We arrive at the national park headquarters on Friday night. They aren't in the national park, of course, or only barely, but at least they're under trees. The pastel-painted buildings are set in a little wooded compound, under the shadow of the limestone hills. We check into one of the guesthouses. Grey minivets are moving through. Tomorrow we have a plan to drive up a certain road into the forest. A place where, some years earlier, I had what might be called a religious encounter. That's not what I'm scared of, though. I'm scared of the drinking. Ever since I first came to Vietnam I was scared of the drinking.
Good Buddhist boy that I was - good boy that I was in general, never a drinker, very vegetarian, I freaked at the prospect of "mountainous regions" where "minority people" didn't trust you unless you sat and drank. I was reminded of this when I tried to turn down beers in the city. Might as well start now, there’s no refusal in the mountains. Out there it was rice wine - ruou - in shots. These days Vietnamese colleagues laugh when I choose ruou over beer. It looks like I’ve gone just that little bit native when in fact I just hate the beer. And I still dread the drinking sessions, especially the ones with rangers. The ones in villages can be punishing but the rangers are the worst.
And yet this evening - I enjoy it greatly. Over and after dinner we sit round a stainless steel table and knock back shots of wild guava and ginseng wine. I am sitting next to the park director and we talk about his time in Xishuangbanna. He's bright and funny and not that much older than me. A world away from the weathered lugubrious officials of the previous generation. Of course in Vietnam, it's our generation who are the baby boom. He makes things happen in his park. I am enjoying drinking with him. I wonder who I am and what I’ve done with myself.
Also at the table are my two university colleagues and the country director of a local NGO. He's somewhat older and less jovial. Earlier, he told me that he doubted Vietnam could ever have the kind of sustainable hunting that you see in other countries because the culture is essentially ravenous. "Even if I go fishing in my pond," he says, "I don't care if it's big or small. Whatever I fish is fish. People in other countries might release the small ones but here.. " he trails off. Both foreigners and Vietnamese reliably explain conservation failures in terms of deep-seated cultural patterns and I always rail against what I think of as a kind of internalized orientalism. But I’m supposed to listen, not have opinions.
We are sitting at the high table. The other one is for the park staff and members of the community conservation teams, local people who are paid a part-time income to go into the forest and remove snares. I advised one of the first initiatives to do this in Vietnam and the model has spread. We've been talking about it a lot, one way and another, over the past few days.
After we've mostly stopped eating, a man comes over from the other table to stand by our table and drink with us. The director welcomes him as 'the hero’ of the National Park, though, I fancy, with a certain tiredness in his voice. It seems he is someone who's story has been told a lot but not yet to me. Apparently he is the only person on the conservation team that comes from the areas most marginalized ethnic group. A poacher turned gamekeeper.
He holds out his shot glass and talks long and loud and very slow. His toast takes many paragraphs and I don't remember much of it Earnest platitudes, it feels like, delivered with military gusto. Once he hunted animals and now he see's that is wrong. He is grateful for the opportunity he has been offered and he invites us all to visit him in his house. I find that I very much want to visit his house. To hear what he has to say without his bosses there, to actually talk to him. We've been talking about his people for days.
The director tells us that this man's village is not like the other, more famous, village of these people. People from this village are open to new ideas. They will intermarry with the lowland people. The people from the other village they just... and he moves his hands as if encircling, drawing in and closing the village off. As if the village had the power to draw up a forcefield and zoom off up to the stream sources, the road flickering hopelessly after. As if they could. "They do not want to open their minds," the director says.
I think, while trying not to, how different the director looks from the man who is toasting us, the forest guard. The director's skin is closer to mine in tone, if not hue, than to the guard’s. His hair lies flat over his scalp while the guard's sticks up bristling. The guard's lips are thick and chiseled-looking, his body is wiry and his eyes very dark. This sounds like racist talk and yet the guard's people are an offshoot of the director's people who are the Vietnamese majority. It's nothing in his genes that I can see but the trace of the life he has lived. Yet that life was determined by his ethnicity. His people left the lowlands and went to the forests and now it seems the lowlands want them back. They have to open their minds.
Well it's uncomfortable but it's also interesting. After all, in Vietnam, everyone learns this quaint 1930s style idea of social evolution, very different from the tragic evolutionary stories I learned in my Oxford education. Vietnamese people think society progresses through stages. Even if they genuinely want to show respect for the knowledge of 'ethnic minority' people, they can only do so within a framework which starts out as thinking of them as backward and in need of help. Some are more backward, less cooperative, than others. Vietnamese people were all taught this in school as part of the 'Marxist Leninist' education system and they all had to learn everything by rote. No wonder they rank societies along a ladder of progress. But they will eventually abandon these ideas as our society did and...
I may be out of my depth.
Still, the alcohol dulls the angst. I tell the guard that his boss called him a hero, and accept the toast. We drink a few more together and leave with a plan to have coffee in the morning and talk more. I’m looking forward to it. What’s come over me?
I dream of the forest. It's a place where a small stream flows out into a larger one, over a grey pebbled beach. It's a perfectly real Annamites forest which, now I think about it, is odd because I don't normally dream about these forests so accurately and yet, while I'm nearby, I'm not in them yet. The limestone hills with their clustering pandans and the botanic garden with its specimen timber trees are nothing like the forests behind. Anyway I'm clearly on a field trip and some of the guys rush back down the smaller stream and say that the park director has been eaten by a tiger.
In the dream I feel horror but also wonder: there are still tigers in the park?
The next day I wake up with a suspicious cough and a feeling which I know is not a hangover. I don’t want to come for breakfast but instead ask for a covid test. It's positive. I spend two days in the little guest house on the bed. I barely go outside. There are shadows of palm leaves on the windows. The long sad sawing notes of the gibbon in the cage in the rescue centre every morning. The far less melodious efforts of the tailorbird chugging just outside. I lie there and listen to stupid podcasts. I am absolutely useless when I'm sick. What will I be like when I'm old, I wonder.
On the Sunday night I have another dream. I'm in Warwick, where my grandmother used to live. We are at some kind of craft event. I leave my family in the entrance hall and go off to the table where they're making pizza. One of the ingredients on the table is a fancy black supermarket packet. Tesco Finest, it looks like, though it says 'Marks and Spencer's' It's contains tiger meat. Two red lumps of mince meat from two young tigers.
I gape stupidly at the dreams, wondering what to do with them. I still have no idea.
On Monday we drive back to Vinh with the windows open and I've been stuck in this hotel room since, still listening to stupid podcasts.
Today the wind changed.