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.
Catch the Cape Air commuter this afternoon to Boston, from which I take a Cathy Pacific flight to Hong Kong & then on to Hanoi. The layover in Hong Kong should be just long enough to eat at the airport’s wonderful dim sum restaurant. Of all the intermediate airports I’ve stopped at on previous trips, Hong Kong’s is by far the best. Tokyo & Singapore are all right, Frankfurt by far the worst, largely because of the snarling security functionaries.
Noi Bai, the airport at Hanoi, is improving, but can be chaotic during busy periods. The main lesson I’ve (mostly) learned from the dozen or so trips I’ve made to Vietnam is to travel light. I pack, then try to subtract ten percent of what I’ve packed. Closes are inexpensive in Vietnam, even when custom-made, so I usually anticipate buying shirts once I arrive, trousers, too: the tailors can copy any pair I bring.
Well, the full craziness of taking a two-week trip to Vietnam over Christmas break has now sunk in, at least partly. It will fully sink in, I suppose, next week when I am in the think of grading final exams and essays. I wouldn’t have chosen to make a trip like this at this time, but I really could not turn down the invitation from the Writer’s Association. And it will be good to meet others interested in Vietnamese literature in translation — there will be writers and scholars from Japan and China as well as the US. I’m also looking forward to some real down-home Vietnamese feasts — when I’ve been out with folks from the Association previously, they took me to some of the best places in Hanoi, often around corners and down alleys where I never would have found them. So, I’m feeling like a very lucky man, but also anticipating being exhausted when I return to my classes, which will have begun without me! Thanks to the internet and helpful colleagues, I’ll be able to kick my Understanding Vietnam class off with films and an online chat.
1. I just heard that I’m going to have two poems in The Georgia Review.
2. It looks very likely that I will be taking a group of Clarkson students to Vietnam next May.
Someday I’ll have to put the check-in procedures at Noi Bai into a story — no one would believe it as non-fiction travel writing. I always start too early for the airport, but today my early start paid off. Traffic was bad on the drive out of Hanoi and there was chaos at the airport as hundreds of Vietnamese workers on labor contracts were processed through to Cambodia and Laos. Their extended families came to see them off. And of course I had excess baggage, then there was no ticket number in the system for me. At various points I was separated from both my baggage and my passport for varying lengths of time. In any case, I’m now drinking iced coffee in the airport’s internet cafe, so all is well. And I must give the Vietnam Airline staff people props. I was frustrated and sweating, but they were calm and professional amid the chaos. Must be because they get a lot of practice driving to work!