I met Dr. Hartman in 1985 when he was lecturing at Northwestern, where I had landed with an NEH Summer Seminar fellowship to study the British Romantics. He seemed like a friendly, American element in the massive fortress of Yale School criticism. That was also the summer I heard Umberto Eco lecture—a presentation that was followed by a Q & A taken over by Stanley Fish, who tried to undercut Eco’s optimistic pragmatic approach to language with his own slick nihilism, but wound up gutted like a flounder, standing there in his ice-cream suit at the back of the auditorium while the somehow rumpled & elegant Eco turned to speak with a group of undergraduates. I was there when titans grappled! That was a good day to be a fly on the wall.
The ugly cathedral really is ugly, a cement monstrosity deposited by the French, who, when the were driven out of Hanoi in 1954 razed the 1000 year old One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural marvel. It has since been rebuilt. Now the city is infested by twenty-something French hipsters smoking their execrable cigarettes in the coffee shops.
The German hipsters are a little less annoying, perhaps because Germans have no history in Vietnam.
There are hardly any American hipsters–just a few fresh-faced college students with almost no awareness of their country’s history in Vietnam.
The Vietnamese word for tourism is du lịch; for history the word is lịch sử. Because the unbarred letter “d” is pronounced “z” the two words sound & look like mirror images of each other, at least to my insensitive Western ear. I know nothing about Vietnamese etymology, but I don’t think lịch is the same word / syllable in these two words, Vietnamese compounds working differently from those in Germanic languages. The joys of false etymologies & strained analogies!
Compared to traffic in HCMC or (from what I have been told) Bangkok, traffic in Hanoi is not so bad, but it is bad enough. For my first four weeks here I was able to join the dance–and it is a dance–but the last few days it’s just seemed chaotic. Usually, at a major intersection, when the light changes there is a liminal period during which the more aggressive motorbikes continue through as the bikes from the perpendicular direction begin moving out. Usually the side with the red slows & stops, though individual scooters will continue to dart through along the edges or go up on the sidewalk to skirt around. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes the liminal period of one direction goes on so long that it overlaps with the period of the other direction, which is when you have chaos, the dance broken down. So, now, go cross the street to get to your favorite coffee shop on the other side.
I’ve been a little careful about what I’ve been eating the last couple of days. This means choosing somewhat more bland restaurants, often ones designed specifically to appeal to non-Vietnamese tastes, even if the food is Vietnamese. Whether this makes any real difference is difficult to say: It’s equally possible to eat something off in one of these places as in a street stall, maybe more so since the best Vietnamese street stalls turn over a lot of food very quickly. In any case, since I still feel a little wobbly I have been taking care.
The waitress in the tourist place seemed, at first, utterly bored. She was a little surprised when I placed my order in halting Vietnamese, then went back to what she was doing at her computer on the little desk at the side of the restaurant. I sat next to a window looking out at the street & sipped my lime juice & Schweppes soda. After a little while, she went to the back of the room then brought me my clay pot chicken with rice. I had to ask for chopsticks: “Xin cho Bác cái đũa.” The five-word sentence brought a flicker of smile to the young woman’s face. She went to get them, lay them on my table, then retired again to her computer.
The chicken was tasty but salty. About halfway through the meal I asked for another soda. When it came, I said, “Mặn quá!” (Very salty). She looked concerned, but I said, in English, “It’s okay, just salty.” At this point, something clicked, I think. What I had taken as boredom was perhaps diffidence. A bit later, when she took my plate away, she asked me in Vietnamese how long I had been in Vietnam. I have a kind of standard answer to this question that simplifies reality somewhat, since my language skills are not up to the temporal details. “I’ve lived here a year,” I told her, and have studied Vietnamese in the US; that I’m a professor & work with a publishing house as an editor. I can get this all into choppy Vietnamese without too many problems. The young woman looked at the chair across from me & I nodded for her to sit down. At this point we had to begin moving back & forth between English & Vietnamese: “You understand a lot,” she said. “I don’t hear the language very well, though,” I told her. My hearing is really not up to any sort of fluency in a tonal language. “I think you understand a lot about Vietnam, though,” she said. I don’t really know how she could know this, except perhaps by accepting my attempt to speak her language, or maybe by not dragging all my cultural assumptions into the restaurant with me. We talked about various things, mixing our languages, and then I went off into the night.
When any two speakers converse, whether they share a birth language or not, there is a moment of assent, fraught with vulnerability, right at the start. They agree to speak in good faith. (Most encounters are not actually conversations, of course, but instrumental exchanges–that’s how we get through the day.) Sartre calls bad faith a kind of self-deception, or play-acting.1 When the young woman in the restaurant glanced at the chair across from me, she was asking, even if she was herself not fully aware of it, that we drop the play-acting. We were then able to have a conversation, however halting, across our languages. Such encounters are rare at home or abroad, but perhaps being forced out of one’s habitual bad faith, in Sartre’s sense, increases the possibility that real conversations may occur. The barrier between speakers who have only bits & pieces of each other’s languages actually creates an opportunity for openness.
I can’t really reconstruct or recall the details of that conversation–it was mostly concerned with small matters. I asked a lot of questions about the names for things, I remember. Near the end of our talk, the young woman (I’ll have to go back now & learn her name: it didn’t seem important at the time) asked, “Why do you keep coming back to Hanoi?” Well, that’s the question, isn’t it? I wonder what the answer is, of if there is an answer. Or maybe it’s actually simple: I keep returning so as to lift of the corner of the curtain & to remember that it iOS possible to have a conversation with someone–or with one’s self–in good faith.
Pouring rain. Hammering rain. The it stops & the sun comes out. When I go out it will rain again. It’s about 80º. In any case, I’ve been cooped up for two days–feels like a week–with a stomach bug–bụng ốm in Vietnamese: almost an onomatopoeia! I knew I was recovering when I began to imagine eating some fruit. Vietnam is so full of fruit that after a while it becomes invisible. But when you notice it, the variety and abundance are astonishing. (Here is an overview of what’s available, though it only scratches the surface. And here is 40 seconds of video that catches the feel of the streets.)1
So I knew I was getting better when I began thinking about fruit. But you don’t want to stuff just any fruit into your bụng ốm–some will actually make you worse. Begin with bananas, which are full of minerals & fiber. Bananas, bottled water, and Vinamilk yogurt will get one through most food-borne intestinal disturbances. With one exception years ago, the combination has always worked for me. That time, I needed to take a course of Cipro & then probiotics & an electrolyte solution that is somehow both sweet & salty at the same time. Actually, yesterday, after I was mostly recovered, I went to the pharmacy to lay in a supply of loperamide in case of emergency (best to avoid until your system has cleaned itself out), along with the standard probiotic & the nasty electrolyte powder (don’t be fooled by the orange on the packet). I was surprised when the pharmacist asked if I wanted a packet of Cipro. “Không có toa thuốc bác sĩ?” I asked. (Without a doctor’s prescription?) She laughed and said something that may have meant, “Oh, yes, a doctor!” then she laid the blister-pack on the counter, so I got some Cipro, too. I’m not going to take any of this stuff now except the probiotic, but if I need it later, I’ll have it. Somehow, though, I usually only get bụng ốm once each time I come.
Finally, a word about yogurt. The largest industrial company in Vietnam (barring foreign & multinationals) is Vinamilk. It is a kind of miracle food. The stuff is highly sweetened & highly processed–Westerners might be tempted to turn up their noses–but it can be transported throughout a tropical country with inadequate transport & refrigeration. It is also full of probiotics.
Sữa chua is Vietnamese for yogurt & to a non-Vietnamese the word looks a lot like sửa chữa, which is actually a different word, in this case meaning “fix” or “repair.” But if you have bụng ốm, sữa chua will help sửa chữa your problem. Plenty of water, bananas & Vinamilk yogurt make an excellent first line of defense against travelers’ stomach problems; if that doesn’t work, there does not seem to be much the pharmacist won’t provide.
I would also add to what the author says about the women who want to have you shoulder their baskets: sometimes this is a distraction for a pickpocket setup. It’s not common, but it happens. Just smile & refuse to take the pole. ↩
Today I was addressed as “ba” for the first time. In Vietnamese, personal pronouns are assigned according to age & position in the family. When I first came to Vietnam twenty years ago, I was addressed as “chú,” which means “father’s younger brother”; a few years later I was promoted to “bác,” which means “father’s older brother. In both cases I was still an uncle, with the connotation of “avuncular,” but “ba” just means “father.” I suppose that now I can look forward to “ông,” meaning “grandfather” and thence to “cụ,” which is a gender-neutral pronoun for “old person.”
Every time I take a trip to Vietnam–averaging every couple of years since the mid-1990s–I’m asked what it is about Vietnam that draws me back again & again. It’s a reasonable question & one to which I have a set answer, but it’s an answer that doesn’t fully satisfy me. I usually say that, given my age, I have an inescapable historical connection to Vietnam. But that doesn’t explain, really, why I’m sitting in Logan International waiting for a 1:30 a.m. flight to Hong Kong, jumping then to Hanoi. And it doesn’t explain why I’ve now made twelve (I think) extended trips to Vietnam since 1996, including a Fulbright year in 2000 – 2001. It must be love.
I feel comfortable in Vietnam, especially Hanoi, which is less frenetic & less Westernized than HCMC. It’s not as if Hanoi is like home–I don’t feel “at home”–but I am attracted to the particular kinds of difference I experience there. And it certainly is different–the interpersonal expectations can take some getting used to. Social life is based on relationships of hierarchy, but also of trust, however paradoxical that may seem. Then there is that long sweep of history that gives weight to both social interactions and the arts, though much of this historical weight is being eroded by the forces of globalization.
Why Vietnam? What is it about going far from home that feels so lively & rewarding? Over the next few weeks I’m going to keep coming back to these questions, though I know in advance that whatever sort of answer(s) I come up with will be protean, shifting, unstable.