The main thing I’ve noticed is that we’ve gotten tired of our clothes. I was surprised how easily I adapted to wearing shorts and flipflops everywhere, feeling like a white hairy giant every time I had to sit down somewhere and my whole leg was there on display, looking like something like that could be used to sneak past Polyphemus. Even my feet have hobbit-esque tufts of hair on them. I wonder how the people here sitting next to me can keep from staring when a yeti in Adidas shorts plops down next to them on the bus. But when the high hits 90 degrees every day, you can’t argue. I go to work wearing long pants and a button-up shirt and wrench the sodden outfit off the minute I come home, stripping down to my underwear, which is all I wear for the rest of the day. Initially, it was a little awkward sitting down to dinner, but conventions such as wearing a shirt to the table were eventually flung aside. In a place that is always warm enough to make you sweat—even at dawn—there’s no point in covering yourself unnecessarily. It’d be like pulling the blanket up to your chin on a hot night just because it’s there.
Apart from the occasional Skype call, nothing intrudes on our dishabille world and, to better adapt, our clothes have become more and more absurd. In public, I wear undershirts so thin they have a pellucid quality to them, like smoke in the light of a projector, cottony and profuse yet insubstantial. My shorts make it about a quarter of the way down to my knees to allow for as much surface area as possible for the feeble breezes to cool. I never wear shoes; there’s no point, all I need is something to keep the sole of my foot from being shredded by the streets so I wear my rubber bath sandals everywhere which has resulted in some thorny calluses. Gina, at some point, went out and bought a few pairs of an item she calls jazzy pants which are billowy and patterned; each leg like a separate dress, disclosing a foot at the bottom, orphaned by its parent leg which, under the yards of fabric is nowhere to be found.
For months, we strode around wearing these ‘clothes’ strangely, without embarrassment. I have always preferred a comfortable cover. Something cotton and densely woven: jeans, shirt, sweatshirt, jacket, beanie, shoes + socks. Gina is the same. Often, we’d meet after work in the States to find we were wearing the same pile of denim and flannel, but on a chilly gray day, with the fog blowing in from the ocean, what could be better than standing on a rocky outcropping overlooking the kelp and wave troubled Pacific, holding a hot cup of coffee with your hat pulled low and your free hand deep inside a jean pocket to keep off the cold.
In Aesop’s fable about the sun and the wind, the two are trying to see which is more powerful by betting which can make a man take off his jacket first. The wind rages which causes the man to pull his jacket tighter to himself. The sun shines and, in its warmth, the man takes of his jacket. I have lived on either side of this contest, only the sun in this current version is vindictive as hell, and plans to rub the wind’s face in his victory by making the man shed everything. I’ve borne all this with great patience, but after a while, one gets tired of looking like a castaway from a beach volleyball tournament: sunglasses, tanned knees (knees fer god’s sake!), beet red and leathery face. There is no beach where I live; there is nothing but a strangely denuded city, which, for lack of tree cover, bakes in the sun. If it wasn’t for an overzealous appreciation for uniforms (school children, university students, civil service—almost anyone who is expected to be some place on time every day wears some kind of uniform) everyone would be wearing clothes like ours, shorts and flipflops. I accepted it as a necessity, but after months of vertigo induced by looking down this long column of hair that holds me up from the ground, I got tired of having no choice and had to admit my vanity, or at least my desire to moderate my own clothing choices. I got tired of wearing the exact same thing. Gina readily agreed that what is unaccounted for in tropical latitudes is that one wears the most comfortable, lightest thing available. There is no reason for additions. Clothing becomes a stark and utilitarian affair—like tying the same loincloth on day after day. After a while, the snug memory of pant cuffs over socks or a cozy scarf seems ridiculously indulgent, a bit like going out in public with an electric blanket wrapped around you, connected to a portable generator. Sometimes, I just sit and imagine the coarseness and weight of a sweater. I close my eyes and wander through autumnal forests, crackling with frost and press closer to winter fires, appreciative, for once, of both the warmth of the fire and the chill of the night.
We went to northern Vietnam anticipating cooler weather; Hanoi is the only city in southeast Asia that sees anything like a winter, but we were too early and while the city wasn’t as hot and sun-baked as southern Thailand, the temperature never dropped below 80. So rather than focus on the drastically different climate, I was left to consider the socio-cultural dimensions of the country which still blazed with yellow hammer and sickle motifs and red flags, like the flames of some all-encompassing bonfire.
Coming from the airport at night, we drove under a series of arches decorated with Soviet ears of wheat and slogans of prosperity I couldn’t read. It felt like an element of the past had somehow broken through and arrived in the present. Traveling the former Soviet Union, one sees the occasional reminders of communism, faded red stars, rain dissolved states of straight-jawed heroes of the people, but its all buried under the sheen of emergent capitalism, pushed aside to clear a space for a new billboard. Vietnam was the only place where I’ve ever seen the two ideologies so well-entwined. Obviously, in the time I was there, I had no more than a very superficial look, but all the salient elements of communist rule were present. The word ‘people’ or ‘people’s’ was visible on almost every government building, school children wore red bandannas around their necks and people who didn’t seem to be soldiers wore military-style clothing, olive drab with lots of pockets. But free trade seemed to be flourishing. There were no state-owned stores and plenty of people seemed to have their own little business selling ‘Good Morning Vietnam’ t-shirts and assorted knickknacks to tourists or at least tea and beer on the sidewalk.
When we first arrived there wasn’t much traffic. In the old quarter, there were a few motorbikes looping through the intersections but the streets were generally quiet. We were given a room in our hotel with a fake window. A small pane of glass looked out on a narrow shaft that had been artificially lit up and decorated with fake plants. At night, it didn’t seem too bad when all light is artificial; I closed the curtains so that light wouldn’t pour into the room and got into bed.
I woke up about nine hours later with the disorientation that comes of waking up in complete darkness. I tried to roll over and go back to sleep, but I was undeniably awake. Gina was still asleep and I slunk out of the room to get some coffee. When I opened the door, I felt like the natural light flooding the stairwell was going to blind me. I staggered along the wall to the elevator, squinting my eyes as tightly as I could, but even the small amount of light was making wringing such copious tears out of them, I looked like I had been sobbing all night. I felt my water to the elevator, hoping that no one would see how absurd I must’ve looked, acting like I’d been woken up by a bucket of cold water. I gained the elevator at the same time as a young, well-rested looking couple. I explained to them that my watery eyes and general bewildered look was the result of having no windows in my room. They couldn’t sympathize; their room had plenty of windows, but, they added, it also faced the street so it was very noisy. It was a hard decision, but, in the end, I think I was happier having a cave rather than a well-lit room flooded with the frenetic sounds of the Hanoi streets. When I first arrived in Thailand, I was impressed at the lack of honking despite the number of motorbikes and the chaotic traffic patterns. Gradually, I had come to take the relative silence for granted. Plenty of teenagers had their mufflers taken off and loved blasting down the street at all times of the day leaving a long wake of engine noise behind them. Maybe no one honked in Thailand, but it was still pretty loud. Hanoi, by comparison, was a cauldron of sound. Surrounded by the heavy, damp, white-washed concrete of colonial buildings the sounds of the streets crashed into each other like hot air rising from a chimney. Motorbikes tooted their horns at pedestrians, cars honked at the motorbikes, ladies walked by with bikes laden with goods, proclaiming their wares with loudspeakers, people laughed and tea glasses clinked. The traffic lights changed from one color to another heeded by absolutely no one but us and a few other tourists naively waiting on the corner for a chance to cross. It was incredible to watch so much traffic weave through itself so effortlessly. Some people driving through the green light, others driving through the red, but everyone with the right-of-way. I watched the multi-directional traffic and realized that it would never work in the US because we wouldn’t have the patience for it. Everyone was moving, but no one seemed to be in a particular hurry and, more importantly, there was no sense of ‘my turn.’ A notion westerners are instilled with and come to treasure at a young age. We cling to ‘my turn’ for security, even while we seek to usurp the ‘turns’ of others. Even when there’s nothing to possess, occidentals unconsciously box off what’s around them and place a value on it; fifth in line is better than eighth in line. One space becomes more valuable than another. We stop at the red light and wait, but when the light is green again we are impatient if the car in front of us doesn’t move immediately. We want to get out ahead. In Vietnam, the people were able to go through the red light only because they didn’t seem to care much about getting ahead. The looks on their faces were imperturbable. They moved forward not to attain a goal, but simply because they were endowed with motion from birth and knew there to be no alternative. Red and green lights make no difference in Vietnam because the people seem to understand that crossing the intersection offers no great reward or punishment. It’s just another step somewhere between birth and death. It has no value. There is nothing to gain by getting ahead of the traffic, nor is there anything to lose by falling behind. You go only because you have no reason to stop.
This didn’t stop me from feeling nervous stepping down from the curb into the torrent of horns and exhaust. It was like gradually lowering yourself into a turbid river after the monsoons when its full of green tangles of vegetation plunging along like small islands on the face of the swirling chocolate milk-colored water. Your senses are blinded by the warmth and buoyancy of the water. You hop toward the other side, feeling the rushing current pulling you further downstream. Your footing is loose and precarious. When you gain the opposite bank, you’re much further down from where you started and the river continues by, indifferent to your crossing, pushing the tangled branches and the dirty gray fish down to a great estuary. On the other side of the street, I’d look back into the solid mass of traffic, unable to understand how I’d been able to cross it at all.
Our first morning, after a particularly viscous cup of black (đen) Vietnamese coffee —which tastes sort of like it’s got vanilla or a little maple syrup poured into it, though not entirely in a bad way—we went down to Lenin park and walked absent-mindedly over the half-moon bridges, along the warm, misty-covered lake and under the dangling roots of the Banyan trees until we began to feel hungry and walked back to the Old Quarter. On the way to the restaurant, we passed St. Joeseph’s Cathedral, built by the French in the 1880s with a soot-darkened facade soaring up to a point over a small forecourt, it’s the most European feature of the entire country and homesick tourists flock to it. Either because it seems such an aberration or because we can’t help but to be drawn to what’s familiar. The shape and color of it, however, have a funereal aspect, which I guess is appropriate in a church, but seems out of place in an otherwise tangled and loud city. I couldn’t help but to marvel that it hadn’t been torn down the minute the revolution declared victory. A colonial religious building was the antithesis of a national communist rule and yet, somehow it had been allowed to survive. I expected the narthex would give some clue as to why the church had been left standing, but before entering the cathedral there was nothing but the usual dusty prayer books for sale and an attendant asleep on a glass case of rosaries.
In the afternoon, we went to the Hoa Lo Prison, which had been built by the French, if the history placards were to be believed, with the express purpose of executing Vietnamese insurrectionists. After the French left and the Americans came in, the revolutionary government maintained the prison for American POWs, although there was less information about this, perhaps because it only seems to have housed about 20 pilots who crashed over northern Vietnam. This was about as close to the Vietnam War as I was going to get. While most of the other museums noted the American War (as it’s known in Vietnam), the French and the horrors of colonialism still seemed to be the primary focus of the country’s ire. The struggle for independence had been so long and arduous, the war which followed it was just like another campaign. Ho Chi Minh died in 1969 and while Northern Vietnam continued fighting, I think it was more from impetus. The documentation of everything after 1969 seemed to be disinterested, like a period which had to be acknowledged, but didn’t have the same ‘new dawn’ nostalgia to be glossed over with. Of course, all the information was biased. In the Hoa Lo Prison there was no information about the American POWs other than that which related to how well they were treated. Pictures of basketball games, Christmas decorations and the wrapper of a care package which had been sent via Moscow were all on display as were pictures of the POWs and quotes about how much they’d enjoyed themselves while in captivity, like they were writing home from a summer camp. I found it interesting how a single building could house two such opposing viewpoints. On one side of the exhibition, the Vietnamese had been tortured, confined in appalling conditions and beheaded by the French and on the other side of the building the Americans had been treated to all kinds of entertainments with none of the deprivations, despite being in the same building. I noticed it gave no mention of where the Americans stayed, probably because all the cells had been used up to showcase the atrocities of the French.
In the end, even a notorious prison museum is like a visit to any other attraction. There’s a gift shop at the end. Where you inevitably stand and try to make sense out of all you’ve seen. I stood there, feeling the keen disappointment of knowing this was as close as I was ever going to get to the war I’d grown up hearing about. Even if I spent months in Vietnam, went down south, crawled through the old Viet Cong tunnels and held the discarded mine casings under the patter of rain on the banana leaves, everything was going to be an attraction with an admission fee and a guide. In other words, a fake, a reenactment, a Disney World animatronic soldier, blinking in that false, robotic way mouthing the words ‘war is hell.’ To make myself accept this reality, I bought a bunch of stuff in the gift shop. The weight of the postcards, t-shirts and refrigerator magnets in my backpack was to be the closest tangible connection I’d have to the war which had been such an impact on my dad’s life. There was a place in the prison to burn incense, which Buddhists do when praying. Before leaving, I lit one, placed it in the holder and watched it smoke for a while, profoundly aware of how little I knew.
When we got back to our hotel that evening, as usual, the staff jumped up to open the doors for us and inquired how we’d spent the day. We told them we’d had a very nice time exploring their city and museums (without saying exactly which ones) and they gave suggestions for the next day’s entertainment. They obviously hoped we’d be ridiculous enough to want to venture out into the countryside so we could foot the bill for a bus-boat-bus combo out to an island paradise, but package travel has never appealed to me. If I can’t get to a place as a local would, I imagine, I don’t have much business being there. “Besides,” I told the hotel staff, “we live in Thailand; I don’t care about beaches.” Once the staff realized we weren’t going to budge from Hanoi they dropped their mercenary hints about islands and emerald rice paddies and talked to us about their city. Over the five days we were there, we talked quite a bit and although the staff was always slightly obsequious, we managed to have a few nice conversations about Hanoi without talking unnecessarily about the traffic.
ii. Buying a Coat
Everyone at the hotel spoke English quite well. Most of the staff had obviously studied the language at a university level. Speaking to them, I realized I probably knew more about them than I was aware. They didn’t seem to be much different than my students in Thailand, Paraguay or Armenia. They had studied English to get this job, they considered good, which, back in the States, we wouldn’t have exactly regarded as the apex of achievement. The hotel workers all seemed to be new; they were all young and friendly. They jumped up every time anyone walked through the lobby. Just in case there should be a question, the full attention of the staff was assured. I’ve always felt a little awkward about being waited on but I try to ignore it and tell myself it’s just part of the world economic model. There’s no point in feeling guilty for what you’ve got; it can’t be given away, not in the way you’d like, anyway. As I always do, I tried to repay the staff’s humility with my own humility. I nodded at their nods and made an effort to reply to their chitchat with a smile even when they stood between me and the first cup of coffee in the morning, my face was clammy with all-night airconditioning, my eyes bunched up and leaking against the shock of sunlight. The staff went so far as to compliment me on my civil behavior, saying I was ‘nice’ as if it were a quality other guests lacked. I found this disconcerting. Because I know that people consider not being nice to also be part of the world economic model. Almost anything can be justified when you take a broad enough view. I never told the staff that it was impossible for me to act rudely to them because I’d been seeing their faces every day in classes for years and I knew they’d been good students. Consequently, I couldn’t help but to think they deserved something better than a small hotel lobby and someone as shabby as me as a customer...and that’s how I feel about travel in general, unless I’m in Scandinavia or New Zealand, some place where I know the clerk makes more a year than I do, has better health care and a view of a fjord or a sound from the lobby windows.
Outside our hotel, in the Old Quarter, was a blend of Vietnamese and tourist life. There were still plenty of Vietnamese squatting around zinc braziers drinking tea, smoking and chatting; many of them actually wearing those conical straw hats no one else looks good in. They still sell them as souvenirs and not only the hats but t-shirts, coffee (‘weasel’ and otherwise), lacquerware, jade and knock-off North Face jackets. Why they have come to be purveyors of the latter, I have no idea. There didn’t seem to be any other brands being bootlegged in such profusion. No Columbia, no REI, no Arcteryx, just North Face. Literally every corner in the Old Quarter has a shop selling only North Face apparel. As Gina and I will be leaving SE Asia soon—heading to cold mountainous places where reception clerks make more than me and then on to a December in the Midwest— it seemed prudent to buy one of these knock-off coats. I’ve never seen winter coats for sale in Thailand and, if they had them, they’d be a luxury item as, in the southern part of the country, they’d be completely superfluous. Something only people who could afford distant vacations would ever need. Despite being fake, the coats looked alright so we thought we’d buy one; I dreaded this, knowing these stores were only here for tourists and I have an irrational fear of looking like I’m gullible and going into any store for tourists is, by definition, a gullible thing to do.
These bootleg jacket shops were all about the size of a large closet. The merchandise fondling you instead of the other way around. The sleeves of the coats velcroed to your shirt as you passed and held on, ensnaring you. Of course there were no prices marked anywhere and asking only produced the usual confusing tactics. One shopkeeper would lead me in one direction, and another would corner Gina at the other end of the store. The coat I’d touched or brushed past would be tossed in a bag as if my contact with it were enough to make for a legally binding agreement and a price would be given as if it were the most iron clad thing in the world. These prices all seemed fine to me, but the fear of looking gullible made it impossible for me not to try a little bargaining. I’d seen a truck unloading bails of these coats in front of a store one night, tossing them off a truck like they weren’t even worth touching. I knew the value of them couldn’t be very high. Hanoi gets chilly in the winter, but it doesn’t get winter coat chilly but each time I tried a price the clerk seeing that I wasn’t going to be an easy sell, would lose enthusiasm and each time, I walked out empty-handed but feeling like I needed a coat more than anything in the world. If you ever want to understand the power of commerce go into a store, spend an hour looking at something, talking about it and then leave without buying it, then go another store, locate the same item and repeat. Do this three or four times. The object will hassle your thoughts until you buy it, barging in like a realization of an oven left on. If you can manage to do this without eventually buying the item or driving yourself crazy, you’re stronger than me.
Friday night, we went over to the Hanoi Social Club for a drink. The cooks in the place are under-privileged youth given the chance to study culinary school and the building is three stories of cozy attics and balconies. The place had an expat air, not so touristy, people were reading something other than guidebooks, no one was wearing those conical straw hats but the only Vietnamese around were the workers. We sat on the third floor balcony enshrouded in plants and a mist of rain that had been falling all evening. I ordered a coffee and bourbon which, apparently, no one ever does. The staff kept coming up to ask me how it was. Watching me drink it with incredulous looks like I sipping a glass of strychnine. When I told them they should try it, most of them surprised me saying they weren’t old enough to drink yet. I checked, Wikipedia says Vietnam is one of the only countries that has no official drinking age.
Sufficiently relaxed after the effects of a warm boozy drink in a rain-tapped wooden building, I paid the check determined to finish the coat business. We stopped into the first closet-store we reached, run by a woman just past middle age, friendly with an ingratiating smile. Gina wanted nothing to do with my efforts to get a good price. She indicated the coat she wanted and, after shaking her head at me for a few minutes, went to wait outside. I continually paced up and down the narrow store, taking in the 100s of coats with a sweeping glance as if to say ‘and you only have these 800? Aren’t there anymore?”I continually took down coats I had little interest in and put them on, just to look like I hadn’t decided. The woman had already tried to bag up a coat for me but I prevaricated and tried to act like I wasn’t even sure I wanted a coat to try to get the price down. “Hmmm,” I said out loud to myself. “I could probably just wear a sweater and a few plastic bags, the effect is basically the same.” The owner wasn’t having it and she watched my buffoonery with a smile, standing next to the coat she’d already bagged, knowing I was going to buy it when I was finished the bad acting. When I finally bought the coats, the owner laughed. It seemed she’d enjoyed it too. We’d had an interaction beyond the usual seller and purchaser exchange. I came out with two coats in a huge bag. Gina was waiting on the stairs of a nearby building. She’d been waiting a while. She didn’t see why I’d haggle over a price that was already ridiculously low, fake coats or not. I told her it was the principle of the thing, feeling like the lead in an old black and while movie. The light rain, the dim streetlights, the tangles of powerlines, the old balconies covered with older rattan chairs and the hammer and sickle everywhere only increased the sense of noir. The women in straw hats and long shirts wheeled the bikes they used to sell produce home for the night and I walked along toting an anachronistic bag of puffy, fake Goretex coats.
In the morning, we walked to the Citadel. The light rain from the night before had started up again and the tangles of powerlines and dangling banyan tree roots were all steadily dripping into the streets; awnings hung bead curtains of rain drops before the store fronts. The mist was largely insubstantial and didn’t fall so much as it hung in the air except in a few places where it coalesced and dropped, but in a lazy way. We stopped into a cafe down a sidestreet that had been recommended. The place had the same wooden, lamplit solemnity we’d encountered the night before at the Hanoi Social Club, but was tucked into a space not much larger than a bunk bed. The kind of place where patrons sat so close to each other, you feel obliged to speak almost at a whisper, which is great for the general atmosphere: all murmurs and the shrill gurgling of the espresso machine steam wand. A Japanese couple across from us occasionally snapped a picture and studied the guidebook open across their knees. It rained hard for a few minutes and the whole place went quiet to listen, or perhaps because it couldn’t be spoken over without using indecorous volume.
We walked to the Citadel, passing the entrance to the military museum where three or four rickshaw drivers were hanging out. It must’ve been a heavily touristed area, but in the rain, it was hard to tell. There were only two Japanese tourists milling around and a few rickshaw drivers who immediately sidled up to us with menus of places they could go and became a confusing mass of jabbing fingers. They jabbed at me, at the rickshaw and at ‘Snake Village’ on the menu which probably would’ve sounded tempting if I hadn’t read that this was just an area where they have a lot of places where you can order some kind of live cobra drink. They chop the head off the snake, drain the blood into your glass of rice wine and give you the heart, still beating, as a chaser. I tried to tell the jabbing fingers I was vegetarian, they swung around at this and jabbed at me like I was the Pillsbury Doughboy. The rickshaw drivers seemed to enjoy touching us; I couldn’t be sure if it was part of the tout or if they were just curious. Gina said they were trying to get a peak at the tattoo on her back by lifting up her shirt. I didn’t see this because one of them kept running his hand over my beard and, when he tired of that, playfully poked me several times in the stomach and ribs. Did they believe westerners liked this treatment? Who knows, perhaps we do. I certainly wasn’t offended and I got in a few stomach pokes myself. For a moment, the whole thing was in danger of devolving into a big ball of grabass. Somewhat symbolically, this all took place opposite a massive Lenin statue, built in the Soviet style with a paved forecourt about ¼ the size of a city block. Eventually we managed to extract ourselves from the jabbing fingers, excusing ourselves to go see Vladimir Ilyich.
The guidebook said the Citadel was free, but since it’s publication in 2014, a ticket booth had gone up. The price was negligible, but I still balked for a minute, wondering if it was worth it. The rain was falling harder again and we took refuge in the little museum about the French occupation surrounding the ticket booths, pointedly examining each item, reading each placard to kill time, listening to the rain falling on the thin roof of the place and looking around in the absent way people do when they’re waiting for the rain to stop.
I hadn’t expected too much from the Citadel, but the grounds were much larger than I thought. The whole complex was studded with pomelo trees. Even the view in the rain looked festive with the jade green globes seeming to float everywhere just a few feet from the ground.
The Citadel was from the 11th century, but it was surrounded with buildings containing artifacts from much earlier periods of history as well as photographs of when and how it’d been used in the colonial and post-colonial periods. In the middle of the complex, Ho Chi Minh had built a nondescript meeting room tunneling down into several bunkers. These rooms with there large conference tables were nearly wallpapered in maps from the Vietnam War-era showing multiple red arrows converging on Saigon. There were so many of these maps and they were so similar, they looked monomaniacal—as I guess all war objectives are. We walked down the three flights of stairs to the airless bunkers. Even in the bunkers, there were only conference tables. I wondered if these people ever did anything but confer and draw arrows on maps.
In the back of the courtyard there was a temple, near the temple an area where it looked like workers lived. We walked up through the spindly pomelos on a worker calmly vomiting into what looked like a rose bush. I didn’t think much of it as, in Thailand, I hear a lot of vomiting. I hear it in my apartment building nearly every morning drifting from someone’s window and occasionally elsewhere near open bathroom windows. I can’t confirm it’s vomiting, but I can’t imagine what people would gag on in such an obstreperous way if not vomit; but my imagination prohibits me from too long of a consideration of why someone would vomit regularly every morning.
We went into the temple complex, climbed a steep and narrow staircase and popped into a nearly empty room through the floor. An elderly man was standing by an open window burning incense. The smoke and the rainy light on the stone were so peaceful it was hard not to feel we were intruding on something and we tiptoed past him. The shrine in the next room was off-limits to those, like us, wearing shorts. We took a look at the Buddha statue from the doorway and continued down another stone stairway, so steep it was easier to descend backwards. Back outside, even the gray, humid air seemed bright after the smoky somnolence of the temple. A man walking toward us stopped, turned toward the bush and began to vomit so copiously, it was hard not to watch. Gina noticed that he was carrying a case of beer, so I guess that explained it, still, you’d thinking puking was some kind of ablution given the number of people so calmly engaged in it so close to the temple.
We walked through the neighborhoods to the Ho Tay Lake, passing several of the boxy ministry buildings revolutions the world over seem bent on constructing. Its exactly these systematic buildings that make me leery of any revolutionary call to action. These places all look like they’d be at home with ‘Ministry of Love’ chiseled coldly into their brutalist facades. Many of the buildings had been abandoned and the emptiness had soften them. The sagged and dripped. They had notes chalked in Vietnamese over the doors that looked like they could be translated as ‘quarantine.’ Despite a neglected look—plants growing from the eaves, surfaces blackened with stagnated dripping water, chest-high weeds in the courtyard—an elderly man sat in a chair in the open doorway of one building, looking out over the street. There was a dog curled up on the stairs not far from his feet. I had to resist the temptation to wave.
A few blocks from the lake we passed a massive yellow-orange catholic church. The cupcake -colored building was constructed mainly in cylinders with large round windows and conical rooftops at various levels. It was surrounded by a high fence I could see no way into although people were walking around in the courtyard. We admired it as we passed by but saw no reason to seek out the entrance.
We were walking toward the English-language bookshop in the neighborhood near the lake when something odd happened. Two girls, both foreigners, tourists like us, came walking up the other side of the street. We were on the left, they were on the right, both of us walking in the same direction. The streets in this neighborhood were narrow, barely enough for two cars to pass each other and with all the vehicles parked on the side of the street they were made even more narrow. With the girls on one side and us on the other there was barely enough room for the cars to get through. I tried to walk faster, but I couldn’t seem to overtake them. When I slowed down, they seemed to do the same. I wanted to call out to them, to point out how obnoxious our situation was. But I didn’t know how much English the girls would understand, not knowing where they were from. We walked on in this obtuse fashion, taking up half the street, but never admitting to it which is a standard predicament of the tourist, being forced into rudeness, without being sure how to escape it. On we walked, taking up most of the street. “Get out of the way, we’re sightseeing!” I wanted to yell at the motorbikes swerving around us. Luckily we gained the bookstore before too long and ducked in to lay around in the airconditioning and read guidebooks about other places where we’d be able to walk in the middle of the street.
Our last day in Hanoi, we went into the art museum and after the first few rooms, we found ourselves confronted with the same objects of war and revolution we’d been seeing in all the other museums. Even in the art, peasants were arranged in an ideal way, open shirt collar, bulging muscles, scythe held aloft wrapped in a strong fist. Soldiers smiled in villages, helping the elderly to gain freedom. One sculpture was weeping for a lost son and in a painting, three mothers presented pictures of lost sons, but mostly the legacy of the decades of fighting was interpreted in a positive way. The style of art may have varied, but the story was told the same way. The soldier’s gun, the farmer’s hoe and the teacher’s book are held up together in solidarity, the building blocks of the new world. There was always a faceless aggressor. The French or American forces were never portrayed as anything more than a tank or a piece of wreckage with a flag stenciled on it. The soldiers were always brave, fighting for the people. There were no acts of aggression. No mention of the Vietnamese army in Cambodia or the Boat People fleeing reeducation.
After a few hours in the museum, we came to the last floor and I was giving each painting about three seconds of my time. After five days, my legs were continually threatening to dump me and my art-stunted brain on the floor. I wasn’t even thinking anymore. I’d seen so many stars, raised fists, olive drab in the foreground, fiery red and yellow in the background. From the revolution museum to Hoa Lo Prison and even here I’d been seeing the same theme in varied permutations and it was hard to find it novel even after a few days. Even the most creative endeavors were washing past me like the blurred lights of a city through a rainy taxi window. I probably would’ve walked out with this impression, an overdose on revolutionary iconography if it hadn’t been for the bronze.
When I was a kid, about ten, my dad took us all down to Washington DC to see the Vietnam War Memorial, or maybe my mom took my dad there and my brother and sister and I just came along for atmosphere; I don’t know. The main things I remember from the trip were the wet willies my brother kept giving me on the plane (he was sitting behind me), seeing Tales from the Crypt for the first time watching HBO in the hotel room and the bronze statue of the three soldiers at the Vietnam War Memorial. I was impressed with how soft and even damp the artist had made the soldiers. Their skin looked sweaty; their clothes ruffled and dirty and the guns they carried looked heavy. It was the first time I’d seen such realism and the longer I looked at the figures, the more I expected them to come to life. Years later, as an adult, I was in DC with an afternoon to kill. I went back to the statue and had the same feeling that the figures were going to move, perhaps because by then, I’d heard enough stories to animate them. I guess that’s why they’re there, to be effigies for everyone lost in the war. A face to manipulate with memory and find your friend, your brother or your dad staring back at you.
On the top floor of the Hanoi Fine Arts Museum, they had a similar bronze sculpture depicting North Vietnamese soldiers in the war. They looked just as real and, at the same time, just as blank as the soldiers in DC, ready to be filled in with the sentiments of the people, to be scapegoated or martyred, while remaining solid, incorruptible and molded of the same material as their counterparts back in DC.