To Hang Vem Beach?

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9:45pm, Hotel, Catba Island

Another good day for the most part. When I got up at seven and went to breakfast, it actually wasn't even raining. It had been when I first woke up, and started up again not too much later.

That was when I was walking up to meet with the Les. I thought we were going to a beach. I was wrong, but that turned out to be more than okay. Thunder was rolling up and down the hills and I had no idea where this place Hang vem was. Which is where I tho ught we were to meet at nine.

So, I walk through the village again and at one point I'm passing a pre school or something. A little girl sees me and yells, "hello," and a couple seconds later the whole class is up by the windows, all yelling "Hello," "Hello." I wave and walk quickly a way, embarrassed that I have attracted so much attention.

Luckily the youngest son and the mother saw me as I was walking down the road. The boy ran out to me in his conical hat and dragged me by the hand (this time over land which was semi-dry at least, and not underwater). We sat for a while eating Yezi, a sma ll round fruit, with a big seed inside. We had several branches full of them, picked from the bushes in front of their house.

A woman came by, washing fruit to baibai (the Chinese word for making offerings, or saying prayers) in a nearby shrine. The father and the little one took me to see. I was a small dark place with a table as an altar, piled high with offerings, incense and candles. She asked me to take a picture, so I went back to the house (a hop skip and a jump), only to find that the oldest son going through my bag.

As he leapt up and pretended not to be doing anything, I saw some money in his hand. He tried to put it in his back pocket, but I took it from his hand, quite pissed off. He rubbed his stomach like he did the day before asking me for money for food.

The other boy knew what was up and signed me to take my bag so we could go take the picture. I did, and the woman was quite pleased. I was not, but the family soon knew what had happened. The mother was upset and embarrassed, she kicked her son in the ass and pulled out a wad of money to show me what they had. I know they're poor, much poorer than maybe I can imagine- I may not be rich, but I can at least leave, and they probably cannot. But that was too much.

Worst is that I hadn't even really trusted that son from the very beginning, but only based on his appearance. He reminded me of this guy in Taiwan who over and over proved himself a liar and unworthy of trust.

Through one of the other sons, he said he was sorry, but did not look me in the eye.

But then we were off. I was glad I hadn't stormed off or anything. We were short the boy who had led me here the day before and were six altogether: the father the oldest and youngest sons, and two brothers from next door, Zem and Hum. The mother stayed b ehind. I kind of had the suspicion that she did most of the work in the house and fields.

We first stopped by some other guys house though. He seemed to be wealthier. His house was much bigger with 2 rooms, nice furniture and radios. I and the father were given seats and he poured tea for us, and then a little wine. He had lots of T-shirts fr om Hong Kong and seemed to know a little Chinese. He wrote his name in Chinese for me.

A cat wandered through and rubbed up against my legs, liking the way I petted it. The only daughter just stared at me. We took a group picture in another darkened room sans flash. I still wasn't able to explain about the flash.

Mr. Le points out the pictures on his friend's walls and points at the camera and then him. Reminding me that they would like photos as well.

We are soon off again though and walk down through the rest of the village. Mr. Le seems to be enjoying the attention.

Down the road and out of the village, we pass a bridge and hang right past some houses and then alongside a lake shore, I'm not sure if it is a shortcut to the beach or what. We seem to be heading inland more. It's raining too.

We wade a ways, get up on land and then wade again. The path dips in and out of the lake because of the rain inflated water levels. At one point, we are hopping from stone to stone, but the stones are 3 feet under water and can hardly be seen. I miss and one foot sinks in a foot of mud. I teeter trying to hold my bag above water, worried about my journal and camera: my life more or less at that point. I pull out and manage to keep my balance, but one slipper is left behind. They search for it a little but it is hopeless. I'm thinking, pulling a Han Solo in my mind, "I got a bad feeling about this."

But that was the worst spot. The rest is pretty straightforward, we clamber over some rocks wade through a couple streams, climb through some fields and then start heading up the hillside. The beach, I'm thinking, must be on the other side.

The undergrowth is thick around us as we climb up a steep slope of wet dark soil and rock. I often use branches to keep my balance, but more often than not grab something prickly. The path down looks like it has been water cut. It is mostly rock, but funk ily cut, twisted and gnarled with deep grooves in it. Much better footing than the way up, but I still have my slips. the vegetation is even thicker.

At the bottom is no beach but just more water. The path disappears. They sent some hoots bouncing across the water and surrounding hills but with no reply. The father and the eldest son jump in after some conferring, and pull up a boat from under the wat er. It's bailed and me and the 2 neighbors clamber on, the elder brother taking the oars, rowing.

By the time we are a bit off the shore my mouth it is slack. The weather is still gray and the drizzle still falls, but the place is gorgeous. The green of the hills practically glows in the wetness of it all. There are huge black cliffs, and everywhere e lse the steep hills tht dominate the island. We hoot and laugh as the echoes come bouncing back and forth.

From far away it looks as if you could walk on the hills, but it is all that same thick vegetation that we came through. Short and heavy, twisted and thorny shrubbery, probably only passable with a nice big machete and lots and lots of time.

The mouths of caves can also be seen dark against the green and we head for one, high up the slope of an island hill. By this time it finally dawns on me that we are not going to a beach, that our destination had always been here: Hang Vem lake. I didn't test to see if it was fresh or salt water though, it could have been an inland bay for all I knew.

The younger brother and I are let off on the island, and the older sets off to get the others. The two of us scramble up the steep slippery slope to get to the cave. We spend a time seeing how far back the cave goes. It is quite deep and the end of it dis appears into an inky blackness. There were not many stalagmites or stalactites, but the occasional squeak of a bat could be heard.

I cursed myself for not bringing my flashlight or flash a few more thousand times... The best I had was a lighter which gave me a flickering impression of the back of the cave.

The brother was good with fires, but I got it a good start with paper. His method of using plastic didn't work too well. There was lots of garbage near the mouth of the cave- mostly bottles and clam shells. It must have been a frequent stop for locals. We try making a torch to explore the cave but it doesn't work to well.

The others I see out in the middle of the lake, setting out a fishing net it seems- solving the mystery of the bag that they'd carried with them.

They finally came in. We explored the cave again with my lighter, but that doesn't work to well either. Flickers only of what is there. We returned to the mouth and warmed ourselves by the fire, and began adjusting it to be a cooking fire- which seemed to be letting it burn to hot glowing embers. Some other people came by as well, and I took a whole string of pictures by the mouth of the cave. The light barely enough, the clouds being too dark still.

The eldest son and the older brother went back out to get the fishing net. It turned out to be one long rope with loops of fishing line, thousands upon thousands of them, hanging down from it. They were all meshed together with little dark things, bait of some sort that the fish went for. The fish just got all tangled up in it, probably the more they struggled the more they became enmeshed.

We used my Swiss army knife to sharpen sticks and we stuck the fish on them and ate them. Good but not great, though they were certainly the freshest fish I'd ever eaten. There was one strange fish too, almost flat, with a skin unlike any I'd seen- not re ally scaled, but almost furry, and a deep maroon color. We didn't eat that one.

The father and youngest son went and got a bigger boat somewhere, maybe they had a stash of them around the lake. We all climbed in and were headed back for home the way we came.

The father got mad at the eldest son on the way up for some reason. Not sure why. But we headed back without further incident. We stopped at a place so that I could buy some food and spirits in the village, got back to the house and ate. A couple new guys joined us. We ate apples, biscuits and things like Chinese mooncakes, but better.

The eldest son apologized to me and we said our good-byes. I gave Mr. Le my stopwatch in thanks. It was the only thing I could think of giving them in return for what they had given me. I doubt too many foreigners came to that lake and had fish on a stick.

The stopwatch, which I'd gotten for participating in a dragon boat race in Taiwan, was something that the Vietnamese had always commented on. I had it hanging from around my neck- my only time piece besides my alarm clock. Plus i t might even be useful to them. The father seemed pleased and the eldest son was floored, maybe he thought I would give money, or nothing, I don't know.

We went back over to his friends house, had some more wine and said good-bye. I think they might of thought I was staying longer. We went over to visit his brother then, who seemed richer still. There was a large courtyard, chickens and puppies running pe ll mell all about. Inside was lots of furniture, the deep red that one would expect in a Chinese household. There was plenty of mantle space filled with pictures and memorabilia from their lives.

The brother was an ex-army officer and his son spoke English. They had partly come to clarify from where and when I would send pictures. I did decline the offer of a last meal, feeling that I should go, wanting to get to the beach a last time and not want ing to outdo my welcome.

So I bid them farewell, the father holding his son in his arms waving good bye. I walked back to the hotel and dressed quickly for the beach.

I had it all to myself as darkness started to fall. I enjoyed it as much as I could, knowing that this was the last time I would be swimming in the ocean for a long while to come- certainly the last time this trip. I was heading for Urumqi even, which I h ear is the city that is furthest from ocean in the whole world.

I almost left my jade necklace there, and had to back. Lucky I had even remembered.

I didn't eat at the hotel, the first night it had been great. Last night though it had been cold and overpriced. The place I went to, a little place quite near the hotel was much better, though it was a bit slow. Got some mosquito bites in the process, to o late thinking of my insect repellent- it did keep them away after the fact.

Full, I walked into town, bringing my tape recorder this time to record the noise. On the way back some little girls waved me over and I crouched down to see what they wanted. Mistake that was, because the hordes descended on me, I got hit on the head, pu lled at, lugged at. "Let's see what a foreigner can do" time. I just walked and pulled away. Glad they left me alone and didn't follow. Bit overwhelming.

Now showered and ready for the bed to which I go.

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