If you have recently followed me on Twitter, be advised I can’t access Twitter from VN (except indirectly by posting to WordPress, I think). I’ll follow back when I gent back to the states in December.
After dinner on my first night in Hanoi I went across the street to Chùa Bà Dá (Stone Woman Pagoda). The main hall was closed for the night, but the ancestor altar behind the main building was, as always, open, so I paid my respects there. The site’s religious associations go back, at least, to the 11th century. The story goes that while digging the foundation footings for a temple, workers found a stone shaped like a woman: whether the stone was a sculpture or a naturally produced object is unclear in the accounts I have read. In any case, the object was considered sacred, and the stone woman was set up as an object of veneration. A fuller account is presented here, but the animist impulse blended, over the centuries, with Buddhism, especially the Chan form that came over the northern border from China. During the revolutionary struggle against the French, the monks of Chùa Bà Dá supported the Communist insurgents, though I have not discovered what this support consisted of. In any case, in 1945, Hồ Chí Minh visited the pagoda and encouraged an early form of engaged Buddhism.
To a Soto Zen student, the phrase “stone woman” will surely suggest Master Dogen’s “Mountains and Rivers Sutra,” 1 in which the enigmatic line, “A stone woman gives birth to a child at night” appears. 2 Just a coincidence. of course, but one with a particular resonance for me. Note: Some other “Bà” (Mrs.) temples around Hanoi.
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.”
What is it about the Vietnamese & karaoke? I’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 cơm rang gà (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.