How Many Duck
Sometimes, when I tell someone about Vietnam, I like to start with a question. How many live ducks can you transport on a motorbike? A motorbike being, of course, a smaller relative of the motorcycle. A live duck being, or course, a duck which is not dead.
Phil Willips glared up at me from the canal bank beside the road. I studied the gravel around my boots and tried hard not to laugh. Cow Man stared at both of us, as you would stare at a TV commercial for soap, if you had a TV. Cow Man probably did not, standing alone in the freezing rain, half covered in the shreds of a neon green poncho, his shins and feet bare. Frost bite may be relative. He looked unperturbed.
With one hand he held down his straw cone-hat against the wind; with the other, his cow. A man and his cow held together by a long braided cord. The man and his cow stared at us, mainly at Phil, trying to pee discretely down the side of a small dirt road, empty except for the three individuals staring at him.
"This is bloody hopeless", he shouted up the cracked concrete bank, "Make the fucker go away!"
"I don't think I can. He's got a cow."
"So make the cow go away!"
"I don't think I can. He's got a man."
Phil almost laughed. If it was a commercial for laundry detergent or kid's cereal, he would have.
"I hate you," he declared affectionately, to no one in particular.
Cow Man laughed too, quietly, embarrassed by the presence of two long-nosed foreigners wrapped up to the ears in shiny Gor Tex, standing and conversing up and down the bank of a canal where they most certainly should not have been. There is little sense in foreigners, he might have thought.
His cow broke the stalemate. Ambling down one of the dikes dividing rice paddies, the man in tow on the thin cord, a visual aberration of who leads who. Phil let out a sigh of gratitude and relieved himself into the clear shallow water. Downstream in front of a small house, collapsing in slow motion, two hundred coal black ducks inspected him from a distance, then squabbled amongst themselves as his tepid offering wove its way past them on the slow current.
"You shouldn't pee in a river", I told him down the bank.
"Round here, you shouldn't drink from one either."
Which was also true.
Whether it stems from a lifetime of isolated rural living, or the moral pressures of nationalized Catholicism, Philius Drake Willips bears the peculiar cross urinary modesty. In Vietnam, it is a heavy cross to bear.
"I can't piss in public. It's just not right!"
And while this might be a manageable condition in rural Ireland, public urination is a staple of life on the Vietnamese highway system. Pee is universal. In good weather, it's rather like a party. Shuttle buses of ten or twelve men will stop roadside against the blur of traffic, line up shoulder to shoulder, and relieve themselves in unison into the same drainage ditch. Should a similar shuttle pass by the spectacle, its passengers might rise to the occasion and pull up alongside, expelling more men to join the line. Outside Can Tho, on the northern fringe of the Mekong, I witnessed three vehicles peeing together on opposite sides of the road. The mood was festive.
"Maybe it was good place to go," my bartender told me later, when asked.
Phil's canal was obviously not a good place to go. I did not feel compelled to join him, and settled for a cigarette instead. From somewhere behind the beaten house, another flock of ducks appeared, these entirely white. They pulled up alongside the black flock on the bank but stayed separate. Color-coded poultry. A small cone-hatted man followed them, noticed us, and began the staring process. I waved. He waved back and took a step towards us on the road. I waited a second, then waved again. He waved back, and took another step towards us. I waved again.
Down the dike, the other man's cow slipped gracefully into a paddy and began munching on something. Cow Man stood above on the dike and stared over his cow until it began munching something inappropriate, then gave it a stern word and pointed. The cow looked dubious, then turned and moved to more acceptable munching. I waved at Cow man too, but he was absorbed in his cow. Duck Man continued his approach to within several feet, then stopped, almost exactly where Cow Man had stood earlier.
Far from the major cities and tourist hubs, the sound of English is surprising and unnatural. But certain phrases have migrated beyond their traditional bounds and can now be found even in the remotest country. This is one such phrase, perhaps the most commonly known in Vietnam excluding ‘Hello'. Duck Man had it down to a science. I answered in my best Vietnamese that I didn't understand. What did he want me to buy? He smiled and nodded, then repeated.
From the house, a tiny girl, barefoot in Levi jeans and a Gucci shirt, his granddaughter perhaps, ran up to clarify, one white duck held aloft for inspection. The duck stared at us in the way of all ducks. Phil sent me a look that said, "Of course not, but...?"
"What would we do with it?"
"Never mind that now, just find out how much he wants."
Again in my best Vietnamese, I tried.
"Con vit bao nhieu tien?" Duck how much money?
This time Duck Man understood and held up a generous three fingers.
"Three dollars?" I asked, and he nodded affirmative.
Three dollars for a live duck.
"That's a bargain," exclaimed Phil.
"For a duck?"
"We could mount it to your bike like a hood ornament!"
"What about all the wind?"
"We could take it to Hanoi!"
"What if ducks don't like Hanoi?"
"We could break its neck!"
We both nodded.
The duck stared at Phil.
I wondered how one goes about breaking a duck's neck, then politely declined the purchase. Duck Man nodded as if he foresaw the same potential problems, then lowered his price by a dollar and tried again. We lashed our saddlebags back onto the motorcycles and re-wrapped ourselves against the cold.
As we pulled away, back up the road towards the highway, Gucci girl was rallying the black ducks. Arms outstretched, messianic, she shuffled round the flock, shaping them into tight honking formation. Once assembled on the dike, she took two powerful steps towards them and yelped. The ducks turned as one, and began tumbling up the dike towards the house. The girl strode after them until their momentum took over, then turned back for the remaining stragglers. Like a single mass, the squabbling ball of ducks rolled up the dike, cheek to cheek, perfect in their disorderly unison. On a dime, they turned and funneled back into their enclosure behind the house.
Later, in the dense traffic that forms on the southern edge of Hanoi, I saw a Honda Super Cub buzzing along through the gas and madness. The driver was a calm ponchoed man, balding into his golden years, the blank stare of rain wrapped round his face. On the back of his bike, he had secured a broad wagon wheel, strapped horizontal across the seat. From the wheel, tied by their feet, more than one hundred white ducks hung shoulder to shoulder in the blind wind. So much dead life strung up by the toes brought out a long dormant sense of sympathy, the daily death of so many justified by two dollars apiece. For the first time in ages, I felt sorry.
Then one of the ducks untucked his bill from his wing and swung a long neck around to stare at me upside-down. He honked once, whispered something to his dangling neighbor, and re-tucked his bill. Side by side with his fellows, he was swept away, droning off through the haze to his own paltry two dollars.
Published on 2/10/11