Pouring rain. Hammering rain. The it stops & the sun comes out. When I go out it will rain again. Itâ€™s about 80Âº. In any case, Iâ€™ve been cooped up for two days–feels like a week–with a stomach bug–bá»¥ng á»‘m 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 whatâ€™s available, though it only scratches the surface. And here is 40 seconds of video that catches the feel of the streets.)1
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.
Sá»¯aÂ chuaÂ is Vietnamese for yogurt & to a non-Vietnamese the word looks a lot likeÂ sá»a chá»¯a, which is actually a different word, in this case meaning â€œfixâ€ or â€œrepair.â€ But if you haveÂ bá»¥ng á»‘m, sá»¯a chuaÂ will helpÂ sá»a chá»¯a your problem. Plenty of water, bananas & Vinamilk yogurt make an excellent first line of defense against travelersâ€™ stomach problems; if that doesnâ€™t work, there does not seem to be much the pharmacist wonâ€™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. Itâ€™s not common, but it happens. Just smile & refuse to take the pole. ↩
Today I was addressed as â€œbaâ€ 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 â€œchÃº,â€ which means â€œfatherâ€™s younger brotherâ€; a few years later I was promoted to â€œbÃ¡c,â€ which means â€œfatherâ€™s older brother. In both cases I was still an uncle, with the connotation of â€œavuncular,â€ but â€œbaâ€ just means â€œfather.â€ I suppose that now I can look forward to â€œÃ´ng,â€ meaning â€œgrandfatherâ€ and thence to â€œcá»¥,â€ which is a gender-neutral pronoun for â€œold person.â€
What is it about the Vietnamese & karaoke? Iâ€™m seven floors up & I can hear people going at it in the club across from the hotel. Must be a hell of a din downstairs.
Arrived in good order this morning, less wrung out than usual. Hot & muggy, with a rain shower this afternoon while I napped. There is a beautiful new bridge over the Red River & in general Hanoi looks prosperous. The airport, which in the past often had a certain Dantean quality, has been redone & spruced up; neat & efficient, the place was a pleasant surprise, especially in contrast to Hong Kong, where the airport–once a jewel of Asian modernism–has gotten rather tatty. Maybe the decline is related to the mainland’s economic turmoil.
The manager at my hotel remembered me from a couple of years ago & since I was early, settled me with a plate of fresh fruit while my room was gotten ready: passion fruit, dragon fruit & watermelon.
As noted, I slept for a while, then took a short walk & went out to dinner. I always go to the Moca Cafe on my first day in Hanoi–not because it’s the best place, but because of its longevity. The cÆ¡m rang gÃ (chicken fried rice) tastes the same as it did sixteen years ago & it was pleasant to watch the stream of Hanoians & tourists go past the open windows & to hear the raw, unmelodious bell of St. Josephs.
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.
Catch the Cape Air commuter this afternoon to Boston, from which I take a Cathy Pacific flight to Hong Kong & then on to Hanoi. The layover in Hong Kong should be just long enough to eat at the airport’s wonderful dim sum restaurant.Â Of all the intermediate airports I’ve stopped at on previous trips, Hong Kong’s is by far the best. Tokyo & Singapore are all right, Frankfurt by far the worst, largely because of the snarling security functionaries.Â
Noi Bai, the airport at Hanoi, is improving, but can be chaotic during busy periods. The main lesson I’ve (mostly) learned from the dozen or so trips I’ve made to Vietnam is to travel light. I pack, then try to subtract ten percent of what I’ve packed. Closes are inexpensive in Vietnam, even when custom-made, so I usually anticipate buying shirts once I arrive, trousers, too: the tailors can copy any pair I bring.