vigor and all. They even sing to each other, no accompaniment necessary. But the unique twist is that married women get in on the act, too, especially the ones whose hubbies are back home, and probably too stoned from opium to care much about their wives’ needs at the end of the day.

Yes, I was propositioned, and more than once. But no, I did not go gently off into the bushes of that good night, nor was I especially interested in applying for any of their apparently frequent openings and positions. These weren’t the young filles of the tribe, after all. The girl I was interested in was less then twenty years old, and less than half my age at the time.

My friend’s head was half-shaved, like all of them, and she was cute, dressed in full tribal regalia, something similar to what the British redcoats wore during the American revolutionary war. It’s striking. We hung out, communicating in Tieng Viet as best we could. How good is the average Thai bar-girl’s English, after all?

So I asked her to go eat pho with me, Vietnam’s famous noodle soup (pronounced ‘fuh’, with a falling tone, unless you’re in Laos, in which the tone is rising; go figure). To my surprise, she accepted. Well that caused a stir in town, you can be sure. Vietnamese tourists from the cities, who normally only take pictures of each other, were now taking pictures of us.

I think there was even one real journalist in the crowd, poking his lens up almost in our faces. The surprising thing is that my friend never flinched, out of fear of me or any of the attention, this in a modern world which scares many traditional tribal people to death. We took long walks. I showed her where I was staying. Finally I told her I’d go visit Ta Phin, the village where she and all the local Red Dzaos live.

So that’s what I did. But I didn’t find her there. Hill-tribes lack much in city planning. They had running water, though, carried in slit bamboo tubes. I left town without seeing her again. When I came back six months later on my biannual trip, I saw her again, hanging out with the group, as they made their rounds selling crafts to the tourists. Did I mention that I used to deal in crafts and folk art?

She said that she was getting married; I’ve read this script. I congratulated her. I told her I went to visit her village previously, but didn’t find her. She said she didn’t know. That’s okay. It would have never worked out for us anyway. The damp cloud-like climate turned all by papers to mush. And when Internet finally came it would have been too unreliable. I can see that now. Maybe I should go make sure…