He holds my arm gently. I wonder if he'd fought in the war. Any of them in fact.... or perhaps he'd been in all of them. This was why he could hold my arm with such conviction and poise. Perhaps the French and the Americans. He does speak French!
I wondered what it was like to have lived a life surrounded with battle scars. There had been the Chinese, French, Cambodians, Americans and allies. Crawling through labyrinths of tunnels as a measure of self protection, but with an intention to kill. I couldn't imagine being in a position where my task was to surprise and ambush with a conviction to kill another young soldier. Once I had pressed that muse button, my mind went into some eternal spiral of never ending thoughts.
In fact he is, and has been speaking French, and smiling, laughing childishly, as if I'd just popped by from Paris. An old friend. Another outburst of laughter. I can imagine him dressed elegantly, sipping liqueurs and tasting small tidbits of delicious pastries, sitting in some quaint French sidewalk cafe. Down by the Arc. His posture is perfect, yet he walks as one with some aches, yet elegantly and energetically appearing from nowhere to hold my arm, pouring me yet another cup of rice wine and giving no credence to my `can't drink alcohol, malaria story'. Funny that, but I had convinced the Vietnamese doctor, who translated this particular story, to the old man on the first day of our arrival.
Cecile and I have been staying here, in this stupendously located hotel, with our window side dropping fourty meters, and then the big slide away into the fertile valley of terraces over a kilometer below. Fansipan, Vietnams tallest mountain, has been hidden above clouds since we arrived.
And even though I tell him in Vietnamese, English and in French, that I don't speak French, he continues his draft of `parleying and laughing'. Yet its not senility, or even some semipermanent derailing, but possibly the result of his daily kiss of the rice wine. Still happy to have found someone to relive `the days' with.
I make the mistake of understanding him, the words seemingly transporting through my knowledge of the Spanish language, deciphered into some tangible idea, and he's `out there' again. Its pure joy though, as the other guests in the eating room have all understood my predicament, and are enjoying the double entendre(oops! now I'm confused....thats a French word!!) appearing in profusion. Yet I feel warm, dancing and playing within his smile, welcomed, a Frenchman I am!
Instantly I'm rescued by Toan. He's the young hotel manager, dish washer, tour guide, clothes washing, money changer, interpreter, toilet un-blocker. Quite a load for a twenty four year old from the countryside. So sweet faced, purely beautiful, and innocent as he is, holding and stroking my hairy arm. We speak English, me interjecting occasionally to check whether a particular word exists in my Vietnamese vocabulary, a sort of security padding to prove to myself that I was moving linguistically forward.
Still.....I believe that breakfast is on the way. Sustenance for the fifteen kilometer hike to come. Steady fare. Two bread rolls, two eggs, two bananas, two cups of tea. Very potent green tea, sour tea, and reminding me why I don't normally drink tea. `Sibulple' an offering, greeting, friendship, like old battle torn friends meeting again. The French legionnaire. Battles within Vietnam, and etched, yet forgotten, into his psyche.