For the Tet holiday this year, I travelled South to Nghe An province, where I had been kindly invited to spend a few days with my friend and his family.
The morning before giao thừa (Lunar New Year’s Eve), I stuffed a rucksack full of clothes, and the saddlebags on my Minsk with tools and spare parts for any breakdowns on the way, as well as a bottle of fine Scotch for my friend’s father.
As I wheeled the bike out of my front gate, clothed head to foot in my best raingear, my neighbour, a salt-and-pepper haired man of sixty-odd years - a war veteran, like so many of that generation - emerged from his front door.
Looking me up and down, and nodding at the Minsk sunk on its haunches with so much luggage, he asked, ‘Về quê á?’
Going home? By Minsk? To Scotland? For Tet?
|I cannot live without Minsk when travelling far from Hanoi
Well, everyone else was going home for Tet, so why not? The roads heading South – and for sure in every other direction too – were crammed with families on motorbikes stacked with suitcases, boxes of beer and bags bursting with bánh cốm (green sticky rice cakes).
Every bus that hooted past carried what looked like two buses - full of beaming passengers, and twenty Tets’-worth of baggage and gifts. Couriers transported sprawling cây quất (kumquat trees) festooned with orange fruit, and cành đào (peach blossoms), their pink buds ready to bloom forth. It was a pilgrimage on wheels, to the collective heart of Vietnamese culture: the quê.
When you ask beginner English-speakers in Vietnam what they did over Tet, they will reply ‘I go back to my native place.’ The more advanced may say ‘I come back to my countryside.’ And the band 8 IELTS swots will respond ‘I go home’. The latter might score highly for grammar, but it’s our beginner who takes the prize for most aptly explaining what actually happens during the Tet holiday.
The word quê has a number of related meanings, the most important of which are 'countryside', 'hometown' and 'home'; but it does not mean any of these exactly. In fact, if you asked someone to demarcate the physical boundaries of what they meant by their quê, they’d just shrug and smile. Still, everyone in the world can relate to it. Our quê is the area we grew up i, our childhood stomping ground, our 'native place.'
Nevertheless, modern life in the West, with its preference for mobility and opportunity over familiarity, confuses this sense of a 'native place', which is common to all sedentary cultures, and finds it mythical expression in legends like the Garden of Eden.
I may be an exception, but I spent my childhood on three different continents, and my quê in rural Scotland is in a different country to the birthplace of my parents. However, I know that it’s my quê, because it’s the place I always think of as home.
When my neighbour asked if I was returning to my que, it was the place that immediately came to mind. My gốc quê (place of my ‘roots’) is near Manchester, a city I’ve barely visited.
There are also Vietnamese like me, and not just the Việt Kiều (Vietnamese expatriates) in San Francisco and Melbourne, but inside Vietnam, too. The future will bring more confusion, more displacement, as society develops and atomises; and you have to wonder if, in the coming generations, the concept of a ‘native place’ can survive.
The friend I visited in Nghe An was returning to his quê, but he had barely a childhood friend there: most of his schooling had happened in Vinh City, 100 kilometres away, and he’d studied in Russia for seven years.
|I like the tranquility of the Vietnamese village in the countryside
He took me to the house where he was born, showed me the shed in which the family buffalo once lived. The house is a tiny stone bungalow with no more than two rooms, quaint and clean-swept, with a cây đào (peach tree) blooming in the front yard and gardens of vegetables and flowers stretching to the western mountains, broken in places by white bungalows just as seen in my friend’s birthplace.
Some of his childhood neighbours are still there, but most of them have moved elsewhere to the towns and cities, or to other countries.
Over the past five years, when certain people have told me about their quê, they’ve made it sound like The Lost World, or Wonderland. Not only would I never find it on my own, no-one would let me in without a guide. It was the most beautiful place in Vientam: verdant and peaceful, unchanged, untouched and untrodden by foreign feet.
I’ve travelled through many rural areas in Vietnam, so I know where to find a hotel, or someone kind enough to put you up overnight. I’ve also travelled through similar places in India, Nepal and North Africa, not to mention those in America and Europe: all some lucky person's quê.
Those places are wonderful; but my quê is the most wonderful of all, like no other places on Earth. You cannot find it on your own, and no-one will let you in without a guide.
Shall we về quê?