Vietnam, Part II (Apr. 14-May 3) – Paul Kan’s Asia Journal …

Apr. 14-May 3Vietnam, Part II

In this story:
   A Haunting Beauty
   Traffic as Culture
   Notable Sights

After having been in Vietnam for over two and half weeks, beauty would almost seem to be an understatement. (Which is part of the reason why I am so delayed on my update: there seemed to be so many things to say, and I still don’t feel as if I am saying them right.)

Despite the melting heat, the signs of poverty everywhere, the ever-present hawkers and dusty roads, the countryside was also lush, the cities surprisingly clean, things so inexpensive (about 10% or less of what things would cost in New York), and the people so warm and embracing. And the views – not less than every other moment would I think how beautifully haunting Vietnam was, as if the country had been in a "Rip van Winkle" reverie for 50 years while villages and cities aged, and then recently awakened. In a way it was, but it was more of a bad dream. The country had been at war for 50 years; its most recent conflict, with Cambodia’s Khmer Rouge, only ended in 1989.

A Haunting Beauty

It’s a little hard to describe the beauty that I experienced in Vietnam. It was not your ordinary Greek islands’ blue skies and blue seas beauty. And the aesthetic, most evident I think in the countryside, took some time to sink in. However, when it did, it had the most dreamy and surrealistic haunting feel to it. (I sometimes wonder if I would have received the same feeling only being in one isolated place, as compared to the total experience of traversing the countryside. And I think I would have still felt similar feelings, albeit less reinforced by repetition from many different forms over time.)

Indeed, the Vietnam landscape was beautiful: the fine mist over lush green fields punctuated by islands of trees, ancestral cemetery stones, water buffalo, and crouching conical-hatted figures, shin-deep in flooded rice fields under a sinking sun. But although beautiful, it was not necessarily unique to Asia.

What was beautifully haunting about Vietnam was not only the landscape itself, but rather the signs of war and French colonial influences that were juxtaposed onto that landscape, and the peaceful grace and beauty of the Vietnamese people. Even 25 years after the "American war" had ended, everywhere you went you could find memories of the war, from huge bomb craters, shell and munitions casings, and scraps of old military vehicles to the scores of Vietnamese deformed from parents living in an environment subjected to chemical agents.

Buildings in Vietnam tended to fall into three categories: crumbling French colonial, monolithic communist party buildings, and economically bare concrete boxes. (There were also many newer yet crumbling concrete buildings that seemed as old and very much like the older colonial buildings, perhaps from poor construction, upkeep or maybe just the paint scheme.) However, the most haunting were the old French buildings: mostly deserted, converted (into party offices or official residences), and often surrounded by lush fields of green. Their yellowed paint, streaked with weather-rusted stains from metal roofs or metal fixture shutters, looked untouched since the French left.

Often the buildings were abandoned and overgrown with weeds, which only added to the sense of haunting that the buildings exuded. In Dalat, a mountain resort city that was left untouched by the war (as leaders from both sides used the city as a respite from fighting), the majority of the old villas were mostly abandoned and deserted – considered too capitalist to be inhabited. It seemed as if there were also a host of schools that fit an old colonial look. And, seeing and hearing hundreds of crisply uniformed, laughing children spilling out of the gates of these crumbling yellowed overgrown buildings certainly seemed like a dream. Wherever you looked you could find these reminders of what had been. Over time these reminders created a surreal, ever-present fabric, entering and retreating from your conscious awareness. Still, if it were not for the peaceful grace and beauty of the Vietnamese people, this haunting aesthetic would not be complete.

In the countryside, and even in the cities, there were so many examples of embracing warmth and images of humble gentleness. Even when we could not communicate very well, there were smiles and, I felt, acceptance. Not to say that the immigration officials and police were the friendliest of people. The former in Saigon and Hanoi looked especially displeased with my American passport; and I think it was a requirement for police and army members to look mean and intimidating. (The exception was at the air force museum in Hanoi. It seemed as if I were the only visitor that day. The one girl on duty had to turn on the lights for me, and the three guards at the site were playing cards under a tree behind the guardhouse; they genuinely seemed happy to see me.)

For images of beauty and humble gentleness, they were plentiful: girls in white ao-dais on their bikes, children coming home from school in their uniforms, barefoot old men in their pajama-like outfits going for walks, families socializing side by side on motorbikes in heavy traffic, and young boys on bikes weaving in and out to flirt with the girls.

For the girls, Vietnamese fashion seemed unique in its composition: hip-hop-style crush hats in pastel colors, long elbow gloves (to keep the harsh sun at bay), lace-edged flower print face coverings (to keep out the dust and pollution), and the versatile rubber or plastic flip-flop sandal. However, most beautiful and sensual were the Vietnamese ao-dais, a silk "blouse/dress" with parted tails in front and behind that draped over matching slinky silk pants. In the south, and for special occasions in the north (as we were told that silk was more difficult for northerners to afford), ao-dais were the uniform for middle school student girls and many professional women as well. Seeing a group of girls or women in their ao-dais, their tails flowing in the breeze, was always a breathtaking sight.

Over the three weeks I travelled through the country, it was often hard to believe that only a few decades ago this had been a war zone. Unfortunately for most Vietnamese, the 50 years of war and struggle were anything but a dream. Jim Gensheimer has a beautiful book, published by the San Jose Mercury News, chronicling over a decade in Vietnam, and the title of his book, Pain and Grace, were words I too had found myself writing repeatedly even before I found his book in Hanoi. Whether the "American war" and those that preceded it were really about communist containment or independence from colonial hegemony, one could still not help but be moved by the pain that the Vietnamese people did in fact endure over the last half-century, the physical and emotional scars that still remained, and the grace with which those same people today do carry themselves in the present.

Traffic as Culture

Traffic as culture? Somehow there must be something about Vietnamese traffic that really symbolizes the Vietnam spirit. After travelling in Bali, Thailand, China, South America and Europe, the traffic patterns in Vietnam seemed to be something uniquely Vietnamese: the literally never-ceasing beeping of horns, whole families of four or five loaded on small motorbikes, young boys on bikes try to strike up a conversation with schoolgirls in their ao dais on their way home, the 3 year old between the arms of his father joking and smiling as his dad navigates his motorbike through a crowded rotary while one of his two girls behind braids her sister’s hair, women on foot weave through bikes and buses looking like old fashioned balances carrying two loads of fruit joined by a flexing narrow wooden plank, boys play soccer right over a corner of a rotary…

I could just stare at that traffic pattern for hours in an Agnes Martin-style trance.

And the ceaseless beeping? That was so that people would know there was someone coming through. Lines on the street meant nothing. Vietnamese traffic is an individualistic anarchy that strangely seems to work most of the time.

Notable Sights

Over three weeks we drove through the southern half of Vietnam, from Saigon to Dalat, Nha Trang, Quang Nai, Hoi An, Danang and Hue. We took a very noisy overnight train from Hue to Hanoi, and then later drove from Hanoi to Halong Bay.

My favorite spots were HoiAn, Hanoi, and Hue. HoiAn was quaint, pleasantly small and laid-back, the beach was beautiful, and the people were especially nice. In Hanoi, a truly beautiful city, I satisfied my Western food cravings at the outdoor AuLac Café. I will be going back to the Mekong Delta and Saigon in two weeks, so those reports will be coming – especially for Saigon, as I felt as if I gave it short shrift my first time around.

Next entry: Yunnan & Guanxi, Part I »

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