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.
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.
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.
After going out this morning to cash some travelers’ checks, I’m spending most of the day in my hotel room. I spent the last couple of days in Hue walking around in the heat and yesterday (wearing a t-shirt) I got a bit of sunburn on my neck. Nothing serious, but all the sun and walking have made me tired so I’m relaxing and writing in my notebook and starting to pack for the short hop up to Hanoi early tomorrow morning.
Last night, though, I had a great dinner. There are three small restaurants on Dinh Tien Hoang Street, all owned by the same extended family as far as I can tell, and specializing in banh khoi and bun bo, two Hue specialties. The firsst is a cross between an omelet and a pancake and is filled with onions and bean sprouts and served with a peanut sauce and spicy herbs; the second is Hue’s version of pho, a beef noodle soup that here in Hue is quite spicy. I had banh khoi in one little restaurant, then went next door for bun bo, then took a cyclo back to the hotel.
I’m in Hue now. This morning Lan’s friend (now my friend) Tran Thu Mai took me to a beautiful pagoda in the mountains northeast of Hue, then on a tourn of the Nguyen court’s citadel, where many of the palaces and temples have been beautifully restored. After a brief rest and cool down at my hotel, I took a walk around the city on the south side of the river. Only mad dogs and Americans go out in the early afternoon sun of Hue, but I went slowly and drank lots of water as I walked. I came back with my clothes soaked through with sweat and gratefully absorbed the hotel’s air conditioning for a couple of hours before heading out for dinner. Went to a little neighborhoos place Mai recommended for pho, then wandered to a sort of western style cafe where they have American movies on a big TV with Vietnamese subtitles. They turn the sound off on the movies and play western pop music, most of which is a generation or two recent for me to have heard it, but the have very good taste and it’s a weirdly enjoyable place to have a drink and bend one’s mind around the cultural complexities of globalization.
I’ve noted before that it’s easiest for me to understand Vietnamese when I am inside a stereotypical situation like a restaurant or a taxi or a shop. Tonight I’m sitting in a “modern” cafe in HCMC where Vietnamese pop music is piped over a really good sound system and I find I can understand almost all the words of the songs. Pop songs, of course, have a narrow range of subjects and a remarkably limited vocabulary. Lots of lines about being “only one man” who is “alone” and always “asking” for “understanding” or “a little more time.” And so on. I’m grateful for what I would otherwise find a distraction because it provides some evidence that bits and pieces of the Vietnamese language are sticking in my brain.