Vietnam & Cambodia travel blog

To my friends who haven't read our travel blogs before, I have to say I usually write better, and more, than I have so far. As I said in earlier posts, this has been a very disconcerting journey.

Part of this is my current state of mind, having turned 65, with a commitment to continue working for awhile, but trying to conceive the next phase of my life, retiring within a couple of years but earning some more needed income. Part of me would love to return to clinical work, part of me would love to get a patron to support my writing and photography, part of me would love to just take it as it comes. So I bring a certain amount of disconcersion (made up a new word) to Vietnam.

A small part is the consciousness that I spent 10 years of my life protesting and organizing protests against the war here, and now come face to face both with a country and people whose independence I supported and the fact that I'm a tourist here, spending more on my trip than many Vietnamese earn in half a lifetime – they won the war but have become just another impoverished subordinate economy in an unequal unbalanced mammoth-eat-dog global system. A side note – my first paying job was delivering leaflets door to door all over my neighborhood in Little Neck, Queens, for the October 1965 National Mobilization Against The War in Vietnam, the first coordinated nationwide demonstration against the war. I was 13 years old and asked a 12 year old in my Friday Night Youth Group at the YMHA to join me, so it was also my first date. Shocked I was to find out the girl I had a crush on shared the feeling and was also the younger sister of my brother's girl friend. Now back to Vietnam.

Part of my discombobulation is the fact that I worked the day we left, trotting off to the airport after changing into traveling clothes in my office, meeting Robin and her intrepid driver, Emily, at JFK for a 9 pm flight. We then flew for a day across dozens of time zones, and hot the ground running, wide-eyed, jumping out of the way of motorbikes. There has been so much to see and little real frames of reference to help absorb it all. There is no way for us to get around without guides, and we've been guided all day and most nights. We've had some free time but in the mountains we saw water buffalo, dogs, pigs, cows, chickens move around with fewer constraints than we've given ourselves.

Another digression: on the Air Train to JFK, I watched the sun set over Central Queens, over garden apartments and local streets and storefronts that looked too much like my childhood for me not to wonder how I got here, with my cherished family and house more than twice the size of our old apartment with trees all around it and the relative peace of slightly disturbed nature. But here I am.

And here, in Vietnam, we are. It's clearly a hard life here. Our second full day in Hanoi, on our return from the mountains and villages in Cao Lai province, 35 kilometers from the trekking-tourist town of Sapa, we followed our guide Ha through broader swaths of the city – financial offices and bookstores, bistros and a couple of fast food joints, nicer, sturdier, less dank and narrow buildings – but still people sat eating or preparing food, talking and gesturing, staring glumly into space or into their future, very few smiles on solitary faces, on thr ground, on stoops, on motorbike seats, on small plastic backless or short-backed seats, close to a gray, broken, and littered concrete ground. There is a seriousness we feel all around us.

And yet this guided rambling through Hanoi brought us to a wide long lake, Hoan Kiem Lake, with a beautiful arched red bridge to an island Buddhist temple. We learned more about the uniquely Vietnamese mix of Buddhism, Confucianism, and ancestor worship, their imagery of turtles, dragons, elephants, phoenix, and tigers, and their deep resilience that allowed all this to flower again, with the acquiescence of the nominally Communist dictatorship that runs the country – because it unifies the nation and these 'Communists' have always been nationalists first. Vietnamese pride showed itself when our guide reacted quickly but with resolute and patient courtesy when Robin commented that some of the fish and dragon images he pointed out to us were familiar to her from Chinese art. China, he pointed out to us, has always seen itself as the center of the universe, and some think that just because China occupied the country for around ten centuries, Vietnamese culture is derived from Chinese culture but their ideas about fish, dragons, and the phoenix are very different from what the Han and Mongol rulers of China promoted! And he left us certain he was right. These are proud and resilient people.

Around the lake, besides the European, American, and Asian tourists, we saw small groups on benches in conversation, rickshaw and tram and bus drivers with their passengers or on breaks, fathers and mothers with little children, cute dogs on leashes, and groups of mostly older mean and women in Tai Chi and ballroom dancing classes, in the open air at lakeside. There was a vitality in the air that we hadn't felt on the city's streets despite or because of all the steady beehive buzzing. Very much like Central Park in the midst of Manhattan's desperate chases (with apologies to my friends living in Manhattan, but it's a crazy place.)

In the mountains, we felt even more of this: the poverty, the seriousness and intrepid hard labor, the joy in simple pleasures, the resilience.

But essentially that's all projection, our translation of what we see, a narrative of a privileged traveler (an old & classic genre), and even moreso than most narratives, it's the result of our inclination to filter, assign a syntax of causes, meanings, and a timeline. We are sure we miss most nuance. Yet, people are people everywhere, so we are sensitive to the expressions they show us. The people we've met – the guides – know how hard life is here, and have a sense our lives are different, but on both sides we live day to day waking up and trying to do our best, finding the simple pleasures we allow ourselves, smile over family relationships, and have only the vaguest idea of how someone else does the same things we take for granted – buying a knife, measuring flour, eating a meal, sleeping. Our last two guides both discussed growing up in village farm families, sleeping on bamboo mats on the dirt floor of their homes, They help when the tourist seasons are over, and they both have pushed themselves to learn what they need to guides, speak a couple of extra languages, have more options than other young farmers. I've also noticed that most young people wear hairstyles and clothes that would fit in with their peers in the USA, and even the graffiti on Hanoi's walls, the ads for Samsung cell phones, are up to date. The internet is everywhere, it's a world-wide web and we're its silk-bound captives. But so much of it is spectacle without interchange. The styles are copied but the context is just off center enough to blur the images we find at random, as we walk or drive through.

So what does it mean that so much of Vietnamese life seems to be lived nearer to the ground than ours? We were sitting at lunch with Quang, our Hue guide, yesterday, and he drew a connection between lack of time and money and this ground-sitting – most Vietnamese homes don't have and can't afford and do not covet a table. Owning a table is a privilege of wealth, he says. And he also says most Vietnamese are short, so lower seats fit them better. They're short he says because they have to carry heavy loads on their shoulders from a young age, and he hopes that kids growing up in cities – a relatively new demographic for this country – will be taller. Whether it's literally true or not, his explanation illustrates the meaning of living at the bottom.

More tomorrow.

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