A Lecture on Vietnamese Culture
The professor tells the visitors that today they will learn about the betel leaf and the areca nut, which is the history of Vietnam
in one small package, he says, and then recites a song for his audience, who have been brought captive by a guide
to listen, though they would be walking the narrow streets lost in the heat blinded by the haze of burning paper
from the temples, the sidewalks filled with families eating soup and gossiping, but they will never be allowed outside --
today it's the betel leaf and the areca nut and slaked lime for them, Vietnam as a quid pro quo, their being here to hear
the lecture, offered many times to others and polished smooth as a Buddha's toe kissed for centuries, rubbed for good luck.
They are allowed nothing else. Not the State's music spilling from the loudspeakers nor the singing from the Cathedral
punctuated by the air horns of tourist buses and the tinkle of cyclo bells, the calls of women hawking fish and fresh bread.
Tomorrow it will be coconuts and when they are finished with nuts they will move on to fruit and flowers. And if they come
every day, before long they will be allowed to discuss weather and international relations, which are very like the betel leaf.
(Hanoi, April 2009)