While jogging on a narrow road between rice paddies in Nghi Loc District, roughly 10 kilometers away from Vinh City, I noticed the simultaneous existence of traditional and modern ways of harvesting rice that are almost indifferent to each other’s presence. To my right was a giant harvesting machine operated by one man that cut the stems and separated the grains from the stalks in no time. To my left were two women, perhaps mother and daughter working on their narrow piece of land, cutting the stalks of their rice plants using sickles, a low-tech device that is proudly depicted along with a hammer (albeit both in golden hue) on flags that hung on every street in this Vietnamese countryside. This permutation of the communist party emblem alternated with the national flag, both utilizing the same intense red fabric that maintains its fastness despite the killer summer sun.
Yesterday, while in the middle of lunch, I heard a very loud pealing of bells. There was a commotion outside, and everyone in the village seemed to have congregated in front of the church carrying their rakes and metal dustpans. The people were scurrying to put their rice back into their sacks because of an impending heavy rain. Low-lying cumulonimbus clouds lent the sky a foreboding feel, signaling the start of the monsoon, finally concluding this dry spell which according to the villagers began sometime in February. The initial droplets of rain were very big, but the droplets of sweat falling from my forehead were much bigger as I saw myself joining the chorus of village people raking in the sufficiently dried rice grains.
We gathered the grains in mounds then scooped them as quickly as we could into the waiting sacks held by two people each, then those with substantial musculature (I stand out in the village because of my height and sheer mass; Vietnamese men on average are short and lean) carried them outside the door of the church away from the reach of destructive rain water that would render their much cared for rice unfit for human consumption.
This supposed display of altruism is a performance one would not find out of place in rural Philippines. Neighbors will help each other whether they liked it or not because they will have no one to run to but each other in events of not infrequent calamities that strike the countryside, away from the center where governments have much bigger influence on the conduct of people’s lives.
Except for occasional billboard announcements on controlling the size of family and extolling the virtues of having two children, the government is nearly invisible here. Of course one sees the national flag and the communist party’s, but like in other Third World countries, there is a certain proportionality to the reach of the government and the distance of the place from the economic and political centers of a country. Hanoi is 300 kilometers away; Ho Chi Minh City is roughly four times as far.
A farmer here is subject to the contingencies of the weather and relationships he has built with people around. One cannot have existentialist contemplations here (these thoughts require a degree of disinterest in the lives of others and demand putting the self in the center of one’s universe). One can’t be poor, with wife and children, and detached from everyone here all at the same time. Having nosey neighbors is a fact one has to contend with if he wants to continue existing.
And so we gathered all the sacks of rice, each color-coded so everyone knows which sack belongs to whom. It took the entire village less than 30 minutes to finish the task, each smiling contentedly, happy he’s served his neighbors.
I was happy knowing I could go back to having my lunch.