The Humanity of the Place
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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, 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.