Wednesday, February 20, 2013

Bach Ma at Peace

We entered Vietnam on the edge of a monsoon at the end of a calendar year. Some days are bleak but dry; others see rain that beats down hard the whole day and night. Our clothes stay damp. The pillow and bed sheets are damp. The sun that I need to clear up the congestion in my lungs doesn't appear and now my husband has a cold too. As the sky turns purple once more, I know it’s going to be a lousy day for bird watching.

Our over night field trip to an old hill station called Bach Ma is pre-arranged and we can’t cancel it. This will be a wet one.

Bach Ma is a national park located half way down the crooked finger of a country that is Vietnam. It's a forested mountain and protected area that butts up against Laos. Only two hours by car outside of the ancient imperial capital Hue, forty years ago, someone would tell you that Bach Ma was located south of the demilitarized zone.

Our ornithologist, Mr. Minh greets us warmly. In spite of the rain and the unlikely prospect of seeing many birds, he insists we trek up the mountain during which he entertains us with his life history.

Minh was university educated in Czechoslovakia. On scholarship there, he was homesick and isolated over several winters, slipping on snow he'd never seen before, and wearing Vietnamese-made leather soled shoes that quickly fell apart. Understanding that we were on the cusp of our new year in a foreign land, he told us about his own memorable new year’s experience in Czechoslovakia

It was the Tet New Year and to celebrate, he lit some homemade firecrackers inside his boarding house. Not surprisingly, the explosives set off a heated argument in the neighbourhood. On one side, his landlady, the neighbours, and the local fire department; on his side, nobody. He narrowly avoided being thrown out on the street but for his fine manners and good judgement 364 days of the year.

He told us too about his part recently in an Australian research project documenting the history of colonial Bach Ma. His role in Dr. Fife's study was to ferret out the local elderly to record their memories. Too often though, they were not cooperating, dying before he could interview them.

It rained sideways. We walked more than twelve kilometres over an afternoon and the following morning. Minh continued his stories, now about the history of Bach Ma, interrupting only to draw Dan’s attention to a bird. Over three days, the bird count will total 35 in spite of the rain. Dan is delighted.  For my part, I walk and listen, taking notes about the mountain as best I can under a borrowed hooded motorcycle poncho that drapes to my ankles. It had a built-in "window" of clear plastic through which I could view my moving pen.

I was reasonably comfortable in my portable tent and confident that the anti-leech socks that Minh lent us would protect me from losing a bucket of blood to those awful creatures. Minh is an advocate of leech protection. He recounted, matter-of-factly, how he had to pull a leech off his penis one time on an overnight campout on the mountain. His girlfriend was just as unlucky but he didn't continue the story.

Bach Ma was a hill station built by French colonists in the 1930s. That’s comparatively late for many hill stations across South Asia since the idea of a seasonal home in the mountains developed in former English colonies more than a century earlier. Most were built around a sanatorium where homesick foreigners could recuperate from fatigue and life-threatening tropical illnesses. Later they evolved into small towns, architecturally similar to home. Ex-pats surrounded themselves with clubs, libraries, churches, and recreational facilities built in the architectural styles of Europe. Many hill stations remain today, some a lot worse for wear since they have overseen political upheavals, and new landlords. Others, like Bach Ma, were destroyed beyond repair, unable to side step being on the front line of war.

The most famous hill station surviving in Vietnam is called Dalat, and that town was conveniently protected by agreement between Hanoi and Saigon not to bomb it during the war. It remains well preserved and adapting to a new generation, enriched by the new economy of their post-war world. Providing refuge for a growing middle class, Vietnamese of means are not fleeing tropical heat nor pestilence today; now they are fleeing choking, exhaust-filled cities.

On Bach Ma, we walk the same cobbled path as had Vietnamese bearers eighty years ago when they transported French officials and their families in litters to the mountain retreat. Earning what Minh calculated were three Indochina pennies for a day's labour, one of these labourers could then buy about five kilos of rice for his family. It was a good living; an even better one for the colonist.

We walk by the hard rock foundation stones of villa after villa, all that’s left after what's called the American War. We stopped at one fully intact structure, recently restored as a guesthouse for naturalists and students who now come to Bach Ma in peace time.   While the building had been pasted back together, the pool, a gazebo, and the tennis court lay abandoned in the sunken terraces off the road, overgrown and cracked. Other houses, beyond restoration, show bullet-pocked foundation stones jutting up from piles of dead leaves, like grave stones. Here is a place where man has retreated, and nature is reclaiming its own.

Minh identifies a screaming red-wiskered bulbill.

At its height, there were more than 130 structures on Bach Ma. Ironically, the village’s destruction is perhaps the mountain’s best protection in peace time. The mountain was left alone and then designated a national park in 1991. As a park and not a hill station, Bach Ma is protected from modern developers who are changing the environment of other hill stations, like Dalat, by bringing in timeshares, condos, arcades, shopping centres and karaoke.

Bach Ma was pulled into the war because the plateau at the top was used by an American helicopter launch and observation post. The view over the agricultural basin extends to the sea and Bach Ma was therefore of strategic value. But with the misty rain and fog, I had trouble seeing my own hand scribbling notes. The commanding view was lost on me.

Although the Viet Cong could not hide in the villas, they continued to be a threat to the plateau. Minh shows us the entrance to a complicated tunnel system with five exits in which Viet Cong fighters lived and observed. For three years, both sides were stalemated here. Neither mounted an attack against each other. The Americans could hear voices in the bowels of the mountain, and although they knew the location of at least a few of the entrances, they would not blow them up for fear of damaging their own helicopter base. The Viet Cong on their part would not compromise the system of tunnels by coming out to sabotage the base.

A silver pheasant crosses the road ahead.

At one turn of the slithering path, the outline of a staircase makes Dan curious. Like Alice peering into the rabbit hole, he can’t resist entering.  Together we push away the vines and climb the jagged, broken stones and stand before the facade of a stone church. Two of the balustrades, pitted with bullet holes, remain, and an entrance set of stairs leads to a doorway with nothing beyond.  Before our eyes, the jungle is arm-wrestling the standing pieces into the ground. Although the destruction is fresh -a mere half century in an archaeological calendar - it had the same quality of an ancient ruin. But unlike the ruins of, say, ancient Khmer, these ghosts seem to me still fleshy. You can smell them. This quiet place is not on the map for war-relic tourism, yet in the late afternoon twilight, the uninterrupted misty rain, the woodsy scent of jungle rot, I had a powerful sense of Imperialist Europe's Indochina and its decline. Especially it's decline.

A black-throated laughing thrush squeals somewhere deep in the woods.

It's time to turn back. It's nearly dark.

Three kilometres later, we arrive at the stone building which was once a police station and now the park's entrance hall and restaurant. It's deserted except for a few staff, assembled to support our stay in the empty old chateau across the path. Once we pick off the leeches that have stowawayed into the folds of our socks, it's time to retire. As we head off into the dark, Minh tells us that this is the place where he saw a tiger grab a chicken the previous year, right here on the driveway at about this time of night, just when we are crossing it to our room. Minh is so droll.

I am carrying seven blankets to our room under my portable tent. It's still raining. Our room has a fireplace but it doesn’t work. There are twelve-foot ceilings, a gigantic half moon window with shutters, and no furnishing except two metal-legged beds with naked mattresses. I will wrap one of the blankets around the mattress for a base and use the others on top.

Dan and I bury ourselves under the blankets. We are so tired. We forget to wish each other happy new year before falling into deep sleep. In the silence of these first hours, Bach Ma is at peace.