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Red Rhododendrons

Update: July, 17/2012 - 15:47

 

Illustration by Do Dung
 
by Nguyen Duc Son

In the first decade of the 20th century of the previous millennium, the administrative boundary of the commune of Xuan Dai encompassed such present-day communes as Kim Thuong, Xuan Son, Minh Dai and Vinh Tien. All of them belong to district of Tan Son, Phu Tho Province.

Under the sway of the French authorities, in the Xuan Dai Commune there was a military post called Go Den, which was ruled by Vietnamese post leader Lieutenant Doi Can together with 17 Vietnamese soldiers and two Frenchmen – Second-Lieutenant Sanchez in the role of advisor and a sergeant in charge of telecommunication. Most of the soldiers belonged to the Kinh majority coming from the lowlands. Only Ha Van Luong was a member of the Muong ethnic group coming from Yen Lap District.

Once, during a field trip in the area of Xuan Son, Second-Lieutenant Sanchez saw a red rhododendron bush in the forest whose flowers he liked very much. One evening the group had a small party with brandy and cookies that the sergeant brought from Ha Noi, along with a postal parcel for Sanchez in which there was a photo taken his beautiful wife and little nice daughter. In high spirits, Sanchez let his men contemplate the photo to their heart's content and told them a story about his private life. After finishing his secondary education, he had joined the army and taken a brief military course before going to Viet Nam. Thanks to sharing the same barracks with the Vietnamese soldiers, he could speak Vietnamese fluently. Before leaving France for Viet Nam, his fair wife Mouron born him a nice baby. While she came from a wealthy family in the city of Toulouse, he was born and bred in a rural area in its outskirts, a place where rhododendron bushes grew abundantly and bloomed with their red flowers at the end of spring.

Showing the picture of a glamorous young woman carrying a chubby five-year-old with round and naive eyes beside a blooming bush of rhododendron, Lt Sanchez said to his men in an intoxicated voice, "Unexpectedly, I've seen a lot of rhododendron flowers in Viet Nam, which are as beautiful as the ladies of this land. Symbolising the Goddess of Fortune, this kind of flower can bring us good luck. If there were several bushes of rhododendron here, you could have lots of pretty girls to flirt with," he added.

In response to Sanchez's suggestion, post leader Ta Duong Can (usually called Doi Can, for short) ordered his soldiers to go into the forest in search of a few bushes with the hopes of growing them right in the courtyard. However, everything they found soon whithered due to the extremely hot weather of June.

"Luong, you're a native of the Muong tribe here. You're very accustomed to the terrain of this region, so I ask you, together with some others, to enter the forest to look for some bushes of rhododendron for our post," Doi Can said to him one morning. "But bear in mind that you must keep enough of the earth surrounding their roots to keep them alive," he went on.

The next day Luong brought with him a cross-bow, a small amount of rice and some salt before going away with his fellow-soldiers.

"My dear Lieutenant, this kind of plant usually grows on high stony mountains," Luong said to his chief. "Bringing them here alive to grow is a hard nut to crack. Anyhow, I'll try my best," he said further.

"That's why I have to resort to your efforts. You can leave now," Lt Doi Can told his soldier.

***

The path to Xuan Son was only a small trail meandering between the abysses and the cliffs. When Luong and his men reached Du Hamlet, it was already late in the afternoon. It was a small mixed community of the Muong and Dao ethnic groups. Luong entered the dwelling of Mr Min of the latter ethnicity, whom he had known fairly well in the zone-wide competitions of cross-bows.

"You've already been acquainted with my daughter Lam. She's now come of age. Consequently, young men of this village come and disturb us so often during the night to talk with Lam that I can hardly sleep well," the old man told Luong.

"It doesn't matter. I'm also a mountainous dweller, so I'm very accustomed to it, Sir. Now, let's eat a chicken. We'll have a small party with chicken and rice wine before going to sleep. No more disturbances, you see!" Luong said to him.

At dinner Lam ate fast then stood up, leaving both the men by the tray of food to chat. After a few moments of talking, they became friendlier. The full name of the host was Dang Tai Min. In his small family, was his 16-year-old daughter Dang Thi Lam. At this age, she looked very pretty and attractive. Therefore, a lot of youths usually came to have a talk with her. Nevertheless, none of them was chosen as her lover because she did not like any of them. He then shared that his wife had died two years ago.

"How?" Luong asked Old Min. Instead of answering his question, the old man beat about the bush.

"The flower you've just mentioned is called the Thanh Minh Flower, for it opens during the Thanh Minh Event (Grave-Clearing Festival). This bush has three kinds of flowers: yellow, red and white. Of the three, the first one is hard to grow because it is found naturally on high mountains only; the second can be grown at home and is seen abundantly on Mountain Ten, while the third one is most easy to plant.

When the dinner was over, three young men appeared at Mr Min's place. One of then went straight into Lam's room. A few minutes later he walked out.

"Tinh, so today, she also refuses to let you talk with her?" one of the two guys sitting outside asked him.

"She's told me that I'm not worthy of being her lover," Tinh replied shamefully. "Now, it's your turn to try," he added.

Upon Tinh's suggestion, the guy who had just asked the question hurriedly dashed into her room. Meanwhile, the remaining two proceeded towards a compartment at one extremity of the house to lie down. Some moments later, loud words echoed from Lam's room, then the youth quickly left. Old Min shook his head in low spirits.

"Perhaps, you know the practice of ‘tentative sleep' of our Dao ethnicity," the old man said to Luong. "These young villagers are all good and strong but Lam refuses them all point-blank. I don't know whom she has been waiting for. Well, you should go to bed early, for tomorrow's a long and difficult trip," he advised Luong. Luong paced towards the youths to share the floor with them.

"Where do you come from? You also want to sleep with Lam?" Tinh asked him.

"No, not at all! I'm only a soldier of the Go Den Post over there. I came here for a special task," Luong replied.

"OK, as a non-resident here, you mustn't sleep in her room like us," Tinh told him.

From their chats, Luong came to know that they had come here many times before, but in vain. However, they kept on hoping that some day Lam might change her mind to accept one of them.

"We have an unwritten law that when young people, male and female alike, come of age, a young man can freely enter the room of a certain girl he likes to lie by her side at night that we call a ‘tentative sleep'. If the two find harmonious to each other, they may chat throughout the night then promise to be engaged to each other before holding a wedding and no more tentative sleeps can be carried out by any. If she finds him unsuitable for her, he will be driven out at once. In case he takes liberties to attempt to attack her, his life will be threatened by a large knife hidden under her pillow."

After two days' wandering in the mountains, Luong could not find any rhododendron bushes. The next night Min said to him, "Tomorrow, I'll go with you and show you the way to high Mt Ten to uproot some to take home. Below it you're unable to see any."

The next morning both Old Min and Lam went to their terraced fields to repair their fallen fence.

"We have to mend the fence today instead of going to Mountain Ten with you," said the old man.

"OK, I'll join you in your work. When we finish it we might as well go in search of those red flowers," Luong told him.

"Right you are!"

With the efforts of the three, especially thanks to Luong's skills and strength, the fallen fence was completed that morning. At lunch, they had boiled maize, grilled field-rat meat, salt with red pepper and rice wine. Lam poured out three bowlfuls to drink.

"Now, let's drink them up," said the old man.

Surprisingly, Lam also emptied her bowlful of rice wine.

"Luong, you seem greatly astonished at her drinking capacity? That's common to every Dao girl here, although she rarely drinks. Certainly, she's so fond of you that she's drunk it that quickly. Empty your bowlful with her, my dear young mate," Mr Min encouraged him.

Luong looked up and emptied his bowlful too. Putting his bowl down, he stared at Lam and recognized that her eyes were also gazing at his.

In the afternoon, Old Min led Luong half way to the peak of Mountain Ten, where red rhododendron bushes grew abundantly. At the old man's guidance, two bushes were dug up before being brought to the post. On the way home, Old Min told Luong, "I think that Lam's very keen on you. If you also like her, you can try to sleep with her."

"What would happen to me if those village youths discover my presence in her room? How can I dare to do so?"

"They won't be here for several days. For others, when they find our door and windows under lock and key, they won't go in either. That's our rule."

In the evening, Old Min urged his daughter to prepare dinner earlier than usual. After the meal, he closed the door and all the windows then went sleep on the wooden planks in the centre of the building; while Luong helped Lam to do the washing up.

Luong stayed further with Old Min's clan for repairing the small watch-tower on the milpa of Indian corn. At the sight of the young courting couple in love, he was in high spirits.

Some days later Tinh's gang came back again.

"What are you up to here to make you stay so long?" Tinh asked Luong. "I think that when your mission is over, you must return to your post immediately," he added.

"I'll stay here until I finish my work. Otherwise, my job has nothing to do with your gang," Luong replied resolutely.

"You're not allowed to say so. This land belongs to us only, not you."

"On the contrary, it belongs to the whole nation, not yours alone!"

"So, you dare to look down upon us Dao people, don't you? My friends, give him with a good thrashing."

While Tinh seized a tree trunk used as a door support and was ready to attack Luong when Lam came to his rescue.

"He's our guest. Moreover, I've chosen him as my lover, you'd better return home immediately. That's all," she said to Tinh.

Finding her so resolute while Luong remained calm, Tinh assumed that Luong, as a well-trained soldier, would be good at martial arts on the other; therefore he made concessions.

"OK, let's go home. As for this guy, we'll punish him later," Tinh told his men.

***

After the young villagers left, Old Min said to Luong, "You should go home first and let me talk about your case with my family," he urged Luong.

According to the report made by Luong, some days later Sanchez led Luong and three other soldiers along under the pretext that they would carry out the field work, but in fact to carry to the post the two rhododendron bushes. When they arrived at Old Min's milpa of corn, they met the old man and his daughter.

"Good morning, my kind-hearted old man. Join our group this afternoon, will you?" Sanchez invited Old Min. "As for your Dao daughter, she looks very pretty," he went on.

He stretched out his hand to pinch her cheeks. At once, she dodged his insolent act, then made for the slash-and-burn field of maize. The group of soldiers rested at the old man's watch-tower and had lunch before resuming their trip. Sanchez appointed one of his men to return to Old Min's place together with Lam in order to prepare dinner for the whole party before going to sleep.

After digging up two rhododendron bushes, on their way home Old Min told Luong to stop to get some forest fruits for supper. Luong suggested, "Let me take them down for you." Saying so, he shot three arrows, one after another, at the stems of the fruits hanging on the tree. As a result, three ripe fruits fell onto the ground. Sanchez was greatly amazed by Luong's archery skills.

"I'm also a good archer, but I've never used a cross-bow to shoot down fruits on the tree like you. Luong, you're the best marksman of our region. What's more, you can do everything perfectly," Old Min praised Luong.

Late in the evening, after dinner, Sanchez turned to Lam and said, "You Dao minority people have a habit of tentatively sleeping. May I sleep with you tonight?"

"No, never!" Old Min objected. "Because you're a foreigner in our country, how can we know your marital status in order to let you practise the tentative sleep," he added.

"Yet, you may fall in love with me?" Sanchez suggested.

At midnight, Sanchez crawled into Lam's room and silently lay down by her side. All of a sudden, he embraced her. At once, she pushed him aside. He whispered, "Keep quiet, please. Let me sleep with you just one night and I'll give you a lot of money."

"No, never! Get out," she told him.

Again, he tried to hug her. She rose up to take out a knife hidden under the mat. She said to him in a low and decisive voice, "If you don't get out immediately, I'll kill you."

"Please don't, don't do that. Let me go out at once. How fierce you are!" In the blink of an eye, he crept out.

The next morning, he ordered his men to go back to the barracks. When they were about to leave, an old man came together with Tinh and his friends.

"Good morning, Post Chief and young soldiers," said the old newcomer.

"No, no! I'm not the boss at all. I'm only his advisor," Sanchez replied.

"Anyway, I wish to have a few words with you. By the way, Old Min and Lam, please come here," the old man said in a stern voice.

In the meantime, Old Min was helping the soldiers to strengthen the earth mass covering the bush root. At once he went in.

"Good morning, Mr Sinh, chief of the descent line. My daughter's affair has been reported to all our relatives. It has nothing related to the soldiers that you have brought here," Old Min said.

"Yes, it relates to us to some extent, I have to come here to deal with the matter. Esteemed Mr Advisor, among your soldiers, there's a guy named Luong who dares to flirt a girl of our clan. Where's he?" asked Mr Sinh.

"It's the soldier who's tightening the mass of earth for the rhododendron bushes over there," Tinh replied.

Turning to Sanchez, Mr Sinh went on, "Luong is a non-Dao guy of our locality. How can he fall in love and marry a Dao girl?"

"But Lam likes him a lot. There are a lot of Dao people who married Muong or Kinh persons," Old Min retorted.

"But there are no exceptions for our clan," Mr Sinh added.

Sanchez nodded his head and whispered to himself, "Oh, by now I see, I see." Then turning to Mr Sinh, he said loudly, "I'll tell the Post Chief to handle this issue. Now, it's high time for us to go. Goodbye all of you! Hey, soldiers, let's withdraw rapidly, shall we," he urged his men.

When the military group had left, Mr Sinh continued talking to Old Min, "Why does your daughter dare to speak scornfully to our strong youths and accept that Muong soldier?"

"I think Luong has got an amulet. He's been here just a few days, yet he's allowed to have a tentative sleep with Lam," Tinh chimed in.

Right at the moment Lam went in. She said, "Don't blame it on him. Who can bewitch me? I've chosen him as my husband. That's all."

"If so, I shan't be the Master of Ceremonies for your planned wedding," Mr Sinh replied resolutely, then he led the youths away.

***

Late in the evening, at the Go Den Post, Doi Can interrogated Luong, "You were dispatched away to perform a mission. How could you sleep with a local girl?"

"Sir, that's a practice of the Dao ethnic group. She let me sleep with her because she loved me. However, we just chatted to each other and did nothing else. Our circumstances are like the habits of the Kinh or Muong people when they sit and talk to each other in the forest," Luong objected to his chief's criticism.

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