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.

 

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59 thoughts on “The Humanity of the Place

  1. I have recently left a life overseas in South East Asia as well. I am attempting to readjust to life in rural Canada and am looking forward to reading how your repatriation goes. I loved Vietnam during a three week visit in 2010 and a couple of weekend trips. The food is the best in all of SEA.

    • SEA has great food. I’d love to go back to live and/or travel more. Do you have any advice on repatriating? This is difficult but I’m trying to look on the bright side of things.

  2. Beautiful pictures! I especially love the orchestra one, and the intense look on the girl’s face.

    I can’t believe you packed so many stories and so much emotion into one beautiful post like this! I’ve got a bad bite from the travel bug, and blogs like this don’t help! 😉

    • Thanks! The orchestra photo is one of my favorites, too. Hanoi has a lovely opera house and I wish I had gone more often.

      In writing this post, I was trying to temporarily put my own travel bug on hold but it didn’t work. I’ll just have to plan my next trip. Travel blogs keep me adding mew destinations to my own list. Funny how it works, the more of the world you see, the more you want to see. I hope you’ll be blogging about your next trip!

    • Thanks. It’s actually lettuce and herbs, sometimes mint, sometimes something really bitter. I didn’t recognize all the herbs and don’t know all the names. Most people tear them up and add them to the broth.

  3. First of all, i love your diction. It flows smoothly to the extend that I can feel Vietnam myself.
    And, I’m planning to go there to travel. Do the people understand English?

    • Thank you for the comment. I loved every moment of writing and editing this post; I don’t usually spend so much time writing and editing them but I really wanted this to be perfect.

      As far as getting around goes, I didn’t find it that difficult. Like most other expats, I only speak a little Vietnamese. Because I was living there, I ran into situations where it was really difficult to communicate. Most tourists won’t have that problem. Most Vietnamese you will interact with while traveling will know some English because they’ll be working in tourism and in contact with foreigners every day. Students are especially keen to practice their English so they may try to practice and I always found myself having conversations with Vietnamese passengers on trains or buses. There are hospitals that cater to foreigners (Family Medical or the French Hospital in Hanoi) and other services like that should you find yourself in trouble. English is required in schools and lots of parents send their kids–and often themselves–to language centers for extra lessons. The desire to learn English is huge. That said, it can still be a challenge to understand or be understood. But, yes, people do speak English. As long as you are patient and have a sense of humor, though, it is easy to get around. Part of the fun of traveling is trying to communicate. Good luck! I hope you have fun.

  4. Reblogged this on The Soulful Veteran's Blog and commented:
    Food for Thought:
    This is a portrait (with photos and words) of the Vietnam of today still ruled by the same communist government that won the 20-year war with America in 1975. The number of dead from America’s war in Vietnam (1955 – 1975) is in the millions. No one knows the exact number of those that were killed, but for civilian deaths in Vietnam alone ranges from 411,000 to two million.
    And yet I often read that my country, the US is a land of “Americans that are for the most part, a peace and freedom loving country!”
    That war took place in three countries: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos, More US bombs were dropped on these countries than all the bombs dropped in World War II. The fighting in Laos and Cambodia were never approved by the US Congress. The total number of civilian dead in all three countries killed by those bombs and bullets runs 1.48-million to more than four-million and that does not count the military deaths and casualties that would add as much as 2.67-million more in addition to the more than two-million wounded.
    Between 1775 and the end of World War II in 1945 (one-hundred-and-seventy years), the US fought in seven wars.
    Since World War II, the US has fought five wars in less than sixty-seven years and is still at war in Afghanistan.

    Was Vietnam then or today ever a threat to the United States and its people?

  5. A beautiful post and most deserving of being FPed!

    As a long-standing Vietophile who has never been there, it’s wonderful to hear appreciation for Viet Nam that goes deeper than tourists’ accounts.

    A friend of mine once brought back to Canada some Vietnamese coffee with a really earthy flavour… you wouldn’t happen to have any idea what variety it might have been, would you?

    • Thank you, HoaiPhai! I’m a proponent of slow travel so I definitely don’t mind taking a year (or longer…) to get to know a place.

      I don’t know much about Vietnamese coffees. I actually never made my own and didn’t have the chance to visit any coffee plantations, though I would like to if I’m back in the country ever. I know that The Word magazine, an English/Vietnamese language publication, had an issue about coffee in May I think. Here’s a link to one of the articles, though it focuses more on cafes than coffee growing itself. Still, it may give you more information than I can or have a link to another article. http://wordhanoi.com/features/item/3146-confessions-of-an-english-coffee-eater

  6. As a Vietnamese, reading this was an honor. I love how your diction- you’re not drawing rainbows, you’re just painting an image of your own memories and feelings. Congratulations on being Freshly Pressed!

  7. Not only is this post beautifully written (you rock the semicolon), it’s thoughtful as well as inspirational. It makes me want to travel there. Besides, you also rock the semicolon. Good luck readjusting to your native culture.

    • Thank you for the comment and well wishes. Vietnam is definitely worth a trip, but you probably knew I would say that.

      PS: The semi-colon is my favorite punctuation. Could you tell?

  8. I recognize the lotus pond that is connected to the West Lake. I had lunch at a vegetarian restaurant on the opposite side of the lake last July. Gee, how I miss Vietnam!

  9. Pingback: Really, Joel Brinkley? I didn’t get the impression the Vietnamese are barbaric. | Someone told me there'd be wild things.

  10. Hi Hannah,
    Oh, I love your blog and enjoyed to read the posts and wonderful stories. I hope you have a great time.
    I was wondering if you would be interested in sharing your posts and ideas on Glipho? It’s a quite new social publishing platform for bloggers like you.

    • Hi Kucsera, I would be interested in sharing on Glipho. What do I do to join? This Vietnam blog is no longer active but I do have another, Someone told me there’d be wild things, since I’m no longer living in Vietnam.

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