Wednesday, March 30, 2011
December 2010: Northern Vietnam- Jenny
To what avail the plow or sail, or land or life, if freedom fail? -Ralph Waldo Emerson Hanoi. To us it felt crowded, grey and dreary, the mood matching the overcast, drizzly and humid weather. Infrastructure was poor. Decomposition gases bubbled to the green filmy surface of the lakes. Sidewalks were congested and dirty, aggressive motorbikers flooded the streets in chaotic rows 7 to 8 astride, and the gloomy people were impervious to our smiles, questions and overall presence. They seem to exist in a state of survival. Meanwhile, the ocassional $100,000 car would drive by, squeezing through a narrow street as if they placed no value on the lives of the motorbikers and pedestrians walking there. It just felt dark. We had arranged to couchsurf with John, or Jack (still not sure) Jones. Jack was living temporarily in a 4th story apartment in Hanoi while he awaited a job constructing a multi-million dollar vacation resort. Jack is from England originally, and still keeps his girlfriend from Germany, who he met while couchsurfing! Having been unemployed by choice for some number of months, he was trying to motivate himself (he loves beer!) and find some mojo to rediscover his passion for his work. Jack was very gracious, and kept us for 3 days while we explored the city. One night Jack had arranged for us to go out to eat at his favorite neighborhood spot. We walked into a crowded joint and sat down low around a table on the child-size plastic colored chairs (I think all of Vietnam got “special price” on these). A plate of thinly chopped raw meat and veggies was brought to us to cook “fondue” style. We cooked our own meat in a splattering frying pan at the table. It was delicious! But something didn't seem right. The meat didn't quite taste like beef. On the way out we asked using hand gestures (few northern Vietnamese seemed to speak any English), what kind of meat was this? When the lady pointed to a dog walking by, we stood in a state of disbelief...we had just eaten A DOG. Jack said with some amount of shock, “So I have been eating DOG for the last 3 weeks?!” My only comfort in this fiasco is the fact that most dogs in Vietnam seemed to be stray, undomesticated, and fairly aggressive and slinky. Ugh. Being in a communist country, Brett and I struggled to find evidence of its impact. While in Hanoi we visited two museums, which when juxtaposed, only added to the confusion of our understanding of communism in Vietnam; these were the Ho Chi Minh Museum and the Hanoi Hilton. Uncle Ho, as Ho Chi Minh is affectionately referred, seemed to be a great man with pure ideas about equality, community and education. His museum displays beautiful quotes next to historic photographs of Uncle Ho sitting “with the people”, a working man's man. It walks through his life as a young social activist fighting for Vietnamese civil rights and follows his life through his leadership of the Viet Cong to the end of his life. We unfortunately (or fortunately) visited the museum on a day the mausoleum was closed, where we could have viewed the actual preserved body of the small aged Ho Chi Minh himself. If we weren't sure that the Vietnamese were capable of propaganda, no-- historical revisionism-- in the most blatant of ways, we were convinced by the time we experienced the museum at the old Hanoi Hilton prison site. The prison was used originally by the French during the colonization days to jail uncooperative Vietnamese. But what we are more familiar with is the building's use during the Vietnam War to imprison the American POWs, specifically downed and captured fighter pilots. John McCain's uniform was displayed, as was a picture of Vietnamese swimming out to rescue McCain where he crashed in Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi. Along with this, photos displayed U.S. POWs playing games, raising their own chickens, even practicing their own religion! One wall boasted the line, “The POWs were lucky to have Vietnamese as their captors”, stating explicitly how well they were treated. This flies in the face of all historical accounts we have read of the cruelty endured by the American military in the Hanoi Hilton. History is always told through the lens of the storyteller. But this is more than a slight inconsistency. Needing a respite, we took a bus out of Hanoi and headed for Halong Bay to jump aboard “Indochina Sails” for a 3 day sail around the area. The boat was a replica of the old wooden junks with 3-4 large sails. It was a beautiful boat. Thanks Aunt Debbie for the lead! The food was great and the room was probably one of the nicest rooms we had stayed in to date. Despite the fact that the bay was a bit crowded and the cruise felt a bit canned, it was nevertheless a gorgeous place, with bald white limestone peaks emerging vertically like gumdrops from the jellyfish-loving water. We did a little kayaking, cave exploring, and yoga on the deck of Indochina Sails. We were excited to try our hand at squid fishing which turned into something more like bobbing a fishing rod in the water with a big light shining down on, well, water. Brett swears he saw one squid under the boat. I am not so sure. The most memorable side trip was a visit to the Halong Bay Pearl Farm where cultured pearls are created. The oysters are actually implanted with mantle tissue from another mollusk to select for pearl color. A small rounded hollow shell is placed in the oyster, and they are left to do their work for 2 years. The pearl pops out perfectly, with no need for polishing or treating. I bought a pair of beautiful pearl earrings while Brett played on the blow-up water park features. A Quick Rant on the State of Things in my Head Yes, traveling creates undulating emotions. But it was in Northern Vietnam that I felt the culmination of the darkness we had witnessed around Asia. Reading a book called “The Girl in the Picture”, I felt the despair of a bright girl growing up in a war-torn, oppressed, impoverished country. Kim Phuc was shamed by her mother, told she would never find love in her injured state as a nepalm strike victim, and grew up without much compassion or empathy from others. Any semblance of a carefree joyous life was drained out of her. Combined with the worn faces of the Vietnamese I was looking at presently, I realized that life isn't just better with beauty, freedom, and the luxury of time...it is life. I stopped feeling guilty that I had these things and others didn't...and began to appreciate them in a way I never have before. How can you lift the darkness from others? En masse? I think of the voluminous human lives throughout history spent in survival mode, experiencing little freedom, joy and pleasure in their lifetimes. I felt a gripping emotion again in the Hanoi Hilton. As I peered into the eyes of pictures of young American men, something visceral hit me. It might have been as simple as facial recognition, but a deep love swept over me. In those faces I could see the reliability of someone's word. The ability to read facial expressions and intentions. The Truth as I have come to know it. I love Americans. I miss home. Being away, I no longer subject the U.S. to the microscope the way I once did. I can readily see what we have in contrast to other countries. My internal radar about people is as functional in Asia as the plug outlets. I am tired of getting wine milkshakes, catching the 1:00 bus at 3:00, the inability to tell the massage therapist something more subtle and kind than “Ow”. When I wave am I being rude? Is my shirt exposing too much skin? When I smile am I making others suspicious, uncomfortable, or am I inviting unwarranted advances? Why do men always talk to Brett when I am speaking to them? There exists a constant feeling of acute awareness and guardedness. I want to feel a love and caring for all people. But the reality is, it is not easy to love others. People can be difficult, loud, distrusting, pushy, and manipulative. Life can lead people to prioritize survival over relationships and grace. I have such a regret when I feel angry at yet another tout being aggressive. It drives me to ignore someone, a fellow human being, when my conscience dictates that this is rude and inhumane. Kindness means nothing to certain humans, believe me I've tried. It all comes down to survival. You play a different game here. As I sit on long bus rides with plenty of reflection time, I realize I miss my bro. He makes me laugh. I've known him all my living days. Tears well when I think of him, and how he has been a constant in my life. And my parents. Have I taken them for granted? I hear Abba through my earphones and, again, tears well for my friend Karen. I miss camping, climbing, biking, skiing with good friends. I look forward to being a big part of our nephew-to-be Baltazar's life (now we know he is actually a she and will be Nora Landin). I just feel so heavy.