The stream was in Doan Tinh commune, Mong Cai district, Quang Ninh Province. At the time of this story, in late 1966, Mong Cai, close to the border with China, was still sparsely populated, with ethnic Chinese in the majority.
I was twenty-one and the leader of a group of five Hà Nội student volunteers attached to a transport team. Our task was to haul timber from Hà cối to the district town, where it would be carried down the Ka Long River to various distribution points.
We were staying at a forest camp in a godforsaken area a ways back from the main road. Our job maintaining lorries was not very demanding, so we would sneak into nearby villages to while away our free time.
After several weeks, certain goings on at Ha Coi caught our attention and we began spending every spare moment we had at a place we called Fairies’ Beach. This beach became the only topic of conversation among the drivers, including the manager Vụ, who was also secretary of the local Party cell.
Fairies’ Beach was actual a ford, five kilometers from our camp, where a group of female workers from the nearby Quất Đông salt farm would go to bathe naked late in the afternoon, as the lorries were driving home.
Far from being bashful, the women would introduce he stream was in Đoan Tĩnh commune, Móng Cái themselves cheerfully and brazenly challenge the dumbstruck drivers to come and join them in the water.
The sensational discovery caused a sharp rise in labor. Efficiency and the men stopped complaining about the monotony of life in a border region.
Vĩnh, a short-sighted member of the team, went to the ford just once before deciding “enough was enough.” “Why?” I asked.
“I don’t know why people would take a bath that W» and why you liked to watch them.”
We were in the kitchen, eating a breakfast of boiled taro and sesame. I choked at Vinh’s answer.
“Rubbish!” shouted Vụ, who had just walked in, red in the face. “Don’t be a hypocrite,” he raved, pointing a finger ground, would take a distorted view of skinny dipping. Where I came from it’s normal for men and women to bathe together without a stitch on. If you don’t want to join us you can stay here and tend the manioc.”
One afternoon, having fixed a high-pressure pump, I looked for Vĩnh but could not find him.
I went to the manioc plot on the back slope. Vĩnh was sitting on the handle of a hoe that was lying on the ground and squinting towards the foot of the hill (since he had been labelled a bourgeois element, Vĩnh had stopped wearing his glasses in the daytime).
I looked in the same direction and what I saw shocked me. A young girl, nude, was taking a bath by the small irriga¬tion dam. Seemingly unconcerned with who might be watch¬ing, the girl splashed water over her firm, alabaster breasts.
“Ngần. She bathes there every day, after she finished picking strawberry leaves on the other side of the stream” – Vĩnh said.
“Take my advice and put a stop to it,” I said tersely and turned and left.
Reluctantly, Vĩnh got up and followed me.
“Nothing was wrong with that, he protested. “I only do for the sake of beauty and art. It has nothing in common with what goes on in the dirty minds of you and your kind”
Back at home, Vĩnh dug into his knapsack and took out a thick bundle of charcoal and colored sketches, which he showed to me one by one.
His drawings, most portraying Ngần in the nude by the stream were beautiful.
“I think you’d best burn them,” I said.
“I never expected that from you,” Vĩnh said dejectedly.
I was caught in a dilemma. Vĩnh and I had been classmates for 10 years and I certainly wished to see his works safe. But, as team leader and secretary of the local youth union cell, I knew he would be in great trouble if those sketches were ever discovered.
Ngần was half Chinese, half Dzao (an ethnic minority). She taught at the local primary school, which we passed every day and her beauty was the talk of the town.
Ngần’s father Ly Voong was chairman of the local people’s committee, and her mother, a Dzao woman, made excellent brocade, which drew customers from across the border.
Their house would ring with laughter in the evening when, pretending to be interested in the products of the family handloom, we came to chat to Ngần.
Late on afternoon, I was washing by the well when Vụ hurried towards me, beckoning.
“Come, we need you.”