Why Vietnam?

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.

Leaving Today for Hanoi

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. 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. Rainy evening in Hanoi

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.

Hanoi Pictures from Previous Trips

Got My Visa for Vietnam

I’ll be heading for Hanoi later this fall. On my early trips to Vietnam, beginning in the mid-1990s, I was mostly interested in the American War & it’s effects on the country. I read a lot of history. But you can’t really understand the war without understanding Vietnam whole. (This is certainly true of any country & makes writing history in the conventional sense impossible, I suppose.) Still, it is possible to work one’s way backward in time & outward in space (both physical & cultural) from the war. All the while hurtling into the future. After that early study of history, I mostly wanted to forget the war–or at least to quit framing the place I had come to love–in terms of the war. I forget the exact figure, but I think something like 70% of the population of Vietnam has been born since 1975 when the war ended & the country was unified.

Rainy evening in Hanoi (2012)

Over the last couple of weeks, though, I have listened to the audiobook versions of two books about the war, one I’ve read more than once & have used as a text when teaching a course on Vietnam, the other new to me: Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam: A History 1 , and Lien-Hang T. Nguyễn’s recent (2013) Hanoi’s War. Neither book is a “straight history”–Karnow’s is a journalist;s history, with frequent first-person interjections into the narrative; nor is Karnow’s book a history of Vietnam: it spends part of its first chapter sketching in the long, long history of the country, but its focus is the twentieth century wars in Vietnam. Nguyễn’s volume covers essentially the same period, with even more focus on the American phase of the war, with the additional narrowing that a specifically diplomatic history requires.

Note: Before going further, I want to remark on that narration of these two audiobooks. Karnow’s text is narrated by Edward Holland, Nguyễn’s by Hillary Huber. Holland is a fine narrator, with good tone, pacing, and timbre, whereas Huber has few of these qualities. Still, Huber is the superior narrator because she took an hour or two to learn how to pronounce Vietnamese–not perfectly, but adequately. It was very difficult to listen to Holland pronounce “Ngô Đình Diệm” as “No Din Dee-em” some 500 times. There is a difference between a barred Đ and an unbarred D: the first is pronounced as in English, but the unbarred D is pronounced more like Z. This is only the most egregious of the narrator’s errors, which accumulate until anyone who has even a passing knowledge of Vietnamese will be tempted to stop listening. This is not the snobbery of one who has learned a little Vietnamese–I would not expect either narrator to try to pronounce the tones 2 of Vietnamese, but basic phonetics is, well, basic.3

The two books complement each other. Karnow’s account has helped to shape the conventional wisdom about the war while Nguyễn’s account self-consciously sets about to revise that same conventional wisdom. Karnow relies on interviews & journalistic sources for the most part while Nguyen makes extensive use of Vietnamese archives that have only recently become available. 4 The conventional view of the war is that Hồ Chí Minh directed the North’s efforts until perhaps a year before his death in 1969. Nguyễn’s research makes clear that Hồ Chí Minh & his general Võ Nguyên Giáp were largely sidelined in the early 1960s by Lê Duẩn & Lê Đức Thọ (the “brothers Lê”). Furthermore, Nguyen argues persuasively that Hồ Chí Minh & Võ Nguyên Giáp were, at least within their peculiar historical context, moderates who might have shortened the war by negotiating with the US years before Lê Duẩn was prepared to make that move. Continue reading “Got My Visa for Vietnam”

Show 4 footnotes

  1. The audiobook is a reading of the 1997 2nd edition, which was extensively revised from the original 1983 edition.
  2. The three syllables of the former president’s name have, in order, a level tone, a falling tone & a low constricted tone.
  3. The narrator of the audiobook version of Mark Atwood Lawrence’s The Vietnam War, Peter Berkrot,  is perhaps the worst offender in this parade of mangled pronunciations: He says “un-go” & “un-guy-en” for, respectively, the Vietnamese names Ngô & Nguyễn. At the same time, he gives correct, if somewhat westernized, pronunciations to the names of Chinese leaders. Lawrence’s book is a useful overview, however.
  4. Nguyễn notes that many more archives relevant to the North’s conduct of the war remain unavailable to scholars.

Chinese Recluse Poets with David Hinton

Heading down to ZMM tomorrow to a retreat with writer / translator David Hinton. I’m feeling increasingly like one of those old recluse poets like Han Shan. His name means Cold Mountain in Chinese. I’m thinking of taking the name Cold River, or Sông Lạnh in Vietnamese.


48 Hours!

When I went out to catch the taxi to the airport in Hanoi, I started the stopwatch on my iPhone, which continues to tick off seconds even when the phone is powered down. I hit “stop” when Carole pulled into our driveway in South Colton. Forty-eight hours, two minutes & fifty-three seconds: that’s how long I was in transit. In Hanoi, before being allowed to check my bag, I had to split it into two because it was too heavy. Fortunately, the Vietnamese are prepared for this eventuality & I was able to purchase a zippered plastic bag that, once filled, is wrapped tightly with wide plastic tape using a machine I have seen nowhere else. Okay, so three hours to Singapore, then a six-hour wait for the flight to Frankfurt that continues on to JFK. Had a very good Chinese dumpling (well, two, actually) for dinner & walked around looking at the amazing displays of consumer goods. The whole place is designed to make you feel bad if you don’t buy something, but other than my dumplings, I didn’t buy anything.

Singapore has very careful, though friendly enough, security procedures. The gate area is enclosed & all carry-on bags & documents checked. Once aboard, we taxied out & took off for a nearly twelve-hour flight over Southern & Central Asia & Eastern Europe. Most people try to sleep, but it is a miserable flight. Singapore Airlines is very good about distracting passengers with food, but twelve hours in an economy class airline seat is not much mitigated by even the very good food they serve. The woman in the seat next to mine solved the problem by sipping red wine throughout the flight, keeping, I imagine, just a light buzz of contentment. I listened to music — mostly Dylan & Leonard Cohen, with some Bunk Johnson & Blind Willie McTell mixed in, then shifted over to an audio version of Tristram Shandy I’d downloaded to my Kindle before leaving. Sterne’s novel is structured much like a dream & was the perfect choice: I drifted in & out of sleep for nearly five hours with Peter Barker’s droll voice enacting the scenes of the story in my mental theater. But while the audio version of Tristram runs nearly twenty-four hours, I eventually tired of the drollery with more than half the flight to Frankfurt remaining.

I read, I dozed, I watched the little figure of the airplane crawl across the video map of the world on the seatback in front of me. I tried to meditate but found it impossible. I should have tried harder, given the ordeal that awaited me in Germany. We touched down in the early morning & as we were rolling toward the gate, there was an announcement to the effect that those of us continuing to JFK would reboard the plane at the gate next to the one where we were disembarking. I’ve been on this flight before & this was a new wrinkle — we’d have to clear security again. Everyone is directed down a very long, featureless hallway and along a ramp in which all the doors are closed & guarded. Where the hell are the restrooms? I always thought Germans were fanatical about toilets, but apparently not for airline passengers. We arrive at a security area, get our boarding passes & passports checked, put our bags on the conveyor, walk through the metal detectors . . . & then we’re on our way, right? Well, some of us are, but quite a few of us have our bags slid over onto the far side of the outflow table, where we have to go retrieve them.

In front of me, a beefy female security cop is going through the bag of a middle-aged woman who has had the temerity to smuggle a six ounce jar of some kind of cold cream into her luggage. The cop tells her it is “a violation” & tosses it in the garbage. Now it’s my turn.

“Is this yours?”
“You will have a special check. Please follow my colleague.”

I am led into a little room where another beefy cop, this one male, tells me to take my camera bag out of my backpack, then has me open the bag & take the camera out, which he then swabs for explosives. After he puts his swab in the machine & it comes out negative I am allowed to repack my stuff & go on my way. But no, as I am hiking back out to the gate — still no god damned toilets — everyone on our flight is stopped for another document check, which is badly organized, mean spirited, & just simply idiotic, since just ahead of me they let a family get back on the airplane even though mom seems to have lost half their boarding passes.

And my trip home was only half over. I spent another hour watching German security cops swagger around the gate area with their pistols on their hips, joking with each other & scowling at everyone waiting to resume their trip to New York. So was their some kind of threat? A piece of luggage without apassenger? Maybe, but I think it much more likely that it was merely arbitrary. As a final insult, it was real easy to log on to the “Free Wifi” in the boarding lounge; unfortunately, the wifi wasn’t connected to the internet.

The rest of the trip was long, but mostly uneventful, with the exception of how well I was treated at JFK by the check-in folks at Jet Blue — remember my heavy bags? — & by the crew on the plane up to Burlington. Everyone was really nice & went out of their way to be helpful. Carole met me in the afternoon, we took the ferry across LakeChamplain, then drove home, where, as I mentioned, I arrived almost exactly forty-eight hours after setting out from my hotel in Hanoi.