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Now reading The Miraculous Mr. Hai

The Miraculous Mr. Hai

Man vs. The Odds

This comes from Versus, our latest issue, now on newsstands.  For more great stuff like this, subscribe today.

Dry shafts of sunlight pinged off glossy banana and durian leaves. A diesel-powered ferry waltzed over the chocolate-milk surface of the Mekong River. The island of Ngu Hiep breathed a dizzying floral perfume. I was looking for Thai Van Hai, 67, aka Hai Cut (“Hai the Cripple”). Every man, woman, and child I asked knew the way to his low brick home.

Hai grows durian and plays a dying genre of music once popular in the surrounding delta, where happy people set their lives to sad song.

For generations, farmers here have partied to ballads of loss, betrayal, and bereavement warbled over notes plucked from scooped-out fretboards. The music, known as tai tu, sounds like something Hank Williams would have played on an opium bender in the South Pacific.

During the Vietnam War, whole operas of these songs filled theaters throughout the south, and it’s thought that wealthy patrons paid their favorite artists in gold bars. After the war, the genre atrophied into the stuff of blind beggars, hustlers, and buskers. Hai Cut plays these songs, against all odds, with just one hand.

How has Ngu Hiep changed since you were little?

The name means “five villages.” Back in the day, each village was pretty sparsely populated, and there were no paved roads. Everyone lived in poverty. My father worked his own rice paddy and as a hired hand. My three siblings and I did our best to help out on our little farm. They hadn’t built the dike yet, so our rice paddies flooded all the time.

I used to run around and shoot birds and catch fish. When I got older, I’d get my brothers and neighbors together over rice wine or tea to play the guitar and sing. That was the tradition back then. All my neighbors played, and I developed an interest in music pretty quickly.

Do you remember the day you lost your arm?

I was ten years old; I’d taken my family’s water buffalo out to pasture. All of a sudden, gunfire exploded from across the river—I was in the middle of a battlefield! When the shots died down, a few of my neighbors ran over and helped me. The war affected us a lot. There were bullets and bombs all the time. We were just a poor family caught between both sides.

What were your days like afterward?

I stopped going to school. I’d never been much good at it anyway, and I’d lost my writing hand. So I kind of just helped out around the house. Because of my condition, I didn’t have to work the fields until I was twenty-two, so I had lots of time for the guitar.

A master who was famous throughout the region lived just behind my house. He had a very simple life. He was broke. He worked in the fields and barely messed around. Nobody else wanted to teach a one-handed student; it was hard enough to teach a man with two hands. I told him not to worry about it—I knew I had it in me to learn. Some people dropped out early because they didn’t have the talent. Others couldn’t practice because they had to go to work. I guess they weren’t destined to keep going. So I told him to ignore me and just let me watch and learn. He treated me just like everyone else, but he refused to take any money for teaching me.

When did you start to work as a musician?

For a while, music provided my main income. I couldn’t do heavy labor so I’d use the money I made with music to hire neighbors and cousins to come help me plant, harvest, and work the farm. Word spread about the one-handed guy who played the guitar. When I heard about a gig, I’d walk or take a boat. I began to travel all over the Mekong Delta and ended up in Soc Trang, where this music was really big. People there just took me in. I ended up teaching my future wife’s brothers and sisters, and they decided to fix us up.

Did you fall in love straight away?

I didn’t really want to settle down at the time. But I guess destiny pushed us together. She wasn’t very beautiful and I wasn’t very handsome. But she was good at taking care of things. We got our own little house and I taught music. We lived in Soc Trang for eight years before we packed it up and came back to the island.

Why did you come back?

I was about twenty-six. My parents decided to carve up the ancestral land and gave little parcels to my brothers and me. The war was really tense at that point. But I’d always wanted to come back. I was sorta homesick.

Did the war continue to affect your family?

Yeah, my parents were always saving up to build a little hut out of palm fronds. We’d get it up and live in it for a while. Then planes and helicopters would come by and blow the thing to shreds. Luckily, we were always out in the fields when they came. We’d pitch a little tent and stay in that until we could save enough to build it again. It usually took about ten days to put together a shelter.

When did life around here start to get better?

When I was about forty, a few people started planting durian. Everybody slowly realized we could make more money and do less work by growing durian rather than rice. People began by planting the island’s famous bitter-melon varietal* from seed and sharing cuttings from the best trees. They were delicious, but the flesh was too thin, the seeds too big. We’ve since grafted Thai varietals onto our old rootstock. Now most trees yield about one hundred dollars’ worth of fruit every harvest. I have forty small trees that yield about a ton of durian a year. When I’m not playing music, I spray and water my trees. I pay friends and neighbors $7 a day to help do any work that requires real strength. I only make about $1,000 a year from durian.

Most months I play a couple weddings and funerals. But in the last five to seven years, the music game has gotten much harder. Back in the day, every wedding and funeral needed someone like me. Nowadays, it’s one in ten. For all the rest, people just play junk pop or karaoke, which requires no skills whatsoever. When I do get a gig, I’m lucky if I walk away with $15 in tips. In a lucky month, I make $50 playing music and singing. I have three students who pay me $50 a month. But whenever friends come over, I stop what I’m doing to play. There’s always time for drinking and playing music.

How do you get to your gigs?

I strap my guitar to my back and drive. Earlier this year, I took a shortcut over this narrow concrete bridge I’ve crossed over a thousand times. Something went wrong with my brakes, and I dropped five meters into the muddy canal below.

Oh my God! Did you go to the hospital?

Nah, some neighbors heard the splash and fished me out. I was fine.

What about your guitar?

Yeah, fine too.

And your bike?

We just changed the oil and it was fine.

Man, why do you try so hard?

I dunno. When I recognize there’s something I have no chance of succeeding at, I won’t make the effort. But when I feel I’ve got something I have a slight chance at, I’ll go after that thing.

Are you happy with your life?

To a certain degree. I feel like it’s been a pretty complete and happy life. Of course, I have dreams. But you’ve got to know when to drop them.


What the heck is bitter melon durian?

Durian

Historians say that durian first arrived in the Mekong Delta in the holds of Chinese junks at the end of the nineteenth century, but locals believe a martial-arts master planted the first tree in Vietnam after returning from a romantic exile in a durian orchard somewhere in the Khmer Empire.

When neighbors turned up their noses at the fruit’s infamous odor, the aged master promised a flavor “as potent as young love” before collapsing into a fatal coma. The fruit’s Sino-Vietnamese handle sau rieng means “my sorrow.” Hai Cut claims Ngu Hiep developed its orchards cautiously at first, planting seeds only from the tastiest trees. At some point, the bitter melon varietal (sau rieng kho qua xanh) emerged as the best loved.

“No one knows where it came from,” said Dr. Nguyen Minh Chau, who ran the government’s Southern Fruit Research Institute from 1994 until 2014. “It was widely established when we opened our office.” Known by its thin husk, dark color, and large seeds, the bitter melon durian eventually fell out of favor as Vietnam edged into capitalism and consumers began clamoring for brighter, bigger, fleshier fruit.

Dr. Chau and his team held contests to identify more commercially viable varieties that farmers could graft onto old rootstock. One lucky farmer claimed a first place prize for the Ri6 durian, which Dr. Chau says outdid all contenders for sweetness, heft, and brilliance. The farmer, however, died the following day. Nevertheless, bitter melon trees fell by the score as farmers rushed to get in on the new fruit. While bitter melon durian remains renowned for its tastiness, nowadays, the fruit retails for a pitiful 30 cents a pound when you can even manage to find it.

This comes from Versus, our latest issue, now on newsstands.  For more great stuff like this, subscribe today.