“The Chinese are coming! Head for the caves!” someone screams. We all burst into hysterical laughter. Hoards of swooping Chinese flock out of the sky, the dull sustained whoooooooshing of their 8-foot wings frighteningly audible just yards overhead. We panic and sprint like hunted rabbits into the hills. One of them can suddenly breathe fire, and the helpless laughter at the table redoubles.
It’s a stoner fantasy. Nobody remembers how it started but Ceri, Clay and I are liberally peppering it with fresh nonsense on the fly. There isn’t much else going on in the tourist village of Mai Chau tonight. There was traditional dancing last night. Kinda interesting. Kinda boring. Clay’s local motorcycle tour business means he sees it to pretty much to death, Ceri is just tagging along for a weekend out of her Hanoi job monotony, and I get the feeling all three of us are glad to spend an evening being invaded by the Chinese.
Earlier, I’d been lying on the filthy couch watching the flies when I heard an expensive rrrrrkkkkkk crunch. Clay had announced his arrival in the 14-seater tour van by reversing half over one of the motorcycles parked outside. Another few inches would have mean a domino effect of motorcycles, then bicycles, tragically ending with the water cooler.
Ceri’s job in communications for WWF in Hanoi means she’s partly responsible for certain perceptions of the organization. It’s a lot of responsibility for a 22-year-old. First off, it’s not the World Wrestling Federation, it’s the World Wildlife Fund (and No, we don’t facilitate panda cage fighting, har har). Perhaps in the country that made Agent Orange famous, we can think of a slogan that’s a little less aggressive than “Kill the trade that kills the rhino”. That kinda thing. I sensed that she spends a large amount of time dealing with woeful ignorance in a nation where dog and endangered monkey are still on the menu.
The next morning we looted the parking area for the most functional motorbikes and tore out of the narrow road running between wooden stilt houses and impossibly green rice paddies, through the Shire-like backdrop of the idyllic valley of Mai Chau. The road turned to gravel and bent its crooked way through towering bamboo forest and sleepy village clusters, the faces of the local ghosts never failing to light up and shout hello’s over the mosquito bizzzzzz of the scooters.
We reached the edge of the surreal turquoise lake and marvelled at the scale of it; a lake so large that an island the size of a theme park jutted from the center. But a solitary house stood on its banks, isolated from the surrounding mainland by a 30-minute trip in an outboard motorboat. Clay knew the area well, and we pulled up at the house of a local boatman. As we cut the engines, a great silence flooded in; the kind you haven’t heard in so long that you forgot that you’ve been searching for it.
The boatman ferried us out for a swim under the clear, blue tropical sky. The lush emerald hillscapes dragged primary forest ivy trails up to a 40 degree horizon. Ceri floated on her back on a neon orange life-saver, staring at the sky. Clay was underwater somewhere. We are all strange shapes in a Dali painting, co-creators of this immersive, ridiculous fantasy, the impossible vividness of it all. We were Teletubbies in a faraway construct. The boat just a banana in a bathtub.