Updated: Nov 5, 2021
High up in the mountains of northern Vietnam, far from the rest of the world, there is a village that sits in the clouds. The road to get there is winding and steep, the rugged terrain suitable only for the surest of footsteps.
For thousands of years, the little village remained isolated from the rest of the world. The villagers lived off the land, cultivating rice from the fields, raising livestock that roamed free until the day they were needed for sustenance. Rather than go to school, children worked with their parents in the fields, because what could be taught in a classroom that couldn't be learned off the land? When people became ill a healer would come to their home, treating maladies with a concoction of herbs and prayers to the ancestors. There were births and there were deaths in this little village, and all the little joys and heartaches in between.
It was a simple way of life from another time.
Yearning for a taste of unpolluted life, visitors began trickling in from faraway lands. They traveled thousands of miles to come here and admire the views of the rice paddies, buy local embroidery to take home as souvenirs, get a taste of local cuisine. They came armed with cell phones and selfie sticks, fancy cameras and YouTube channels. The more adventurous ones would spend the night in the village, sleeping on cots in a room with a dirt floor, waking to the sounds of piglets and chickens outside the window.
How worldly these people were. Driving back to the city in the morning to wash away the simple life from their soiled skin.
Soon the trickle became a steady stream and plans were made for a paved road into town for visitors who preferred to travel by private car. The families hosting these visitors prospered. Hot running water, standing showers, electricity-simple luxuries manifested that were not possible before. The women in town began commuting to a nearby city to sell their embroidery to a larger market. Access to a hospital became possible for those who were beyond the prayers of their ancestors. Children began attending school, where they learned about governments and politics and money, and their dreams grew larger than the fields where their parents toiled.
Such advancement! The outside world said with satisfaction.
In this village there lived a woman so old that no one could remember her name. A whisper of a soul, passed down from generation to generation until she became known to the villagers simply as Grandma. Scarcely taller than a child, spine curled over from the weight of so many years, she wandered her family's home like an apparition. She bore a toothless grin, muttering under her breath in a raspy little voice, a language that only she could comprehend.
Grandma sat in the dark corners of the home as the visitors came and went, came and went. She watched as these strangers sat at her kitchen table and consumed piles of food. Fresh greens from the garden. Pork from a pig slaughtered the night before. Heaps of rice from the nearby fields. She quickly grew weary of these people coming and going, bringing nothing to the home but empty bellies and strange electronic devices. Speaking foreign tongues in voices that were always a bit too loud.
She grew frightened when the visitors tried to capture her soul with their little image-taking devices. She refused to sit with the family at dinner time when the visitors came, choosing to instead putter about the house and eat as much rice as possible. The more she ate, the less for them, she decided. She spoke to herself, cursing the foreigners. Did they not have families of their own? Did they not have their own rice? She worried that her family would become destitute, run dry from all these strange people.
What would her family do when they gave away their last grain of rice?
She didn’t see the money that passed from the visitor's to the family's hands. Even if she had noticed, she wouldn't have appreciated its significance. Money didn't put rice in your bowl, hard work did. She didn't understand why running water and lights agains the darkness were any improvement, when she had always done just fine with water from the stream and a warm fire to light her way at night.
As the village developed, Grandma’s mind grew as muddled as the brown water flowing down the hillside after a heavy rain. Her dreams became her thoughts, and her thoughts became her dreams. She wandered the house, muttering under her breath, answering unheard voices. Those around her thought she’d gone completely mad. That is, everyone but the family dog. For it is a well known fact in Vietnam that dogs can see spirits. And being nearly a ghost herself, Grandma was only speaking to family members long gone.
Grandma forgot to bathe, and when the visitors came the family became embarrassed. The government will come! They told her, if you do not bathe they will give you a free pair of striped pajamas! As much as Grandma did not want to bathe, she did not want the striped pajamas. So she bathed but then refused to put any clothes on. A little bag of bones running about the home while the family looked on in horror.
Cover yourself before the foreigners see!
Eventually the road to town was paved, allowing cars and buses to bring even more visitors from faraway places. New buildings appeared, fancy spas and ecolodges to house and cater to all of these new guests. Warm, filtered water flowed from the tap. Windows lit up against the night like freshly lit candles. The village prospered, the money flowed.
And Grandma grew so old that no one remembered who she belonged to anymore.
So if you happen to visit the village today, look for Grandma. You will likely find her sitting in a dark corner of the family home, yellowed and curled around the edges from the wear and tear of time. It is here she continues to sit, eating bowl after bowl of rice. She may flash you that toothless grin, but she only speaks to the spirits now. For there is no one else left in this modern world with whom she can share her memories of a different time and place.
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Story and photography by Teresa Schumacher