Bouncing off the Walls (VN Diary No. 37)

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. Continue reading

Finishing Up (VN Diary No. 36)

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.

Realism (VN Diary No. 35)

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:

  1. Idealism is a terrible basis for foreign policy (and probably for life in general);
  2. 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.

Ve Nha (VN Diary No. 34)

I’m back “home” in Hanoi. Arrived yesterday in a driving rainstorm that flooded some of the streets on the outskirts of town. On the recommendation of one of the guidebooks, I’d made a reservation at a hotel on Hai Ba Trung called The Artists, but when I arrived it was just a little too funky for me and this morning I checked out and moved into a place that costs four dollars a day more, but which is an order of magnitude more elegant. The other place had a certain boho charm and would have been fine when I was in my twenties, but it was not a place I wanted to spend another two weeks. The new place, the Huyen Trang on Hang Trong Street, is great — quiet and spacious and with a really good shower. My only complaint is that the coffee in the cafe isn’t strong enough.

“Ve nha” means to come home in Vietnamese and returning to Hanoi after Saigon and Hue does feel like a homecoming — one in advance of my real homecoming in two weeks. Unfortunately, I’m having a reoccurance of the intestinal issue I had a couple of weeks ago, so I’ll probably have to go to the clinic tomorrow and get a dose of cipro. I don’t actually feel all that bad, except that I notice that the traffic and the shoeshine boys are more irritating when I’m feeling a little off. Usually that stuff just rolls right off me. Truth is, I’m a little bored. I suspect the feeling will pass as I recover and when, after the weekend, I go back to language lessons and take a cooking class. There is a psychological turn in a trip like this, though, and I think this weekend is that turn, or the beginning of it. I’m still planning to get a number of things accomplished, but I’ve begun thinking about what I’ll want to do when I get back to South Colton and Carole and the dogs and all the weeding I’m told awaits me in the garden.

Update: Feeling much better this morning. Looks like I won’t need to go to the clinic for meds, though I’ll withold a fianl decison until tomorrow morning. Took a walk around the Old Quarter. and hardly noticed the traffic and the shoeshine boys and cycle drivers vying for my attention. Found myself interested again in the Vietnamese words of things whereas yesterday I’d been entirely indifferent. So I walked around and took a bunch of pictures and found myself  at one point grinning from ear to ear.

Cyclo Politics (VN Diary No. 33)

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.