Vietnam: A Memory from a Place and Time

Vietnam: A Memory from a Place and Time

By: Rad Wood

Looking out on the beautiful landscape outside of Sapa, Vietnam.

Sitting in my pedicab in Saigon, as my journey around the city begins.

When I began my journey, most often, I would write about my time in a place during a travel day.  I would sit on a plane, a bus or a train, pen and notebook in hand, and write about the place I had just been as my mode of transportation ferried me into newer surroundings.  This routine worked well.  It helped pass the time on long trips, it allowed me to spend my time in new places exploring instead of writing and, most importantly, it provided me with a window to write that was close in time to the subject I was writing about.  My thoughts were clearer and unclouded by the passage of time.  Sights, smells, feelings were closer to the present.  Three months into my trek, this process became the exception instead of the rule.  I rested on planes and trains.  I listened to music on buses.  I wrote less often.  Writing became less appealing over time.  It became an obligation.  Or, more to the point, it became a job.  In turn, I write about my time in Vietnam nearly six weeks after my exit.  Over a month of new places and people, new feelings and thoughts, new memories now stand between me and my subject.  Indeed time itself stands in my way.

Time has a way of changing the past.  Sentimentality sets in.  Memories become grander, more beautiful.  Passing moments take on greater significance. Words become more powerful. The past is mistaken for love, mistaken for beauty, mistaken for perfection and strength.  It is not that the past lacked these qualities. No, to the contrary, they all existed, just not in the quantities or the ways we remember.  The same is true of the reverse.  Moments that once stood large like the sun fade with the passage of time; mere footnotes at best, many times written off all together as no longer important.

Yet time affects us all differently.  Einstein’s theory of relativity proved this.  There is no such thing as absolute time.  Instead time is interwoven with space, two strands of the same thread.  Together they are really one thing–Spacetime. Thus two people in different locations experience time differently.  In fact, science has proven that time on the top of Mount Everest passes more quickly than time at sea level–this has to do with the difference in gravitational forces in these areas.  Further, we all know the science-fiction story where the astronaut travels deep into space and upon his return to Earth discovers that everyone he loves and knows has grown old or died, while he aged only a couple of years. To him, the trip took two years.  To those on earth, he was gone a lifetime.

This is not science-fiction.  It is science–remember, there is no absolute time.  To all parties involved, a second felt the same, a minute was no shorter or longer and an hour of staring at the wall just as boring.  Moreover, the astronaut did not magically live a lifetime, he only lived and experienced two years.  His perception of time–due to his location and speed–was different.  This sounds incomprehensible, I agree.  That is because we humans are hard-wired to view the world through the lens of absolute time.  And why not? It’s how we experience things on Earth.  So while Einstein and his colleagues freed themselves from absolute time and began to theorize that each moment of our lives continuously plays out forever–some physicists theorize that every possibility of our lives, even those we did not live, or do not think we lived, play out continuously–we in the world of jobs, appointments, births and deaths continue to move away from our past ignorant of its possible continuous existence.  Thus until time travel allows me to revisit myself in Vietnam, I must settle for what memories remain in my cluttered brain.  I must write about a time that, to me, no longer exists.  In its place, thoughts and memories clouded by sentimentality and separated from me by time.

I remember my taxi ride from the Saigon airport.

Everything was going smoothly.  I made my way through the visa line, retrieved my luggage, and cleared customs.  I exited the airport and quickly found the taxi line to the right.  It was evening, but the airport waiting area was well-lit.  Someone in front of me grabbed the first taxi.  I walked up to the second.  The driver stood next to his vehicle smiling at me and waiving me over.  “You have a meter?” I asked as he motioned for my luggage. “Yes,” he responded.  “OK, we use the meter?” I asked.  “Yes,” he answered.  I declined his offer to take my bag, placing it in the back seat and sitting down next to it.  We started on our way.  This was so simple, I thought.  Nothing like the stories I had read online about shady Vietnamese taxis.  Or so I thought.  As we exited the airport, we stopped at an exit gate and paid a fee.  The sign said it was the equivalent of fifty cents.  After paying and before starting on our way, the driver turned to me, “You pay exit charge,” he said in broken English.  “Sure,” I said.

Less than one-hundred yards from the exit, the driver slowed down, again turned toward me, and continued in his broken English.  Initially, I could not understand him.  I asked him to repeat himself a few times.  But soon it became clear.  He told me my hostel was “very far” and that the traffic was “too very much” so we could not use the meter, but instead the ride would cost $30, including the exit fee.  “No, just use the meter, like you said,” I demanded.  He ignored me.  “The hostel too far, too much traffic, and exit fee,” he explained.  I told him I knew the exit fee was fifty cents.  That caught him by surprise.  He began stumbling through a response before giving up and saying matter-of-factly, “Thirty dollars.”  I would not give in, “The hostel is close, less than eight kilometers and the traffic is fine, just use the meter.”  He said no.

I told him to pull over.  We were only a few hundred yards from the airport.  This area of the city was fairly desolate at this time of night.  He pulled over.  I picked up my bag from the seat next to me, opened my door and, as I stepped out, told the driver I would not pay because he lied to me.  I then walked to a restaurant a hundred feet away or so and the only establishment open.  Inside, I asked the receptionist and a waiter if they could help me get a taxi.  They looked at me confused at first, but slowly figured out what I requested, nodded and led me outside.  Where we found my former taxi driver waiting.  The restaurant employees pointed to him as if to say, “Here’s a taxi.”  I told them no, this was the taxi I just had and he tried to rip me off.  My former driver then began to plead with me to get back in the taxi. I ignored him looking for another taxi.  He threatened to call the police.  I asked him to.  He then began to lower his price. First $20, then $15, then $10 before he offered to just use the meter.  I refused, “I’m not getting in your taxi.  You tried to rip me off.  I don’t trust you.”

At this point, the entire restaurant staff–about five employees–was outside watching the cab driver and me argue.  They were solidly in my corner, smiling when I spoke and shaking their heads at the taxi driver.  When the taxi driver offered to use the meter, I contemplated returning to the cab, but when I looked at my restaurant friends, they shook their heads.  Five minutes into our sidewalk ordeal, a second taxi pulled up.  I approached the passenger window, as the driver rolled down the window of his van.  “Do you use meter?” I asked simply. “Yes,” he responded.  I pointed at the other taxi, “He wouldn’t use meter, but he said he would.  You promise to use meter?” “Yes, I have to use meter,” he answered.  I went to the back door and slid it open.  The other taxi driver began yelling at me to pay my fair up to where I got out.  I closed the door and my new driver drove off.  Welcome to Vietnam, I thought.

I remember my hostel.  How it sat down an alley full of other hotels and hostels.  The entrance to the alley was across the street from a popular park where locals played games, talked and lounged in the late afternoon sun.  I remember that as I walked through the maze of alleys around my hostel that the homes in Saigon were open.  Their fronts were not made of walls, but of large windows and doors that often had bars on the outside, but were otherwise left open, allowing the air and noise of the street to mix with that of the home.  It was common to walk by and be able to see everything a family was doing in their front room. I remember my roommates–three Brits in their young twenties crisscrossing Southeast Asia.

I remember my head cold.  It started my last day in Melbourne and grew worse for two days before slowly getting better.  My nose leaked constantly.  My pockets always filled with tissue.  I sneezed. And sneezed.  Twice I sat down for spicy, teeming-hot Pho and as I ate, each time, my congested nose would begin to empty itself.  A mixture of sweat, steam and mucus that needed to be wiped away.  Having no napkins at the table, I was forced to use a cloth towel that was at the side of my table.  During my second meal of Pho, the waiter pulled the towel from my hand in disgust.

I remember the Cu Chi tunnels–the underground world of the Vietcong.  Streets burrowed into the ground to escape death, burrowed to help perpetuate death.  I remember crawling on my hands and knees, in the dark stuffy paths, unable to stand, at times having to lower myself to more of a shuffle than a crawl.  How many people died in these tunnels?  How many escaped death in these tunnels.

I remember watching an old 1960s black-and-white documentary about the Vietcong.  And how the narrator used the term Hero American Killer.  And how those words shook me.  I knew our war in Vietnam was not just, but it felt wrong to hear someone called a hero for killing Americans.  Life is about perspective.  May we always be able to see the world through another’s eyes.  This will lead to greater understanding and less conflict.  Less heroes that kill and more that save.

I remember my temporary friends, with whom I shared the tunnels.  Two Israelis, who followed me to the end of the tunnel as most people exited early, escaping the dark, tiny tunnels for the freedom and light of the earth above.  Then there were the handfuls of friendly Australians with their children, the two British girls from my hostel, who were on a six-week holiday in Southeast Asia and the American girl, Felicia, from California, who now lives in New York.

I remember taking a boat from the tunnels down the Saigon river and back into the city.  I remember how the green of the plants invaded the bluish-brown of the river and how the locals drove boats decades old.  Our guide from the tunnels returned on the boat with us.  His English a mixture of Australian, American and British.  A patchwork of the tourists he has met over the years.  He played with the Australian children, making them feel important.

I remember the pedicab.  How the driver took me around Saigon for two hours, stopping at museums, churches, markets and places to eat.  His English was limited.  We communicated with hands and smiles. I remember the national war museum, filled with old U.S. tools of destruction–helicopters, tanks, jets.  I remember the gruesome pictures of war on the walls inside the museum–death frozen in time; the result of agent orange burns, the result of mass bombings, the result of mass burnings.  The pictures told many stories; of slaughters of survival.  I remember the museum’s wall dedicated to those around the world who protested the injustice of the war.  And how the largest part of this section spoke of the opposition by U.S. citizens–the self-immolation of young men, the deaths at Kent State, the marches on Washington.  I remember the lump in my throat as I saw this monument to U.S. civilians next to the pictures of dead Vietnamese civilians.

I remember heading north to Hanoi and out to Sapa.  There was the over-night train that swayed like a boat on the ocean.  My roommates were three young Vietnamese women, who went to sleep at 9:30, leaving me only a small light by which to read, and awoke by 5:00 am, leaving me awake, tired and searching for a return to sleep.

I remember seeing the rolling green hills of the south-eastern edge of the Himalayas–Sapa.  How they looked covered in terraced rice-paddy fields of yellow, green and brown; a picture in a children’s fairy tale book.  I remember my guide, a Vietnamese man the same age as me, who wanted to talk of the Samsung-Apple lawsuit.  He an Asian, supporting Samsung, and seeing in me, an American, and obvious supporter of Apple.  He also spoke of opening a school to teach English in Vietnam.  He asked me to come work for him.  He could offer room and board.  I remember the meal he cooked for me; rice, vegetables and meat.  One of the best I had in Vietnam.

I remember our hike through the rolling hills of rice-paddy fields.  And how it winded its way out of Sapa town up the side of a large hill before heading back down into a tiny farm of the Black Hmong people.  How we met four women from the Red Zao tribe who followed us on our trek for miles as we hiked up hill after hill and through the pouring rain that soaked our shoes and pants.  I remember buying a hand-crafted scarf from one of the Red Zao women and giving the other three one dollar each.  I remember how all the Red Zao women had shaved the front of their heads and covered the rest of their hair in a wrap.  And I remember the upward trudge through mud and over a bridge as we approached the home in the Red Zao community where we would spend the night.

I remember the family we stayed with–a young husband, an older wife and their teenage son.  They were kind and quiet–we did not speak the same language.  My guide acted as a translator when they spoke Vietnamese, but shared my confusion when they spoke Zao.  Mostly, I remember the party that was going on when we arrived.  The short, long table with long tiny benches all occupied.  The bowls of food and plastic bottles of rice wine scattered across the table.  It was a party for the husband who lived in the house.  The party was a part of a tradition involving the Chinese calendar, which the Red Zao and most Vietnamese followed.

Under the Chinese calendar, depending on which year you are born, you are assigned an animal sign–Rat, Dragon, Tiger, Monkey, etc.  There are twelve animal signs, which creates a twelve-year cycle before the signs begin again. Under the Chinese tradition, certain animal combinations are compatible, while other animal combinations do not work well together.  Moreover, each animal sign–Monkey, Rat, Dragon, Tiger, etc.–is also assigned a month.  Thus, when someone born in the year of the Dragon enters a month with a sign compatible with the Dragon that is supposed to be a good month for him or her.  When that same person enters a month incompatible with the Dragon, however, this is seen as bad luck for that person.  The remedy? The community throws a party for the person who is supposed to have bad luck.  And that’s what I walked into; everyone coming over to eat and drink and slap the bad-luck guy on the back and give him a bit of laughter and fun to combat the negative effects of the month.

I remember sitting down at the party table to the clapping and laughter of many.  How I had to eat the food so as to not offend the host.  It was challenging.  The chicken was chopped up in such a way that every bite had broken bones inside, often dripping blood and marrow.  The pork looked undercooked and was mostly fat and chewy.  Further, all of the food was cold.  It had been sitting out on the table all day long.  I tried to drown out the taste and texture with rice and spicy sauce.  Sometimes this worked.  Sometimes it didn’t.  At one point, I had to spit the meat back into my hand when no one was looking and place it in my pocket till I could excuse myself from the table, after the party, and throw it away.  I remember refusing to eat the pudding made of raw congealed pig’s blood, but accepting shot after shot of rice wine.  I bonded with my neighbors at the table–two men in their late forties with large smiles, loud laughs and insatiable thirsts for rice wine–over the rice wine shots.  Whenever my glass was empty, they would pour me another, we would cheers and drink before repeating the process.  I remember the one man at the table around my age, he sat directly across from me, and how he looked at me with knowing friendly eyes as if to say, “I wish we could speak and share our stories.  I know we would be friends.” I nodded in agreement as we drank our rice wine together.

I remember walking around Hanoi alone.  And how humid it was; sweat drenching my every article of clothing. I remember visiting the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh and climbing up an old war tour that overlooked a large beautiful park that had a temple at its center.  I remember eating Pho, the best I’d ever had in my life, and many Banh mi sandwiches, even when I was not hungry.  I remember the pond in the middle of the park in the heart of the old city.  It had a temple on an island in its center that was lit up at night.  This was a place I would walk when it was dark outside, eating ice cream and watching people go about their lives.

I remember my stay out on Halong Bay.  The thousands of rock islands surrounded our boat–a mountain range rising from the ocean.  I remember the two college kids from Switzerland, the fifty-something Kiwi couple from Australia, the sixty-something Dutch couple from Breda and the five Filipinos off all ages, and how we slowly became friends over silly jokes, good food and breath-taking backgrounds.  I remember kayaking alone around the bay, getting close to the rock islands before returning to our boat, where we had dinner and hung out on the deck as the night sky grew dark and we threw fishing lines in the black water for fun.  And on the way back, I remember how the rain clouds moved in and opened up soaking us and sending us under deck before we ever made it to shore.

I remember Vietnam.  It is a place I visited once at a certain point in Spacetime.  A point to which I cannot return, except in my mind.  A mind, as I said, that is clouded and has converted my experience in certain ways.  But the experience remains apart of me.  And so I will continue to remember Vietnam for what it was, to me in the present, a beautiful, interesting, at times difficult, but fully rewarding place with kind people and great food.

An example of how open homes in Saigon are.

Picture of a man on the street taken during one of my evening walks in Saigon.

The epic Sapa landscape.

More Sapa.

Red Zao women who followed us on our trek.

Children riding water buffalo that we passed on our trek outside of Sapa.

A room in the Red Zao home in which I stayed.

The congealed pork-blood pudding that I refused to eat.

The table after the party for the husband had ended and everyone left.

My Homestay family and me at dinner.

Picture of dinner at my homestay.

Picture of one of the water villages in Halong Bay, taken from one of the rock islands.

Picture of Halong Bay from our boat.

Halong Bay as the rain clouds began to cover us on our way back to shore.