Inside Trip: Vietnam 2
In a perfect wrestling world, cultures would still achieve oral and written tradition alongside the physical, the passing along of local wrestling techniques, rules and ceremony are excellent examples of cultural identifiers. Sumo is different than Kushti is different than Scholastic and each of the variables reflects priorities and provides information about local values. Yesterday I’d discovered that someone in Lieu Doi was passing these traditions to members of his small village. But who?
I was at the pho shop at 10 a.m., I’d need a translator and the only person I knew in Phu Ly (the closest town with accommodations) was Van and her high-pitched Hollywood English. She was sitting in the back of her family’s open air restaurant watching the Mark Wahlberg/M. Night Shamalan collaboration, The Happening. I asked her about translating for the day and she said, “No problem, I tell my father and we can go at 1 p.m. … I’ll take you at the coffee shop.”
Van guided me through the back alleys of the neighborhood where kids were playing beneath red flags emblazoned with the hammer and sickle. Some were kicking the soccer ball, while others were crouched over shooting marbles.
Van chose me a seat at the coffee shop, ordered me a ca phe and mango shake. The caf� smelled enough like pork and coffee to remind me of morning, but not enough for me to want to order their bacon. “I come back at 1:15,” she said. “Then go to Lieu Doi.”
She was back in 10 minutes. “I cannot go with you to Lieu Doi because my father said it is not OK.” She then reached in her bag and presented me with an egg shell white ceramic wind chime in the image of a pagoda, the sides hand painted with flowers and Vietnamese lettering. She apologized effusively and made a quick exit — ever so sorry that she’d disappointed me. I did my best to allay her guilt and told her I’d be fine on my own. “No big deal, I’m sure your father is just worried.” Was I the evil American in some Vietnamese after-school special about stranger danger, only specifically about bulky white Americans?
The news ruined my plans to visit Lieu Doi.
I stayed on the computer to catch up on e-mails and enjoyed six more mango shakes and two more cold ca phes. The plan was to catch a bus to Hanoi by 5 p.m. … and rent a room and sleep before my early morning flight to Ho Chi Minh. Without a translator I’d learn nothing in Lieu Doi. I paid my bill and unplugged the computer.
As I did, a 10-year-old girl bedazzled in Hello Kitty gear appeared staring nervously. “For you. stay,” she said before disappearing in the David Copperfield manner in which she arrived.
Dear Mr. Timothy, Would you please wait me in Bom’s Cafe till 1h 30 pm? I and my little sister will come there and we will go to Lieu Doi village, oki? Best wishes, Van
Van showed up on time and we hailed a taxi. Her sister, a diminutive 15-year-old with a strong aversion to spoken communication, sat in the backseat as I hopped up front with a cigarette guzzling cabbie with dark sunken eyes. We exchanged names, his was “Mikey” and though I repeated “Timothy” several times, we all settled on “Pimchee.”
Mikey called his boss as flummoxed as the Dolt about where exactly he might find Lieu Doi. Once we hit the main street, I told Van that I remembered the way. After six or seven turns on dirt paths marked by puddles, hay barrels, and one blue moped, Mikey complimented my sense of direction. I felt the need to clarify, “My father was a Marine, as were both my grandfathers. Soldiers, you know. Bang bang.” Van’s interpretation was met with a grim silence and the enormity of my idiocy becomes apparent. “No! No! No!” I blurt out “I’m a civilian. Only Vo Vat … No soldier … No bang bang.”
“Ugly American: What to do when if you meet one. Who to call and how to act … Special Presentation at 4 p.m.
Van’s sister is still winning the quiet game, while Mikey and I fill the time with playing twenty questions through Van, who is proving to be a good but at times confused translator. She’s only just taken off her jacket and decorative surgeons mask; the Vietnamese woman has a vampire-like aversion to the sun, the implication being that a tan is akin to being a farmer, a clearly established social hierarchy was defined by this skin tone differentiation (same was true in Cambodia and Thailand). Many of the women take severe measures to ensure their light skin; rays to the skin are considered more dangerous than softball sizes of hail against your noggin.
We arrive and Mikey decides to join our crew of reporters. A look of “This I must see” splattered across his face. Mikey, Pimchee, Van and the Mute: of this scene United Nations Christmas cards make.
I try to catch up with Mikey who has stopped to interrogate an old man walking the road with a cane. I peak over a gate and call a few boys lounging in hammocks (napping is a national pastime). The first to emerge was my cheetah-shirt pal from the day before. We exchange greetings and they chuckle awkwardly. Where yesterday the group of boys was engaging, today they were quiet and aloof; less interested in questions about wrestling and more concerned with acting cool in front of Van, an attractive girl. While you’d imagine she was being scoped and thus quiet or passive, the boys were actually squatting down picking at grass only answering her questions over their shoulders. The more she forced them to speak the more I realized that Van was not to be trifled with.
As she navigated the mind of the teenage boy, Mikey pulled through and commented that the older gentleman had directed our motley crew to the residence of the Lieu Doi wrestling coach.
Truong Nguyen, a slight build, bowl cut and weighing 155 pounds, is the 27-year-old coach, teacher, and local pho shop owner. He invited me into his home and sat poured some voit tea (sweet and similar in taste to green tea), for the guests. He looked at me and smiled. Before we shook hands or Van explained why we had showed up, he reached across the table and pointed at me ears. “Yeah, vo vat.” I said as the smiles continued.
The room was cinder with a permanent black tarpaulin above our heads. We sat on small red plastic chairs and rested our arms on a low table. Van introduces the group and immediately started translating my questions.
The Lieu Doi wrestling festival is Vietnam’s only wrestling-specific festival. According to Troung, the festival is a deep-rooted Vietnamese tradition, having been practiced “for centuries.” He’s been a competitor, claiming to have won several tournaments and placing in many more. There are other festivals, some even in the Nam Dinh province which have more wrestlers, but those have less meaning because they are wrapped into larger festivals. Lieu Doi is their NCAA tournament.
Last year’s festival welcomed more than 150 grapplers all competing in a single weight class. Presumably there has been little need for expanding the weights because the rules tend not to favor the heavier opponents and many Vietnamese are similar slight builds. The tournament and surrounding festival takes five days to complete, with some time spent on ceremonies on day one, and closing ceremonies on day five.
That was the extent I could learn about the festival. There was too much information for Van, just a college student, to be able to translate. Accumulating facts about the festival would be for another trip. For now, I wanted to roll with Troung, who’d mentioned he’d been injured playing soccer earlier in the week. He went to change for some light drilling and technique.
I was most interested in the rules and ceremony surrounding each competition. Are the Vietnamese praying to a deity? Are they donning ornate robes? Who do they pay tribute too? Take the example of Sumo. Japan, a country of diminutive people, exalt their national sport which consists of giants many of whom are taught to act in accordance with traditional Japanese values of conformity, modesty and fair play. When you contrast that with Mongolian wrestling culture, or even Vietnam, you begin to get a superficial understanding of the natural and inextricable impact wrestling has had on the development of local culture.
Troung says that he will change into work clothes and we can walk to the stadium. In the meantime Mikey has gotten edgy from the lack of combat and challenges me to arm wrestling competition. This guy is 140 pounds when holding a first-grader, yet, he’s already latched onto the table with his left hand, speared the table with his right elbow and presented his hand for our physical tete-a-tete.
Van is in hysterics; this she just has to see. She snatches the camera from the table and stands to take photos. We lock hands and I allow Mikey to open up a big lead. He’s strong, but in the end I put on a show for the table, we stand to hug and take another drink of tea.
Troung and I enter the arena with the Mute, Van and two neighborhood kids we picked up on the walk. Van is cowering beneath an umbrella. She has recruited the smaller of the two boys to hold an umbrella over her head as she snaps photos. The boy, at most 50 pounds, has him arm fully straightened in the air, like Mary Poppins descending from a rooftop. At some point he quivers, maybe his nose was itchy, but the umbrella falls away from Van’s face and she gets pelted by some UV. There was something barked sharply in Vietnamese, the point clear to even the English speaker: Let the umbrella fall again, country boy and I’ll eat you.
We start with the modified electric slide, I am whirling my hands in a tight circle as I kick up my feet in bowing retreat from where they will place their statue. The dance then turns to face Truong and we make a series of sumo-like stomps along with stares and intimidating slapping gestures (you thought that was just Americans?). These aggressive motions signal to my opponent that I am prepared to wrestle and that I intend to give him my full “spirit.” We then bow a few times and start to drill. The festival, I’ve been made to understand, has a much more complicated series of dances and garb.
Troung starts by showing an outside single. I showed a basic elbow tap setup to the outside single. He showed a duck under — I replied with an inside trip.
We went back and forth for 20 minutes in front a few dozen locals who’d come to see their coach scrap with the fat American. (I weigh 180 pounds.) Van was taking photos and translating when we’d pause the action to stand flat-footed, arms stretched wide, saying aloud in our native tongues, “What the hell are you doing?”
The rules for Vietnamese traditional wrestling, as best I could tell, are simple. You accumulate wins by lifting your opponent’s feet off the ground, or placing him on both his shoulders. Action is restarted once you hit the ground with anything but your opponent’s back exposed. These rules lend to a straight legged wrestling style, bent at the hips head sticking forward to block. All defense and very little risk. Front head locks are tempting, but didn’t seem effective and may only open you up for a duck under or fireman’s carry (Troang’s favorite). The foil is the belt, which is popular in several Asian wrestling styles. Knowing I was unfamiliar and seeing a thick black leather belt around my waist, Troung took time to show me how to best utilize your leverage and lift your opponent’s feet into the air. He gave me a knee to the crotch and guess what? My feet left the earth.
Still a bit tender I grabbed Truong and gave him an aggressive head fake, he down blocked and I snapped his head, which he circled out of in his recovery. I’m not too sure anything was communicated past that point, but his ankle seemed fine as he tried for a duck under. Like a little kids wrestling practice the light drill had suddenly gone live.
Troung came in hot, stepping into a high-duck which I posted out of, sagging my weight and managing my right arm into an under hook, we were now in over under. He feinted a high single to my over-hook side which opened up a well hit inside trip. He transferred his weight back to the post leg and stepped out with little effort. We scrap a few more moments, soaked with sweat and Van offers to video the performance.
Truong and I took photos with some of the kids, the rest having scattered at the sight of a camera. Mikey drove us the 150 yards to Truong’s restaurant-home, where we shared a hand shake, modified bro-hug and our e-mail addresses. He asked me to come back and I gave him a cordial head nod of appreciation. He insisted and told Van, “He is special guest. Stays in my house and competes in the festival.”
I was flattered. Not only had he offered for me to enter his tournament also his home. I’d have to come early, he told Van, because only one foreigner had tried before, a judo coach from Russia, and there was lots of paperwork.
I thanked him again and said that I’d work on the return trip, hopefully to write about his town’s festival in January, next time with a professional translator in tow, not to mention the watchful eye of the hammer and sickle.
When you are planning to compete, it’s never too early to prepare I’ll be busy breaking down the video of our 90-second match to look for weaknesses and find out what happened to that well-executed inside trip. I’m not entering this festival to lose; winning I’m sure is a universal value of wrestling.