Friday, January 28, 2005

Sooty in the lands of corn and Christ

Winter entered its thaw this week. The sun flashed in a sky so unused to accompaniment that it shocked us to see blue in it again and we decided to take to the roads around the city for a stretch of the legs.

Over the main bridge from town, the river runs below you as a reddish brown strip cut with barges and long river boats running back and forth and up or down it. At its middle, a wide stretch of brown, buttery, rich-silted soil sports corn crops. On either side the banks have been mapped out with small plots growing an assortment of vegetables and plants. Start to cross and it's a hustle of maddening traffic, but you then get into the country even before you've made it half way.

On either side of the river run two large dykes to prevent flooding and the main roads along both sides run atop these. The city side is a busy four lane or more throng of trucks and bikes that threatens at every moment to completely entangle you in the crisscrossing tentacles of its traffic. The other side, running south, is a homely two-lane stretch of concrete and gravel that is randomly homicidal in the casual way of farm machinery.

The roads running off of the countryside dyke diminish rapidly into thin concrete strips in the villages close to town, and rutted dirt roads that heave you about with carnival ride abandon on their way to farm plots or dumping grounds. It's true though that even in the city you can find dirt roads that weave about through the rougher parts of town. Those muddy patches take off suddenly from the main roads, shooting down brief openings between a pair of buildings. They slither on between narrow low houses and past shuttered doorways, curving back and forth over uneven ground only to burst out again on the other side of the city to join another main road. They give the opinion of having been opened up overnight by industrious locals capable of shifting buildings and parting concrete, or having simple started off as cracks between paving stones on footpaths that have progressed with time to become common paths and will eventually become roads in their own right. They make you think that perhaps all the roads had been created in this way, as the city cracks and expands like clay in the sun.

It wasn't far out of town that we came across a small village whose centrepiece was a large church. The church was built in 1913, according to its front, and had the flowing, curling embellishments of a pagoda, draped like the tails of a dragon about its traditional rectangular block and towering spire. They bordered the sides and slid across the front without overwhelming the Christian design. Down each side of the building, rows of palms trees had also been planted. Behind the church and down one side, a woman was drying corn kernels on the flat concrete, taking advantage of the sun while it lasted.

In fact the entire village there was corn and Christ. The former spread for drying wherever we looked and the latter represented by crosses over doorways and on rooftops. This, and the heady embrace of Christmas we had witnessed over December, made a mockery of the US State department's 90 day warning given to Vietnam for abuses of religious freedom over Christmas.

Before we left the village Kate got a glimpse of a dog being roasted on a bed of hay. We went back so that I could see, but by then it had been covered up and the new hay was ready to be lit. They did offer to share but we declined. The dog was no bigger than a suckling pig.

On our way back to town we came across a charcoal maker building bricks from wet soot. He had taken a mass of this from his barrow as we approached and, combining it with sawdust, he pushed it into a mould that he pressed down by hand, to turn out round bricks with holes in the middle leaving them to dry in the sun. His hands and feet were pitch black from the work and he had made a few hundred of these round burners that make up the majority of the cooking fires about town. He didn't mind our attention, though perhaps found it a little peculiar to find himself in the spotlight all of a sudden. This was the first time we had seen anyone doing this and Kate took her new camera out and took some great photos of him.

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