The taxi’s route to the airport passes through a number of suburban neighborhoods of varying degrees of prosperity and in each I noticed well cared for dogs on people’s stoops. I’d noticed this in Hanoi, too, and it was one of the differences from eight years ago, when the few pet dogs I saw looked skinny and flea-bitten. Then there are the jokes about eating dog meat, but that practice seems to be receeding to the margins, confined mostly to older men concerned about their verility. In the old days, I never saw anyone walking a dog on a lead, but the practice has become fairly common in Hanoi, where, in the mornings, people go down to the lake to exercise, many taking their dogs, who for the most part sit quietly waiting for their masters to finish their calesthenics or their badmitton game. The happy and contented dogs are a mark of increasing prosperity, I think. For purely sentimental reasons, I’m happy to see the change.
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!
This is my last day in Hanoi and the truth is I’m ready to go. I haven’t done much this last week except walk around the Old Quarter and buy presents for friends at home. Playing the tourist. It is of course very difficult if not impossible to get inside another place, another culture; but these last days I have felt mostly as if I’m just bouncing off the surfaces of the city. I am solitary under the best of circumstances, finding it difficult to throw myself into social rituals either abroad or at home, and I have not tried very hard these last few days to see people or go places that would require testing my language skills. The exception to this is in a few shops where I use Vietnamese to buy things. When I first came, I was adamant about using Vietnamese even in places where people speak English, but this last week, I have simply gone along with the English spoken by the waiters at my favorite restaurants. Perhaps it’s because I haven’t been feeling very well until the last few days, but I think I’m just culturally worn out. I don’t know how anthropologists who spend a year doing fieldwork can take it — I can adapt for a while, but then I want to get back inside my own assumptions about the world.
So, I’ve been bouncing around, bouncing off of things. Literally, in one case. A couple of days ago I was crossing a street near my hotel in the established manner, walking slowly and letting the traffic flow around me, when a young woman on a new Honda Dream (with granny on the back) came barelling around the corner while talking on her cell phone, hitting me a glancing blow and knocking me backward a couple of steps, though I stayed on my feet. She stopped, said “Sorry” in English, then sped off, granny giving me a dirty look as they drove away. The traffic is perverse, drivers’ behavior apparently calculated to extract maximum short-term advantage at the expense of safety and order, to say nothing of simple courtesy. Among family and friends the Vietnamese are deeply cooperative and supportivcce of each other, but in the broader public spehre, such as driving, there seems to be no sense of an abstract set of rules to which one ought to adhere. Even walking on the sidewalk, there is no standing aside to let another pass, but always the pressing of individual advantage.
This attitude shows up in economic relations as well. Twice in the last week, I’ve been cheated by street hawkers. It embarasses me to admit that I was an almost perfect victim in both cases. In the first case, I decided to finally give in and buy a couple of tee-shirts from one of the hawkers who work the streets around the hotels south of the Old Quarter. The shirts have pictures of Uncle Ho or a cyclo, with Hanoi or Vietnam under the image. The shirts should cost about three dollars, five for one with embrordery. I bought one shirt and went to dinner. On my way back, I was approached by another hawker who had missed the sale. “I saw you before,” she said. “You work in Hanoi. Why you buy from that other girl, not from me?” she asked, putting on a big pout. That’s when I should have walked away. For one thing, I was tired; for another, I’d already let her begin to manipulate me. I wanted to be a nice guy. She was pulling out shirts and handing them to me and talking a mile a minute and I was asking how much for this one how much for that one.* Did I mention I was tired? By the time we were finished handing shirts and money back and forth I had paid eleven dollars each for two shirts, a fact that only fully came into focus for me when I got back to my hotel room and my calculator. When I saw her a couple of days later she tried to tell me I had agreed to pay her another ten dollars! I told her I could have bought two silk shirts at one of the big shops for what I had already paid her and she asserted that “Those shirts are fake — real silk shirts are very expensive” and offered to show me. But when I told her I was going back to the hotel to get the shirts she had sold me so I could give them back to her, she disappeared. Haven’t seen her since. I gave the shirts to one of her competitors, gratis.
Well, it took me a bit longer to recover than I’d anticipated and now I’m taking electrolytes and acidophilus to recover from the antibiotics. Ah, the joys of foreign travel! This morning, though, I feel great and even though it is blazingly hot alread at ten in the morning, I’m going to head out and buy gifts for friends and a couple of things for the house. I often get discounts in the shops as a reward from my efforts to speak Vietnamese, but I find that the closer I get to going home the more I find myself falling back on English.
I’ve had a good and relatively productive trip, but I’m feeling ready to come home. When I was younger, I loved travel and always fantasized about “getting away,” but these days my instincts are profoundly domestic. I’m looking forward to gettng home to Carole and the dogs; I want to plant some herbs and peppers while it’s still early enough in the year; and I am anxious to sit in my own little study and write — I’ve filled a notebook here, but I can’t really do serious writing while I’m traveling.
I’m not much of a Roger Cohen fan — he strikes me as an ideological opportunist, a flag blowing first one way then the other — but the dateline of this column attracted my attention, of course. The Quiet American is the best single piece of fiction about Vietnam you are likely to read (Tim O’Brien’s stories in The Things they Carried come a close second only because they focus so closely on the war rather than the situation of the war), an exacting portrait of a murderous idealism. Cohen’s column uses Graham Greene’s novel to make a pair of important points:
- Idealism is a terrible basis for foreign policy (and probably for life in general);
- It is possible to engage with countries and cultures with whom we have fundamental disagreements.
Neither of these is particularly profound seperately, but taken together in the context of Vietnam’s relationship to our current wars, they constitute an effective analytical blade. If the US could use this pair of ideas to rationalize complete withdrawals from Iraq and Afghanistan, it is entirely possible that in twenty or thirty years we could have relationships with those countries similar to the one we have with now with Vietnam. But that would require leaving off the conventional and deeply ingrained belief in American exceptionalism — a form of idealism — and taking up a kind of realism that lacks immediate emotional punch but that would pay off in the long run. And if we’re going to exit in two years or six or ten, why not now? Like Vietnam, Iraq and Afghanistan are going to have to set their own political, social, and cultural parameters: the hard truth is that there is little or nothing the US can do to influence those choices.