nonfiction nuggets…Water Buffalo Days

Water Buffalo Days: Growing Up in Vietnam, by Huynh Quang Nhuong, pictures by Jean and Mou-sien Tseng

I was born in the central highlands of Vietnam in a small hamlet on a riverbank that had a deep jungle on one side and a chain of high mountains on the other…There were fifty houses in our hamlet…The houses were made of bamboo and covered with coconut leaves, and each was surrounded by a deep trench to protect it from wild animals or thieves.  The only way to enter a house was to walk across a “monkey bridge” — a single bamboo stick that spanned the trench.  At night we pulled the bridges into our houses and were safe…Animals played a very large part in our lives…Tigers and panthers were dangerous and always trying to steal cattle.  But a lone wild hog was even more dangerous than a tiger.  The hog attacked every creature in sight, even when he had no need for food.  The river held a different danger:  crocodiles.  Other animals provided food, labor, and often friendship.  Watchdogs and water buffaloes were like members of our family.

Huynh Quang Nhuong was born in Vietnam and grew up among emerald rice fields and marauding tigers, buffalo herdsmen and banana groves.  This is his fascinating, autobiographical account of those years, and in particular the role of his family’s massive, gentle, ferocious, intelligent, water buffalo — Tank.

Both a patient pet, and a fierce adversary against wild animals, Tank brings honor to the family, protects the village’s herd by engaging in violent fight-to-the-death struggles with jungle beasts, yet serenely allows Nhuong to clamber up and ride on his back or groups of village children to hang decorative balloons from his tail and take imaginary bus rides.  As we read the intriguing accounts of life in rural Vietnam, this gentle giant works his way into our hearts in a way usually reserved for noble canine companions of Old Yeller and Big Red ilk.

Nhuong’s descriptions of his life at times calmly depict the gracious community-spirit, respect, and kindness the Vietnamese share with one another; at times picturesquely portray his beautiful homeland and simple life; at times forthrightly describe the fierce, bloody encounters between dangerous animals — crocodiles, wild hogs, tigers, rival male buffaloes.   His writing is clear, honest, non-sensationalized, vivid.

Beneath it all is an intense poignancy, for Nhuong ends his story as the Vietnam war intrudes itself painfully upon his life.  With one brief account, a few succinct yet packed phrases, we catch a glimpse of the terrible toll this conflict will take on his entire world.  A blurb about the author fills in some details; Nhuong was drafted into the South Vietnamese army, permanently paralyzed by a gunshot wound in combat, and brought to the U.S. for treatment, where he continues to live.

Lovely drawings by the Tsengs greatly help in visualizing Nhuong’s account, and the type, and layout of the pages contribute an artistic, gentle tone to the book.  This unique life story is short enough to read aloud to young (non-squeamish) kids, ages 6 and up.  Compelling enough to give to older ones, especially boys with the preponderance of male figures in his story.

Amazon link to this book:  Water Buffalo Days: Growing Up in Vietnam