No. 2 – Company

My friend, an anthropologist, the one who had the dream about the snow leopard, is taken by her partner to see a documentary which turns out to be about snow leopards too. She sends me the trailer and I watch it in my Vinh hotel room. Kiang, gazelle, Pallas’ cat: great beings of the plateau are moving in the delicacy of their own particular mornings over the auburn land. The last frame shows the perfect curl of a tail from the dark as the film-makers call out their excitement and joy and finally affirm that all their sacrifices have been worth it for that view. “Literally amazing,” my friend says and I grumble cattily that it’s “so horribly nothing like my life.”

What do I see on my field trip? Well, there’s the forest guard who invited us to his house at the dinner in the park HQ. The food was good and the wine plentiful. He sat there with his crisp-shirt and smile, holding forth with bright humour under the smoke-blackened thatch. There was a tin tray holding bamboo shoots and a bowl of black gobbets of lemongrass possible-dog. He talks about the kind of project he doesn’t want to see; the kind that just buys people cows and fucks off. Then the cows die when people have to spend their days foraging or head off to the city for work. We all laugh about it, but his wife, after a while, sits on a stool by the hearth till the men have stopped talking, resting her lined face on one hand. And then grandpa comes in to see the tiny baby and it’s all smiles again.

The head of the next village, the big man who slumps in his pearl-patterned sofa and won’t even offer us tea. “Those people,” he says, “do not know how to save.” The young men all go to the city now: factory jobs or construction. His son, however, arms folded and a thick chain round his neck, sits very straight on the next chair and fields our questions. The projects should buy them more cows. Out in the dirt lane, a slender old lady with a grim face drives a family of buffalo; whatever nests between her eyebrows has more force than the switch in her hand.

The kid with red hair and scrunched up face lies dead to the world on a mat. He can’t find a woman and, from the way he talks, drunk, to those on our team, it’s hard to believe that he will. His handsome big brother is married but he himself, he says sheepishly, was visiting girls when we called. I’m afraid I believe that he paid them. I’m afraid that, when I think of his future, I tell myself “Motorbike accident is kinder than liver disease.” He lights up goofily when H says she likes his red hair.

And old Mrs Lan, “Mrs Orchid,” in the homestay, panicking over her first ever guests: surely they’d like to try on the Thai costumes now? Now? Have we eaten enough? (We are stuffed.) Perhaps I’d like twelve hard-boiled eggs?

The old man with one arm in his orchid garden telling us how to act respectful to elephants.

The four-year-old going to school in a green policeman’s uniform and aiming a catapult at a bulbul in a mango tree.

The girl in the noodle-shop that I mentioned in a letter on Substack, with her Singapore training and worried young son and the middle-aged men who jeer and who smile when I won’t do to her what their hand gestures say I should do.

The tiny girl in pink, a granddaughter of one of them, running round and round and round the clutch of us, all sozzled and moaning into the microphone on the preceding night. Me not understanding a word that I ‘sing’ and her laughing and laughing and running as she laughs.

The middle-aged mother, in floods of tears, before the altar that holds the pictures of two of her three grown children, talking to the one I knew – the man my age who was lost in an accident just a month or so ago. I remember him as amiable, round-faced and slightly bewildered, but on the altar, he’s stiff-lipped and proud. His father, with his good-humoured smoker’s face which tries and fails to wrinkle itself into words after his stroke. And his 12-year old daughter, addressing me in English with a sudden and shocking intelligence.

It’s a crash course in humanity, this country, and the countryside especially. It’s like the circuit boards are exposed. I tell my wife about it on the phone and she says, ‘You never used to talk about this stuff.’ I say, honestly, that back then I wasn’t interested.

And now I am. Maybe I finally no longer need to be ashamed when I talk to anthropologists.

“What does the forest think about your project?” another anthropologist asks me in the Long Table forum. Life isn’t fair. Anthropologists are seeing agency everywhere now, so what can I preach to them after hours in the privacy of my skull? The fact is, I think, that the forest and I aren’t really talking.

For the second time, we failed to get on that road up the hill. The first time I got Covid but, even before that, we hadn’t got the right papers from the police and this made things difficult for the park director, so I told him not to worry. We didn’t really need to go there. I could see he was relieved and so was I because I hate being the difficult foreigner. This time it’s the park director himself we’ve forgotten to ask and so the border army say they can’t let us in. Either time, if it were a big deal, if it were important for our work then we’d make it work somehow, or we’d have the right papers to start with. But the justification in terms of the project is slender; I just want to get out there. I want to spotlight at night on the road, clamber over the black boulders searching for stripey rabbits. Wake up to the calling of gibbons. Hope for a hornbill in the mist. Is it really true what they’re saying, that since the patrols started you can see animals on the road?

The first night in the village I set up my hammock between a longan and a jackfruit tree in the garden of the ranger station. Why not? No lights and no music; the trees are dark and I dream. I dream that a colleague from the saola conservation world hands me a wooden box. It’s about 20cm square, with a removable lid; not fancy but neatly made. I’m told that what’s inside might just possibly be a new species, or something as remarkable as that. The chance is small but it’s there. When I open it, I find I have been given a slice from the snout of a young wild pig. It’s a typical piece of Vietnamese butchery, made by two strokes of the cleaver, transverse to internal structure. The skin, the bone, the lining of the buccal cavity form rings, but the hair has not been burnt off the outside. In fact the little brown eye is open (it only has one eye because the slice was diagonal) and it still looks alive. And then, with no throat, it starts squealing, constant and pitiful: “mẹ, mẹ, mẹ,” which is ‘mother’ in Vietnamese.

See, this kind of thing is why we’re not talking.

But the next night I have a just beautiful dream; the kind that’s a balm. Wandering through parks that I suddenly find exist along a river that’s both the Hương and the Avon. Great boars and moon bears appear to my delight among the willows. It’s one of those landscapes that seems to reach out, suggesting a connection with other dreams half-remembered. Many people have them: certain houses and vistas and woods which connect.

I have a friend who has an entire dream planet because he’s travelled the world so much and seen so many animals that he’s peopled another Earth with its own versions of the Amazon, the Antarctic, the outback and the tundra. He drew a map of it on Facebook. I seem to remember that there was a place, somewhere in the Indian Ocean which was an urban Kafkascape of travel agencies, bus stations and government offices where you fill in forms, hand over cash and make plans but can never quite leave for the forest. He is someone who pursues his own passion with splendid bravery; the kind of person you end up comparing yourself to. It occurred to me yesterday morning I might literally live in his nightmare.

Vietnam can seem like that. The state control of travellers, the buildings along all the roads, the acid that’s eaten the forest. You can’t just go and walk in a wood. You just can’t. I have a distinct memory from the old days in Hanoi of seeking solace on the water. The city has few parks but it does have lakes and the big one in the northwest had swan-shaped pedalos on it. Well I could take a swan boat right out into the open water, couldn’t I? Into the water which moves continually in the same direction but never goes anywhere. Which is silver, green and black at the same time and advertises nothing. Which is not interested in the colour of my face but only in the colour of the sky. I gave it all the welly that the kneespace would allow and headed straight for the horizon. Of course a guy with a whistle whizzed past in a speedboat as soon as I got to the edge of the flock and I had to turn my swan back inward so everyone could peer in and try and attract my attention. “Hullo!” “Hullo!” “Hullo!” They do it for the same reason people tap on fishtanks. That’s what the Lonely Planet used to say.

But I’m making excuses again. Sunday, May Day, is wet. The little hill is wet. Where the path dips by the red signs something large bounces once on its legs and flaps off through the understorey. I can tell what it was from the bounce and am joyful but not quite as much as I feel that I should be. In the afternoon I go back with umbrella, waterproof trousers and tarp. I push through a brambly something, find a nest in soft pine needles where no-one can come. It isn’t that hard. I tell a story to the black pines, or I try to, but I can’t make it work. So much was irrelevant to finding the saola. I don’t know the paths through this story. I don’t know the names of the weeds.

But to get to the point where I’d even go out, I had to spend Saturday collapsed in my hotel room, listening again to stupid podcasts though I’m not really sick. I refuse to see anyone and I eat melted-together sweets from a bag in the fridge. Or maybe for me to get to that point the sky had to break. For a blessed couple of days the heat is gone and the headache with it and there’s a wind in the streets. Why was all that necessary? What was it that I didn’t want to do?

The third night in the field the dreams got more complicated and I couldn’t hack it. The dreams were like company, like people. I had enough to do with people! I had to get the kids doing interviews, enter data in maps. Had to keep my head through the alcohol clouds and work out how to ask intelligent questions about rabbits.

I think I didn’t want to negotiate. That’s what nature is. The place you don’t have to negotiate.

On Friday I’d still been trying to get work done.

On Thursday, I’d been handed a box…