The clouds were screaming white against the motionless blue sky, and light moved every time the green farmland swayed with the invisible breeze. My calves burned against the hot metal of the gleaming orange Vespa, tuck-tuck-tucking along the skinny, elevated dirt path. This path and the broken houses in the distance were the only things that didn’t reflect the sun into my eyes. I had no idea that this place – this bright, quiet, shimmering postcard of a place – would teach me how to live my life to the fullest, and always give to others.
My hair was whipping back and forth, into my eyes and my mouth. We weren’t going fast enough for my eyes to water – that was a few nights ago, in Saigon. In Vietnam’s capital city, the speed at which a tiny Vespa could move was shocking, especially with the traffic. There were more motorbikes than cars, and the motorbikes had the right of way. From the back of the Vespa I was launched through the city, running red lights and riding neck-and-neck with endless bikers. I felt like a tiny part of a massive swarm of beeping, speeding, anarchistic bees.
Traveling to Hoi An from Saigon felt surreal. Barely two hours on a plane, and I might as well have landed on a different planet. Everything that Saigon was, Hoi An wasn’t. Out here was nothing but green and blue and white and a bit of brown, all rushing by like the repeating backdrop from a low-budget movie. Looking back on it, I don’t think I was very comfortable. I’d been on and off old and slightly broken motorbikes for the last couple of weeks, so I was pretty sore. I was wearing a thin, white cotton dress that kept flying up; I had to clench one corner of it in my left hand. Every time the Vespa went over a bump I would fly up half a foot and crash back down. Still, the constant landscape and the breeze in my hair made everything seem serene.
The motorbikes ahead of me turned left, and mine followed. The path narrowed, then bumped over a white arched bridge. Underneath me I could see flowering morning glories smiling up through the gaps in the bridge. We took a sharp right onto a paved road. A few shacks were scattered along the road’s edge, looking as if they’d been haphazardly dropped out of the sky. We finally stopped in front of a little garden with a broken fence. The garden was messy and overgrown, but the durian trees and fish pond were organized and well maintained. Inside the garden was a mangy little dog, chewing on what looked like the front half of a chicken skeleton. He slipped through a gap in the fence and trotted up to a porch in front of a little blue shack.
My parents and I hopped off our Vespas and let them sit against the leaning white fence. We stepped up the creaky steps onto the front porch, which sagged, crater-like, in the middle. We were met by a smiling young man with no teeth, who almost pulled the screen door off its hinges.
“Xin cháo,” I said uneasily. He howled with laughter at my greeting.
He led us through the entrance, still laughing. His eyes crinkled at the corners when he laughed, and he had little scars on his cheeks. He clenched his fists tightly when he walked – his gait was lopsided. He didn’t say a word to us, in English or Vietnamese.
Inside was a room with a giant shrine decorated with fluorescent pink lights. In the center was a gleaming metal Buddha that was as tall as I am. Hanging around the Buddha’s head were beaded, dyed scarves in blindingly bright shades of orange, purple, and green. His neck was adorned with grass necklaces, white flower chains, and even more pink lights. At his feet were small paper ornaments, red candles worn down to the stub, tiny vases with wilting flowers, and miniature Buddhas, some missing their heads. He sat there with the most serene look on his face, as though he’d found peace within his fortress of cracked concrete and plastic lights.
A middle-aged woman with a flowery apron and a full figure emerged from behind a curtained doorway and shooed the toothless man away, then led us past the shrine and into a smaller back room. As soon as we walked in, the smell hit me.
It was like a rolling wave of fermenting yeast had crashed over my head. I felt like I was drowning in it, but after a minute it didn’t seem like such an unpleasant smell. It just took a moment to get used to.
There was only one light bulb in the center of the dim room, and it kept flickering. To my right were two pig pens, each housing two enormous pigs the size of recycling bins. Beside the pigs was a series of black barrels, filled to the brim with rice in various stages of fermentation. On my left were yet more barrels of fermenting rice, and shelves stocked with plastic jugs of rice wine.
The apron lady had disappeared, and in her place stood a tall, thin man with a big smile in a loose white shirt and brown pants rolled up to the ankles. On one foot he wore a rubber sandal and his other foot – his other foot wasn’t a foot at all, but a rubber attachment shaped like a foot. It was attached to the end of a metal rod that disappeared under his pant leg. His hair receded back from his forehead, and stuck out in tufts of black frizz.
“Xin cháo,” he said, grinning. His cheeks dimpled when he smiled.
He showed us the black rice bins and the buckets of yeast that he kept in a far corner. He also introduced us to his pigs, who licked my hands when I pet them. It tickled, but I didn’t stop them.
When he showed us the wine-making machine, he kept holding his hands in front of our faces. First he’d hold up six fingers, then five. My parents and I couldn’t figure out what he meant.
“You’re sixty-five?” I asked. I pointed at him to clarify.
He made a motion with his left hand, a combination of the American movement “so-so” and turning a doorknob, which I’d learned earlier on the trip meant “no.”
He held a shot glass under the metal spout on the machine and filled it with rice wine. He pointed at the wine. Six-five, he signed again.
“Is the rice wine sixty-five percent?” my mom asked.
He nodded vigorously. I swear his smile lit up the whole room.
He then took us to another room with a small wooden table and four red plastic stools. On the walls were a few world maps and some paintings of Vietnamese men with long beards.
Sitting in one of the seats was a man in an orange shirt who spoke English. He told us the story of the man with the missing leg.
He used to be a farmer, living with his family in this same shack, before the Vietnam War. Then he was enlisted in the army. He didn’t fight long before he was injured in a bombing, and had to have most of his leg amputated. So he was sent back home, to deal with PTSD and a missing leg.
He couldn’t farm anymore, or do any kind of hard labor, so he was left with nothing to do but sit around the house. He lived like that for a while, simply existing, no more and no less – until his friend showed him how to make rice wine. And here we were.
While listening to the story, I couldn’t help but notice the most beautiful blue guitar hanging from the wall. It was an acoustic – blue in the center with burnt edges lined with light wood. He noticed me eyeing it, and brought it down and put it in my lap. It was lighter than I expected, and so perfectly balanced in my hands that I could have stood up and played it without a strap.
I gave it a strum, and picked with my thumb and index finger, just to get a feel for the strings. The first three strings were strong and heavy, and made a resounding hollow bong when I plucked them. The last three strings were thin and light, making each note sound like wind chimes. Everything was perfectly tuned.
I played around with the mood of the guitar. D minor, just to make the rolling waves sound like tears. Then back to the riff. Easy does it, let the licks float on the chords like a bird on the wind. Hold, up down up, bring the ring finger into it. Let the fingernail give it a twang, then go back to the thumb for a quiet effect. My guitar playing was (and still is) unsteady, cautious, and definitely not perfect.
I was so lost in the song that I didn’t see the man with the missing leg walk into the room. I finally noticed when he sat down to listen, and I instantly stopped playing, blushing furiously. He said something to me in Vietnamese.
The man in the orange shirt smiled.
“He tells you that you practice, every day for thirty years, and you master,” he told me. I smiled shyly, still red, and handed the guitar to the man with the missing leg.
The guitar sat comfortably on his metal leg, and he tapped the song out with his rubber foot. He began to sing, and everyone was quiet.
His fingers were soft and easy on the blue guitar, picking out riffs and sliding from chord to chord effortlessly. The guitar welcomed him with open arms, like an old friend, and their voices were in perfect harmony.
I had no idea what his words meant, but I could feel the emotion behind them, cutting into me like a dagger. It was lamenting, sad, and truthful. It echoed on the cracked walls and dirty tiles. It was raw and honest, like he was opening his own chest and letting his history pour out.
Later I learned, through the chopped English translations of the man in the orange shirt, that the man with the missing leg – now the man with the blue guitar – had faced severe depression after coming back from the war. He had no job, no purpose, and nothing to do. His life was meaningless. His friend who taught him to make wine also taught him how to play the guitar. This guitar, he said, became his new leg. He still couldn’t work the fields, but he could bring joy to his family and friends, and express their stories through song. This was better than any leg, he said. By selling his wine he could feed his family, and with his guitar he could bring them happiness.
Soon we said good-bye to the man in the orange shirt, the serene Buddha, the toothless man, the apron lady, and the man with the blue guitar. Their smiles were full and wide as we left, waving from the back of our Vespas until we turned a corner and couldn’t see them any longer.
As we rode over the stunted bridge, I saw the pale green morning glories smiling up at me. I couldn’t help but marvel at what the man with the blue guitar had done so well, despite everything he’d gone through. He’d found something that made him happy, and worked at it until he could use it make others happy too.
This piece has been published in Teen Ink’s monthly print magazine.