This morning I woke up at 6:30 am, the first time I have slept through the night since getting back from London and also the first time I’ve been able to breathe through my nose in over a week. A nice heavy case of bronchitis has made my lungs burn even worse as I inhaled bus exhaust being kept down low in the air from consistent rain.
I took a walk this morning. I put my rain kit on over my flannel pajamas and slipped into a pair of cheap Budweiser sandals. I walked out my door, passed the wedding card factory our house is attached to and looked inside the blind massage parlor to see if anyone was up and working yet. The house backs up to the Red River and even though I have been living here for two months I have yet to see if there is a path leading down to the water. I took a right and walked down a narrow street behind my house, the rain was gliding off my rain jacket and for the first time in a while I smiled.
I was about to turn back towards the main road and search for some breakfast when I heard,
“Alo, xin chao, you have tea?”
Three men were hunkered down in a shack in a strange little bamboo fenced compound. There were caged chickens and ducks lining the perimeter of a concrete square parking area. I sat down next to a man in his late fifties wearing one of those hard shelled green Vietnamese hats. The man sitting across from me was dressed nicely and talking on an old Nokia brick phone, he took a cigar out of his mouth and passed it to me. I crossed my legs and took a drag off the cigar.
“Ahh Cuban, Cam on!” I said.
He slapped me on the leg and smiled.
“Where you from?” He asked.
“USA, Florida, American, Ten toi la Joshua.”
“Ahh American! You are very beautiful.”
He looked at the older man, said something in Vietnamese and they both laughed. So I did as well in an effort to pretend I knew exactly what he’d said.
I passed the cigar back to him and he grabbed a walkie talkie dangling from a piece of bamboo fencing then motioned for the older gentleman to go get something.
“Ruou de?” He asked.
It was just now 7:30 but I figured I didn’t have to work today and I haven’t had a drink in a while.
“Vang! Yeah, Cam on” I said.
We sat in silence and stared at each other for the next ten minutes while the other man was away fetching the rice wine. I have become so used to this interaction, just sitting, staring and occasionally smiling at each other, embracing the language barrier.
The man returned with a large plastic tub of purple liquid with black flesh textured finger shaped objects floating at the bottom. He unscrewed the lid and dipped three ceramic cups into the mixture. I raised the cup,
“Mot hai ba zo!” I said and we all clicked glasses and drank the thick musky liquid.
This has happened to me several times here in Vietnam, getting stuck drinking rice wine early in the morning and not speaking enough of the language in order to make a graceful exit. This is just something the Vietnamese love to do to me, I have to wonder if they see me and think “hey, look westerner, let’s get him drunk!”
I looked up how to say “I am hungry” on my translator app and they just looked at me confused and poured three more shots, this time filling up a larger glass for me. I downed it and set it on the tea tray and motioned to leave. The well dressed man reached over, grabbed my arm and asked me to sit back down. He then poured me another shot and managed to spill his whole glass on my pants in the process.
“Its ok, its ok.” He said.
“Yeah, they are waterproof.” I said.
“Can I show you my ostrich?” He asked.
“Your what?” I replied.
“Come, I show you.”
It’s my first time out of the house in a while and all I really wanted was some Bun Cha and maybe a coffee, but this is vietnam and you can never simply go for a walk and get coffee.
I said, “yeah sure, lets see the ostrich.”
I assumed “ostrich” was just a mis translation of something else, but whatever we were going to see he was damn proud of it because he had a silly grin on his face while we walked across the lot and around the corner towards some larger cages.
He pointed and took a puff from the cigar,
“See, I show you.”
Sure enough I had heard the man correctly. He did indeed have an ostrich. The thing looked stressed out and was missing most of its feathers. It raised its head from a water bowl and put its face up against the chain link fence and stared into my eyes. It looked old and sad. There were some chickens running around in the cage as well, pecking bits of food scattered around the ostriches feet. A fly landed on his eyeball and he twitched then returned to his water.