To those of you who do follow this blog with any sort of regularity, I apologize for not keeping up as promised. Although, to be fair, I’m not sure I’ve ever met anyone who keeps up a blog like they intend to. We’ve been in Vietnam for quite some time now, three weeks maybe, and it’s been really wonderful. It’s much more relaxed than the other countries in which we’ve traveled. The food is fresh and delicious, the people have been more genuine on the whole and visually it’s so unique, with lush countryside and bustling cities ready to burst at the seams.
We’re in Hanoi now, which continually amazes my dad who could never have fathomed me coming here, or Vietnam at all. Being here as an American tourist is often difficult morally, when even admitting my nationality feels in itself a small crime. Before even asking your name, every person wants to know where you’re from and the looks I’ve gotten, the pregnant silences, are some of the most uncomfortable I’ve endured. So much so that some Americans we’ve met just say they’re Canadian. The history and effects of the American war, as it’s known here, are so pervasive and unforgettable it makes even my pacifist heart guilty for having been born in the country. My only personal connections to the war are tenuous, but still leave me unsettled: my college was endowed by Dow Chemical, the manufacturer of Agent Orange and other defoliants; my uncle fought here while my mother’s family gathered around their living room TV to watch the coverage. But now I’m sitting in a café in a neighborhood of Hanoi that was completely decimated by American bombs. The pictures we’ve seen could take your breath away. The country’s been rebuilt for the most part, but the scars are still raw.
Making my way north through the country I’m reminded of Tim O’Brien’s brilliant “memoir” The Things They Carried. The way he blurs truth and fiction seamlessly makes more and more sense with the time I spend here. The country feels almost mythic with its bare vertiginous cliffs jutting out of forests just miles away from pristine beaches and cities deserted or packed depending which street you turn down. Swirling subjective history, so recent trees have only now begun to grow again, looms around every corner. Why should it not? Why should I not also relive its effects, day after day? I’ve seen the tunnels and the prisons and the bomb craters and the victims who carry DNA that was mutated and passed on and on and on. Forty years ago it could’ve been me with a gun, caked in mud, wondering how I ended up here, dying to leave. It could’ve been.
“Even now, as I write this, I can still feel that tightness. And I want you to feel it—the wind coming off the river, the waves, the silence, the wooded frontier. You’re at the bow of a boat on the Rainy River. You’re twenty-one years old, you’re scared, and there’s a hard squeezing pressure in your chest.
What would you do?
Would you jump? Would you feel pity for yourself? Would you think about your family and your childhood and your dreams and all you’re leaving behind? Would it hurt? Would it feel like dying? Would you cry, as I did?”
― Tim O’Brien, The Things They Carried