Anyone could see I was lost.
I had cycled back and forth on the same stretch of road, each time stopping at a side road to consult a rudimentary map.
He must have seen me. He must have seen many others like me – a tourist, alone with her map of plans, but no direction.
By the time I see the old man motion to me across the road, I am looking for assistance but not wanting a tour guide. He was pointing in the general direction of where the Japanese tomb was meant to be. So I took his sweeping arm gestures to be a sign of sorts. I crossed the road, hoping he was just another friendly local trying to help a woman out. But I was sceptical. And I hate that feeling, that distrust of a situation based on past experience and not present action. I thanked him in Vietnamese for pointing me to “tomb tomb” and pushed my bicycle along the narrow path that separated the rice paddies from the beautiful lotus marshes. But he quickly walked ahead, gesturing me to follow him which made me think he had done this before, maybe even planted himself in the spot knowing there were many disorientated, potentially grateful, tourists to assist on this unmarked road. But I decided to assess the situation anew instead of being led down that old path of assuming that he was just another local taking advantage of an opportunity to fleece a tourist. Maybe fleece is too strong. The man was wearing raggedy pants and an old shirt and a cap. The man was not pimping and it was doubtful he had a fancy motorbike at home. If it was an act, he was clearly fully submerged in the role, he even waded into the water to pick a lotus flower for me. I was touched and intoxicated by the perfume aroma of the lotus flower, if not the gesture from man to woman. What a special first encounter with this national treasure I thought. Much better than haggling over a bunch in the market or procuring its oil from a shop. So maybe he was just an ordinary farmer seeking out a moment and I was just the usual sceptical tourist shunning his kindness for fear of parting with the equivalent of a dollar, at most.
But it’s not really about the money. Yes, maybe when the amount is significant and the person taking it from you is smiling in that satisfied smug way knowing you have no options, then yes it is. It’s totally about the money and the con and the injustice of it all. But in this situation, as I followed him, flower in hand, along the path to the tomb some 50m ahead, I was still hoping it was just a small, slow encounter in this fast and faceless world. I like to trust in the kindness of strangers and be a stranger you can trust in. That’s the kind of world I want to live in, and often do. But my ambivalence comes from my experience that poverty robs people of their ability to bea man helping out a woman, a local showing a guest his land. It is this thought that guides me to the this place, where a Japanese man, who fell in love with a local Hoi An woman and couldn’t return, gave his body to her land. The tomb is overgrown with time and neglect, bar the flowers and incense that show regular visitors, or potential patrons. Again my brain. My heart sinks a little seeing a fresh Lotus flowers in the vase. And my stomach turns over when he motions me to light two incense sticks and offer a prayer, and then starts the process without my consent. So I do it, because there must be some seed of hope in me yet. And he doesn’t usher me out or ask for money. Instead he touches the tiny scalloped leaf of a weed or clover and points to it. I see it shrivels at his touch, like a young girl shunning attention. So I do it, again and again, and we laugh in that international language of children. And then he takes the Lotus stalk from me, the green one that has no flower yet and looks exactly like a showerhead and he starts to peel it back to reveal pods and small white seed that he gestures me to eat. It is non descript but it leaves a sweet taste in my mouth regardless. And the bile subsides and the smell of my Lotus returns to scent our small encounter of man and woman, local and guest. The value exchange is swayed in his favour so I don’t mind when he points to a small empty vase on the tomb and says “money pot”. I fish out a few thousand, less than a dollar, and stuff it in the pot. And then he does something unexpected. We get up to leave and he takes the money from the pot and puts it back in my hand saying “no no”. I smile. I feel like humanity has triumphed, like he too felt the delicate beauty of the moment and waded in to rescue it from being submerged forever.
I leave the marshes and moment thinking: If a beautiful lotus flower can be surrounded by mud and murk and still maintain its delicate scent and beauty, why can’t I? Why can’t the two coexist in me as it does in nature?
The musings continue…