Now I am in Vietnam
Some of my friends wanted me to stay, some saw the wisdom in going. I had a job but was underemployed. Certainly becoming the number one hustler in Philadelphia would have brought me everything I needed to continue living there. ‘Tis true. When I first came to Philly this could have been my theme:
Sixteen, clumsy and shy
I went to London and I
I booked myself in at the Y … W.C.A.
I said : “I like it here – can I stay ?
I like it here – can I stay ?
What can I say? A company offered me a job in Vietnam. I took it. Vietnam- a socialist republic. One of four remaining communist countries. Vietnam, a song in my head. The first seven years of my life my country was at war in Vietnam, having taken sides in their internal war. Our leaders told us of a domino effect, an international dimension to a war in Indochina. They warned that each country that came under communist leadership could prompt an adjacent or otherwise contiguous nation to also tip towards this terrifying state. For this our armies drafted youth and sent them to the other side of the world. In the end our ally, the southern Republic of Vietnam was toppled- our troops were evacuated. The devastation of war was triumphant.
Our own country had undergone an emotional internal confrontation on the meaning of the war that occasionally erupted into actual violence. This violence was real enough to the participants but statistically negligible compared to what was endured in Viet Nam by civilians and soldiers of whatever stripe. If I were unaware of these events as they transpired, I would be informed of them again and again as I breathed American air throughout my youth.
Notable among American atrocities was the use of chemical defoliants to try remove jungle cover and in time flush out jungle savvy guerrilla fighters and supply chain workers, this is the so-called Agent Orange which still wreaks genetic havoc in the countryside, and the use of Napalm, a chemically thickened form of gasoline into a jelly that burns in the vicinity of 1000 degrees Fahrenheit. Communist rule also proved to have a deadly grasp. The Northern forces based in Hanoi who eventually overran Saigon, the Southern capitol brought a single party Communist rule to all of Vietnam. They termed their victory “Reunification”. For many Vietnamese the war was a nationalist anti-colonial struggle. Victory was real. Fighting a nationalist themed civil war ended up seeming much easier than bringing prosperity through collectivization and other socialist schemes. Planning by proclamation did not always feed the people. Self-reliance, such as foraging, fishing or hunting during a time of famine was both a crime and a thought-crime. Hunger, a familiar fellow traveler of Marxist-Leninist state planning, made its face familiar in Hanoi as well as the countryside in times virtually up to the present. Vietnamese leaders became frustrated at the lack of economic progress and opened up the markets to private ownership, while retaining control of strategic industries. As a result of this policy and globalization, “KFC” has now entered the Vietnamese lexicon. New forms of malnutrition are appearing as the Western fast food diet becomes popular and widely available.
Now that I am in Vietnam I try to detect communism. There are red flags with sickles and hammers fluttering everywhere. Here and there seem to be empty dreary buildings full of sleeping bureaucrats having dreams of dogma. Otherwise I and the teachers float around inside our bubble, oblivious to most political issues. We sense the by-the-book ethos vibrating through our citadel, but just as easily we can have a drink in our hand, gazing at candlelight, marveling at how such a small salary can go so far. Many teachers engage in community outreach, visiting orphans, children in the cancer ward and many other examples, but I am speaking to the structure of this country as I now see it. In fact I see little difference between the working expats and the nationals, communism lingers on with a bony grasp on political party structure, people seem to hew to the rules with their little finger, then spend an exuberance of energy on the shiny new: computers, motorbikes and delighting as well in the ample supply of food that is available. What this means I don’t know but is it bold speculation to imagine a new generation of English teachers in Baghdad and Kabul in a few decades?
I swooped into this scenario, working hard 12 hour shifts in order to remain, and then basked as others did. I found myself three months later on an island off of Cambodia.
For the price of a diner meal, a six-pack, and a motel on the New Jersey Turnpike I lounged by sunset over the Gulf of Siam eating exquisite grilled prawns with garlic and chili, reading a novel, alternating between other luxuries, and gazing at the candlelight. I had come to gain perspective after spending a period finding my feet in Saigon. Teaching and air pollution were all well and good, but how should I place this within – oh I don’t know, larger questions, I wondered. The sea would perhaps speak a different language than I was used to, but I was resolved to add a few more languages to my repertoire before all was said and done.
For a few days I roamed around on this island on a Yamaha or Honda motorbike along windswept beaches occasionally littered with Styrofoam and other shipping trash, as well as coconut debris, and down orange dirt-roads through forested hamlets, trying to balance discovery and the unknown- strategically getting lost. It seemed risk-free. As far as I knew bandits and certainly guerrillas were not currently operating in the vicinity. One could be come embarrassed to be a tourist, or possibly waylaid by running out of gas or a mechanical malfunction. Otherwise I was at complete liberty to roam the countryside. It was the rainy season however, which accounted for my reduced resort rates. The driving rain only added to the adventure, as vast stretches of road projects that I had to pass through became motocross tracks. One day I followed signs down a long beach-side village road to an “eco-tourist” hotel and restaurant. Youths milled around a pool table in a complex of awnings and concrete decks stretching out to the beach with tables and chairs. Eco it seems can be as simple as having a pet monkey (check) and directing some labor to sweep the beach clean, satisfying this Western bourgeois aesthetic. The hostess was very kind; when the rain became too driving she helped move me to a drier spot. At her request we held an impromptu English lesson covering the snack food I discovered at her counter (“peanuts”), as well as the word for the establishment where she worked (“restaurant”). To show her gratitude she tied up a hammock for me where I napped until I sensed it was time to be on my way.
On my travels the next day I saw a giant millipede, nearly a foot long and as thick as a stout hemp cord crossing the road. The geography yielded a view of a series of small valleys, a small mountain covered with foliage, and of course coastal beaches dotted with thatch and tarp shacks. Throughout the island were chickens and roosters as well as at least one duck. Cattle roamed freely, sometimes tethered only with the sound of a wood bell around the neck, eagles and sea-hawks cruised the beaches. Children were a plentiful commodity usually eager to yell out at least one word they had learned in the classroom- “Hello!”, everywhere young people were friendly, a gang of lads on bicycles high-five slapped me as I passed them on a forested road. Of course I was confronted with poverty everywhere. The children on the whole seemed much happier than the adults. Of course gauging people’s happiness is a tricky practice- an unkind joke I have heard shared among teachers is that sometimes you can’t really tell if the Vietnamese are viciously quarreling with each other or saying “good morning- it’s a lovely day” “yes I think so too- happy birthday to you…” Occasionally though I would see in the distance a strange stare on a child’s face standing in the road. I knew instinctively that there wasn’t much that could change the expression on such a face- haunted as it was by some disease borne and nurtured in poverty. Vietnam has taught me to reconsider poverty and ask what it is. A romantic westerner thrills at experiences that do not conform to western standards and macro-thinkers declare the impossibility of spreading resource hogging American suburban life everywhere. It is collapsing even as we speak in America itself, or seems to be. If we want to be biased against the poor, rationalizations are easily conjured up. A young student in Saigon I was speaking with among a group of students in the park, no doubt on meager income herself, after shooing off a Cambodian beggar declared that the people in Cambodia were too lazy to plant rice, and only ate- oh I can’t remember what she said- I probably was no longer listening at that point. People do live in different ways than each other and if you visit them it is not always easy to see what they are doing or why. Some things, like the haunted stare on a child’s face, or just as easily, the brightness and intelligence of a young person, are unmistakable. Maybe things like wooden footbridges do not need to be cured, or even humble housing. What does a person need to lead a proper life? The most basic formula I could surmise, as a catch-phrase, was that people need “vitamins and vocabulary”. That is, they need the physical nourishment to develop their organs, muscles, and other such structures properly, and they needed the necessary tools to develop the greatest diversity of knowledge that could be useful or even just merely interesting to them. Western standards can both provide and impinge on these two directives and so are not the final answer to these questions. I say this only to spur us all forward, I clearly am a result of middle-class standards, I dare-say we all are.
And so in my hapless way I am trying to blend in where I can. I study Vietnamese and try to learn how things are done. If someone asks me what my name is I may reply “I am fine thank you”. I can show you where to eat delicious food on the street for less than a dollar. And yet there is no getting around my distinctive presence, if that was what I wanted. The struggle is to just try to not be clumsy about it- which is also an inevitability.
The name of the island I was on is Phu Quoc. As I toured it I knew of course to be careful of soft spots in the road and had heard somewhere in a file in my head of a unfortunate sand wipe-out somewhere else. I didn’t realize how easy it was to do this until I pulled to the side of a paved street in Duong Dong town where there were patches of sand. Like quicksilver in front of the shop on the avenue my bike sailed out from between my legs. I landed beside it, neither of us too much worse for the wear. The sensation was so immediate, and the consequences so negligible, no one at all seemed to be alarmed once the half second of uncertainty had passed. Surprisingly I was barely even embarrassed as I righted everything and strolled in to purchase some phone credit. That proved to not be the only wipe-out of the day either. Later, after my exploring was complete I was once again in the town trying to retrace my path back to the hotel. I decided on a direction that was not the exact road, but I felt certain if I kept pressing my way through the increasingly rural hamlet a path would connect to the road I wished to be on. It was kind of as the crow flies mixed with as the cow walks that drove me further and further along ever narrowing paths. A city street became an orange dirt road became a hardened path became a white sand track. I noted that people on motorbikes obviously frequently used this way but I couldn’t help reflecting on a similar trek through a Saigon Ghetto as I pressed deeper and deeper into the alleys as residents watched me from their 3-walled dwellings, before I finally gave up, and retraced my steps. Lost in this memory I buzzed through a copse of trees into an opening. An encroaching bog at high tide lay in front of me. I jerked slightly at the sight of the tidal pond covering the way ahead and then sailed over the handlebars as the front wheel dug into the sand slurry that was no longer passable. Quite a soft landing as these things go.