I like Vietnam

At the Saigon train station, 1992

We don’t get much TV in English down here, even from the hundreds-of-channels cable that also provides my Internet connection. This is not particularly a bad thing, just to point out that when I watch TV, I watch mainly travel and cooking shows.

I am a fan of Anthony Bourdain’s “No Reservations” program, which is more travel than food, but I like the combination, as well as his irreverent attitude about things in general, and that he is often nice to people he has no reason to be nice to. I like that in a person.

The other day, Bourdain was in Vietnam: Saigon, and then up north to the Central Highlands around Dalat, both places where I have also traveled.  He, Bourdain, was such a blithering fan of Vietnam — its robust daily life, the food (yes, the grand food), and the people — that during the show he speculated on moving there to live for a while, wondering how his wife and child would like it, and even checking out a few houses for sale. I have never before seen him do this in any show, in any country he has visited.

This reminded me of the time I spent in Vietnam — after the war — and how much I loved the place, throwing me into the depths, or heights, of a nostalgic reverie that remains days later.

Green dragon fruit, my first taste of it, its creamy white and black seed fruit reminding me of kiwi and watermelon and mango together, served in the top floor breakfast room of the big white elephant of the Hotel Continental, with baguettes richer than their French occupation source, a wild array of tropical fruits, strong French coffee, eggs and bacon and cheese and yogurt, where we were serenaded at breakfast by a musical trio that included a svelte and pretty girl with coconut-scented hair to her waist, in a white Áo Dài, plucking a bass guitar longer than she was tall. From there we could see the Saigon River and down the bicycle jammed street to the Hotel Caravelle, where journalists in the last days of the war stood on the roof and watched the fiery deluge.

Drinking 33 beer in small cans, with fresh crab and river fish, in a wooden pavilion of a thing hovering over the lake, and where the toilet was reached at the end of a stroll along a rickety wood pier out into the lake, terminating at two side-by-side huts, or outhouses, without doors, and with holes cut in the floors for the deposit of body wastes into the lake from where the meal came, and while standing there eliminating some of the 33, a matronly woman entered the hut next to me, squatted and joined me in exercising our biological necessities.

Whole families living essentially on sidewalks, because the tiny space they had behind the walls could never accommodate them all for more than sleeping jammed packed, so they listened to the radio, chattered, cooked, ate, bought and sold, from the sidewalk space in front of their tiny home.  Countless times we were offered a taste of whatever’s cooking, simply because we were walking by and offered a polite greeting.

Strolling in the early tropical evening along the riverbank, where there were still rusting canons poised to repel invaders (and Vietnam has suffered plenty of those), and seeing children dangling in the tree limbs like ornaments. One brave little girl, maybe eight or nine years old, called out as we passed:  “Hello, what you name?” (Far as we could determine, in those days there were probably fewer than ten or maybe a dozen Americans in the whole country; it was still on the no travel list.) We answered with our names and then asked their names.  The response: “Hello, what you name?” It was all the English she knew.

Traveling north in a van with our Saigon Tourist driver (certainly a security agent) and translator, whose names sounded like Mr. You and Mr. I, passing a moonscape of bomb craters left from B-52 raids, now filled with water and serving as fish ponds for the nearby farms, we bounced up the narrow highway to Nha Trang, where we spent a couple of days enjoying a beach more Hawaiian than Hawaii, except for the exposed superstructure of a sunken US warship out in the bay.

On the beach at Nha Trang, a stretch of clean, pure white sand probably a mile long and a hundred meters wide, with certainly no more than thirty or forty people on it, and we the only tall white ones, a rugged and bent old man approached me and began yelling in Vietnamese. To which I smiled silently and nervously. Then our translator (also assigned to accompany us by Saigon Tourist) came up to the old man and a loud argument ensued. Suddenly, as abruptly as the screaming began, the old man stopped with a deeply apologetic look.  Mr. I explained that the man had thought I was a Russian. After Mr. I told him I was an American, the man bowed slightly and said, in English: “You come back, you come back, please.” To which I replied, “Well, all right, but no guns this time.” Mr. I translated that to make sure he understood; the old man laughed heartily and repeated with a wide smile: “Yes, no guns this time, no guns this time.”

We drove inland to Dalat, in the Central Highlands, a cool, pine-forested town on a large lake where the last royal family of Vietnam kept a summer palace — where, in complete surprise, Mr. I arranged for us to spend the night, in the Queen’s bedroom. I don’t now how he pulled this off (security official?), but we rewarded him with a bottle of scotch, we the four of us — Mr. You, Mr. I, my wife, and I — consumed this fine bottle to the bottom while sitting before the fireplace in the palace’s great room, sharing our stories.

The oddest thing we saw in all Vietnam was in Dalat. It is commonly called “the crazy house.” It is not easy to describe, so here is a photo.

The Crazy House in Dalat

This photo shows only one small section, and quite a lot of the house is built in among the large branches of two nearby trees. There isn’t one straight line anywhere, floors tilt, sometimes wildly, walls seem fluid, some doors could accommodate a car, while others allow only enough space to squeeze through like cave crawling. When we were there, the house was “in progress,” by the young artistically-inclined couple who were constructing it, and there was some idea that in the future it would become a … what? Boutique hotel? Some sort of hotel. I don’t know if that has happened, but if so, and you are in Dalat, it would be a must stay.

I am on purpose leaving out the bad things, because I am enjoying this reverie too much to pollute it with the grimy aspects of reality. Yes, we visited and crawled through the VC tunnel complex at Cu Chi, and went to the museum of imperialist war crimes, encountered all too commonly the human debris of war, and were not immune to the flagrant degradations of some abject poverty.

I suppose another of the grimy aspects of reality is that I am now beyond the days of such adventures. But if were the age of Anthony Bourdain and had a bit of his money, would I want to live for a while in Vietnam?  In a big fucking heartbeat I would.


6 replies »

    • Thanks, Brad. But be careful what you ask for … I have thousands of vagabond world stories like this.

      But since I have almost nothing of consequence to write about writing, might as well just goof around.

  1. Goofing around? No, this is informative and flowing. Have you thought of writing a non-fictional book about your travels?

  2. Vietnam would be a good place to live, in many ways better than Mexico, which you have made a go at. Cheaper, for sure. But except for teaching English, I don’t know how one might make a living, the language is intimidating, and it is still a somewhat Communist government.

    Thanks for the comment, Rose.