Filed under: travel versus unravel
The younger lad wanted to visit rice fields. A restless overnight sleeper from Hanoi took us up to Lao Cai on the Chinese border, then a bus that climbed and climbed took us to Sapa. Built by the French in hilltribe territory, Sapa’s a tourist stop and there’s no shame in that. Tourists are hassled, followed, taunted, befriended, and cheerfully ridiculed by the Hmong, Dzau, Zay and other tribeswomen bent on selling their wares. The miracle they really have is not their gorgeous folky fabrics, including indigo textiles that have taken six months to dye and gloss, but their rice paddies.
Guided by Khu, our delightful Black Hmong guide, we entered the fields of … of what?
So many things about them, so much, observation, thought, surprise, photo opportunities, Hmong lady chatter.
But the thought came to me later that it was most like entering a vast artwork that straddled numerous art movements.
The fields form an installation, one that’s taken decades or centuries to construct, that you can wander through, that offers vistas and glimpses. A room you enter and are amazed by, only moréso and across great reaches. Sometimes the artist makes it rain on you, or feeds you, or breastfeeds her daughter and her friend’s son in front of you.
They are sublime like a Rothko, gradations of green, of brown, of reflected sky in the wet paddies. They are assemblages of digital Minecraft hill-shapes and there are so many of them curved and intricately interfolded that you could be forgiven for supposing they were planned by a crazy unstoppable exponent of Art Brut. They look fragile yet are solid. Each paddy from a distance seems robust yet you could break its bank if you trod the wrong way.
They offer optical illusions: each field is actually smaller than you think, and trekking to a path down below or way across thêre doésn’t take all that long at all.
And they are laden with punctums, to borrow Roland Barthes’ term to describe the off-kilter bit in a photo to which the eye wanders, the fragment that contradicts or scoffs at the subject. The TV showing a Vietnamese soap opera, the men building a house like a moment from Witness, the blast of bar noise, the wires and concrete paths. They are earthy yet heavenly.
I’m not trying to be flip about the places and the forceful visual impressions, just to explain what a rich aesthetic experience they smash you with.
And I do know that they are also massive engines for growing rice. According to Much Depends On Dinner, it’s the invention of the rice paddy that enabled Asia to grow its enormous populations. They are tended, cleansed, rebuilt. Forests are burnt and replaced by more and still more paddies. rising higher up the hillsides. Water buffaloes and cultivators and diggers and shovels and hoes and men and women and old people and kids and trucks construct them, on and on. And market gardens and corn crops and big concrete-floored houses sprout with the rice.
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