Monday, December 29, 2008

Capital Christmas

Dear T,

I’m on a bus east out of Hanoi heading to Halong Bay, which I expect to be as shockingly beautiful as the other parts of Vietnam I’ve explored. I was flipping through one of my notebooks looking for the details and impressions that I recorded as I experienced them in Saigon, in Hanoi, in Sapa and the northwest mountains along the Chinese border. And then ‘The Killer’ shuffled to the front of the ipod queue, and I got swept up for four minutes in the great immolation of Life on the Run, and that seemed a sign to put some of those impressions in a letter to you.

You’d love Hanoi; it invites you to be submerged in it on its own terms in a way you’d eat up. Whereas in Cambodia everyone is out to make a buck off you and so all English and smiles, smiles, smiles, in Vietnam they could care less. They’re a society of post-Soviet communism, that in-name-only communism in which people rake in the dough from a liberalized market but keep lips buttoned tight under the scrutinizing eye of conservative single-party rule. But it’s their scrutinizing eye and that’s the bread and butter of it I think. The Vietnamese don’t need your tourist dollar and, “Oh, by the way, you ravaged our lives and our land, so you can just fuck off.” I have received more than a few hateful glares and a couple of instances where older men jab their fingers my way, spit words I cannot understand but whose resentment and disgust I can feel. That’s more than fair but it has come to kinda hurt my feelings. Silly.

The younger people, though, those under thirty-five, they’re thriving in their knock-off American brands and on gleaming new motos. I just don’t exist to most of them; I’m not a symbol of death and destruction, I’m just something moving too slow in their peripheral vision. People here are prideful and busting with new growth, new income, new ideas of what is possible to achieve. I can’t see the Vietnamese ever tolerating a return to the stagnation of a government-mismanaged economy. The young men dress sharp, the women are elegant and stylish, older men in crisp-cut suits remind me of my grandfather. You walk through Hanoi and it’s the living embodiment of my sense of 19th Century America, industry and commerce at breakneck speed, no traffic laws and no regulation on innovation, tip back the bottle at the end of the day, toss some money around if you got it and get up and do it again. This is all the greenest example of the Capitalist Good Life that I’ve ever seen. It’s plain that the Vietnamese are communist out of national pride - out of a means of self-determination - not ideology (which makes me think long on why people in other parts of the world flock to fanatical Islam.)

This is worlds away from Cambodia. There are national heroes here stretching back for centuries. We visited the Temple of Literature, a national university founded in the 11th Century, and inside saw row upon row of ancient stone tortoises supporting steles documenting the origins and lives of centuries’ most learned men. On Christmas Eve we went to St. Joseph’s Cathedral (religion was re-legalized in 1990) expecting a small mass in a half-filled church. Instead we got the multitudes crammed into a gated yard and spilling all over the streets, watched an hour of little girls dancing to a Praise His Name! folk song and then a bizarre Vietnamese-Spanish rendition of ‘Felice Navidad,’ people buying Santa Claus puppets and then attending a full mass in Vietnamese, the festivities of the high commercial season blending with The Christ Mass, everyone participating and high on the wave of something too unfamiliar for me to thoroughly decipher. Back out into the street and around the lake Hanoians raced at top speed on their motos, waved their red flags with the single gold star, screamed and shouted and rolled like a human lake across the plaza that caps the north end of the true lake, beat drums, a rally in honor of the national football team beating the Thais, a rally in honor of being Vietnamese and being hardcore to the bone, a rally of gold stars on red satin, gold hammers and sickles on red satin. Earlier that day we had lost ourselves in the city’s endless alleys and dead ends, the narrow passages no more than three feet wide and the houses stretching high all around, a maze like what I’d imagine in Cairo, in any city so close to celebrating its thousand-year anniversary, and hundreds of motos honking on the other side of every corner, swooping through the passages toward us as we’re flat against the wall, the sun setting and losing us in twilight warrens that spilled us out next to a reservoir surrounded by old tenements crumbling down, being built back up, a neon BAR flickering pink in the grey of sunset, spilling us out next to food stalls where the BBQ’ed heads of dogs were waiting behind glass to be served, lips charred back and leaving teeth and jaw jutting out like werewolves or strychnine victims, spilling out next to schools releasing kids into the evening to create traffic jams in their uniforms and oblivious happy chattering, next to bia hoi stands where men sat on toddler-sized plastic stools and drank fresh-brewed beer, next to that lake, a lake that in mythology delivered to a great Viet king the sword to drive out the Chinese after a thousand years of occupation, a lake that on that Christmas Eve was the hub for Hanoi’s masses to wave their banners to the sky in so much red.

I get sucked into these things and I miss you ‘cause I know how we’d go about it. Of all my tribe, your appetite and stamina for the world is closest to mine. You got to come. We got to go everywhere. All in good time.


1 comment:

Antonie said...


Thanks for the letter. There is a tide of "prosperity" sweeping through Vietnam. It is strange that our parent's had such a conflicted relationship with Vietnam. Maybe we don't have the social sixties and the free seventies w/o it. My uncle "fought" there and I remember that book called "The Wall" you let me borrow, about the memorial in D.C. If they built a wall in Ho Chin Mihn City, I wonder how big it would have to be to include all those lost souls. Just a thought.
Be safe out there.