I was talking to an American expat here who runs a company that provides training & education for Vietnamese students, helping many go to study in the US. He’s also beginning to bring American students to Vietnam, which is why I was talking to him, but that can be a subject for another day–I just wanted to make a note of something he said in passing. Mentioning an American student who had spent time studying in Vietnam and was returning for a longer stay, my friend inquired, he told me, about the reason for his return. “Love,” the student had replied. “Ah . . .” I began to say. . . It turns out he has a Vietnamese girlfriend. (That’s cool–I only get creeped out when 50 year old American / German / Australian / Korean men come to VN and take up with Vietnamese women half their age.) But my “Ah!” had not been meant to acknowledge the narrow definition of “love” — I was thinking that the student, like me, had fallen in love with the place, not merely a particular citizen of the place.
“I fell in love with the place” is of course a cliche, but I can’t really think of a better way to express the feeling I have when I come here. Hanoi is not my home, but coming here feels like coming home. I have felt this I think–or some version of it–from the day of my first arrival & now when I go out in the evenings to walk around the Old Quarter, I feel a deep affection and a sense of peace, even amid all the honking & hammering & the cries of vendors & school kids darting along the sidewalks among the chickens & parked motorbikes. There is a liveliness here that stirs my heart. Which is not to imply that it never makes me crazy. It does. That’s the way love is.
All my Vietnamese friends complain how much worse the traffic has gotten in the last few years & are surprised when I say I think it has gotten better. I’m willing to grant that Hanoi traffic is chaotic, but when I first came to Hanoi there were perhaps half-a-dozen traffic lights in the whole metropolis. Now there are lights at virtually every major intersection. It’s true that they sometimes have burned out bulbs, but they’re there and drivers take at least some notice of them. I’d say compliance runs about 80%. That is, when the light goes read, about 80% of the oncoming traffic stops, with the other 20% racing through as the traffic from the other direction begins to move. Pedestrians must take nothing for granted. Most of the traffic is still motorbikes, though there are many more cars than when I first began coming to Hanoi & the general rule is that the bigger the vehicle the less likely it is to stop for a light. Oh, and all the drivers are talking on a cell phone. Still, the lights give pedestrians an opening they did not have in the past. For one thing, once the front row of traffic stops (which can take some time in its ragged compliance) the traffic behind is blocked, leaving the way (mostly) clear. For the most part, people don’t go fast, but move mostly with the flow of traffic. I’ve been here almost three weeks, walking the city every day, and I’ve seen only one accident.
This article in the NY Times provides one more piece of evidence–as if any more were needed–in an indictment of American callousness regarding the legacies of the American War against Vietnam. In Vietnam, Cambodia, & Laos, thousands of people, many of them children, have been killed, and tens of thousands injured, by unexploded bombs, landmines, and other lethal garbage left from the American War. I am glad that the Lao government took Secretary Clinton to see the actual human damage caused by these devices. Here are some reliable statistics that give some idea of the scope of the problem. Technologies exist for dealing with these devices, but the moral will, apparently, is lacking, at least in the United States. It occurs to me that the Secretary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton–so famous for being able to “feel your pain”–might gall up a few of his rich & super-rich pals, or talk to them on the golf course, and put together a fund dedicated to removing all the explosives over, say, a ten-year period. It was President Clinton who normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995. More than twenty-five years later, the United States needs to take moral responsibility for this ongoing tragedy. There is simply no excuse not to act. We could begin by signing the international treaty against cluster bombs. Perhaps Secretary Clinton could suggest this modest step to her boss the current president.
Ate bun bo nam bo for dinner tonight–just a bowl of rice noodles with bits of beef & vegetables & a few cilantro-like herbs, but what of bowl of noodles! The food stall, long & narrow like many Hanoi shops, is right next door to the hotel & has been there as long as I’ve been coming to Hanoi. Good food and a good place for observing the local scene–couples, young families, & tonight a gangster & his flunky. I knew he was a gangster because of the shiny black scoop-neck tee-shirt and the big scar across his cheek. Apparently, the semiotic signs that spell “gangster” are cross-cultural. The flunky did not eat & I swear he was there to carry the gangster’s cigarettes. When the gangster left the young father sitting a little further up the long table said something disparaging to his wife and caught my eye. We shook our heads ruefully. What is the world coming to? The girls who wait tables–I think all the daughters of the family that owns the place–could teach those slackers at the Moca a thing or two.