For the first five weeks I knew Ms Nguyet we spoke in echoes.


“Thang”

“Thang”

“Nam nay”

“Nam nay”

“Nam toi”

“Nam toi”

I watched her mouth twist, and strained to imitate. On the sixth week, she broke into English.

“I think next time I go to my village you will come visit my or childs.”

“Or childs?” I repeated.

“Yes. I have many or childs. Very beautiful flowers — rat rat dep!”

Finally, her meaning became clear — Ms Nguyet was not only a Vietnamese teacher, she was also a highland flower farmer.

August ended, and I boarded a night bus bound for Moc Chau, in Son La Province. During the national holiday weekend, Moc Chau holds its annual Love Market that attracts tens of thousands to the otherwise quiet — albeit diverse — town.

Moc Chau's plateau supports a diverse range of horticulture: from vandopsis parishii to cattleya to white snow orchids. The land is also at the interface of seven ethnic minorities, with the majority of people belonging to the Hmong and Thai groups. Besides a unique climate for plant life, the region is positioned perfectly for cultural exchange among these communities.

That night I stayed with another hospitable Vietnamese teacher, Ms Tra. In the morning, I wandered with hordes of Hmong women to the town’s stadium. Imagine the lovechild of a dusty rodeo and a Hanoian street, complete with pho stands and kem carts, along with a few thousand people in traditional dress and a crossbow competition. It was kind of like that.

There were tents dedicated to corn, tea and textiles. A large shadowy market sold everything from suits to peanut candy to kitchenware. Black false teeth were exhibited on a table of dental supplies. I bought a Japanese coffee thermos before finding out only one place in town sold coffee. I gulped some down with a hard-boiled egg. Then I met my travel partner back at our host’s home.

By then it was noon. We got on a motorcycle and headed to the countryside. Twenty minutes outside Moc Chau, a village floated in an ocean of rice paddies, hugged by the motherly mountains that characterise Moc Chau’s landscape. I resorted to my Vietnamese verbal arsenal of “corn”, “rice”, and “ice cream.” We talked to villagers, again in echoes.

“ Corn.”

“ Yes, corn.”

“ Rice.”

“ Yes, rice.”

“ Ice cream?”

“ Five thousand VND.”

The next morning we found Ms Nguyet in her stadium tent selling orchids. Within minutes we were driving away from town along an evaporating stream to her farm. At the property, we followed her through a bonsai forest, past strawberry crops, fruit trees, the farm altar and several dogs. Finally, we came across hundreds of hanging plants — roots tangling towards the ground, stems reaching out, wanting to bud, they looked like botanical jellyfish. Nearby, a lawn of ground orchids stretched for dozens of meters, destined to flower in April.

After the tour, Nguyet handed us off to her friend’s two daughters. The elder sister was enrolled in a hotel management school in Hanoi and spoke almost perfect English. During the afternoon, she explained that she and many classmates were unsure whether they would return to Moc Chau after graduation.

The sisters took us to a lake filled with swan boats, encircled by food tents. After lunch we went to see the enormous quadruple waterfall and the region’s renowned tea fields. I wondered about the orchid farm’s future. I thought about our guide’s generation, who straddle the duality of a rural life alongside hopes for a more urban existence. What will Moc Chau be like in a decade?

At dusk we returned to the Love Market. The streets swarmed with people. The stadium could have been Time Square on New Years Eve. At midnight, a long weekend ended the way all weekends should — with twenty minutes of dazzling fireworks.

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