Travels postsFriday August 26, 2011
26 Things I Learned While Camping on San Juan Island and at Baker Lake
- The wrong time to get attacked by mosquitoes is two days before camping. Makes you sensitive to what you can't avoid.
- The 2008 Mazda 3 doesn't have a plug-in or outlet to charge iPhones.
- Washington State Ferrys do--but we figured it out too late. Thus no personal pictures here. Apologies.
- The San Juan ferry trip is 100 times better on a sunny day (returning) than on a cloudy day (going).
- San Juan Island has a camel. Her name is Mona. She has a baby. T-shirts are for sale.
- A camel is all well and good but it doesn't beat baby alpacas.
- If you go to Downriggers, in Friday Harbor, San Juan Island, spend the extra money for the dungeness crab sandwich. The grilled crab sandwich sounds like “grilled crab” but is actually a dollop of crab mixed with a gallon of mayonnaise and then the sandwich is grilled.
- Orca whales are actually dolphins.
- The skeletons of whale fins look like human hands.
- Dorsal fins are made of cartilage.
- Porpoises are shyer, smaller and chunkier than dolphins. They are nerds, essentially. Dophins are BMO-Seas. (Apologies.)
- Oceanographers are worried that boat noise, including noise from whale-watching boats, is depleting the whale population. Which is why we watched them from Lime Kiln Point State Park. Which may be why we didn't see any.
- The Whale Museum at Friday Harbor, where I learned #s 8-12, and which my nephews, 10 and 8, didn't want to leave after an hour, kicks ass.
- The scientists at Lime Kiln Point kick ass, too.
- Putting up a two-person tent is hard.
- Changing into your swimsuit in a two-person tent is harder.
- Changing into your swimsuit in a two-person tent, and getting a good look at your stomach, is a good way to get someone to go to pilates class next Wednesday at 5:30 PM.
- There are many multimillion-dollar yachts for sale at Roche Harbor, San Juan Island.
- The rich obviously need another tax break so they afford to buy these multimillion-dollar yachts and get our economy going again.*
- Yachta Yachta is a good pun but a bad name for a boat.
- Ryan, 8, likes rock climbing.
- Jordy, 10, knows the words to Sir Mix A Lot's “Baby Got Back.”
- Baker Lake is fucking gorgeous.
- A good brat beats a great hotdog.
- Patricia is freaked by worms. Even inchworms. Particularly inchworms that come down from trees on silk threads. She calls them “ninja worms.”
- The sign in park outhouses, advising against throwing garbage down toilets because “it is extremely difficult to remove,” is not only one of the most understated signs ever written, it also makes me think park employees are not paid nearly enough.
Baker Lake. We woke up to this. We went swimming in this. So can you. Because it's ours: a National Forest.
Searching for Birds in Bodega, Calif.
If it's been a quiet week on ErikLundegaard.com it's because Patricia and I drove from Seattle to Bodega, Calif., for our friend Ward's 50th birthday. Ward actually lives in Seattle but his friends, with Patricia at the forefront, told him he had to do something special for his 50th; he couldn't just have a party. Initial discussions, I found out this past weekend, actually centered on Lebanon, but others reined in that thought and offered the Oregon coast. Bodega Bay was the compromise between the Oregon coast and Lebanon. As it always is.
My reaction upon hearing the party's location was the film nerd's reaction: You mean the place where Hitchcock filmed “The Birds”? I suggested all blondes attending wear their hair in a chignon.
Tippi Hedren demonstrating the playful insouciance, and the Hitchockian chignon, that made her so memorable in “The Birds.”
We actually stayed a few miles south of Bodega Bay, at Dillon Beach, renting several houses with spectacular views of the ocean. Saturday morning, after the initial, intense warm-up dinner, with too many courses and too much wine, Ward convinced the entire crew to attend a charity pancake breakfast, then a mid-afternoon wine-tasting, but I begged off, not hungry, a bit hungover, and a whole lot curious about Bodega. I drove into town searching for ... I don't know what. That diner. That schoolhouse. Tippi Hedren.
This and that looked familar but not familiar enough, so I pulled over to the side of the road and read the Bodega Bay (pop 1423) section of Lonely Planet's Coastal California book. Apparently the place is “the first pearl in a string of sleepy fishing towns” and “the setting of Alfred Hitchcock's terrying 1963 avian horror fllck, The Birds” (I like the helpful addition of “avian” there, not to mention “terrifying”), but as to what is where, the book wasn't much help. So I stopped in at the Terrapin Creek Cafe for a quick lunch and peppered the waitress with my “Birds” questions. She suggested the Visitor Center back on California 1, which runs through town, and which I'd passed on the way in. There, as soon as I mentioned “The Birds,” the woman behind the counter took out a single-sheet black-and-white map and a yellow highlighter, and in a tone somewhere between Selma Diamond and comatose, laid out the particulars:
- The Tides Wharf restaurant where everyone gathered during the attack
- The gas station that goes up in flames
- The house across the bay on Gaffney Point that never existed
- The Potter schoolhouse five miles south on California 1 in the town of Bodega; and
- The country store across the street that has the most extensive “Birds” collection anywhere in the world.
“I get the feeling you've done this before,” I said. This brought a smile. “Only about eight thousand times a year,” she replied.
So I filled up my car at the gas station that blew up in “The Birds,” then drove across California 1 to the Tides Wharf Restaurant, where Tippi Hedren had watched in horror as the gas station blew up in “The Birds.” But the perspective still seemed off. The gas station was across California 1? On a hill? The Tides Wharf included a gift shop that barely mentioned “The Birds,” just—after a search—a few postcards, some lame T-shirts, a big picture book, and a smaller, almost mimeographed pamphlet called “The Birds by Hitchcock: Sonoma Coast Guide: Expanded Second Edition.” This last, I figured, you could only get there, so I got it there, then peppered the girls behind the counter with questions. The second was a fount of information. The Tides Wharf where we were? Not the original. The original burned down in 1965, along with the gas station, which, yes, had been on this side of California 1. But the schoolhouse, the Potter Schoolhouse, still existed. Five miles south on “The 1.”
And that's where I went. Here's the famous scene:
The Potter Schoolhouse attack in Alfred Hitchcock's “The Birds.”
In the town of Bodega, I initially mistook St. Theresa's Church, made famous by Ansel Adams, for the Potter Schoolhouse, made famous by Alfred Hitchcock. But then I turned into a small road and there it was. It's privately owned now, and there's no bench in the backyard, let alone a playground or jungle gym; but I still got out and took a picture:
The Potter Schoolhouse today.
Then to the country store. As quiet as the rest of the town is about “The Birds,” the country store is just that noisy. It's like a museum but with all of the pieces for sale.
Apparently Tippi Hedren also sells wine now. Apparently she was in Bodega Bay the weekend before, at the Tides Wharf, signing autographs. I bought my share of swag—including a “What Would Hitchcock Do?” T-shirt—and acted the tourist. I just needed the Bermuda shorts and the camera hanging around my neck to complete the picture.
The next day, on the way out of town, Patricia and I returned to the schoolhouse to complete the picture:
We'll photoshop the birds in later.
Take a long drive with me
On California 1, California 1...
--The Decemberists, “California One/Youth and Beauty Brigade”
This past week, driving along California 1, the state route begun in 1934 that winds down the California coast, as Patricia and I traveled from Seattle to Bodega Bay for a friend's 50th birthday celebration, I kept thinking of baseball and pitching.
I know. Apologies, and bear with me.
Most roads, certainly most highways, are like fastballs down the pike. They may have some bend in them but nothing you can't handle. California 1, in contrast, is like the craziest pitch thrown by the greatest pitcher ever. It twists and swoops and dips and soars and bends and keeps bending and keeps bending further until you're almost heading in the opposite direction—north when you want south, south when you want north—until, at last, it finally breaks the other way, your way, and the whole damn thing begins again.
And the speeds! A good freeway may vary its speeds a bit, like a good pitcher will vary his speeds between the 95-mph fastball, the 85-mph splitter and the 75-mph change-up. These differences are nothing on California 1. There, you'll be spotted 55 mph. Then with hardly a warning it'll cut back to 15 mph. Back up to 45. Down to 25. Then 15 again. Then back up to 55. All on these swooping, dipping, winding roads, with incredible views of sky and ocean, cliffs and haystack rocks, and you're so distracted by it all, by the beauty and the winding roads, you find yourself going 55 in the 15 zone, 15 in the 55 zone.
But worth it. We can't wait to go back.
Bumper Stickers Seen Driving From Seattle, Wa. to Bodega, Ca.
WHY IS THERE ALWAYS MONEY FOR WAR BUT NOT FOR EDUCATION?
FOLLOW ME TO DRIVE-THRU FEED
GOD DANCED THE DAY YOU WERE BORN
MY OTHER CAR IS A DRAGON BOAT
LAND OF THE FREE/ BECAUSE OF THE BRAVE
ARNOLD DON'T SURF
Patricia, Dairy Queen, and Hwy 101 during a rare sunny moment on our trip.
“Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro" at Rap Thang 8
Read Part 1 here.
On our last day in Hanoi, along with buying last-minute gifts for friends and returning to Cha Cha La Vong for the fried fish lunch, Patricia and I went to “Rap Thang 8.” which sounds like the worst MC Hammer song ever, but is in fact a movie theater frequented by Vietnamese, to see a movie called “Những nụ hôn rực rỡ.” Google translates those words into “The Brilliant Kiss” but at the time we had no idea what it was called or what it was about. We just wanted to see a Vietnamese movie and it was the only one playing in Hanoi that day. The woman selling tickets even warned us. “Vietnamese,” she said. I nodded, made hand motions and smiley faces that indicated we wanted to see it anyway. She giggled. With reason.
The cafe next door, “The Majestic,” was under construction, and I remember a lot of equipment and sawdust in the exposed lobby. The innards of the Majestic itself were exposed. It looked like the place had been bombed out. It was the exact opposite of the ultraclean MegaStar Cinema from the day before.
The posters for all three movies, along with TVs looping trailers for each, were on display behind the ticket-taker. In Phong Chieu 2, we could see “Legion.” Hollywood. In Phong Chieu 1, some kind of samurai horror movie. Japanese? And in Phong Chieu 3, our movie, “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro,” a Vietnamese musical comedy.
We were told Phong Chieu 1 was through that door to the right. It looked like an exit. But we walked through it ... and into an alleyway.
“What the hell,” I said.
“Did you get the directions right?” Patricia asked.
I returned, pointed to the ticket, and the ticket-taker again pointed me to the exit. “No,” I began, “That’s...” What could I say? I wished for the zillionth time I could some semblance of the language.
Sensing my confusion, the ticket-taker pointed out the door and then down the alleyway.
“Really?” I asked. “Okay...”
This time we saw the sign at the end of the alleyway: RAP THANG 8, Phong Chieu 3.” Except there was nothing at that sign even remotely like a movie theater. We stood and looked around.
“What the hell,” I said.
“Well, you wanted a different movie experience,” Patricia said.
“Not this different,” I said.
“Phong Chieu 3 is past the bombed-out cafe and down the dank alleyway. You can't miss it.”
Patricia was the one who finally found Phong Chieu 3. It wasn’t all the way down the alley, where the sign was located; it was about three-quarters of the way down the alley on the right-hand-side. You parted some heavy curtains and there you were. The floor was almost level, the theater seated about 50, flies buzzed around. It felt like something out of community theater.
There were no subtitles to the movie, of course, so we had to figure out the plot for ourselves. In the end it wasn’t hard for anyone raised on 1960s sitcoms.
The movie is set on a remote island resort, where a member of a boy band (which are still popular in Asia) shows up ... to get away from it all? One assumes. The owner of the resort, a good-looking woman, then finagles him and his bandmembers into giving a concert to get the customers to save her resort. Or something. Shenanigans, mistaken identities and romance ensues.
Just another resort owner greeting another boy band frontman in Viet Nam.
It’s a colorful, poppy, probably supremely dopey movie, but there are two things worth noting about it.
One of the supporting players, an assistant at the resort, is an over-the-top gay character. He’s there mostly for comic effect. During montage sequences, for example, in which Girl A is pursuing Boy A, or Boy B is pursuing Girl B, he’s pursuing, haplessly, the quietest member of the boy band: a kid with one eye hidden by his hair, a la Veronica Lake, and a fedora, a la Sinatra.
No surprise that he was unsuccessful in his pursuit. One of our guide books, “The Rough Guide,” mentioned that, while there was no law in Vietnam banning homosexual activity, “Officially, homosexuality is regarded as a ‘social evil,’ alongside drugs and prostitution.” The surprise was that there was a gay character in the movie at all.
Then we got to the end, and the big concert, and the onstage confessions of love from Girl A for Boy A, and Boy B for Girl B. And everyone getting together.
Except for our gay character. He comes onstage. He talks into the microphone. He becomes emotional about what he’s saying. But no one comes out to sing with him. He’s alone. Tears well up. He’s comforted but it’s sad. The message is clear: Don’t be gay.
Except suddenly the Veronica Lakeish boy-band member comes onstage, singing the love song they’ve all been singing. And the two meet in the center of the stage and hold hands. And everyone applauds.
Then the lights go off, along with fireworks, and you see silhouettes of the principles embracing. Including our gay couple.
Then the lights go up and you see everyone kissing. Including our gay couple.
Then we get our happy ending.
Wow, I thought. Much more enlightened than I anticipated. Not only are the Vietnamese not behind us in this particular area, but ... they seem ahead of us.
A confession is made: “We're more enlightened than you.”
That’s the first thing worth noting about the film. The second is more of a punchline than anything.
I wanted to see this particular film because it was the only Vietnamese film playing in Hanoi that day, and I knew, from trying to see Vietnamese movies before we left, that they’re few and far between in the States. All that’s available is a handful of art films (“Cyclo”; “Scent of Green Papaya”; “Owl and the Sparrow”), and the long, messy history of Vietnam War movies.
But I was wrong. “Nhung Nu Hon Ruc Ro” is available in the States. You can watch the entire thing, in 10 segments, on YouTube.
Alice in Hanoi
Because, I suppose, I write about movies, I like going to movie theaters when I’m abroad. I’m curious not just what they watch but how they watch it.
In Taiwan, for example, when I lived there 20 years ago, they played the national anthem before each show. We’d all stand and sing along while they ran a short, government-created film. In 1987, when I first arrived, the theme of the film was martial in nature: troops and tanks and such. (China and Taiwan were still at war, after all.) By 1988, it became more cultural: dragon boat races, etc, and by 1990 it showcased the beauty of the Taiwanese landscape: Ya Ming Shan, waves crashing on rocks, etc. Not that “martial” was forgotten. That final film ended with the characters Jung Hua Ming Guo (“Republic of China”) dominating the screen, then appearing on a map of Taiwan. Except it wasn’t a map of Taiwan. It was a map of mainland China. The two countries were still at war but both agreed on this most important fact: there was only one China.
Then we watched “Ghost.”
So at the tail end of our Vietnam trip last spring, after all the museums and mausoleums and parks and restaurants, Patricia and I agreed to check out some movies.
We had two options. I’ll write about the second one, Rap Thang 8, tomorrow. It’s a smaller theater, shows some Vietnamese movies, foreigners rarely go there. Often for a reason. But we did.
On our second-to-last day in Vietnam, however, we went to MegaStar Cinema on an upper floor of the Vincom Towers in the southern part of Hanoi. It looks like almost any shiny megaplex in the States. They serve popcorn and colas and M&Ms and Mars bars. Also sausage and seaweed. I should’ve gotten the seaweed.
Eight movies were playing that day, seven from Hollywood, one from Hong Kong (Jackie Chan’s “Little Big Soldier”). The biggest of the bunch was Tim Burton’s “Alice in Wonderland,” in both its 3D and 2-D incarnations, on its way to grossing more than a billion bucks worldwide.
I’m not sure who was responsible for marketing “Alice in Wonderland” in this megaplex in Hanoi, the capital city of communist Vietnam, just two miles from the former Hanoi Hilton where prisoners of war were held and tortured, but the results were a capitalist’s wet dream. Employees were wearing “Alice” T-shirts. There were “Alice” posters and tables and a little set in the lobby where you could sit in big-sized “Alice” chairs and pretend you were small.
It was a quiet, weekday afternoon in early April, and a few kids were hanging out in a lounge area set up just off the concession stand. There was also a big fan board for Robert Pattinson, and pleas for him not to forget his Vietnamese fans, as part of a “Remember Me” promotion. It was all very clean and empty and kind of depressing.
We had assigned seats for the movie and listened to music from XONE FM, including, oddly, “The Girl Can’t Help It,” as we watched the last of the couples straggle in. The ads before the feature were of the superloud, superbright, supercheery Asian variety: teeth whitener, a product called “Diana,” another for a drink (0°?) in which everyone is refreshed by synchronized swimmers. I don’t know if knowing Vietnamese would’ve made sense of these things. Then theater ads:
- No smoking
- No chewing gum
- No cameras
- No outside food and drink
- Please remain silent
The movie was the least interesting part of the exercise.
Tomorrow: Nung Nu Hon Ruc Ro at Rap Thang 8.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach: Lessons in Capitalism
I fear I didn’t capture Rehoboth right here. I fear I didn’t capture our week in Rehoboth right. I missed so much. For example:
- Rehoboth’s summertime workers used to be populated by Mid-Atlantic kids like my sister, from Timonium, Md., but now they’re more often from the former Soviet Union: Russia and Belarus and Ukraine. I brought this up with the owner of the house my sister was renting, who lived next door and popped in on us one evening, big-voiced and garrulous and fun, with the thickest of Delaware accents, as we were all drinking and talking on the screened-in front porch. He assumed I was referencing a prostitution ring that made headlines in the mid-1990s but I said I didn’t know from prostitution rings. It’s the geography of it. Why Russia? Why not, you know, Timonium? I forget his response. Were Russians cheaper? Were American kids no longer interested? He might have repeated the line I’d heard from others: that summer vacation in Eastern Europe tends to go on longer than ours, and so the Russian kids can stay past Labor Day and not leave businesses short-staffed for the final weeks of the season. That made sense to me. Until I spoke with a girl from Russia I met at the Internet Cafe on 1st Avenue, who, while answering a slew of questions from me (“Had she been to other cities?” Yes. “Favorite?” Miami. “How did she hear about the Rehoboth job?” There was a company in Russia, who worked with a company in America, who...), added, unbidden, that the tough part of the deal was getting back to Russia two weeks after school started. Summer vacations aren’t different. The difference between then and now is who bears the burden of the overlap. It used to be Americans businesses, who remained short-staffed while American kids returned to school. Now it’s the Russian kids, who remain in America while their Russian peers get a leg-up. Welcome to capitalism.
- My nephew Ryan couldn’t get enough of Funland. Not the rides but the games. And not the games but the prizes from the games. He loves stuffed animals. As soon as he won one he wanted another, and as soon as he won a small one he wanted a bigger one. Funland allows you to trade up this way: three smalls equal a medium; three mediums equal a bigger medium. The big prize was a giant stuffed alligator. He was all id—want, want, want—and no army of stuffed animals sated his desire. We talked of having an intervention but we acted as enablers. Yes, Ryan, one more game. Sure, Ryan, I’ll play with you since it’s 11 in the morning and no one else is at Wac-a-Mole. At the end of the week, his mother, my sister Karen, showed up at lunch with the giant stuffed alligator under her arm. But she hadn’t won it. She’d run into the owner of Funland, for whom she worked back in the 1980s, and he gave it to her. Another lesson in capitalism: It’s who you know.
- Ryan’s older brother, Jordy, didn’t want stuffed animals; he wanted stuff: electronics, mostly. He’s a gamer, with earlier versions of PlayStation and current versions of Wii at home, and one night, at the Surfside Arcade, he played the arcade version of “Guitar Hero,” which he has on the Wii, and did so well with Foghat’s “Slow Ride” (on “hard”) that he drew an audience, to whom, like a real rock star, he was oblivious. He wound up with the fifth-best score, just ahead of someone calling himself “Slash.”
- Two of my favorite swims at Rehoboth were early-morning, solo swims after jogs along the boardwalk. There’s nothing like diving into the ocean still sweating and steaming from a run. There’s nothing like a swim before breakfast with only beachcombers and sand zambonis around. That’s living. That’s fun.
- Mostly we ate in, lovely meals over at the Muschlers’ rental home, sitting in the backyard, drinking and talking, as the light died and the bugs came out. We went out for dinner twice: once to Obie’s By the Sea, just off Olive on the north end of the boardwalk, and once to Ed’s Chicken & Crab in Dewey, where my mother and sister, who ignore the chicken part of the equation, closed the joint.
- But my favorite meal may have been the one we had before we arrived. My mother had picked up Patricia and I at 9:30 a.m. at Reagan National, and we sped over the Bay Bridge before 11:00, which for Patricia and I was 8:00, so we weren’t interested in the sea food restaurant just on the other side that my sister had recommended. But once it was after noon, where to eat? We drove along 404 toward Rehoboth, seeing a few spots, but momentum kept carrying us on until finally, at a county junction, Patricia yelled, “That place!” and I stopped the car and turned into the gravel parking lot. It was a Kiwanis Club barbecue chicken joint, open-aired but covered, where you ate at picnic tables and used a water pump to wash your hands afterward. A line of women were serving up the following: half a chicken, sweet pickles, a roll and bag of potato chips. That chicken turned out to be the best barbecue I’ve had in years: tangy and juicy. I also had a great encounter at the end of the line, where you paid, and where a tip jar stood for donations to the Bridgeville Center. I looked at the cashier, a man in his 70s, and pointed. “What’s the Bridgeville Center?” I asked. He seemed surprised, first, that a question had been asked, then leaned forward conspiratorially. “It’s just a buncha old farts,” he said. I gave him a dollar for the laugh.
And on and on. I could add more, but I don’t think I’ll be able to capture what I really want to capture about Rehoboth Beach. It may be as simple as the heat on the wood of the boardwalk; it may be as complex as the sense of fulfillment you have in the ocean, or the sense of longing you have out of it. Besides, I know I’m lingering. I know it’s Saturday morning. Time for one last walk to the boardwalk. Time for one last look at the ocean. Bye.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Going Back from Whence We Came
In the end it’s all about the beach.
My father used to say there was nothing like that first dip in the ocean after the long, hot, sweaty haul to get there, but this never made sense to me. It was just another odd thing grown-ups said. Now I’m that grown-up.
Our long, sweaty haul started on a Friday at 9 p.m. in Seattle and lasted through a red-eye to Chicago, a 6 a.m. flight to D.C., a morning car trip over the Bay Bridge and through eastern Maryland and into Delaware, with a few wrong turns along the way, until we crawled, in the mid-afternoon heat, along Highway 1, with all of the other Saturday arrivals, before making that final, impatient, left-hand turn onto Rehoboth Avenue and into the offices of Jack Lingo Real Estate to collect the keys, and into the Lingo’s grocery store to collect the weekend necessities, and over to Mom’s place to drop off her stuff, and over to our place to drop off our stuff, and then the two-block trip back to Mom’s place to drop off her car—but not before being confronted by a cop who asked why I’d parked a quarter into someone’s driveway (there’d been a neighborly complaint), and I explained that it was temporary, that we were staying in that small cottage at the back of the driveway there, and this was my first time in Rehoboth in 25 years, and, hey, how old are you anyway?, which got him to smile and admit, “Twenty-one” and merely issue me, 26 years his senior, a warning—and after all that it was 5:00 and the sun was lowering in the sky, but I didn’t care and changed into swimsuit and flip-flops and grabbed a towel and walked the half block to the boardwalk and over the hot sand and through the departing crowds and dropped everything by the driest part of the high-tide mark and stepped into the cool, salty water, feeling the spray and hearing sizzle of the waves, and in past my calves and thighs and, oof, groin, until I dove into a wave and rose on the other side, and thought, as the ocean washed away the day of travel, the month of troubles, the year of work, “Dad was right.”
Why does it feel so good? Because it’s the water we emerged from? Because we ourselves are salt and water? It feels heavier than most water, cooler than most water, and the waves provide their own challenge. The ocean doesn’t automatically accept us, like other, more placid bodies of water. It’s trying to expel us even as it tries to pull us in further. It has mixed feelings. I floated on my back, watched my toes emerge, and felt lucky.
My sister, Karen, set up the vacation. Her husband, Eric, is a Muschler, and every year three of the Muschler boys and their families vacation somewhere for a week, which allows parents to get together and all of the various cousins to create havoc together, and this year Rehoboth was chosen because it’s where our family vacationed in the 1970s, and where Karen worked during high school and college summers in the 1980s. The Muschlers rented a big house on Stockley Avenue (pronounced Delawarean: “Stow-klee”), two and a half blocks from the beach; then she asked if Patricia and I wanted to come along. Normally we vacation in fairly exotic spots—Little Corn Island, Nicaragua; Hanoi, Vietnam—but I was in the mood for a less exotic spot. I wanted a place with cotton candy.
We rented our own cottage, also on Stockley Avenue, but a half block from the beach. The online photos were vague, which had me worried, but we found it charming enough: living room, small kitchen, separate bedroom, bath. There was even a back deck where we locked up the bikes that we rented for the week. The back deck was also where the Muschlers stored most of our beach gear—chairs and umbrellas—so they wouldn’t have to keep carting them the extra two blocks every morning. Or afternoon.
The Muschlers tend to be late risers—or, with so many kids, late goers—so we were rarely at the beach early. Sometimes we arrived around 11:00, which didn’t make much sense in the “danger danger danger” UV-ray world of 2010; other times we avoided the morning altogether and showed up around 2:00 and made an afternoon of it.
My nephew, Jordy, 9, took to the waves like a champ. Whenever he was at the beach, he was in the water: diving into the waves, riding the waves, wondering why the waves weren’t bigger. His brother, Ryan, 7, took to the sand like a champ. He wanted to bury and be buried. Who doesn’t want to be at the beach? One day, my mother, 80, put on a swimsuit and dipped her toes, too.
My favorite day was our last full day. On Thursday, Rehoboth was drenched with two big rainstorms: one in the early afternoon that cleared the boardwalk; one in the late evening as we sat, protected, at Ed’s Chicken & Crab joint in Dewey, and watched people run in breathless and soaked from the downpour and the flash-flooding in the streets. As a result, there was a freshness to everything Friday morning as Patricia and I took our coffee and went for an early-morning, barefoot stroll by the ocean. The waves were bigger than usual, but overall it seemed like a normal morning.
We’d decided on a bike ride that morning. Several days earlier, on a misty Monday morning, we’d scoped out the area north of Rehoboth—Henlopen Acres, where the rich folks lived, and Gordon Pond Wildlife Area, where the frogs lived—so Friday morning we headed south, past Silver Lake, but quickly got caught between small neighborhoods and Highway 1, as Delaware, a narrow state already, narrowed to a thin peninsula, and didn’t allow us much space. Eventually we doubled back. The bike rental place, Bike to Go, had given us a brochure that included, along with the oddest of quotes (“Nothing compares to the simple pleasure of a bike ride.” — President John F. Kennedy), the seven best rides in the area. We’d kind of done #s 1 and 2 already, and #4 was what we’d just avoided, but #5, the Junction & Breakwater Trail, had been recommended not only at the rental place but by our neighbor, a friendly, newbie lawyer from New England. He said the trail paralleled Hwy 1 but went through quiet woods and marshlands and neighborhoods and wound up in Lewes, the town north of Rehoboth.
Patricia before the crash.
Patricia and I have different paces, though—I bike all the time, she seldom—and four miles along on the wide trail, in the middle of sparse woods, I realized I was too far ahead and stopped and waited. And waited. Finally I doubled back to find Patricia standing sheepishly by her bike. She gestured impotently. I assumed a flat but it wasn’t a flat. She’d been biking along, close to a fence, then experienced that odd sensation of being pulled into the very thing she was trying to avoid. Crash. She scraped her arm, bent her back tire, and now the back tire wouldn’t turn. The best I could do was release the back brakes so the tire would at least turn and she and I could hobble back to Rehoboth. Initially I was bummed—all that way without Lewes—but it turned out for the best.
After refueling at a co-op on Delaware Alt 1, and returning our bikes to the bike rental shop (had I spent the $5 on insurance last Sunday...? I had! Ka-ching!), we walked over to Dolles on the boardwalk to buy salt water taffy for the folks back home.
And that’s when I noticed the waves.
They were huge. How huge? In our absence the waves had come up almost to the boardwalk, and there were warm, stagnant pools of water on the beach proper, where adults pulled small kids around on boogie boards. It felt like an event. I immediately called Karen.
Half an hour later, Eric Muschler, Jordy, and I, were all trying to find a way to navigate into the water. Foam slopped everywhere. Few people were in the water but the pull to be in the water was as strong as any undertow. This was where it was happening and I wanted to be in it as it was happening. But how? I’d get out knee deep and a wave that had broken 10 feet in front of me still rumbled with enough force that, even bending beneath it, it would still push me a few feet closer to shore. Then I’d trudge back out again. In this way we danced. One time the wave broke late, right in front of me, and, even diving beneath it didn’t help. I was yanked off my feet and pushed and somersaulted to shore, where an awestruck, soaked Jordy stood watching.
“Poseidon is angry today,” he said.
I needed 10 more feet of courage. Eric had it, and went out beyond the breaking waves and sometimes rode them in, like bucking broncos. But the ocean out there seemed so deep and roiling and chaotic that I didn’t have that extra 10 feet of courage.
Instead, for an hour, I stood in the midway point, in the worst place you could possibly stand, and engaged in a shoving match with the ocean that the ocean always won. It was glorious.
Eric Muschler, Jordy and I and the “No Swimming” warning flag on our last day at the beach.
Travels: Mourning in Rehoboth
But the biggest change may not have been in Rehoboth; it may have been in me.
A few years ago, MSNBC-Movies asked me to write a piece about the 10 Sexiest Women, by which they meant actresses, and in the intro I explained what I did and didn’t mean by “sexy.” Mostly I didn’t mean young girls. I said women tend to get sexier as they age. I wrote:
Sexy is balance. Cool and hot at the same time. Interest and disinterest. It’s not passive but it’s not in a hurry either. It seems to arrive at that moment in a woman’s life when she’s still hot but can no longer rely on it completely. Or maybe it arrives when a woman decides to take charge. Or maybe I just like women taking charge.
All of which is still mostly true. Yet walking on the boardwalk, walking on the beach, passing by girls in their early 20s, or late teens, or, God help me, younger, wearing barely anything at all, well, I’ve never felt like such a dirty old man.
Another old man, a wiser old man, the one in Richard Linklater’s film “Slacker,” says, “When young, we mourn for one woman... as we grow old, for women in general,” and that was me when young, and that was me along the boardwalk last month. Maybe when young we mourn for one woman because she’s the one we can’t have, and as we age we can’t have any of them so we mourn for them all. Maybe 30 years ago the boardwalk at night was the place where I yearned for romance and didn’t find any, so I still carry that adolescent emotion within me as I near 50. Maybe the boardwalk at night is simply a place of yearning.
It’s also a place for sublimation. Here is all you can’t have, walking by in the other direction, so why not take out your frustrations on this video game? Why not let this Funland ride spin your frustrated body ’round and ’round? Why not stuff your face? That week I must have had five or six Kohr’s soft-serve ice cream cones and thought nothing of it, but, from a distance, the writer in me balks at the obvious symbolism. “Really, Erik. Ice cream? Could you be more obvious?”
This is part of the inherent contradiction of Rehoboth. Every empire carries within it the seeds of its own destruction, and while the empire of Rehoboth offers the hard bodies of young men and women parading along the boardwalk, it also offers, to these hard bodies, hot dogs and submarines and hamburgers and french fries and fried chicken and pizza and gyros and cheesesteaks and crabcakes and fudge and salt-water taffy and popcorn and ice cream. Something’s gotta give. In his essay, “The Art of Donald McGill,” George Orwell writes about the bad jokes in the twopenny postcards in the cheap stationers’ windows in 1940s London, and dissects a necessary component of these jokes:
Sex-appeal vanishes at about the age of twenty-five. Well-preserved and good-looking people beyond their first youth are never represented. The amorous honey-mooning couple reappear as the grim-visaged wife and shapeless, moustachioed, red-nosed husband, no intermediate stage being allowed for.
I kept thinking of these lines all week. Intermediate stages happen, of course—you see healthy people in their 40s and 50s and 60s—but Rehoboth is all about celebrating youth even as it offers every fat, greasy, sugary thing to destroy youth. In the end it’s a short step from being a young girl on the boardwalk parading by in her bikini, the world at her feet, to being the overweight mom on the bench, rocking the stroller, the world passing her by.
Maybe this is why, as we age, we mourn for women: less for our lost youth than for theirs.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Tea Shirts
What else is gone? The movie theater along Rehoboth Avenue where I saw “Grease” six times during the summer of ’78, falling more in love with Olivia Newton John each time. I was 15.
And where’s the clown face that used to grace the front of Funland? For some reason it’s been relegated to the back. The new facade announces “Funland” mutely. It makes no promises.
But Skee Ball lives. As does “The T-Shirt Factory” on Rehoboth Avenue. As do most of the T-shirt shops along the boardwalk. These first became big for me in the summer of 1977, when “Star Wars” first became big for me, and when I bought, or finagled, T-shirts with iron-on transfers like “May the Force Be With You” or “Darth Vader Lives!” or just that original magic poster of Luke and Leia lit up in the foreground and Darth Vader and the Death Star dominating the background. I remember the pleasantly acrid smell of the melted print as it was steamed onto the cotton. I remember the sometimes sticky feel of the iron-on afterwards. Options went beyond “Star Wars” to include other pop icons: rock stars (the Rolling Stones), Tiger Beat stars (Shaun Cassidy), TV stars (Starsky & Hutch), superheroes (Captain America). The last one I bought was probably a Bruce Springsteen long-sleeved tee in the summer of 1983, and since then I’ve favored blank T-shirts—I advertise for no man, man—but I was still pleasantly surprised that so many Rehoboth T-shirt shops thrived.
Then I looked closer. I’m sure we had tacky and classless transfers back then...but this tacky and classless?
- A silhouette of a curvy woman by a stripper pole: I Support Single Moms: One dollar at a time
- A raised middle finger with a smiley face: Have a nice day
- Six red words: I Put Ketchup on My Ketchup
Who thinks that’s witty? Probably the same people who think the following are smart political statements:
- A caricature of Barack Obama in a baby bjorn: Worse than a HANGOVER
- The faces of Obama, Nancy Pelosi and Joe Biden superimposed over Larry, Curly and Moe: The REAL Stooges
- A pic of a smiling, waving George W. Bush: MISS ME YET? How's that hopey changey thing working out for ya?
- Angry: Why the Hell Should I have to Press #1 for ENGLISH?
- Insane: If you can’t read this you’re probably illegal or the President!
I saw these in shops all over Rehoboth, and though I got weary at the smallness of it all, and angry at the idiocy of people who didn’t remember how bad things were in September 2008, I also realized I didn’t see anyone actually wearing such a T-shirt along the boardwalk. Everyone was too busy with their Phillies or Orioles tees, or their Seussian “Drunk Thing 1” or “Sexy Thing 2” T-shirts. It's still depressing, though. I’m no longer for slapping advertisements on my chest, but at least back in the day we put the things we loved on our chests.
Tomorrow: Mourning in Rehoboth
Stay classy, America.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Old Pro Golf
Part One of Rehoboth trip here.
Here’s a change. Back in the 1970s we put something called “sun tan lotion” on our bodies and then lay baking on a towel on the sand for hours. We compared tans like it was a competition. We had tan lines. Now, before we even step outside, we goop up with something called “sun screen” (30-75 SPF), and after dips in the ocean we reapply it beneath the umbrella. We read beneath the umbrella. We wear hats and SPF shirts and try to avoid the high-noon hours of 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. when there’s no place to hide.
Amazingly, with all of these precautions, I still got a tan. OK, a “tan.” OK, I got TFS: Tan for Seattle. More amazingly, there are regulars who still go for the deep, brown, unhealthy-looking George Hamilton tans. They’re so brown they probably would’ve stood out in 1977 but they’re especially noticeable in the SPF world of 2010. One wonders what compels them. I regret many moments in my life but few more than baking in the sun doing nothing but aging faster.
And what happened to my mini-golf courses? There used to be two along the boardwalk: the original, between Baltimore and Rehoboth Avenues, near the public restroom; and the “new one,” Old Pro Golf, on the roof of a T-shirt and gee-gaw shop next to Delaware Avenue, overlooking Funland. The original was clever enough, with a different level, five feet up and in the shade, as one made one’s way through the course.
Old Pro Golf was even more dazzling. It used a circus motif, with many moving parts, including, memorably, on the 19th hole, a ramp that narrowed to the width of a golf ball and that lead to the opening and closing mouth of a pneumatic hippo in a cage. To get a hole in one, and a free game, you had to hit it straight enough so it would stay on the ramp, hard enough so it would fly—like Evel Knievel—across the gap between ramp and hippo-mouth, and time it properly so the hippo’s mouth was open when the ball arrived. If you did all this, buzzers and lights would go off and you’d win a free game. As a kid this kind of coordination seemed impossible. One time my older brother, Chris, did everything right but the ball still bounced off the hippo’s tooth. Ohhhhhhhh. We talked about it for weeks afterward like it was Willie McCovey lining out to Bobby Richardson to end the 1962 World Series. Then one summer it suddenly became easy, and between the three of us, older brother and younger sister, we must’ve won five free games.
1970s Old Pro Golf: Showing off that first, sweet free-game pass outside the now-conquered hippo cage, and post-game with my sister Karen and our friend Dan, who's wearing a "Darth Vader Lives" T-shirt.
That course is still there, but called "Ryan's." It's without the hippo in a cage, the circus motif, moving parts, fun. Every hole involves small hills and dales and...that’s pretty much it. The free game on the 19th isn’t monumental, like a pneumatic hippo, but small. Hit the ball up a short, steep ramp, and into a small hole protected by a wire-mesh cage. Is the hole a clown’s nose? I forget. The whole contraption is tiny. It feels like you could pick it up and walk away with it. It feels like carry-on luggage.
The original course, meanwhile, is long gone, replaced by a Grotto’s Pizza.
Tomorrow: Tea shirts.
My nephews Ryan and Jordy eye the only mini-golf course left on the boardwalk. It's hardly a circus. On the plus side Jordy beat me by a stroke.
Travels: Rehoboth Beach, Del.: Intro
They say the days blend together but each is distinct.
Check-in times are generally at 2:00, so more than half the Saturday is gone by the time you emerge stiff and sweaty from your car, and anyway there’s work to be done—rentals to check into, groceries to buy—so you’re lucky if you get in a late-afternoon dip in the ocean and a walk on the boardwalk at night. But Sunday you take it all in. You go to the beach in the morning and afternoon, and, though half the ocean has gone up your nose, you stay past 5:00, past the lifeguards, until the sun, once blasting the top of your head, begins to lose its power; then it's dinner and Funland and the parade of people walking and preening along the boardwalk, and you've done so much this day that the next day, Monday, you step back and rest a bit. It is your vacation after all. It is only Monday after all. Even when you get back into it on Tuesday, you think, “Really? It's still only Tuesday?” It feels like you have all the time in the world. But Wednesday disappears, poof, and suddenly it’s Thursday and you know you're on the downside of things, and Friday, oh man, Friday you rush around and do all the things you should have done earlier but never got to, while Saturday morning is filled with melancholy. One last video game. One last walk on the boardwalk. One last look at the ocean. Bye.
I’ve been to many beaches since I was last at Rehoboth Beach, Del.—in Taiwan, Thailand, Vietnam, Nicaragua, Florida, Oregon and Washington—but Rehoboth, the beach I grew up with, the beach I went back to for the first time in 25 years last month, is still the one by which all the others are measured.
I expected it to be dirtier but it’s surprisingly clean. I expected it to be more crowded, and it must be—it swells on summer weekends from about 1,500 locals to include 100,000 tourists—but because the boardwalk has been extended further south, past Funland, it doesn’t feel more crowded. I expected the waves to feel puny, the water warm, the jellyfish rampant, but the waves were great, the water bracing, no jellyfish were sighted.
Planes still flew advertisements along the beach. One lone swimmer, in swim cap, still invariably plowed the waters 30 feet from shore. The Dolles sign still dominates the center of the boardwalk.
That doesn’t mean things haven’t changed.
Tomorrow: What's changed.
Our Vietnam Trip—Part IV: The Most Respectful Visitor to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum
Andy: You’re not scared, are you?
Me: [Pause] Of course.
It was Wednesday morning, the power was out at Andy and Joanie’s place, and we were talking about a xe em ride into town. Xe ems are motorcycle taxis and the idea of riding on the back of one as it weaved in and out of Hanoi traffic was a little off-putting. But Patricia was getting a ride on Andy’s bike, and three on a bike didn’t make much sense (to westerners), so it was my next-best option.
It was actually a breeze. The roads we drove on weren’t superbusy. More importantly, traffic seems a lot less dangerous when you’re part of it rather than trying to cross it. The lesson, if one example can make a lesson, is a kind of modern Buddhist koan: Be one with the traffic.
We were let off, by Andy and the xe em driver, at Ba Dinh Square, which we had visited on Sunday, not knowing it was a Sunday, and which is an oasis from the traffic. On Hung Vuong, the road that runs between the three Ho Chi Minh sites and a wide expanse of manicured grass and footpaths, traffic is blocked off for two city blocks, so the pace of life is back to a walking pace. One is less assaulted by noise and pollution. This was particularly true when we visited last Sunday, not knowing it was a Sunday, since the place was virtually deserted, but it was less true Wednesday morning at 10:00, when an anaconda-sized line, filled mostly with schoolkids, snaked from the mausoleum’s entrance down to the southern end of Hung Vuong. The mausoleum, where Ho Chi Minh’s body was interred, was what we came for, since it was only open in the mornings, but I took one look at that line and my shoulders drooped.
“Maybe we should just bag this.”
“What do you mean?” Patricia said.
“We’re never going to get in.”
“Sure we will. Look, the line’s moving quickly.”
It was. I began to walk toward the back of the line; but an armed guard, seeing me approach, directed me to the other side of the street. The only foot traffic allowed directly in front of the mausoleum was the line of visitors who had already been through security. We needed to go through security. That was also at the southern end of Hung Vuong.
While waiting in line for that, Patricia suddenly spoke up.
“This.” She fingered her sleeveless top.
“Did you spill on it?”
“Right.” The guidebook warned that men in shorts and women in sleeveless tops were not allowed in the mausoleum. It was why I was wearing long pants in 80-degree weather with 90% humidity. “Should we bag it?”
“Noo!” Patricia. sounded like a child who might be denied a roller-coaster ride. She left and returned a minute later with a black shawl covering her shoulders.
“How much?” I asked.
“Thirty thousand. Is that a lot?”
“A buck fifty.”
She fingered it. “It’s not bad for a buck fifty.”
At the security checkpoint, her purse and my book bag went through the x-ray machine. Then I was told I had to check my book bag.
“What’s the point of putting it through the x-ray machine if I have to check it?” I asked the world.
“Just do it,” Patricia said.
A half hour after we arrived, an hour and a half before the mausoleum closed, we finally got in line. Ten people ahead of us I noticed the two Dutch girls from our Ha Long Bay trip and we had a small reunion. Just ahead of us stood a westerner who appeared to be obeying the letter of the dress code if not its spirit. He looked like a pirate. He wore a kerchief on his head, and longish, scraggly hair in back. His beard was scraggly. He was scraggly. It was as if he’d just emerged from 40 years in the jungle.
Then he began speaking to the women in front of him in fluent Vietnamese.
I hadn’t met a westerner yet who knew more than a few phrases in Vietnamese so this was an impressive display. When they were done talking and joking and laughing, I asked him how long he’d been speaking Vietnamese.
“Japanese,” he said.
“Right,” I said. Idiot! I thought. How could I not recognize Japanese?
We talked a bit. He was born in Romania, grew up in Britain, had been living in Japan for the last 40 years. When he found out we were from Seattle he talked up seeing a Stones concert there a few years earlier. “Three thousand dollars but it was totally worth it,” he said. He got animated. Our conversation was flowing. Then a white-gloved guard motioned for us to be silent. Suddenly we were at the front entrance. Another guard motioned for us to take our hands out of our pockets and put them at our sides. We did. Everyone was quiet and docile and stiff as we marched from the light and heat of the day and into the cool darkness of the stone mausoleum. We walked up a flight of stairs where it got even cooler. No one spoke. The only sound was the shuffling of our feet as we walked single file into a small room, where, on the other side of a u-shaped walkway, Ho Chi Minh lay in state, famously, or infamously, against his express wishes to be cremated. His body was small and his face was smooth. He had the familiar white goatee and white tunic. Was it impolite to stare? Was that allowed? Moot point. A second later we were outside again, blinking in the sun.
“Wow,” I said, breathing out.
“Do you think his body was real?” Patricia asked.
“That was worth doing just for the experience of doing it.”
“I don’t know if he was real.”
“Could you do that in the U.S.? Have people shut up in front of the Lincoln Memorial? Would that increase the experience or lessen it?”
Our Wednesday turned out to be a replay of our Sunday. After the mausoleum we walked across town to meet Andy (and, this time, Joanie) for lunch, then walked back across town for more sites. We were getting pretty good at walking Hanoi. At least I was getting pretty good at walking Hanoi. Patricia, in the middle of a road, with an army of vehicles barreling down on her, still had the urge to flee. She held onto my hand for comfort and direction. She wasn’t one with the traffic yet.
The advantage of walking Hanoi, and consulting, every other block, your map of Hanoi, is that, without knowing it, you’re learning something about the long, sad history of Vietnam. Our route to lunch, for example, took us down Dien Bien Phu (the site of the French defeat in 1954) to Hai Ba Trung (the three Trung sisters, who led the first revolt against the imperialist Chinese in the first century A.D.), then a right onto Quan Su. After a quick jog onto Tran Hung Dao (a grand commander who repelled two Mongol invasions in the 13th century), we walked down Tran Binh Trong (a 13th-century general who preferred death to collaboration), then took a left onto Tran Quoc Toan (yet another 13th-century marytr to the Mongols), before finally walking up the small side street of Ha Hoi and the restaurant.
The Hoa Sua School for Disadvantaged Youth is a non-profit restaurant, housed in an old French colonial-style building, complete with winding, outer stone staircase, where young Vietnamese are trained in the arts of restauranting, and which Andy was reviewing for an online publication. Patricia and I arrived first and took a table in the courtyard in the shade of several leafy trees. The place is on a quiet back street, and, after our long march, it felt cool and comfortable. I could feel myself decompress as I sipped my beer. I also felt a disconnect. Most of the customers were affluent westerners, most of the wait staff Vietnamese in crisp white shirts. Against the French colonial backdrop, it didn’t take much to imagine yourself in the 1950s or 1920s; to imagine yourself on the set of “The Quiet American.” One wondered, not for the last time, what the war had been about.
After Andy and Joanie arrived, we talked about our walk to the restaurant.
“We kept seeing these mannequins wearing, you know, hip clothes, but with the zipper of the jeans undone,” Patricia said.
Joanie nodded. “The mannequins are western. But Vietnamese jeans don’t fit western mannequins.”
“You’re kidding,” Patricia said.
“I thought it was supposed to be, like, a sexy thing,” I said.
“They just don’t fit,” Joanie said.
“So why don’t they get Vietnamese mannequins?” Patricia asked.
“Probably for the ‘cool’ factor,” Andy said. “The west is cool.” He talked about seeing a national ad campaign that used a male model who looked more American than Asian.
“Like Taipei 20 years ago,” I said, sounding like a broken record.
“So even our mannequins are fat,” Patricia said.
Our walk back, in the greater heat and humidity of the day, was a slog, weighted down, as we were, with food, beer, and a greater sense of our own massive westernness. It didn’t help that we were backtracking. We were visiting Van Mieu, The Temple of Literature, just a few blocks south of where we’d been that morning, but it was a site Patricia had read about and was determined to see. It had been dedicated 900 years ago as a place of higher learning, and like most places of higher learning it was tough to get into. The Temple encompasses several city blocks, all walled in, and we hit it in the middle of the eastern wall and headed north. Bad move. The entrance is along the southern wall. We had to walk three-quarters of the way around to get in.
After wading through a sea of chattering schoolkids, all dressed in dark pants, white shirts and red kerchiefs, who occasionally broke out their English when they saw us coming (“Hello hello hello”), we walked through the main gate. Van Mieu is long and symmetrical and divided into five courtyards. In the first two courtyards there are paths to the left and right, gateways you step through on the left and right, and ponds on the far left and right. Patricia loved it, I was nonplussed. “What was the point?” I wondered. In the center of the third courtyard there’s a man-made pond, filled with man-made crap, and a few fish seemingly gasping for breath. “What was the point?” I wondered. Then I found the point. On either side of the pond is the Temple’s main attraction: ancient stone tablets, or stelae, weathered by time, that include the results of centuries-old national exams being carried on the backs of ancient stone tortoises. The oldest date from 1442 and 1448. Fifty years before Columbus.
The fifth courtyard includes the National Academy, regarded, the Rough Guide writes, “as Vietnam’s first university, which was founded in 1076 to educate princes and high officials in Confucian doctrine.” Plus there’s a gift shop. I bought a set of postcards and (finally) Bao Ninh’s novel “The Sorrow of War,” but it was while browsing the rest of the books that I felt that disconnect again. In one hand I was holding propaganda postcards celebrating April 30, 1975, the date communist North Vietnam finally chased capitalistic American forces out of the South, and with the other I was sorting through business-oriented books with smartly dressed westerners on the covers. In Vietnamese. The less-smartly dressed Bill Gates was on another cover, “11 lo’i khuyen—danh cho the he tre cua,” while other examples of western culture were available for purchase: “Cuon Theo Chieu Gio” (“Gone with the Wind”), “Trang Non” (“New Moon”), and, thanks to Robert Downey, Jr., Sherlock Holmes. So how did we get from April 30, 1975 to “11 lo’i khuyen”? It’s as if hearts and minds are more easily won with promises of wealth and romance than with guns and bombs. Imagine.
Afterwards, Patricia and I walked across Nguyen Thai Hoc (the 20th century Vietnamese revolutionary who was executed by French authorities, at the age of 28, after the Yen Bai mutiny of 1930) to the Fine Arts Museum. The Temple of Literature had been outdoors, crowded, and hot. The Fine Arts Museum was indoors, empty, and hot. A few air conditioners sputtered here and there, but the building was old, the doors open, the rooms muggy. One wondered what such conditions were doing to the artwork on the walls, some of which was quite good, and obviously influenced by whatever artistic trends were big in Europe in the early part of the 20th century. After 1954 and Dien Bien Phu, though, the themes changed from the personal and universal to, basically, Uncle Ho: in the counryside, smoking a cigarette, with kids. Sometimes all three. It was awful stuff. It didn’t even have the vibrancy of official propaganda artwork—like in the postcards I had just bought. It felt like every artistic sensibility of every painter was smothered.
The power was still out when we returned to the Engelson’s place, and so, rather than dinner at home with Andy’s friend, Matt Steinglass, we took a cab back to the main part of the city, near Hua Lo prison, to a favorite restaurant of Andy and Joanie’s, Quan An Ngon on Quan Su. It was a noisy and vibrant joint, with tons of wait staff, and reminded me of the type of two-tiered restaurant Jackie Chan, in one of his mid-‘80s films, might get into a spectacular, acrobatic fight. I would forever after refer to it as “The Jackie Chan restaurant.” Andy, poor bastard, kept trying to refer to it by its real name, but no matter how he elongated and warped his mouth, he could never get the “Ngon” right. He’d give it a go, look over at Fiona, age 7, who would quietly shake her head and correct him before going back to her drawings.
The girls had crayons and paper out, the adults were drinking ba ba ba (“333” beer), the wait staff, as many as 7-10 people, crowded around the table. Quan An Ngon has great customer service but we got extra attention less because we were westerners than because we were westerners with children. It’s difficult in Vietnam, or in Asia, for westerners to blend into the background (“Hello hello hello”), but you do cease to exist if you enter a joint behind kids. All attention is on them. Is it too much attention? At one point, two of the waitresses crouched behind Fiona’s chair and began stroking her long blonde hair. Some part of me flinched, but Fiona kept drawing while Andy and Joanie didn’t bat an eye. They trusted Fiona to object. Matilda objects. She doesn’t like the attention. Once again I admired the calm of parents. I'm havng enough trouble just getting me through life.
During dinner—a dizzying, delicious array of spicy vegetables, seafood, and meats—Joanie told us her story, or Matilda’s story, of the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. Andy hadn’t been yet but Joanie went with her daughters and visiting relatives, and they were told, yes, the same things we were told by the guards: be quiet, arms at sides, be respectful. Matilda, age 4, listened, nodded, walked in with the others in silence. Then they all walked out in silence. Then Matilda asked a seemingly relevant question: “Where’s Ho?” She’d been so quiet and respectful she hadn’t even turned her head to see his body lying in state. You could argue that Matilda Engelson, American, age 4, was the most respectful visitor ever to the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. She was so respectful she hadn't even seen him. He wasn't even there. Which is what he'd wanted all along.
Our Vietnam Trip—Part III: Ha Long Bay
I was originally against a sidetrip to Ha Long Bay. After spending nearly 24 hours getting to Hanoi, my thinking went, why pick up so soon and go elsewhere? Shouldn’t we see what’s there first?
Then I saw what was there.
We bought our tickets through the much-recommended head offices of iTravel. I.e., we walked into an expat bar, up a back staircase, and into a crowded second-story room where two women worked behind desks stacked with paper. It looked like a model of shadiness and inefficiency but was in fact the opposite. Most members of the tour group were picked up at their hotel in the Old Quarter, but we we were staying at the home of friends on other side of town, so we were told the minibus would pick us up at the nearby Sheraton at 8:15 Monday morning. It didn’t. Patricia and I walked over to the Sheraton early to use its ATM—Who wants to be a Vietnamese millionaire? Withdraw US$50—and as we were debating which parking lot might be the right parking lot for the pickup, a pretty woman in business attire and clipboard approached us, asked if we were... and pointed to some long-ass western names on her clipboard...then she took us by cab to the minibus outside the iTravel offices. It was not only great customer service, it allowed us to see Monday morning rush hour traffic in Hanoi. We’d arrived late Friday night, and had tooled around Saturday and Sunday without really realizing that the insanity we were seeing was, in fact, light, weekend traffic. The slow taxicab ride back to the Old Quarter set us straight.
“Holy shit,” I said, staring out the window.
The pretty woman was not our guide (“I’m sorry, honey,” Patricia mock-consoled me). Our guide was a peppy young Vietnamese man who had majored in tourism at a local university, and who, after telling us a little about himself, began the trip by asking the 11 foreigners on board to talk a little about ourselves. This was the first tour-group tour Patricia and I had been on, and we exchanged wary glances, but the introductions were quick and painless. Among our companions: an Aussie man, his wife and mother, traveling around Southeast Asia for several months; two Dutch girls traveling around Southeast Asia for several months; and a Swiss couple traveling around Southeast Asia for several months. Patricia and I were in Vietnam for two weeks. Nothing like American vacation time.
From Hanoi to Hai Phong Harbor, the launch point for Ha Long Bay, is only 170 kilometers, or 105 miles, but it took nearly three hours to get there. The road was bumpy, and only two lanes, which, by general consent, the Vietnamese had turned into three lanes: two thin lanes on either side for motorbikes and bikes and pedestrians, and a main lane, straight down the middle, where larger vehicles, heading in both directions, played chicken with each other.
After leaving the city, we were soon driving past startling green rice fields tended by two or three Vietnamese wearing traditional garb and conical hats. It was a scene so quintessentially Vietnamese as to be almost embarrassing. It was like visiting America and seeing cowboys herding cattle, or visiting Holland and seeing Dutch girls in wooden shoes waving in front of windmills. You mean it’s really like this? Yes, it’s really like this.
We also drove past numerous thin, three-story buildings with colorful facades dotting the landscape. I’d seen plenty in Hanoi and assumed the design was a consequence of the city—you squeezed in where you could—but no squeezing was necessary in the countryside. These buildings weren’t even next to each other but sprouted as randomly as gopher heads popping out of holes: here, here, and over there. Only the facades of the buildings were painted, in bright pinks and purples and yellows, while the long, exposed sides kept their original cement gray. Our tour guide later told me that real estate in Vietnam cost more by the width. Thus the skinniness. Form may dictate content, but economics dictates form.
Our boat was called “The Calypso” and we spent a good deal of the 24 hours on board in its clean, dark-paneled dining room, tended by two Vietnamese men in white dress shirts and a Vietnamese woman in ao dai. All the tourists took a table and pretty much stuck with it: the Aussie held forth with the Europeans, a late-arriving Vietnamese family had their own table, while Patricia and I joined an American, Jonathan, a project manager with the International Red Cross in Indonesia, and his girlfriend, Noy, a restauranteur from Laos, who, though shy, corrected my mispronuciation of her country. (The “s” is silent: Lao as in wow.) She also became the fourth person, out of an eventual cast of thousands, to correct my Vietnamese pronunciaton for “thank you”: not cam ON but gam un! Or so it seemed.
Jonathan grew up in Providence, Rhode Island, and, though he’d been living abroad for decades, still had that distinct Northeast obliteration of the letter “R.” He had met Noy during a biketrip through Laos when he stopped by her restaurant in Vientiane. I was peppering them with questions—How did they get together? How long had they been together? Did he know the Red Sox had won the World Series? Twice?—when, somewhere during dessert, people pointed at the window and we all rushed out onto the prow of the boat.
On the Oregon coast, there’s a famous rock 235 feet high just off the shore at Cannon Beach called Haystack Rock, and that’s what the islands in Ha Long Bay reminded me of. Except they were bigger, greener, and more numerous. That was the most amazing thing. On an overcast, sometimes misty day, we kept plowing the water and the islands kept appearing, in greater shapes and sizes. I went slack-jawed. “There are one thousand, nine hundred and sixty islands in Ha Long Bay,” our guide told me proudly. He said in 1994 Ha Long Bay was listed as a World Heritage Site (by UNESCO). He said now it was in the running for another, more prestigious honor (I forget which). He said its name meant Descending dragon. “Really?” I asked. “Long means dragon in Vietnamese?” Before I’d arrived I’d been curious if there were similarities between the Vietnamese and Chinese languages—since the Chinese had ruled Vietnam for a thousand years—and I’d already come across a few instances: male and female, nan and nu in Mandarin, are nam and nu in Vietnamese. Now long for dragon. Long is not only the Mandarin name for dragon, it’s the Mandarin name for both Bruce Lee (Lee Shao Long) and Jackie Chan (Chen Long). In Asia, it’s dragons forever.
After weighing anchor with 40 other tour boats (I counted the next morning), we took a smaller motorboat over to “Amazing Cave,” a stunning, three-chambered, well-lit attraction, made less attractive by the sheer number of people visiting. You go to Ha Long Bay not only for the beauty but to get away from the crowds of Hanoi, but the early part of our walk through Amazing Cave was as crowded as any walk through the Old Quarter. There was also the oddity of the penguin-shaped trash cans scattered throughout. “Why penguins?” Patricia wondered. “Why not something more native?” At the same time, the caves can’t help but bring the kid out in you, recalling, as they do, “Tom Sawyer” and pirate stories. You look around and think, “This would be a good place to be a pirate.” Then you think, “It probably was a good place to be a pirate.”
Back at the Calypso, we were given hot towels and an orange drink in the dining room, then met 10 minutes later by the side of the boat, where we all launched out into two-person kayaks and paddled over the bay, through a dark tunnel, and into the quiet of Monkey Island Bay. Longtime readers know, longtime knowers know, that the personalities of Patricia and myself, particularly on trips, tend to be divergent. She’s more of a Pollyanna while I’m a bit of a Grumpy Gus. Half full, half empty. Oh wow, this. Oh yeah, this. At home, too, whenever we drive somewhere, I drive, because I can’t bear the passive way she drives, and because she (mostly) doesn’t mind my more aggressive form of driving. But put us in a kayak together and this is what I heard from the front:
“What are you doing?”
“No, we’re supposed to go over there.”
“Are you even trying to steer?”
“What are you doing?”
Admittedly, I wasn’t, or we weren’t, the best steerers. I went for speed, then tried to compensate for direction, then overcompensated. We took the drunkard’s path to our destinations. “More exercise this way,” I said, seeing things half full for a change. Patricia, half empty, went unamused. But she loved Monkey Island, particularly when we paddled within spitting distance of a group of monkeys dangling from trees, one of whom jumped into the water and swam to shore. “I didn’t know monkeys could swim,” Patricia said, blissful. Then, as dusk fell, we followed the others back to the boat. Ours was the serpentine path. We barely beat the Vietnamese grandparents.
Dinner was great, and beautifully presented, and included shrimp dipped in a small side dish of salt, pepper and lime. P and Jonathan and Noy and I shared a bottle of wine, and afterwards we took our buzzes up on deck, sat on lounge chairs and gazed at the night sky and the island silhouettes surrounding us. The air was soft and warm. On the other boats in the bay you could hear karaoke being sung, and on our boat, below deck, several people laughed while fishing for squid. I was happy where we were. It felt just right.
The next morning, in fact, that was where I immediately went: up on deck, at 6:30 a.m., to write. I wasn’t alone. The Vietnamese family was already there. I should’ve taken this as an opportunity but I took it as an interruption.
“The Vietnamese,” I thought from the middle of their country. Vietnam responded accordingly. It began to rain on me.
Our second day, forecast as sunny, was like that, overcast and drizzly, and the planned excursion, a motorboat trip past a fishing village, was short and sad. How many tourist boats had the people in this fishing village seen that day, that week, that year? How soon do you despise the blank faces peering into and taking pictures of your lives?
But we mingled better that second day. I spoke briefly with the Dutch women, who hadn’t known each other before they began their trip, and who were heading next to southern China. The Aussie, Steve, who had lived in Shanghai and spoke some Chinese, gave them pointers. Steve was intriguing. On the first day, some passing fishing villagers were laughing and holding out their hands and pointing, and someone on the prow of the boat guessed at its meaning. Steve corrected them. “They’re making fun of my weight,” he said. But he said it so matter-of-factly, with no trace of animosity or self-pity, that it amounted to grace. Steve’s a teacher and a scholar, who, late into his 40s, is still working on his Ph.D. One gets the feeling he’s interested in too much to focus on one thing. He’s traveled the world, and spoke knowledgably about everything from the beauty of Coeur d’Alene, Idaho to the idiocy of the personalities on FOX News. He became interested in the U.S. at an early age, he said, through the U.S. Civil War. We also talked Aussie movies and in general we all acted like it was the last day of school, even though we’d only been together for a day. Contact info, for whatever it was worth, was exchanged. Then we were back in port and heading to Hanoi again.
During our day on the boat, particularly up top or on the prow, I’d occassionally hear something that sounded like a helicopter—a sound and image that’s intrinsically tied with American memories of Vietnam. But I wasn’t hearing helicopters. I was hearing the chugging of long Vietnamese motorboats delivering supplies. Of course, these boats, too, were evocative. They looked like the boat Captain Willard takes upriver in “Apocalypse Now.” Plus these boats flew the Vietnamese flag, which, with its yellow star and red background flapping in the wind, is itself evocative. It was always oddly thrilling seeing it. It was like being on the other side of a big Other. “That’s right,” I’d think. “I’m here.”
The lovely Patrica, up on deck.
Getting away from it all.
Not our boat. More of a "Never get out of the boat" boat.
Our Vietnam Trip — Part II: Visiting Vestiges
The key to enjoying Hanoi, for me, was learning to cross the street.
Visiting a new culture, one is invariably reduced to a kind of infancy anyway. Suddenly one doesn’t know the language, the food, the unwritten rules. One can’t even say “hello” or “thank you” properly. This isn’t a negative so much as part of the reason for going. In his song “New Town,” Vic Chesnutt sings:
And a little bitty baby draws a nice clean breath
From over his beaming momma’s shoulder
He’s staring at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as he can see
But he’ll stop staring when he’s older
And that’s part of why we travel. To feel this way again. To stare at the worldly wonders that stretch just as far as we can see again.
Learning to cross the street was part of this. Hanoi traffic is a constant, oncoming, evolving flow that can leave cautious foreigners standing by the side of the road for long periods of time. I remember it took me a year to figure out how to cross a wide, busy street in Taipei. (Basically: if you don’t look at the oncoming drivers then it’s their job to slow down or get out of your way; if you do look at them then it’s your job to get out of their way.) Things are slightly more civilized in Hanoi, and, on the first day, Andy gave us lessons: Move slowly, but with purpose, across the street; pause when necessary; and whatever you do, never step backwards. It’s the Hanoi traffic equivalent of: “Never get off the boat.”
Here's how my thinking on Hanoi traffic evolved during our stay. On the first day: My god, look at these crazy fuckers. On the second day: I can’t believe there aren’t more accidents. By the fourth day, the observation becomes a question: Hey, how come there aren’t more accidents? The lanes in Hanoi aren’t used as lanes, or even suggestions of lanes, and the mix of trucks, buses, cars, motorbikes, bicycles and pedestrians, weaving down the road, often into oncoming traffic, brush within centimeters of each other. Yet during our two-week stay we didn’t see one accident. We saw the aftermath of a minor one, a tipped motorbike in the middle of the road, but that was it. Why?
An answer begins to suggest itself when you realize there’s no road rage. In a certain sense the Vietnamese can’t afford road rage—otherwise they’d have nothing but road rage—but it goes deeper than that. To feel road rage one has to feel a sense of ownership: “This is my lane”; “That fucker cut me off”; etc. But in Hanoi the system works on accommodation or it doesn’t work at all. You go along to get along. Nobody owns anything. Hanoi traffic, it can be argued, is one of the most communistic things about modern Vietnam.
And that’s the key to crossing the road. That car or motorbike heading toward you doesn’t feel he owns the part of the road you’re standing on, so he doesn’t object to you standing there; he’ll go either to this or that side of you. It’s all a matter of anticipation and accommodation. Think of the traffic as a river and the pedestrian as a turtle (a symbol of longevity in Vietnamese culture), who moves slowly and purposefully, while the river, the traffic, flows all around him, until he’s on the other side.
And one is a kid again. Look ma, I crossed the street! By myself!
I had this feeling on our second full day in Hanoi when Patricia and I ventured out on our own. We’re walking people, and on this day we managed to walk from the city center to the old French quarter, then back to the Old Quarter to meet Andy for lunch. Afterwards we walked west again to some of the Ho Chi Minh sites. Many rivers to cross.
We began in the morning at Hoa Lo Prison, or the Hanoi Hilton, where U.S. servicemen were imprisoned and tortured from 1964 to 1973. To get there, Sen. John McCain, a Navy pilot, was shot down in Oct. 1967, parachuted into Truc Bach Lake in Hanoi, was pulled to shore and beaten by a crowd and then taken to a hospital, or “hospital,” for six weeks, before beginning two years of solitary confinement. To get there, Patricia and I took a taxi. The place cost John McCain six years of his life. It cost us 10,000 dong—or about 50 cents each. One feels guilty before even entering. One feels the way time reveals the absurdity of human events, the absurdity of the borders we construct.
Hoa Lo was built by the French in 1896, and most of the prison, now museum, is dedicated to the period when the French ruled and the Vietnamese rebelled and suffered. The American section is relatively small, and, though it should have come as no surprise to me, propagandized. Apparently the Vietnamese treated their American prisoners well. Apparently they let them play basketball and billiards and chess. They fed them sumptuous meals while sympathetic Vietnamese doctors tended their wounds. Apparently they didn’t torture them to extract information or use them as propaganda tools or break them with forced confessions.
The sign outside the gate (“Internal Regulations for Visit of Vestiges in Hoa Lo Prison”) warns, among other things, against frolicking in the prison. One hardly needs the warning. Hoa Lo is a grim place, made grimmer by the propaganda. The cells are small, dank, dirty, the barred windows tiny. The walls are crumbling. There’s a guillotine in the French section, John McCain’s flight suit under glass in the American. There’s a framed, colorful picture of a waving Santa Claus conducting a train full of Christmas trees and presents, supposedly drawn by American POWs, that is all the more depressing for its brightness and cheeriness. There’s a section on the many protesters of the war in Vietnam, including Norman Morrison, a Quaker who set himself afire in front of the Pentagon in November 1965, and who is something of a heroic martyr in Vietnam. His first name is misspelled: “Noosman.”
Two incidents stand out. The courtyard includes a small, open-air gift shop, which, one imagines, does little business—it’s like a gift shop at Auschwitz—but there are several books on display, including Bao Ninh’s “The Sorrow of War.” This is a novel almost every expat in Vietnam knows but I hadn't even heard of until the day before when I saw it on a display table in a museum/home in the Old Quarter. After Andy talked it up, I read the first sentence:
On the banks of the Ya Crong Poco River, on the northern flank of the B3 battlefield in the Center Highlands, the Missing In Action body-collecting team awaits the dry season of 1976.
I’m a believer in first sentences and this was a good first sentence. I didn’t buy the book then, but I was contemplating a purchase at Hoa Lo when a white-haired, heavy-gutted foreigner walked by and saw, among the offerings, two books by Barack Obama: “Dreams From My Father” and “The Audacity of Hope.” He went apoplectic.
“Bah!” he yelled, and turned the faces of both books down.
It was such an impotent gesture I laughed. Not just because it was silly. If this guy was what I thought he was—a FOX-News watching, possibly Tea Party attending dude—he'd missed a golden opportunity. Barack Obama’s books were just sitting there next to Ho Chi Minh’s books. Why not take a picture of their awful, awful commingling? Play the “guilty by association” card. See? Didn’t we tell you he was a communist? And Asian to boot!
Instead he made his impotent gesture.
When I laughed out loud, he turned in our direction and, unbeknownst to me, met with a withering gaze from Patricia—who is less political than I but knows a stupid gesture when she sees one. Some combination of my amusement and her condemnation stirred something in this guy and he actually put the books back, grumbling all the while, before retreating to his wife. You don't mess with Patricia's withering gaze. Glenn Beck, you're next!
The second incident occurred after we left the prison. We were walking up Hoa Lo Road toward Hai Ba Trung when a Vietnamese man left his motorbike, walked over to the prison and took a piss against the wall. Public health issues aside, surely this is bad form for such an important building. Put another way: Are there no external regulations for visit of vestiges?
Then we were off: two children, holding hands, trying our best to cross the street.
The French Quarter was my idea, because it was French, and thus might not remind me of Taipei 20 years ago; but the Frenchiest thing about it were some wide boulevards, a grand opera house, and, most interestingly, a few old buildings, scattered here and there, of scraped yellow paint, high, second-story windows bordered by long green shutters, and empty balconies. They felt romantic. They probably felt romantic even before they suggested a lost era.
After meeting Andy for lunch at Cha Ca La Vong in the Old Quarter—a restaurant that serves just one dish: fried fish, cooked at your table, with sticky noodles and greens and chili peppers—we left Andy again and walked, mostly via Phan Dinh Phung, to the Ho Chi Minh trifecta: House, Mausoleum, Museum. But we’d read poorly. The Mausoleum, housing Uncle Ho’s body—which has been preserved almost as long as mine has been alive (41 vs. 47 years)—is open only in the mornings. We were too late.
The House, though, where Ho lived and worked from 1958 until his death in 1969, was elegant in its simplicity. That’s its point. It stood on stilts next to a humid pond, and the rooms, which one could look at but not enter from outer walkways, were filled with small, simple desks, small, simple bookcases, and pictures of Lenin and Marx. (But not Stalin; never Stalin.) In the giftshop, an oddity: a book, called “40 Bai hoc danh cho tuoi moi lon,” with a cute Vietnamese girl in a short skirt on the cover. It felt like finding a Britney Spears CD at Monticello, but apparently the title translates to “40 Lessons for Adolescence” and is considered educational. A Google translation of a Vietnamese review tells us the book encourages “the healthy growth of new young adults, using the animated story, a vivid and concise, analytical, presentation...” Some enterprising expat should put that description on a T-shirt.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum is less simple. It’s in a grand, opulent building, and there’s a grand, opulent staircase that leads to a grand, gleaming statue of Uncle Ho in mid-greeting; but it’s the second floor, past the statue, that recommends the place. It’s basically in a wagon-wheel design, with different wedges of the wheel dedicated, not to Ho, but to artistic interpretations of different periods of the 20th century as they relate to Vietnam. One wedge, for example, takes familiar images from Picasso’s “Guernica,” and brings them to large, 3-D life. There are homages to Andy Warhol’s “Marilyn” and photos of Dizzy Gillespie. There are attempts to make art out of the refuse of the American War: barbed wire, maps, G.I. helmets. There is a mirrored copy of a newspaper whose headline reads, “VIETNAM TRIUMPHS,” and whose subhed adds: “Nixon Bows to Heroism and Humanity"—as we know he always did. Most memorably, there is a giant tilted table on top of which sit giant pieces of fruit—banana, pineapple, apples—and which, according to a nearby plaque, encourages the younger generation, in the name of Uncle Ho, to preserve the environment against aggressive and destructive wars. No mention of pollution indexes.
We cabbed it home from there. This was before we’d been steered toward Mai Linh or CP taxis, the safe taxis, and it was the one time we were ripped off, or obviously ripped off, in Vietnam. I forget the name of the cab company, but as we neared Andy and Joanie’s place the meter read 170,000 dong. (A little over $8.) We objected strongly, pretty sure this was off by 100,000 dong ($5), but we could only object in English, and in the end I wasn’t quite sure of the cost anyway, so I gave him 150,000 dong, which he was happy to get. He triumphed. I bowed to his heroism and humanity.
The lovely Patricia, offering you your choice of giant fruit.
Our Vietnam Trip — Part I: Hanoied
The Chinese have a word for it: ru nao. I assume the Vietnamese have a word for it, too, but I don't know Vietnamese. I don't even really know the Vietnamese for “thank you,” which is the first word one should learn when staying in a foreign country: thank you, hello, please, I'm sorry, how much, 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10. I know something of the Vietnamese for “hello” (xin chao) and I know something of “thank you” (cam on), but Vietnamese is a tonal language, just as Mandarin is a tonal language; except Vietnamese has seven tones to Mandarin's four, and the Mandarin four are, in comparison, fairly straightforward: an even, musical tone (like “fa” on the musical scale), a rising tone, a falling tone, and a falling then rising tone. They’re numbered, too, which makes clarification easier. “Which tone?” “Third tone.” In Vietnamese the tones tend to swoop and soar and stop suddenly and pile on themselves. If tones are like stairs—one is usually in some process of rising or falling—Vietnamese tones feel like a series of stairs by M.C. Escher.
Ru nao, whose tones I’ve forgotten, and which has no direct English translation, means busy and bustling and crowded and noisy and hectic, and Taipei, Taiwan, where I lived in 1987-88, and again in 1990-91, was hen ru nao; but Hanoi, where my friends Andy and Joanie moved last August, and which Patricia and I visited for the first time last month, is even more ru nao than my memory of Taipei. The city supposedly holds 6.5 million people, and four of them, Andy, Joanie, and their daughters, Fiona and Matilda, ages 7 and 4, live on the northeast side of Ho Tay, the giant lake to the north of the city, and are thus at a remove from some of this busyness. But it’s a short remove. Take a right out their front door, walk past the badminton court frequently in use by their Vietnamese neighbors, up a narrow alleyway that invariably smells of urine, and you’re in the thick of it again: the noise, the bustle, the sidewalks so crowded with parked motorbikes and piles of wires or mounds of dirt that they’re not much good for walking; the crazy traffic and constant beeping/honking off the Au Co. It is, in an English word, overwhelming, and in those first few days I felt overwhelmed.
Patricia was overwhelmed as well but in a good way. She is invariably game for anything, and she’d never been to Asia, so she kept saying: Wow, this. I am invariably game for little, and I’d had that history in Taipei, so I kept thinking: Oh yeah, this.
Oh yeah: these chalky tiled sidewalks made chalkier by pollution. Oh yeah: these dim fluorescent lights that cast a ghostly pallor over tiled rooms. Oh yeah: this humidity that curls the covers of paperback books and turns tile floors clammy. Oh yeah: this pollution that burns in the back of the throat. Oh yeah: ru nao.
On our first full day, Patricia, who had done the Lonely Planet reading (unlike some of us), wanted to go to the Old Quarter, with its narrow streets and small shops, north of Ho Hoan Kiem (Hoan Kiem Lake), and the Engelsons obliged. It’s often the first stop for foreigners, and it has its share of them, along with everything one associates with proximity to foreigners with deep pockets. All day the Vietnamese tried to sell us taxicab rides, pedicab rides, xe em (motorbike) rides, trinkets, watches, jewelry. A woman, wearing the traditional Vietnamese conical hat, and carrying fruits and vegetables on either end of the traditonal Vietnamese bamboo pole, tried to sell us her wares. When we begged off, she placed the bamboo pole on my shoulder. It was heavier than I anticipated and initially I thought she wanted help. Initially I felt chivalrous. Then she tried placing her conical hat on my head. Andy, half-abashed, explained that it’s a touristy thing. Foreigners get their pictures taken wearing her hat and carrying her load, and she gets money, and maybe sells them something. I went from feeling chivalrous to feeling appalled—less for her than for the tourists who do this kind of thing. At the same time, being appalled, and giving back her hat and pole as if they were diseased, didn’t exactly help her out.
Most of the streets in the Old Quarter are dedicated to one product, and their names reflect this. Hang Bac means shops of silver, Hang Dao shops of silk. We saw less silver and silk than shoes, towels, trinkets, art knockoffs, DVDs. The DVDs are knockoffs, too, bootlegs, and include movies that are still in theaters—most notably “Avatar,” whose DVD is set to be released in the States on Earth Day, April 22nd. I shouldn’t have been surprised by this but I was, and I wondered about its quality. A week and a half later, at the Ben Trahn Market in Saigon, curiosity got the better of me. The woman wanted 15,000 Vietnamese dollars (VND), or dong, for “Avatar,” but I offered 10,000 and she shrugged and took it. Basically I bargained her down from 75 cents to 50 cents. For a DVD of “Avatar.” That plays on U.S. systems. And isn’t filmed by someone in the back row of the theater but is a high-quality digital copy of the entire film. No wonder Hollywood’s worried. The DVD’s maker, if one wants to use that word, is a company called Simba, which promises “The Best Quality Trust," while the back of the DVD's packaging includes two impotent symbols: a copy protection label and an FBI anti-piracy warning. Our last day in Vietnam, back in the Old Quarter, I went a step further, asking for movies that hadn’t even been released into U.S. theaters yet. Did they have, say, “Iron Man 2”? They didn't, but, "Soon," the man promised. Then he offered “Alice in Wonderland,” “Repo Men,” “Percy Jackson.” He offered me the HBO Miniseries “The Pacific,” which, in the States, had aired only three of its 10 episodes. We should all be worried.
For lunch we went to a street vendor for bun cha: grilled pork, sticky noodles, greens and peppers mixed and dipped in a broth. As a child in the Midwest, I liked to get everything onto one fork—meat, potatoes and vegetable—and bun cha is kind of like that. You want all the flavors between your chopsticks and in your mouth at the same time. (For a better description, go here.) Patricia loved it, loved eating on the street, laughed about the yoga positions required to sit on those small, blue, plastic stools before that small, blue plastic table. I thought the bun cha delicious, too, but wondered how we wound up at this place, and how clean it was, and what disease I might be getting. (Spoiler: none.)
The market in the Old Quarter.
You don’t realize the extent of the noise of Hanoi until you get out of it, and, after lunch, as Joanie took the girls for ice cream, Andy took Patricia and I to an expat joint: through a bar, up the back stairs, and onto a leafy terrace sheltered from the street. That’s when you feel your ears suddenly relax. Andy ordered his regular, ca phe sua da, or coffee (ca phe) with condensed milk (sua) and ice (da). Patricia followed. I went with an iced lime drink they called a shake. Later Andy took us through another bar and up some more back stairs to purchase tickets for trips later in the week. Then the three of us went to the Old Quarter’s market to buy food for dinner that evening. Patricia was in heaven—she loves markets—but this is precisely when I became fed up with Hanoi. The markets are even more crowded than the streets, and yet, through the narrow lanes, covered by dirt and slop, people still ride their motorbikes, beeping all the while. Could I stand here? No. Here? No. It felt like no matter where I stood I was in someone’s way. It felt like Vietnam was allowing me no place to stand.
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