Belief and Contingency (VN Diary No. 13)

It’s very hot today, in the nineties, and having gone out early for breakfast, I’m going to wait until late afternoon for an early dinner, then come back in.

Vietnam continues to exert this weird pressure on my psyche. It’s hard to describe, except to say that it has always, in each visit, forced me toward self-appraisal. Maybe it’s just being cast into a city by myself where I speak the language only haltingly and where everyday customs are so different from what I am used to.

Because I put little faith in the idea that any particular event is meant to be, I have a hard time accounting for my love of Vietnam and its effects on me. Philosophically, I am committed to the idea that contingency rules our lives as human subjects. I have no rational belief in larger purposes or patterns; I take a more Sophoclean attitude toward the relationship between humans and the world, that we make our fate in the face of contingency. That is, we do the best we can with what is given to us. (No piety intended here by the slightly pious language.) So I have been given Vietnam and it’s necessary to make something out of the gift. Poetry in my case, or sentences, at any rate. Sentences as gestures toward comprehension. Given by whom? Given by chance, which I think makes my responsibility more imparative that if the gift had come from the gods or the predictable machinery of fate.

Still, even in the absence of the gods, I am here to make my soul.

Chicken Soup and Tourist Art (VN Diary No. 11)

As I mentioned, Hanoi does not get up very early, the shops just beginning to open around eight o’clock. By then of course I’m in desperate need of coffe. The places that open earliest are just north of Hoan Kiem Lake, so I headed over there this morning to get some cafe nau (brown coffee), which is strong black coffee with a dollop of sweetened condensed milk lying on the bottom of the cup waiting to be stirred up with a little spoon. It packs quite a wallop and after I’d had a cup I ordered pho ga (chicken noodle soup) for breakfast, which is traditional. It was delicious, especially with a spoonful of chili sauce and a squeeze of lime juice. After breakfast, I still felt the need for a bit more caffeine, so I went to an espresso bar for a shot. Is this a great country or what?

After breakfast I came back and used Skype to call Carole. Amy was visiting in South Colton, so I got to talk to her too. In fact, I got to see both Caroel and Amy because Carole has a little video camera on her Mac. Skype is awesome — it’s completely amazing to be able to see and speak in real time literally half-way around the world. The first time I was in VN a little over a decade ago, I had to go to a special telephone “station” to make a very expensive international call. When I was talking to Amy and Carole, I mentioned the copies of famous paintings turned out by local craftspeople for the tourist trade, some of them astonishingly bad. There is also a kind of hyper-department-store genre as well, in which the paintings are generic rather than being based on models [Here’s a slide show that includes some of the paintings and narrates my trip so far — I’ll be adding images as I go and I need to go back and put the Hong Kong airport images in, too.] One wonders what Plato, so afraid of copies, the copy always being inferior to the original, would have made of these paintings. They are certainly inferior by almost any standard, but interesting.

This Place (VN Diary No. 10)

I had two dreams about Thanksgiving — the American holiday — last night. I woke from each feeling profoundly happy. Neither had anything to do with Vietnam other than that fact that I am in Vietnam dreaming. I don’t remember anything but the feeling tone of the first dream, but in the second I was in a church basement with strangers getting ready to eat Thanksgiving dinner. There was an old man to my left and a woman named Maria across the long table from me, as well as some other people. Looking at Maria’s smile, I began to smile too, a feeling of deep contentment coming over me so intense it woke me.

Eight years ago, standing on Tran Hung Dao St. here in Hanoi, Lady Borton and I were having a conversation about people we knew who had come to Vietnam — Americans — and been changed is various ways by the experience. There was Lady herself, John Balaban, a bunch of writers. I was a few days from going home and I had come through a rough time that I still can’t quite explain, a period of several weeks where a few minor health problems had spiraled into a bout of obsessive-compulsive thinking, restlessness, lack of apatite, and sleeplessness. All this just under the surface while I was apparently functioning pretty much normally in public, though a couple of friends sensed something weird was going on. At one point in the conversation, Lady remarked, “This place has healed a lot of people.” And it’s true, though I’m not quite sure why that should be. Writing this just now I can hear the dawn birds just staring up and in the distance a rooster crowing. My heart is at ease.

Had My Pocket Picked (VN Diary No. 8)

It was either the girl who wanted me to carry her shoulder pole — the kind that carry a pair of baskets, in this case filled with pineapples — and tried to put her hat on my head, or it was the hail-fellow-well-met who wanted to help me across the street, putting his arm around my shoulder. I had around five dollars in loose bills in my pants pocket and one of them got it, probably the girl. Because I had been to the bank, I also had about $200 in a pouch on my belt, which they didn’t get, and some more money and credit cards in a wallet buttoned in my back pocket, which was also safe. Usually I’m pretty alert about such things, but I am still tired from the trip and I had been walking around in the heat, so I must have let my guard down.

Funny, I lived here a year without every getting pickpocketed and now someone touches me on my second day in town. It’s not the money, of course, but feeling I’ve been made to look foolish. Well, I was foolish, but I’m not fretting about it. Ironically, I discovered the loss when I reached into my pocket to pull out some change for a beggar. Well, that will certainly teach me to be considerably more cautious.

In happier news, I arranged to get some language lessons starting next week. Perhaps I’ll begin by learning how to say, “You little thief.” I think it would be something like “Em la ke trom nho.”

Update: Now I’m not so sure. Looking through my wallet just now I saw a bunch of small bills — I may have put them there (instead of my pocket) when I left the book store a few minutes before my encouners on the way home. Maybe I didn’t have any money in that pocket. A nice little ambiguity there!

Morning in the Old Quarter (VN Diary No. 7)

Woke up early to the bells of St. Joseph’s Cathedral, which is right across the street from my hotel, and went out for a walk. Hanoi does not get up terribly early — things begin to open up between seven and eight — so I took a walk around Ho Hoan Kiem, the lake in the center of the city, just south of the old quarter. By the time I’d walked around the lake — where thousands of people gather informally to do a combination of tai chi and calisthenics, some to music, some not — I found a cafe open and ordered coffee and bread, managing to make myself understood in Vietnamese. After that I set off into the Old Quarter north of the lake and got completely lost. This is a part of Hanoi I claim to know well and so I’m a little embarrassed to admit that I got completely turned around. I bought a bottle of water and some bananas — using Vietnamese — and asked directions, eventually finding my way back to the lake and thus to the hotel.

Hanoi is a wonderfully friendly city, a city with a sense of humor. The young woman who sold me bananas smiled ant my language skills and was very sweet, even as she insisted that, no, I did not want two bananas but three. How could I disagree? They cost about 25 cents each and are of the medium sixed, medium sweet variety. I didn’t see any of the tiny. thumb-sized and intensly sweet variety that I’ve only ever had in Vietnam.

My everyday life in New York is so quiet and regular that it’s quite a shock to the system to be set down in the middle of Hanoi; but it’s a salubrious kind of shock that does me good, gets me out of myself. It is terribly easy to fall into the habit of thinking that one’s own way of life is the only way — not even out of a sense of superority (though that’s common enough), but out of habit — and it is good to be reminded of the wild variety of human modes of being. I am fortunate to have found this place.

I’m still tired from my trip here. It’s only 9:30 in the morning and I already feel as if I’ve had a full day. I’m going to read, then do some language drill on the computer, then go investigate taking some cooking classes, though it looks as if it might rain this afternoon. Real work can wait until Monday.