Arrived yesterday after a very long trip but without incident. Was met as arranged with a driver from the hotel, which made the last leg of the trip as seamless as all the rest. I’d been absurdly afraid that Vietnam would be somehow less challenging — smoothed out by modernization — but I need not have worried. Same crazy traffic, same utter disregard for Western notions of zoning, same water buffalo being led across lanes of traffic from the airport by little boys.
Item: I did notice a couple of changes — everyone who rides a motorbike now wears a helmet (though some are pretty minimalist in design) and, in town, the street hawkers seemed much less aggressive than before. Maybe I was just too dazed to notice.
Item: I find that when I have the vocabulary I can generally make myself understood in Vietnamese, but the biggest difference is that I can hear spoken Vietnamese better than before. I chalk this up to drill with the computer, however sporadic, over the last few months. It’s my intention to make this trip an exercise in intensive language study.
Item: The long Cathay Pacific flight was very pleasant — more room in coach than is usual, I think, with attentive service. The amenities may not have been quite so nice, but any slight economizing that’s taken place since the last time I flew the airline didn’t detract from what was a very comfortable flight. It didn’t hurt that the airplane was only half full and that I had my entire row to myself. I slept a fair amount and read quite a bit, finishing another of the Patric O’Brien sea novels I’ve become re-addicted to recently. I tried to watch Sweeney Todd on the video screen, but I couldn’t get into it — I liked the music, but the pacing was tedious, perhaps to make space for the music. The whole Tim Burton night-of-the-living-dead / teased hair and black eye-shadow way of imagining the nineteenth century just did not seem convincing to me, not that I require historical fidelity. Add a comic book conception of good and evil and you don’t have a very convincing package.
Item: Just had my first Skype experience, a call from Carole, with video! When I first came to Vietnam more than a decade ago there was no such technology — only very expensive land-line calls. The quality of this call with Carole was remarkable, especially when you realize that it was free. I don’t have a video camera, so she couldn’t se mee, but I could see her — and Candy sitting on her lap. Over her shoulder I could look out the window at the Northern New Yoek spring. Amazing.
Despite the fact that I haven’t quite made it to VN yet, this is my fifth diary entry. I’m in the Hong Kong airport drinking Starbucks coffee and enduring my final layover before I make the hop over to Hanoi this afternoon. If you asked me exactly how long I’ve been in transit I wouldn’t be able to tell you — once you cross the international dateline flying west for 18 hours, the elasticity of time becomes weirdly evident. The Hong Kong airport also looks like a larger version of the Ottawa and Vancouver BC airports from which I started my trip, which lends a spatial element to my temporal confusion. The good news is that it’s mid-morning and, having slept a bit on the plane, I am not entirely wiped out. No telling how I’ll feel by the time I actually check into the Spring Hotel on Nha Chung street in the Old Quarter of Hanoi. I’m hoping to have the energy to shower, take a walk, and eat dinner at a banh cuon stall.
I’ve been sitting in the Vancouver BC airport for four hours after flying in from Ottawa. My flight to Hong Kong doesn’t leave for another four hours and lasts thirteen hours! Yikes! Then I have to hang around the HK airport for several hours before flying to Hanoi. I’m unlikely to have a working brain cell by the time I get there. Had a lovely drive to the airport with Carole today — we left early enough to stop on the Black Dog Cafe in Manotick for lunch. It’s one of our favorite places and it set me up nicely for my flight. I had a window seat for this leg of my journey and the approach to Vancouver over the Cascades was breathtaking — sheer snowy ridges receding into the distance, then giving way to the green lowland plain. Breathtaking. I’ve been listening to Leonard Cohen on my iPod and reading a Patrick O’Brien sea novel, “The Truelove,” which has the virtue of holding one’s attention without taxing it. also picked up a volume of Margaret Atwood short stories that I’m looking forward to.
A couple of disappointments to report: The workshop on political poetry I was going to give at the University of Minnesota was cancelled for lack of students — I’m consoling myself that it’s the tough economy. I had also just sent off a book proposal to Oxford University Press for a little book about Vietnam and got a response today saying that it’s a great idea, which is why they recently accepted a similar proposal. I’ll send it elsewhere, but I think it would have been perfect in Oxford’s elegant series of Very Short Introductions. I have only myself to blame — I thought of this a couple of years ago but only recently typed up a proposal and sent it off. Poor timing is in some ways the story of my life.
I’ve been very calm up to now, but leaving tomorrow for VN after eight years away has me in what a nineteenth century novel might call “a state ofnervous excietment.” I can’t say I’m looking forward to the flight, which involves around 18 hours in the air, with a couple of longish layovers that stretch the trip out past 24 hours. I will be able to avail myself of the restorative effects of an excellent dim sum restaurant in the Hong Kong airport — I hope it hasn’t changed — which I will definately need at that point, just before I make the jump over to Hanoi, where I will arrive in the late afternoon. It’s a fairly long drive in from the airport, so my plan will be to drop my bags at the hotel, take a walk, have a light dinner and see if I am able to go to sleep. The next morning I’m going to go make some reservations at a cooking school and arrange for a language tutor — poetry will have to wait until Monday!
Well, all the preparation is complete. I’ve picked up my travel funds from the university, gotten travelers checks, made sure my prescriptions are filled, taken my old car to the dealer who has my new one on order, packed most of my things, sent all the necessary emails, and now I feel as if I am on a little vacation before I go on Tuesday. My trip is shaping up a little differently than I had originally expected, its shape determined to some extent by who can help me and who is available to meet with. I’ll probably spend a bit less time in Hanoi and a bit more in HCMC, with a few days in Hue it now appears. I spent a couple of lovely days in Hue in 1998, so I’m looking forward to getting to meet writers there. And I have a strong bias toward Hanoi and the north, so it will be good to explore the virtues of HCMC and the south. With luck I will get out to Chau Doc to see the Lady of the Realm, the center of a relatively new cult in Vietnam, which is famous for inventing a wild variety of syncretic religions. I’m curious about the degree to which a tendency toward syncretic pragmatism might affect contemporary Vietnamese writers.