From my Travel Journal … thoughts on Vietnam and on being a foreigner

9 May

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From the vault of my travel journal I dredge these musings on Vietnam and our dubious role in the stoic, mysterious country

“He either fears his fate too much, or his deserts are small, that dares not put it to the touch, to gain or lose it all.” ~James Graham

” The world is a book. And those who do not travel read only a page.” ~St. Augustine

” Hey, Ho! Let’s Go!!” ~The Ramones

Christmas day.

A cyclo driver catches some zzz's


We have not gotten each other anything. Perhaps something small will yet pass between us. The day is December 25th, but aside from the occasional faded holiday decoration, and in Saigon, the occasional child wearing a felt Santa outfit, it seems like any other day.

Except perhaps that our family and friends press more keenly against our imaginations. We have no traditions today and will probably spend it at the beach and reading, and of course tap tap tapping away at these keys. Vietnam. It has taken heavy tolls on Bridget and I. Thailand to Cambodia; two different worlds, but Vietnam is set apart most of all. It has made us tired, I think. In Vietnam we swing between feeling completely unwelcome and excepted with gladness.

Vietnam is quick to be offended, and the children aside, slow to smile. We are stared at constantly. Yes, the town we are in now, Long Hai is completely devoid of westerners, so the pale, and towering tourist are a sight to behold. But we feel eyes pushing us away. And often just as we are discussing glumly that we do not feel welcome someone will call us over to show us how to dig for tunneling crabs, pour us a drink of rice whiskey and place a screaming baby in our lap.

We sat on the large families beach mat and they gathered around us and stare unabashedly, chattering and laughing with each other but always staring. We squirm under the persistence of the their gaze. Do you have a hoop? Would you like me to jump through it? Indeed this is part of it and nothing new, but it is something wordless behind their eyes that unsettles us.

Children shout “Hello!” and erupt in giggles when you greet them in return, but this does not usually carry over to the adults. We feel Vietnam to be far more steeped in tradition and historical preoccupation, more “eastern” than Thailand and Cambodia. The language barrier, while a small picketed fence in the previous countries, is a looming rampart in Vietnam. They seem to consider us more deeply and sternly. As a people they are far more internal and enigmatic to me.

We have made friends, don’t get me wrong. Last night we were beckoned over by two young gents of 23 who order fresh garlic beef sauteed with onions and noodles, dishing us up. They filled our small bowls with noodles then ladled a sweet and sour broth which simmered a whole fish carcass into our bowls.At the end of our meal, when my broth is cold and I am filled I am given half a slimy fish head, milky eye peeking out at me.

We killed the remains of the rice whiskey they had been drinking and they shouted to the old lady watching the television to bring more. The whiskey is a home spun hooch stored in beer bottles and they pour tiny shots into a tiny shot glass, crying out and clapping in jubilation when Bridget or I put it down the hatch. They would go on and on in Vietnamese, repeating words slowly with great enunciation as if we could deem understanding if we only heard the strange words enough times.

Vietnamese asks more of the quick, flapping tongue and more of tonal inflections than any other language I’ve yet encountered. They flipped through our guide books and stumbled through English they were reading. They taught us a few words, but mostly I said yes so we could move along with the strange conversation to some other nebulous topic.

They filled our bowls and put the thimble like shot glass before us as soon as it emptied. They thought Bridget would get drunk and squealed when she threw back the cup. Rice whiskey goes down smooth and has little bite. Cigarettes were on a little dish with chili peppers underneath. They smoked constantly.

We have a date tonight to meet again at 7pm.

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