The fishermen's friend
|Illustration by Dao Quoc Huy
by Hoang Viet Hang
It is possible to walk the ten kilometres from Got Phu Long pier to the Cai Beo landing stage, or rent a wicker boat to visit a floating restaurant. Fishermen in the ports of Cai Beo and Ca Ca are happy to take visitors night fishing to catch shrimp or squid, or to visit one of the country's most beautiful coastlines.
Lu had been to many places, but the stunning view stretched out in front of her took her breath away.
From Cai Beo, Lu accompanied some locals along a road bordered on one side by the billowing sea, and on the other by the pristine forests of Cat Ba National Garden.
One of the woodsman told Lu that if she got lost in the forest, she should try to keep cool and look for the signs of life, such as smoke or the cackling of chickens. A few years before, Lu had got lost in the forest for half a day until she found a fishing village at the foot of the mountain.
Smoke from a small fire and a nosiy chicken drew Lu to relative civilisation. It was a small one-room house with a kitchen, owned by an old woman who ran a tea shop on the road side, a short distance from Got landing stage.
When she had settled inside, Lu noticed that a button on her blouse was about to fall off. She pulled out a ball of cotton from her bag and started to sew, surprising Vot, the old woman. "It's difficult to get thread here, even wicks for lamps. We have to travel all the way to the main port to buy them."
On hearing this, Lu handed over her spool of cotton, much to the delight of Vot.
In the old woman's house there were seven incense burners, seven cups of water, a plate of fruit, sticky rice and a dish of salt. Assorted wild flowers had also been arranged around the incense burners.
The altar was made of fragrant wood that lay across the floor with the seven incense burners arranged across the top, but Lu was too tired and hungry after her ordeal in the forest to ask about their significance.
Old woman Vot scooped a bowl of steamed rice mixed with dried sweet potato and poured a cup of tea. "We grow these at the foot of the mountain," she said. As her strength returned, Lu ventured to ask: "Old dear, why do you have seven incense burners?"
Old woman Vot bowed several times in front of the altar before answering. "One is for my husband who was lost at sea. Among the other six are five men and one woman who are all very dear to me. I have a notebook with the dates of their deaths to remind me when I should pray for them. I thank God I am still healthy enough to pay my respects to them, and I'm lucky because every month, people come to donate supplies to me."
Lu walked time to the peer at Got, deserted at that time of year, and took a boat through the fine rain to the Binh landing stage. On the way she curled up and slept. She promised herself that on her next trip, she would bring along a bag of thread, needles and lamp wicks, and also ask his mother to buy a velvet scarf for Vot to keep warm.
Her job as a journalist took her far and wide, and she forgot about her promise until her memory was jogged by the news that a friend was going to the nearby Cat Ba Island. She instructed him to buy the essential goods and send them to Vot.
After Lu retired, she sat back and began to read her travel diaries. She felt compelled to return to Got. She hitch-hiked her way there, and on the last leg of the journey, asked a lorry driver the way to Vot's house. The driver said: "You cannot have been here for a long time. The old woman died and was buried next to her husband and the graves of the others she buried. Even though they were not related to her, she prayed for them as if they were her own family without making a fuss, and the fishermen from the village knew it and respected her. We were told that she had a niece in the city who sent her thread and needles which she held in her hands as she drew her last breath. They said that she had been waiting for her niece to return so she could thank her, but in vain.
It was a cold, dry day and the sea smelt of fish. Red snapper, sardines and stingrays could be seen racing about. There was no longer a tea shop on the beach. Lu scribbled a few words on a piece of paper and burned it memory of her old friend. "I sincerely want to say sorry to you, Vot. I could not see you before your time was up. Now before the forest and sea, please rest in peace!"
Tens years later, Lu went with some friends to collect orchids on the mountain. Small, yellow flowers, often found on the mountain tops.
A sherpa reminded her to burn incense in memory of Vot because the fishermen in the village had continued to pray on her anniversary every year. The old widow had taken the time to salvage the bodies of fishermen washed ashore, then buried them and prayed for them, and the villagers held her in high regard.
I was told that in spring, pilgrims travelled to the village, particularly those who had fished the open seas, and referred to Vot as their mother or grandmother. Her devotion to the nameless victims of the sea had earned an ordinary old woman like Vot a place in the hearts of all fishermen.
Translated by Manh Chuong