Lai Chau, Vietnam, on assignment for my book Paper Pilgrimage: Bombs, Bandits, and a Vanishing Art in Southeast Asia
I'm standing by one side of the road as my guide pisses off the other. We've been chasing rumors of papermakers through the back roads of the province all afternoon but haven't had any luck. I take off my helmet, wipe off sweat and sunscreen, and admire the view anyway.
My guide walks up next to me and shares a grin. "How about we go to the knife village?" he asks.
"Yeah they turn car parts into knives. It's famous throughout Lai Chau."
If a province has no noteworthy features, why not make one up?
The road is lined with rickety open-air shelters, each strung with knives made by the family of blacksmiths who live in a house next door.
"These are all made from destroyed cars," my guide says.
I picture the slender blacksmiths tearing apart car bodies.
"They use car springs, brakes, that kind of thing," he says. I nod, as though I have an idea of what a car brake looks like, and pick up a knife. It is cold and rough, a pleasing weight in my hand.
"How much do you think they'd charge a foreigner for this one?" I ask.
"Let's find the guy who owns this place," my guide says.
We walk over to the house where an elderly man smiles at us through an open window. He reads through the mid-day heat, and his book catches my eye. It's not printed in the Roman script of Vietnamese. Instead, its pages are covered in a hand-written script that look Chinese, but are neither traditional characters nor the modern version.
"This is a prayer book," my guide says. "The man is from the Dao people, and this is their family's book. The paper is…." he pauses to translate, "from China, maybe handmade, maybe not."
I look through the translucent pages into the sunny sky. The paper fibers go in all directions. "It's handmade," I say. "Did he write the book himself?"
"He copied it from another book. No, this village doesn't make paper anymore, there's a road and they can buy everything they need from the markets."
Except knives, apparently.
"Now he wonders how much you will pay for the knife. He can throw in a pair of handmade scissors for half price."