It was the idea of getting close to a water buffalo that drew me out of my luxurious room at the Life Resort in Hoi An. Before breakfast, I set out alone, determined to make my way into the countryside to find some live animals.
I exited the hotel through a flimsy back fence that opened to the river and turned away from town. Soon I was walking through a residential area, where many yards held chickens, ducks and geese. Women were out sweeping the bare dirt yards, and men were painting to spruce up their houses for Tet. The narrow houses here often have a wide multi-paneled door in the façade that allows them to fling the whole wall open to the yard. Inside, furnishings were sparse: a few low chairs, an altar for the ancestors, some pots or a stack of blankets.
I ran out of pavement and followed a dirt path between houses to open fields of rice and corn. Quite a few people were working in the fields; most wore the traditional conical straw hats common to the Vietnamese countryside. A couple of hundred yards away, a glossy black water buffalo pulled a wooden plow through wet ground.
When the buffalo sighted me, he refused to budge. I couldn’t imagine how he intuited my interest in him from that distance. The farmer behind the plow yelled and shoved hard at the beast’s hindquarters to get him moving again.
I walked out into the rice paddies, tracing along the narrow dirt paths between sections, threading my way closer to the work animals. A man and boy approached from the other way, leading a small brown cow and her calf. They turned onto a narrow field path. I followed them from a distance.
Soon the boy slowed down so I could catch up with him. He was about 7 or 8, very friendly, although his primary English sentence seemed to be, “How are you?” Pointing to himself, he indicated that his name was Cao.
“Sheila,” I said back, pronouncing my name Shay-la, the way it’s easiest to say in many other languages.
Cao took my arm and pulled me over to the edge of a bayou.
“Fiss!” he said, pointing to the white water birds flying by. I wasn’t sure if he thought the English word for bird was fish, or if he was speaking Vietnamese, but it didn’t matter.
“Fiss!” I echoed heartily.
There were quite a few flocks of fiss; we tracked each group as it swooped down the waterway.
Now he cautioned me to be silent. Cao leading, we sneaked up to a bush occupied by several little brown birds. He whistled to them in an avian language. They turned their heads and sat still as he moved towards them, but when he reached out to capture one, a quick flurrrr of wings marked the bird’s escape. Disappointed that he’d missed the bird, Cao picked a small purple flower and handed it to me.
Eventually we caught up with Cao’s dad, who had driven the cow into a small pasture with a grey Brahman bull. The cow was there to be serviced by the bull, who took to his task with enthusiasm. I’d never seen a bull pizzle before; it was bright pink.
Cao and I moved on. Every time we came near someone working in the fields, they spoke to him, surely asking what he was doing with this big American woman trailing behind. We balanced on narrow ridges of dried dirt and grass; Cao leapt from spot to spot, but I watched my feet and moved slowly.
Too soon, it was time for me to get back to town to rejoin my friends. Reluctantly, I told Cao goodbye. I bowed to him and formally presented 60.ooo dong — about $3 – holding the bills in both hands. “For Tet,” I said, wishing I had a red and gold Tet envelope to put the gift in. Cao returned my bow, touched my hand and scampered away.