Seasons come and go in the Vietnamese countryside, but always at the right time for Walter Pearson.
One of the reasons I enjoy the countryside so much is because of the very nature of it.
The seasons come around regularly, perhaps monotonously, but always at just the right time.
Tet time — which the Vietnamese call spring — is really still winter. The days are warm and pleasant, the humidity low. I enjoy wearing long pants in comfort. I can be assured to play tennis every day and go to Ho Chi Minh City at anytime. The nights are cool to the point of cold. We cuddle together under one, and sometimes two, blankets.
But as that serenity sets in, the bush finally dries harsh. The dust rises. My wife complains about the fine layer of it covering everything. Local boys trawl through the bamboo grove next door to find the snakes that become active.
The temperature rises, the breezes drop. The humidity lifts and the rivulets of sweat start running down chest and back, under arms and from the brow. Nights are hot and humid, sleep difficult. Fans just don’t seem to be enough.
I begin thinking of a cheap VND 8-10 million air conditioner, just for the bedroom, to make nights more comfortable. Then the rains and relief come. Air conditioners are forgotten. It takes two rain showers for the rubber trees to sprout new green. Below, the dry leaf litter seems to disappear by magic. The dust ceases. The cool sweet smell of wet earth drifts in through the bedroom window at night.
Early in the rainy season, the moi (termites) have their first love fest. Just when it is about to rain, insects with big wings flood into the house chasing the lights. We rush to close all doors and windows and extinguish the lights to avoid carpets of dead insects through the house. Outside against the front door the next day, like a sand drift, they are piled up, defying efforts to remove them, their frail remains and broken wings floating up with every sweep of the broom.
At about this time, the phuong trees come out, their red flowers demanding my attention. Our daughter delights in their arrival at the end of the academic year. Alongside them, the chuoi trees, with magnificent cluster blooms in a vibrant gold. And everywhere, nearly all year around, the bougainvillaea with white, red, orange and purple flowers so accurately called paper flowers by the Vietnamese. Wonderful large-leafed shade trees called mongbo — because their year-round mauve flowers look like cattle hooves — protect the coffee shops.
With the wet come the amphibians: frogs, toads and bullfrogs. The Vietnamese, as in so many things, discriminate strictly. Frogs call when the rain starts. We can eat frogs. Toads call before the rain starts and let us know that thunder and lightning are to follow. They know this because they are Ong Troi’s (the heavenly spirit’s) chosen. Anyone who kills a toad will suffer. The bullfrogs call out during the storms, their deep-throated rumble carrying over the noise of the rain and the thunder predicted by the toads.
At night, as the rain settles into phun, a sort of heavier-than-drizzle drizzle, the fireflies come into the bedroom. They enchant us. Two fireflies high above the mosquito net, up near the ceiling, circling each other in a dance of love.
But someone has to eat them. That is left to the than lan, those little wall runners foreigners call geckos, or their giant relatives the cac ke, which are really geckos, with a call so loud they frighten children. I first heard one on patrol in the jungles of Ba Ria. I originally thought it was the Viet Cong calling out in the night in readiness to attack. When told, I could not believe a lizard was capable of such a loud sound.
As the rains persist, the roads become more impassable. I constantly look over my shoulder at the threatening storm clouds, calculating how far I can go without being drenched. The towels don’t dry. Or dry me. Now sweat won’t evaporate because the humidity is too high.
At this point Ong Troi takes pity and the rains drop off. The bush remains green and temperatures abate. Tet is a little way away.