I’m not one to talk about food since peanut butter on bread is delicious to me. But here is a dish that I truly loved. It’s called cao lau. Maybe I loved it so much because Riko at her restaurant U Cafe Hoi An made me a vegetarian version. It was so good, I ate most of it before I paused to show you before it was gone. Riko is Japanese and has made her home in Hoi An.
Here are more dishes we ate at a cafe on the highway.
This is a crispy rice paper cracker that’s delicious by itself. They serve it in restaurants and you can punch it with the heel of your hand to break into to serving-sized pieces and dip it in sauces. You can also get it layered with toppings like here on the street in Hoi An.
We travel on Highway I. There are baby rice fields with scare crows blowing. Sometimes they are shirts with the arms wide on sticks. Sometimes the shirts or bags are shredded and the scarecrows ripple with streamers. Le Ly tells us a story of a time of filming “Heaven and Earth” when Oliver Stone met Le Ly’s mom who Le Ly calls MamaDu in her book. Oliver asked MamaDu, what is your happiness? She said, she was happy when she worked in the rice fields. She liked being with the earth and the snakes and all the living things.
One day we come to the home village of Le Ly’s mom. It’s not far off the highway from Danang. I think it’s Saturday which means you, my own daughter, are finishing up work on Friday night. I think. In my group, we are always asking each other, what day is this?
We walk through this village. We are learning the flora and birds. We learn that people often plant beetle nut in the the front of the house and banana trees in the back garden. They grow morning glories, okra, sweet potatoes. We are a week into the journey and I’m not sleeping and by this morning have been bleary eyed with sleeplessness and easy tears and missing my family and the pace of seeing so many things I needed to be with for a while, and now sorrow in this village of good people working in the gardens as we Americans pass through. Le Ly had told us why we’ve come to this village. She had told us so much. I knew we were coming to a memorial. And then we did. We’ve come to the upraised tombs of children near their school called Man Quang School. Then we see their tombstones. 45 children were killed in a bomb raid during the American war. We became very quiet. Le Ly led us in burning incense and placing the sticks on the memorial and on the stones.
It feels right to stay silent as we are in this space with the children.
It’s dark in the morning. We have no internet where we’re sleeping. It’s just dark, a little cool, and humid and still. I’ve come to the office of our hotel and yes, I can now write this post to you. I’m thinking of students at Mary and Kara’s English class who know this topic I want to show you pictures about here. Where I write – beside me is a couch. Suddenly I’m aware of snoring and realize someone or many people are sleeping around me. I can’t see them. I have mostly the light of this iPad I’m typing on. I’m in Hoi An, by the South China Sea, which has a new name. Lots of places have new names.
But the pictures I want to show you are from Saigon where I was introduced by practitioners to traditional medicine.
Above is our attendant at the FiTo Museum of Traditional Vietnamese medicine. She explains to us that acupuncture was first practiced by the Vietnamese. Someone had discovered the impact of the pressure of stones while walking barefoot across them. Acupressure. The practice was later explored by the Chinese and developed to acupuncture. The young woman guided us through rooms of first monographs describing methods of herbs and dosage for people with different conditions. There is an art form of the mortar and pestle to crush the herbs. We learned the methods of boiling herbs in water and drinking the decoctions. I had read so much about life-saving decoctions of Cambodian people in their travails and deprivation of food.
Our attendant gave us drops of a potion to rub between our palms. We then placed our palms where there was pain and it made my skin tingle.
One room is devoted to illustrations of herbs, stalks, and blossoms used for medicines. Later in our journey around Danang and Hoi An, I see vast green fields of rice and also gardens in the smallest corridors of soil around a house. Here is a garden plot of vegetables and herbs cultivated between large buildings on a crazy, busy urban street.
I’ve never drunk much green tea but our young attendant leaves us with this prescription: drink green tea in the morning, not at night. It gives your body too much energy to drink at night. But in the morning, drink it with honey and cinnamon. Cinnamon has many virtues, she explains.
The room is coming alive where I write. My fingers are sticky on the keys in the humidity. The person has slipped away from the couch and I didn’t see them go. Two staff people come to the hotel desk rubbing their eyes. Someone turns on a light. Across the way, I see the huge sea. I’ll show you.
I arrived in Saigon on Monday. All is well and strong and healthy. It’s dawn on my first morning. This is the sidewalk cafe of the Hotel Continental. Yes, that Continental.
We are a few days in Saigon before we fly to Danang in Central Viet Nam. A first event here was a panel discussion on women running nonprofits or foundations in Vietnam. Le Ly was on the panel, “Women Entrepreneurs & Social Impact” at the American Center at the U.S. Embassy and our small group all joined her.
Le Ly had words of advice for the young women. “Don’t fall in love and have babies. Put on a back pack and see reality. Go out in the world and help people. When you say ‘yes’, you open a door.” Trang was born when Vietnam was just opening to visitors and commerce after the 20-year U.S. embargo was lifted. Have a mission, yes, Trang said. But learn what organizations and communities specifically need.
Later we went to a small restaurant up a flight of stairs on a backstreet beside a small museum in a small, narrow building. Beneath it was a a tunnel where soldiers once stockpile massive amounts of weapons and munitions. The museum honors the stealth and skill of the soldiers at this site beneath and beside a popular local cafe frequented by soldiers of the South and Americans. Everyone here has their own story about the American war in their country if you ask them. At the same time, I have heard GI slang, and they have the most wonderful French way to make a cup of coffee.
I have to start with the small Covid test panel to which I add three drops of the concoction I’d created. I do this after a close exposure within my family. So my C line lights up. OK. But I have to give it 15 minutes. Then the T line shows really faint. But I know, I can’t go to Viet Nam.
“Mom,” you say, “that’s what everybody has to do. Everybody’s things get cancelled.” I sit with that.
I called Rebecca to tell her I had to teach my yoga class tonight on zoom, and I couldn’t go to Viet Nam. We solved the class issue, but about the journey, Rebecca said not so fast. She pulled up the CDC calculator. When are you leaving? It was today you tested positive? The CDC site calculated I could end isolation on the day before my flight was scheduled. Unless I get worse symptoms.
Wendy texted fluids, fluids, fluids. I see it takes a village to leave a home. Part of the village are now the triage nurses at Kittery Family Practice who get me Paxlovid and you, Lizzie, picked it up because I’m isolated and sad. And you brought me soup from Ceres.
A bit in limbo, I write this post about the many people who have been a part of my working to get on the plane. I’m determined to imagine.
Through Facebook, I’ve been in touch with a few other Red Cross workers. They are a part of the village. I re-met René Johnson who was in my training class in DC. I have followed Penni Evans and Lane Query Stallings. I’ve read Ann Kelsey and Sandra Lockney Davis, who were Special Services. René had recently traveled to Viet Nam. We talked by phone and she is the only Red Cross worker I’ve talked to in some depth about her experience. She also told me the vaccines you really need if you go. René introduced me to members of the American Red Cross Overseas Association.
A large group of English language learners are with me, people I’ve read stories with and many have written their own experiences. This very morning I met, on zoom, with students from Second Start Adult Education in Concord, NH. Their teachers said they are reading books about food and differences between cooking in the U.S. and their home countries. In that vein, they’ve just read A Feast for Joseph about a small boy from Uganda and South Sudan. They sent me pictures of favorite foods they loved as children. Here are dishes a South Sudanese student sent. Thank you, my friends, at Second Start.
Katie, in my village, taught in Hanoi, and introduced me to The Mountains Sing by Nguyễn Phan Quế Mai, and this book travels with me. Maren wrote me a good luck charm which I need. She wrote: “You will not bring enough paper notebooks for the times you want to write something down and a computer is not present. You will find something about geography or tradition or music or art or storytelling you had forgotten and you will discover something amazingly new.”
You are all with me. And while I’m drinking fluid, fluids fluids, I’m deep into Le Ly’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places again. I’ll always remember brother Sau Ban of Le Ly’s memories and wonder if I’ll meet young cousins in the family who look just like Sau Ban. Or Anh. Or Mama Du.