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Florence in Words

Vietnam, Part One

This morning, as I thought about Martin Luther King’s Day, January 16, 2012, I remembered the way I had begun—two months earlier—to write a blog about my trip to Vietnam. At least once a day, and sometimes all day, I couldn’t stop thinking about what the Vietnamese call “the American War,” and the long years of U.S. bombing of this slender piece of land and its resilient people, and also of the U.S. peace movement’s marches, protests, arrests, frustration. I remembered one particularly astonishing moment in Mississippi, during the summer of 1965, when a woman I was interviewing said that the people in Vietnam being bombed were just like her and her folks. “How is that so?” I asked. “They’re colored, too,” she said. “It’s a war against colored.”

The Vietnamese I talked with, sometimes not needing a translator, said clearly that their war was with the U.S. government, not the U.S. people. This is more than policy; it seemed to be visceral. These are peace-loving people, friendly, kind. My impression also was of a fearless people, proud of their victory, willing to demonstrate—through turning their war efforts into museums—their persistent and selfless energy. These are not pushy individualists. Again and again, we felt the ambivalence of a proud people who claim the group as invincible, not an individual. Yes, Uncle Ho may seem an exception, but for much of his life he shunned celebrity. One might conclude that he gave up a personal or profitable life for his country.

Nguyen Minh HaLady Borton and Sandra Levine
Nguyen Minh Ha
Lady Borton and Sandra Levine

Yes, there is much to write about, and I’m returning to the trip itself. I traveled with Sandra Levine, a sculptor and a friend, on a two-week trip planned and executed by two friends who live in Ha Noi: Lady Borton, an American writer, translator, activist, advisor on development projects, and biographer of Ho Chi Min; and Nguyen Minh Ha, a Vietnamese editor, translator, writer, and a single mom, who was until retirement this year (at 55, the law) the senior editor at the 54-year old Women’s Publishing House in Ha Noi. I had worked with Lady and Minh Ha on the Feminist Press’ Vietnamese bi-lingual volume of a thousand years of women poets called The Defiant Muse. For Sandra and me, Lady and Minh Ha scheduled two weeks of sight-seeing and meals with interesting people.

Sandra and I were never disappointed, though we were often exhausted as we went to our separate rooms usually past ten p.m., marveling that Lady, who had insisted on escorting us back to our hotel, would then ride her bicycle back to her home. And she’d arrive the next morning before ten a.m., again on her bicycle. In Ha Noi, Sandra and I stayed at the small, family-run “Lucky Hotel” on Hang Trong Street in Old Town, two blocks from the beautiful Lake of the Restored Sword. We chose separate rooms without a view to gain quiet, free of crowing roosters or honking horns. Beds were comfortably hard, bathrooms were modern, wi-fi worked most of the time, and for breakfast we could have cho, pronounced cha, delicious beef soup with round noodles.

The Lake is the home of giant turtles, at least one of which is on display nearby on a picturesque bridge that juts out into the Lake perhaps to attract visitors like us. On that first morning after we arrived, Sandra and I walked to the Lake on our own, and on the way back passed a building that had a sculptured turtle up a short flight of steps, and I photographed it, not yet understanding why it was there, but paying homage to my love for turtles.

The bridge over the LakeA stone turtle
The bridge over the Lake"
A stone turtle

We opened our visit with a four-hour drive north to Ha Long Bay, a UNESCO Natural Beauty Heritage site. There, four of us boarded a boat for a sumptuous lunch and a four-hour cruise around some of the more than a thousand rocky islands that fill the bay. It was a stretch to do this in one day—but, as I think about it, this was one of the most relaxed days of the trip. Most days we were scheduled with different people for lunch and dinner, and sometimes separately for between meals and after dinner.

Ha Long BayLunch with Sandra (left) and Lady (right)
Ha Long Bay
Lunch with Sandra (left) and Lady (right)"

Ha Long Bay and one of its fishing villages
Ha Long Bay and one of its fishing villages

The most profound and overwhelming impression of Ha Noi, and later, Ho Chi Min City, is of thousands of motorcycles, the vehicle of choice for the Vietnamese. A taxi driver said that there were 1,000,000 motorcycles in Ha Noi and but 200,000 cars. The proportion may even be greater. Crossing a street, especially if there are no traffic lights, requires valor: one must walk slowly, steadily, looking straight ahead, and assuming (hoping) that the motorcycles will speed around your body. I loved the way Sandra crossed a street, one arm raised as though to ward off the vehicles zipping around her. After trying daily to get a good street scene I finally bought a postcard. To be continued. . .

The motorcycles of Ha Noi
The motorcycles of Ha Noi

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