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.
In Hanoi, you will often see a line of fifteen or twenty cyclos, each with a Japanese or German tourist in it, threading their way through the narrow streets of the Old Quarter. After an initial cyclo ride on my first trip to Vietnam twelve years ago, I have avoided this mode of transport. The colonial symbolism is just a little too strong and too noxious; but yesterday here in Hue I twice took a cyclo back to my hotel from the far side of the river. You have three choices here if you don’t want to walk (and I usually want to walk), but it was terribly hot yesterday. You can take a taxi, a xe om (motorbike taxi), or a cyclo. It’s mostly tourists who use cyclos, but you do see Vietnamese use them sometimes, especially if they have to carry a lot of packages. (There are also freight cyclos, which the driver often has to push rather than pedal, laden with heavy baskets of fruit, or bags of sand, or rebar, etc.) The cyclo drivers are all licensed and work for a couple of companies in Hue, so while working conditions still suck, there is apparently some concern for the drivers’ welfare. Hue is a relatively small place and the distances I traveled weren’t long, but I realized again what a terrible job it is.
The first driver, who brought me back from the citadel in the early afternoon heat was a young guy who didn’t seem to be exerting any effort. We talked in Vietnamese off and on most of the way and he didn’t seem to even be breathing hard. But in the evening, after walking to a restaurant across the river from my hotel, I felt lazy and languid and decided to take another cyclo. There were a bunch parked across from the restaurant and I went up to a kid lounging in the first one to ask for a ride, but he hailed another guy snoozing in his machine back in the shadows. Apparently there is a system of allocation. The young guy took my hotel’s business card and read it to the older guy — maybe his father– then handed it back to me. It only occurred to me as we were driving away that my driver probably couldn’t read. I had walked over Trang Tien bridge several times by the time I was carried over it by this cyclo driver and I had never noticed that it has a distinct arc. My driver was struggling up the incline. We had been talking at first, but now he was breathing hard. After cresting the center of the bridge, we resumed our conversation and he told me that his father had died in the war. The American war. So that’s what you call getting a little perspective on the world.