Trần Văn Rừng was a shrimp farmer, relatively prosperous in a very poor town. I met him in the coffee garden that his daughters maintain on the property beside his house. While I was in Cam Đức I walked every day and every day I stopped for coffee in Cafe Ngọc My. Ông Rừng was there when I came in the early morning or in the evening and he liked to talk to the foreigner for a few minutes. On days when he didn't go to the shrimp pens he would insist that I accompany him to one of the little eateries in Cam ̣̣Đức or in adjacent Thôn Tân Thành, a different place with a different specialty each time. In a poor town the menu is usually a sign out front with one thing on it and you go to different places for different meals.
One evening Ông Rừng asked me to go with him the next morning to his son's wedding and to bring my camera. There was a man being paid to take pictures but he would only take a few of the wedding couple and immediate family. Ông Rừng saw a chance to get pictures of many relatives that he would not see again for a long time. Some were coming from Phan Thiết and Vũng Tàu and some from Đà Nãng and Rừng had no more children for weddings.
Next morning I arrived with camera ready to go and Rừng was waiting for me with his helmet on and he cranked up the ancient Honda 90 as soon as I walked in. He was over eighty years old and still rode it, the same Honda for 16 years. I got on the back and we headed out of town toward Nha Trang. We rode on Highway 1 for a few kilometers then turned off on a paved lane perhaps a meter and a half wide and joined a stream of motorbikes heading toward the beach. We turned from that street onto a dirt one lane that became a path and wound through the trees until we came to a small house beside an inlet
under the trees beside what at home in Florida would be a bayou.
The ceremony itself was in the house. The front of it was open and perhaps 200 relatives and friends gathered around. There was a large canopy erected with tables and chairs and lots of cooking going on over fires. Everyone milled about greeting each other and catching up on the family news for an hour or so then all got quiet and the crowd divided on either side of the path that led from the woods to the house. The bride's party had arrived walking single file on the path with parasols. The bride was escorted into the house and the people resumed their socializing. Then the groom's party arrived the same way.
The ceremony was Buddhist and I do not really understand what went on but it was impressive and beautiful with many rings placed on the bride's gloved hands.
The reception followed immediately as everyone crowded around the tables under the canopy.
The food was exquisite, as it tends to be in Việt Nam and the beer was aggressively served. I found myself putting out my glass for ice every time the boy with the bucket came around so there would be less room for beer and tried to drink very slowly. I got very drunk anyway. It didn't take much. I had not not had more than a glass at a time in many years.
When it came time to leave neither I nor Ông Rừng could stand easily and it was difficult to get to the place where the motorbike was parked. Ông Rừng truly was in no condition to drive. I worried a bit about how we were going to get back. We were barely able to get in position on the seat and I feared for a moment but then thought that well, he was past 80 and had been driving motorbikes for more than half a century. We would probably survive and it was too far to walk, even if I could walk.
It took several attempts to get the motor going because it was hard to find the crank. Rừng finally got his foot in the right position and poked down. The engine started and we pushed off. Once the bike was moving the old man was in proper control and it stayed firmly on the path without deviating. When we came to the highway I had a moment of quiet panic because of the trucks and we missed one by a centimeter or two, but he missed it and drove straight and smoothly back to the Café. When we arrived I was sober again but Rừng almost fell down getting off and had to be helped to a chair.
I had kept in touch with my friends in Cam Đức by email, letter, and telephone. In
October I got an email from Trang, Rừng's youngest daughter saying that her father was
in difficulty because storms had wrecked his shrimp pens two years in a row. He had
borrowed money to rebuild in the spring and was getting up and running when a second
storm tore up his business again. He could not repay the last of the loan. He had
borrowed almost $3000 which is an enormous sum in Việt Nam and had paid it down to
a little over $200 but was out of options. No one had asked me for money before. I sent
the money. Shortly, Trang wrote that the debt had been repaid and her father was back
in business without someone waiting to confiscate the production- valuing it at a tiny
percentage of the market. In time my money was repaid. I had not expected that.
Trang wrote that her father was ailing and that the family had to take care of him, her brothers had taken over running the shrimp farm. She never was able to communicate just what the malady was but I suspected a stroke. Trang did not think he would get any better.
My first morning back in Cam Đức I walked the kilometer and a half to Cafe Ngoc My. I almost missed it because the sign was different and the front gate redone. But I found it and walked into the garden. I saw Trang and Điểm and Rừng's wife and there was Ông Rừng seated at the round table at the other end of the courtyard by the coffee counter. I walked straight over to him and noticed that he was propped and his face was slack. I took his hand as if in a handshake and greeted him as an old friend. I kept it up, reverting to English when I couldn't think of something to say, but I kept talking. I talked about going to the wedding and about the duck eggs he had at the farewell meal he had put on for me four years before. He squeezed my hand slightly and smiled with one side of his face, and he said three words, just three and one at a time. Sương, his wife grinned and said he had said no words at all since Tết Trung Thu the previous fall, and he had not smiled for a long time. He either remembered the American or he knew that he knew me without knowing who I am. I went to the café almost every morning while I was there. Some days he was inert and glaze-eyed. Some days he responded and his eyes were clear. He didn't speak again but he smiled and I could feel him squeeze my hand .
September 2, 2007
Trang's email was all in CAPS as it is when she is particularly distressed. Ba (Dad) is dead. She had tried to call me but the system wasn't working well and she didn't get through.
I wrote a consolation note as best I could. I am not so good at that sort of thing normally but I have got to know her pretty well now and knew what I was supposed to write. Her chi-̣ older sister- wrote me back and said it helped a lot. I was Chú (uncle) Mỹ again instead of Ông (mister).
I sent flowers.
First I tried a well-known international flower company that promises to deliver to Lower
Slobbovia or anywhere else. After a dozen email and telephone exchanges with them I felt as
if I were standing in lines in a government office and gave it up. At 8 AM my time-8 PM in
Cam Đức- I found a website for a florist in Nha Trang, a few kilometers up the road from
Cam Đức and asked for chrysanthemums to be delivered As Soon As Possible.
I was roused at a minute before eleven by the telephone and while up I checked email. There was a delivery confirmation on the flowers. That evening when I rose for the "day" there was another all caps email from Trang saying the flowers had been delivered at ten-thirty the night before, less than three hours after my call. That is some good ASAP
Rừng had lived a long life, most of it through war and the starving years after the war. He did his part in the building of a new, rapidly modernizing, Việt Nam. He has left a fine family and sons who will continue to build on the shrimp farms he left. Senior son Minh Trang has been learning about marketing. You may well see their brand in the Publix one day not too far off.
I am glad I knew him.