The Humanity of the Place

Overlooking the lotus pond at West Lake.

I left Vietnam three weeks ago. Or was it even three weeks ago? Time stretches and compresses like a rubber band when we travel. I’ll go back. I saw a lot of the country but there is more to see.

During a break in class one day last fall, a sixth-grade girl named Thảo came up to me while I was writing on the chalkboard. Shyly, she referenced something I had said in the first half of the lesson. “Teacher, do you really love Vietnam?” Pausing, I looked at her and said, “Yes, I really love it.” Thảo’s face lit up and she skipped back to her seat.

I loved the way the neighbors’ four- and three-year olds came running up to me each afternoon when I arrived home from work, waving and smiling. “Hello, Cô tây! Hello, western aunt!” This, I learned, is the most important rule of travel: Always say hello to the children.

The red balloon never gets old. This boy is playing in the courtyard of a Chinese temple in Cholon, Ho Chi Minh City. May 2012.

I loved my neighborhood. It may have been so far south of landmarks, restaurants and bars that friends were convinced I lived far on the outskirts of the city, but Phương Mai was my street and Alley 4 was my niche within it. Two houses down lived Madame Nga who, at nearly 80, was teaching herself English; during the American War, the office in which she worked as a secretary moved into hiding in the jungle for four years. In the bustling open market, the vendor who sold fruit at a local price patiently repeated the names of each fruit I purchased until I remembered and pronounced them correctly. My friend An’s family lived right around the corner and invited me for dinner, offering to read my palms and translate their culture. Cafe Pharma, with its genial owner who greeted me by name, served the best Vietnamese coffee in the city. Just up the alley from the cafe, was a small shop, open late, whose proprietor shouted an exaggerated, “Xin chào! Hello!” every time I walked past. She tried to marry me off to eligible bachelors whenever the opportunity presented itself; awkward embarrassment is not bounded by language.

And I loved teaching. The mélange of Vietnamese, Korean, Saudi, Filipino, Russian and Nigerian students in my international classroom fostered a creative energy conducive to learning. The students learned to value their differences and created a community of caring among one another. I loved them so much that I’ve decided to be an English teacher.

I loved the food, its simplicity and humility. Lime. Chili. Rice. Noodles. Egg. Shrimp. Beef. Fish sauce. Tea. Beer. A red plastic stool, a pair of chopsticks and you’ve got a meal in a market for less than a dollar.

A bowl of Bún chả–vermicelli noodles, grilled pork in fish sauce broth, and herbs–in the market down the street cost about 30,000 VND. That’s about $1.50.

Adjusting to America is hard; its streets are silent and everything is too expensive. In consolation, a friend emailed this quotation:

The last look, if known to be the last, is always sorrowful, and refuses, in most instances, to see the wrong and the suffering, the error and the misery, which may have impelled the one who takes it, to venture from the old into the new, from tried to untried path, and to recommence existence under new auspices, and with new and totally different prospects.

The Tide of Emigration by The Illustrated London News, July 6, 1850

I know what I disliked about Vietnam. I know what frustrated me, what I found inconvenient about living there. I didn’t always understand the place. I’ve written the negative memories in my diary and they deserve to be remembered; they are fertile ground for learning. But, this is a love letter. I am determined to remember Vietnam with love, though not to simplify it with romance. I took all but a handful of photographs in color; color reminds us that a place lives in the present.

Mai, 17, our guide as we hiked the mountains near Sapa, cuts sugarcane as older Black Hmong women look on. Mai explained that it is always the youngest of the group who cut the sugarcane.

Pico Iyer wrote, “Travel is the best way we have of rescuing the humanity of places, and saving them from abstraction and ideology.”

Vietnam could have remained, had I never been there, the humid hotel room in the beginning of Apocalypse Now, Tim O’Brian’s jungles and the site of the My Lai Massacre. It could simply have been a country where children ride bicycles to school, rice farmers shade themselves from the sun with quaint conical hats and the lunar year of the Golden Dragon is a lucky year to have children.

The reality is much deeper. Not only do children ride bicycles, so do pairs of middle-aged police officers on their way to lunch; so does an old couple, the man reaching back as he pedals to the hand of his wife who sits on the rack behind him. And Vietnam’s hats don’t stop at the conical one that we recognize as a symbol of the country; hat styles vary from region to region. And yes, children are cherished and the Golden Dragon is a lucky year to be born.

Hanoi’s orchestra performs at the Hanoi Opera House in July 2012.

Vietnam is a nation of people who love their country; they are proud of their thousand-year history defending their small land from superpowers ranging from China to France, Japan to the United States. It gave birth to literature from Nguyễn Du’s epic poem The Tale of Kiều to Bao Ninh’s novel The Sorrow of War. It inspired Andrew Pham’s memoir Catfish and Mandala and Tim O’Brian’s novel The Things They Carried. Its terrain ranges from the terraced mountains of the north to the channels of the Mekong Delta in the south. Its people are Kinh, Hmong, Thai, Khmer, Chinese. And newer immigrants: Koreans, Filipinos, Americans, Nigerians, Australians, French, Germans.

As a student enthralled by Paris in 2008, I sent postcards to everyone I knew. In Hanoi, I was surprised to see few postcards for sale and those I wrote never made it to the mailbox. Vietnam will never be a postcard; it lives in my photographs and, while I may never live there again, I plan to go back to travel someday.

A Hmong woman stand on a mountain in Sapa, Lao Cai Province.


My adventures continue in the United States and at Someone told me there’d be wild things. The site is in the works; blogs take a little time to truly define themselves so bear with me as I navigate the challenges of photographing and writing about my new, small-town life.

UPDATE: An advice column I wrote on learning Vietnamese was published on the new website Expat-Quotes. Check it out if you’re moving to Vietnam.

UPDATE, 19 August: This post was Freshly Pressed, which is probably how most of you found this blog.  Living in Vietnam was an enormous privilege and I am so touched that my photographs and writing, particularly on this post, have affected so many readers. Blogging is such a unique way to connect to the world and share stories from around the globe. I’ve had readers from Vietnam, the USA, France, Singapore, India, Ecuador, South Africa and everywhere in between. Thank you for reading, liking, sharing and commenting on this blog.



A Local Adventure: Long Bien Bridge and the Middle Warp


One of the last places I went was The Middle Warp, the island under Long Bien Bridge, which connects Hanoi to the other bank of the Red River. I had never gotten around to exploring it–despite the fact that there are nude beaches on Sundays–because it was so close that it was easy to put off. It took no more preparation to go than to pack my umbrella and camera in a bag.

Like any other space in Hanoi, the bridge multitasks as market space and commuter space.

Long Bien Bridge is supposed to have been designed by Gustave Eiffel, the architect of the Eiffel Tower in Paris and the Saigon Post Office, in 1903.

People live and work on the island and around it. Several fishermen were out that day and, on the Hanoi side of the river was a duck farm.

While we were exploring, my friend and I stumbled across a gravesite and shrine at which a man was praying. He chatted with us in Vietnamese but we couldn’t understand enough to learn the history of the gravesite.

The middle of Long Bien Bridge is a railroad track. The bridge eventually connects Hanoi to Haiphong’s port. On the island, there are rice paddies and banana plantations. I thin the farmers live on either side of the river. This photograph is my friend Sarah.

Photo Essay: West Lake, Hanoi

I lived in Minneapolis for six years. Minnesota enjoys the state slogan “Land of 10,000 Lakes.” Lake of the Isles, Lake Calhoun and Cedar Lake were all within walking or cycling distance from my apartment. Lakes speak to me. In Minneapolis, runners, walkers, cyclists occupied the paths from the time the snow melted from them to when they were again rendered impassable by weather. People picnicked, rented paddle boats, swam, canoed and kayaked from March to November. Once the lakes froze again, skiers, snowshoers, ice skaters, hockey players and dog walkers occupied them until the ice became too thin to support their weight. West Lake, or Hồ Tây, in Hanoi doesn’t deal with such a sharp seasonal difference so the types of activity around the lakes is more or less the same all year, though it increases when the weather is nice. It’s a gathering place for young couples seeking privacy, a fishing spot for urban fishermen, groups of friends passing the time, ice cream eaters, joggers and aerobics groups.

This man fished in this spot next to Dieu’s Cuisine (125 Xuan Dieu) throughout the year.

The dragons were erected for lunar new year which marked the beginning of the Year of the Dragon.

Hanoi has a waterpark, on the far west corner of West Lake.  I’ve never been but have driven past plenty of times.  I’ve heard it’s a lot of fun so I plan to play there next time I’m in Hanoi.

Some of the fishermen sail out farther and use nets to catch their fish. Some also catch the prawns that end up in the delicious West Lake Prawn Cakes.

It’s not a bad place to raise ducks, if you happen to live right by the quiet, still water of the lotus pond either. (Yes, that’s in miniature because sometimes it’s fun to play with funky camera settings).

And then there’s the view from the rooftop.

BBC: Censorship and suicide

I mentioned that there had been a firewall against bloggers and political bloggers who write against the government had been arrested. I read nothing about this in Vietnam but Human Rights Watch urged Secretary of State Hillary Clinton to pressure the government to allow internet freedom. The BBC published an article the other day, however, about one blogger’s mother, who committed suicide by burning herself in front of government offices. She was protesting her daughter’s arrest. There was no mention in it in the Vietnam News, the English-language paper. Well, the rest of the world knows about it now.

My heart goes out to Dang Thi Kim Lieng’s family as they mourn her death and to her imprisoned daughter, Ta Phong Tan.

Vietnam, gay marriage advocate?

Macy's balloon, 2010 Mpls Pride Parade

You are right to think that this picture was not taken in Vietnam; it was taken during the 2010 Minneapolis Pride Parade. Vietnam, I learned last night, may become the first Asian country to legalize gay marriage. According to the Huffington Post article, it may be  thanks in part to the state media, which has had the flexibility to explore LGBT issues over the past few years because of the restrictions it faces in covering other news. On August 5, Hanoi will host Vietnam’s first Pride Parade.

Photo of the Week: West Lake, a preview

West Lake, the biggest lake in Hanoi, sits in the north of the city. At one end is a water park and a lotus pond. It’s winding road, a quieter alternative to the busier main streets, provides a quiet place for young couples seeking privacy. There are more photos from West Lake to come later in the week but this is my favorite.

Plane Food: The Japan/American Airlines Edition

Nomnomnom, reheated eggs. Japan Airlines breakfast, shortly before landing at Narita Tokyo International [Best-Ever] Airport a week and a half ago.

American Airlines dinner or lunch, eaten somewhere between Tokyo and Dallas, Texas.

Yep, this is officially the weirdest hobby ever.

Related: Plane Food: Air Mekong Edition