“And for lunch, we will have crocodile.”
Mong Dao’s monotonous monologue suddenly came to a halt.
Until now I was lost in the playful shimmering of the sunlight on the emerald waters of Halong Bay, Vietnam. Although it was nearly midday, a gentle breeze blew, wafting in the smell of fish, salt, and water. The constant mechanical groan of Mong’s steamer motor accompanied us, as we drifted towards his floating village, Cong Dam. I was half-listening to his non-stop chatter. But his last word, ‘crocodile’ caught my immediate attention and I turned towards him saucer-eyed.
Incredulously I whispered, “What are we having for lunch?” I wanted to make sure what I heard was correct.
“Crocodile” Mong turned to look at me and repeated his word nonchalantly with a shrug.
There was perhaps something on my face that cracked up his suntanned wrinkly face and the corner of his lips lifted in a crooked amusement. Realizing he attempted to catch my attention; I let out a sigh of relief.
For a second, Mong had me on the edge of my seat. Crocodile meat might not be uncommon in this part of the world but I certainly did not find the idea appealing. Maybe because imagining an entire croc sitting on my plate would surely drive away my appetite and leave me wondering who will eat whom.
Once assured that he had my attention, Mong continued with his stories. He was one amongst the thousands of Vietnamese who found home away from home on this very ‘no man’s land’ of Halong Bay. The years between 1975 and 1979 witnessed the greatest massacre of the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia under Pol Pot. Its disastrous wave was felt in Vietnam too. Mong’s grandfather lost everything. Amidst the political turmoil, he was forced to take shelter on water.
“Although the dust had settled, everything reeked of death, decay, and despair. Cries had reduced to muffled groans of pain and loss.” Mong was lost in translating the horror his grandfather must have recounted so many times to him as a child.
I shivered. It was evident that the war has scarred these men forever and even the generations to come.
Years of deprivation, starvation, and disease followed into meaningless nothingness. Unfortunately, it has continued even today during Mong’s time. He like his grandfather and father chose the most precarious way of life, living on water, a neutral space.
To my surprise not for once did Mong sounded like complaining and that had made me ponder. I realized he is freer than free, a truly liberated soul.
Suddenly Mong shouted, “Welcome to my village!” and proudly he gestured his hand to the view in front. Squinting against the glaring sun, shading my eyes with one hand I peered at the sight ahead. What I saw made me gasp!
One by one the monolith emerged like apparitions taking a more solid form. Individual limestone crests were scattered around us, separated only by the jade water. A dense mist held them in a tight embrace just where they disappeared underwater, giving an appearance as if they are floating mid-air. And dotted amongst them were small makeshift huts made of wood, scraps of metals, tarpaulin, and whatnot. The huts were strongly built on a complex network of stilts which could be seen as the water retreated from the sides. Tiny boats were attached to all the houses. Everything around me was surreal.
Adaption is man’s best unknown feat. We may not be aware of our own strengths unless we face adversities. Mong and his people have exactly done that. The survival of the fittest lived to tell the tale.
Manoeuvring across the bay, Mong took me around his village. Boats floated lazily as the villagers went about doing their daily chores, fishing, or selling wares. The laughter of small children filled the air as they rowed past us. Even the women stopped their chores to smile at us. It was a usual scene only in an unusual village.
Cong Dam has a frequency of its own and I could feel it pulsating all around me. The poignant tranquil view was enough to make me wonder how these men survived the war.
“Are there crocodiles here?” I blurted out without realizing it.
“Not that I have seen” Mong’s voice mocked me in a good manner, “And even if there were, they won’t be served to you baked, boiled, grilled or fried.”
Together we broke out into peals of laughter.
As we floated around, an easy jovial stream of conversation flowed between us. I asked him more about his history, family, and life. He patiently answered me as I kept jotting them down in my diary. I knew one day I had to write them down only I did not know it would be today.
During my entire conversation with Mong, not even for a moment, I felt, that he regrets what life had offered him and his people. Sad? Maybe because of the everyday struggle that they face! But no regrets!
I asked him, “What does your name mean?”
Exposing his yellow teeth in his usual contagious smile, he replied “Hope.” I inhaled sharply. We both fell silent as we sailed back to the rickety bridge from where I had boarded his steamer. Perhaps he understood I needed time to process.
The strangest thing about this strange journey is that there was ‘hope’ all along and I did not know. Now I know that it is hope that kept them afloat and alive. Carefully wrapped in the memories of the gruesome past and a hope for a better future Mong has definitely not forgotten to live love life.
As I got down and turned back to give him one last look, I saw him kneeling down on the edge of his steamer, his cowboy hat askew. Seeing me struggling to focus my camera at him, his face lit up like a thousand watts and he gave me a thumbs-up.
And my camera went off, capturing a piece of hope forever.
Thank you Rishita for this wonderful story! It is one that no many people would get to hear. Loved it thank you, go check out Rishita's other stories at her blog Bending Miles.