Inside Trip: Vietnam 1
There’s a new trend in fitness and wellness education that insists to be lean and happy, you need to understand how primal societies operated, in essences an anthropologically-based plan for diet and exercise. Primal eating plans, barefoot running, the ascension of Vitamin D for healthy lifestyles are just a few examples of anthropologically rooted sciences supporting a new way of living in the 21st century. Books like Christopher McDougall’s Born to Run have created narratives for inspecting the roots of sport on human development and questioning what within modern life is important and what’s frivolous. When it comes to being hip, all that’s old is new again.
The American wrestling community has long considered its sport the world’s most natural, organic (read: it’s most vital). Put two toddlers in a crib and their first instinct isn’t to blow up a ball and build equal size nets 100 meters apart; it’s to lock up and grapple. The babies have fun, establish a social hierarchy and sharpen their endurance, balance and toughness (essential for the barefoot hunting). Does the wrestling community have it right? Does wrestling deserve an elevated role in modern society? Should the Think Primal community consider the role of wrestling on personal health, fitness and culture? How much of any culture’s development can be traced to its relationship with wrestling?
I don’t know the answers and while starting my research into them I had to ship off to Vietnam as part of a month-long adventure vacation with some high school buddies. But asking these questions about wrestling’s role in the primal discussion got me thinking about what I might find in Vietnam. I decided to start small: Does Vietnam have a tradition of wrestling?
The Vietnamese government claimed the nation enjoyed a strong wrestling tradition and pointed to Lieu Doi, a small village in north Vietnam, as the country’s center for the all things “vo vat” the Vietnamese name for their traditional form of wrestling. I was pleased to see the beginnings of a story and so I decided to test the voracity of their claim, and to either gain traction or lose interest in the idea of wrestling-based anthropological research.
Thoang and I searched the Internet so he could understand what the hell it was I was keeping on about. After three days of travel from LA-Hanoi-Nam Dinh l’d ended up at a Catholic church in Lieu De talking with Thoang, a priest understudy, and the father of the church, who was serving me hot tea and cold beer. Lieu De, I was explained after arriving at the church, is a lovely town with many monuments and shops, a great place to visit. However, what I was looking for was Lieu Dei — the previous day’s navigators failing to accommodate for my subtle mispronunciation of a Vietnamese. It seems that Lieu Doi (pron: Lou-eh-Doy!) and Lieu De (pron: Lou-eh-Day!) are separated by one vowel and more than 120km — hence my guzzling grog beneath a shrink-wrapped statue of the Virgin Mary.
“Oh, Vo Vat,” Thoang finally exclaimed. “You fight Vo Vat,” I explained that I did and that I was there to see the Vietnamese people scrap it out. He grabbed my arms how he thought a wrestler might and began to chuckle. “Would a foot sweep be in bad taste?” I restrained myself and after some map-searching Thoang produced bus numbers and a translated outline of my project so as to quicken the delivery of my projects goals, which were simplistic: Find Lieu Doi and inspect its wrestling tradition. The day was getting long and I still had a three-hour bus ride to the next big city, surrounded by farmers and, oddly enough for a Communist country, a burgeoning homosexual community. I kicked off my shoes and bit into a dragon fruit.
When I imagined Lieu Doi it looked a lot like the halls of Central Dauphin high school with herds of big-backed, cauliflower-eared teens. In reality I had the suspicion that the Vietnamese state had just promoted the wrestling program and annual Lieu Doi Wrestling festival as a piece of propaganda, the truth being known that the Vietnamese are not a presence on the Asian or International wrestling scene. Google “Vietnamese wrestling videos” and you get a blue singlet getting lifted, tossed and otherwise maimed by a Japanese opponent.
I was thrown from the moving bus in Phu Ly, Ha Nam, a small industrial city 50k south of Hanoi. I set out to find a hotel for the night and a caf� to enjoy a late lunch of pork pho. I needed a taxi willing to explore the Vietnamese countryside. All this without a workable word of Vietnamese.
I tried to order extra pork for my pho but was struggling more than Tom Brands in formal wear. Finally the shop’s proprietor called into the restaurant and an attractive 20-year-old girl, Van (pronounced: Von) introduced herself in perfect Miley Cyrus english. She got me the extra plate of pork I’d been requesting and read my letter from Thoang to her father. “Yes” he said. “I’ve heard of the festival.” I asked for directions and through Von he said, “There are two Lieu Doi’s: One has many wrestlers, one doesn’t. Which one, I don’t know.”
The villages were 20 km in opposite directions. I chose south, hailed a taxi, and set off to find the last wrestling village in Vietnam. That is of course, if I guessed right. I spoke no English so I just kept repeating the name in three syllables 1:Lou 2: swallowed “eh” 3: Hard and rising: “DOY!”
My cab driver, an intellectual lightweight in any country, refused to speak to me in anything other than really fast Vietnamese, so I repeated the one phrase I was sure to never mispronounce again.
Gibberish from the dolt.
He takes a right.
After a few minutes listening to me yell, the Dolt adopts my style with villagers on bicycles and shop owners squatting by baskets of fruits and fresh cut meat, “Lou- Eh-Doy!?” he’d scream, and they’d wave their hands to go that way. Dolt would drive another forty feet and ask again. “Lou-eh-Doy!” he screamed again, and again he’d be sent in the same direction. It was Groundhog Day in Northern Vietnam and I was ready to grab the toaster.
We finally took a hard left onto an elevated embankment used by motorbikes, our wheels just barely fitting atop the road. We’re now in the middle of a rice paddy, green to the right, more to the left. When we find Lieu Doi it’s the length of a short par four with one dirt trail the middle. Kids are playing with sticks, chasing each other and, like their father’s in town, just squatting and chatting. Then I see one teenager with bowed legs and the cocky stride you get after elevating a person above your head, spinning him 180 degrees on his north-south axis and releasing him onto his dome.
I sprung from the taxi and handed my letter to a group of boys lounging in hammocks. They laugh and exchange awkward glances with each other. At first I thought that Thoang had added a Vietnamese joke, but when I realize he’s studying to be a priest I begin to wonder if I’m just in the wrong village or possibly just wrong about Lieu Doi and vo vat.
I walk another fifty feet and cross an earthen bridge to a group of older men spreading gravel outside an old open-roomed school house. The first two men laugh like the boys, an attempt to disassociate from the moment. The third reads the letter carefully and points around the school house to the entryway of a 200×100 head high cement wall. As I walk towards the entry way I can see that the middle of poorly maintained grass lot is a 30-meter-wide earthen circle. A red sign, in Vietnamese (later translated) hovers above, reading “Wrestling Arena, Liue Doi” the other side, “Strong for the growth and protection of the country.”
I’m immediately swarmed by kids. Ten, twenty, thirty, like ants to a watermelon the strapped little fellas drew close and pawed at me. The mightiest of the bunch is a 150 pound shy teenager, the one I’d seen on the road. After some cajoling from his buddies he grabs a leopard print tee shirt from a much smaller kid and walks to the center of the arena. He’s lean but strong with workman’s hands. He breaks down into a stance is a little wider than shoulder width and his hands dropped straight down in front; the kid’s all defense.
Lieu Doi may or may not be the Atlantis of Asian wrestling, but out in the sun, one 30m circle among the rice paddies and various day jobs, provides these kids a chance to scrap — kids like the one trying to hit a snatch single on my lead leg. Big time competitors like Jake Herbert didn’t just wrestle in youth tournaments their entire life, that’s not enough to place on the world stage. Jake and his ilk were home the other weekends laying brick and building houses for dads like Jim Herbert. And it was evident to me that somewhere in this village this kid had a Jim Herbert.
He hits the snatch single. I got lazy with my lead leg and he’s in deep and looking to finish. I whizzer and lay all my extra weight into his shoulder thankful for the extra serving of pork. He’s certainly not polished but he fights for the finish and good head position. I bat his head a little, fake a front head and look for a snatch single of my own, only to be rejected. All defense.
We roll a few more minutes but end our session when the sky begins its thunderous applause and ushers us out of the arena. We ran to the exit and my new buddy walked me to the taxi, a big ass grin on his face.
I left the arena wanting more answers. Where did he learn to wrestle? Are there more wrestlers in town? What’s the deal with the festival? I don’t even know what rules he’s using. Plenty to ponder, but I’d answered my first question and found wrestling in Lieu Doi, Vietnam.