So here’s a confession. What I thought I knew about Việt Nam mostly fell by the wayside. What I’m saying is, the trip was humbling.
Two weeks in the country and now another several weeks since I came back, I’m still recognizing new ways to see it, and how I can’t see it anymore the way I ever told you about it. Even the words I see differently. I spent the morning adding the Vietnamese language to my MAC keyboard ‘input menu’ so that I can at least add the diacritical marks to the letters. Vietnamese is spoken in tones and the diacritics tell the reader what the words mean. The marks are integral to the letter. They are the letters. (See my note below about the language.*) The marks help me come into a country in a way I had no room in myself to do in 1970.
Expect time, the entirety of time, to have its way with you. So many things got in my way in writing these “Letters” to you about returning to Việt Nam. You were with me all the way. We texted from all the airports and you told me what-on-earth time it was in some part of the world. I was so upside down with time. When I got back, I couldn’t, for the life of me, sleep at any time. Also, I’d gotten sick in a minor way in Hanoi, and that lingered. Then my brilliant editor for a forthcoming novel showed me a vision for fixing some things, and I leaped from Việt Nam back into the novel with huge excitement to rewrite. Now I’m letting the characters rest, so I can write to you way past the time I wanted to write this last letter.
The country might change you. For one, it entices you to shop. Give in to it. At least in small ways. One day, in some time, I texted you,
What’s your favorite color? knowing that it changes.
You were shocked. Are you shopping? I’ve never seen me shop.
Just tell me your favorite color.
Yes, I went shopping for blue silk on Hàng Gai Street (Silk Street) in Hanoi.
If you get something that needs an antibiotic to heal, you can do this in Việt Nam. I did. Take a fellow traveler with you to a street pharmacy. Travel to the pharmacy at night for the drama of the night, and with the fellow traveler and the pharmacist google your affliction and she’ll know right away. She’ll pick the pills from the wall of drugs, write on the box “Morning: 1 after/Evening: 1 eating”, and charge not much more than a U.S. dollar for a 10-day supply. This practice is frowned on by the National Institute of Health and the World Health Organization because of the danger of building resistance to antibiotics. When I came home I read about other dangers of pharmacies internationally on the Washington Post podcast, “By the Way.” The story is called, “Everything You Need to Know about Foreign Pharmacies” by Andrea Sachs.
A true practical tip is drop everything and read or listen to all the stories from “By the Way: Detours with locals. Travel trips you can trust.” I’d do that in a heartbeat and I will, after I finish the novel rewrite.
There are cafes along the highways, there are cafes down side roads, there are cafes in villages. Sometimes beside the cafes there are trees strung with hammocks. I was curious about the hammocks and found that they were for people to take a nap at a point in the day when you need to stretch out, shut your eyes. Along the highway, I saw workmen in the hammocks and imagined them having a nap between lunch and getting back to the job. I think the hammocks are a brilliant idea and Americans should add hammocks to their restaurants.
Always travel with Le Ly. One day we were in Huế. We saw what remains of the former Imperial City and walked along the moat and the thick stone walls around the city. We saw the Sông Hương that empties into a lagoon farther on. We walked through dense intersections of city streets toward our van, passing cafés and trinket shops and manikins in t-shirts that say Huế and that bright gold national star. Le Ly worried about our hunger and spotted a street-side café next to the t-shirts. No one was eating at the small tables. She talked briefly to the owner. She seemed to extract promises from him about feeding this small band of Americans. Le Ly had run a restaurant of her own. She knew how to do that. In Da Nang during the war, she ran a black market business to feed and house her baby and her mother. She makes things happen. When the staff at restaurant was not quick enough to set up for us, she moved tables. Brought us cups and water. Then she ordered for us. Platters of food came which we ate communally. And there is where I got the best pumpkin soup of all the pumpkin soups I ate the length of the country. Always travel with Le Ly.
Looking at the photo above and the garden where we ate under a canopy of trees, I wonder if this was the same place I was years ago when I was called to Saigon from my unit.
I found out that the blue silk scarf I got you on Silk Street in Hanoi near my hotel called The Silk Path Hotel, may not be silk. I heard from my friend that she knows of the place in Hanoi where the scarves are silk. I’ll get back to you on this.
Get a roller bag. Forget about being carefree with a bag slung over your shoulder. Like me. It nearly killed me those hours going through security at Nội Bài Airport. Get a suitcase that rolls.
I’ll get you a true silk scarf. I’ll go back. Even though I know you like the one you’ve got, and it is a beautiful blue. I’ll get a roller bag as small as they come, so I can still heft it into the overhead and happily wheel it through security for however many hours. I’ll just keep texting you. Maybe it’s you who’ll go and you’ll text me. If you do go to Việt Nam, do something for me. Wander around the grounds of Thich Nhat Hanh’s pagoda. You can sit at the outer gate and have some sweet Vietnamese coffee and read the book you love that day. The monks will chant for you.
*“Vietnamese [was] written using modified Chinese characters, derived between the second century BC until the tenth century, when Vietnam was a province of China.” Then later, “In the mid-seventeenth century, Catholic missionaries introduced Roman script, modified by diacritics to mark tones and certain vowels. The developed orthographic conventions were influenced by Portuguese, Italian, Spanish, and French.” https://plc.sas.upenn.edu/vietnamese