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Murder for Tet

By Calvin Godfrey   February 1, 2017 | 02:56 pm GMT+7

Fond reflections on a bucolic Tet that was only nearly ruined by a grisly double-murder.

Many Tets ago, a friend stumbled into Ta Nung as a slender backpacker in search of a waterfall. He found the waterfall and a kind of Eden — just 18 winding kilometers away from the Central Highlands resort town of Da Lat.

French Colons killed thousands of conscripted Vietnamese and ethnic minority laborers building the “hill station” in the false belief that its cool weather would cure their fevers. Instead, its ornamental lakes offered an ideal breeding grounds for malarial mosquitoes.

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On the road in Ta Nung. Photos by Calvin Godfrey

The town would remains a kind of mirage — a quiet retreat shaking with besotted karaoke, an alpine town with few remaining trees, a romantic getaway aglow with tinselly lighting and throngs jostling for the best possible picture against a sea of yellow chrysanthemums.

Tet would proceed far more slowly in Ta Nung because everything else did.

And so we went there to close out the Year of the Horse.

A cold, square hydropower station had replaced the falls, but the village remained otherwise unchanged — an ideal place to listen to wind shake the pines and watch their bright yellow pollen tumble through the sunlight.

Even on regular days, farmers picked off a chicken at the first news of a visitor and dropped everything to keep them drunk, on the floor, in a pile of people and plates.

My friend knew the best possible hosts.

Uncle Happy and Gi Thuy lived in a low tile home overlooking a valley of rolling coffee farms.

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A view of Ta Nung

Happy had spent most of his life shuttling troops around the country in Russian trucks. Sharp and muscular, even in his 50s, he maintained a whimsical fondness for the road. Thuy had managed to keep him in town long enough to raise their daughter and send her to college in Ho Chi Minh City.

Money remained tight and their girl wouldn't be home for the holidays. So we reckoned the presence of two shiftless white men would lighten the mood.

But Ta Nung felt strange when we arrived.

Nothing stirred as the town's main road crumbled to gravel under our tires. No one moved among the pitched wooden homes and the few who stood in their yard looked on with fear in their eyes.

Just days before our arrival, someone had murdered a pair of elderly chicken farmers in a most grisly fashion. No one in the close-knit farming community could venture to guess who would do such a thing and so Thuy informed us, with an apologetic finality, that this Tet would be decidedly quiet and strictly vegetarian, to prevent the evil from sticking around.

Over a lunch of lettuce, she whispered competing theories about the killings. Uncle Happy built a bonfire that drew neighbors who spent hours staring into the flames without speaking at all about the murder.

You could just sort of feel it.

As the Lunar New Year neared, we helped tidy the house and ready the altar. We drove up red roads into the hills and lay under impossibly blue skies and watched cotton clouds float along as we drifted in and out of sleep.

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A pine nap

For a time, the men sipped Diet Coke and tea, but by New Year's Eve, the husbands of Ta Nung launched a quiet revolt against the ban on fun. Warm cans of beer began falling from jacket sleeves; plastic bags of rice wine popped out of pockets.

Soon, pork appeared as we piled onto motorbikes packed with people in their crispest clothes to go house to house, handing envelopes of money to children who immediately threw it into card games to find out just how lucky it was.

The pious women of the town, primped to impossible beauty, simply drew their mouths and retired early.

And then the chicken feasts began. One after another, served with cases of beer in houses wallpapered with old calendar pages — as though the days meant nothing at all. Finally, with Tet restored to Ta Nung, we left.

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Uncle Happy and his bonfire

Months later, the town's residents packed the local People’s Committee building to see the killer: a 23-year old hired hand named Lu Van Quy.

Quy had asked the old couple to borrow some money ahead of the holiday. When they refused, he picked up a hatchet and knocked the old man down. Then he called the old woman out and knocked her down too.

After stealing their old phones, he robbed them both of less than $24.

The court sentenced the 23-year-old to death, all over some lucky money.

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