The day I left Vietnam, I laughed and laughed.
I had not expected to. I woke up feeling sad about having to leave after only two weeks: far too short a time for my first visit to this captivating country. But my travel-mates—Anne and Lindsay, close friends I have known since freshman year of college—and I had hatched a plan for our final morning: we would get up at 5:30, throw on clothes, and walk over to Hoan Kiem Lake, a short stroll from our hotel in Hanoi. Anne had done this the day before.
“Trust me,” she said. “You won’t believe it.”
As we neared the lakeshore, the streets filled with people, many in athletic outfits, walking, jogging, bicycling. They, and we, were reveling in the relative cool of the dawn air: by 9 am, we all knew the temperature would be in the 90s and indescribably humid.
When we got to the lake, we saw exercise groups of every possible type, all of them already in full swing: Tai Chi, yoga, Zumba, old-school aerobics, hip-hop dancing, ballroom dancing.
Across the street, a few dozen people had gathered with the apparent purpose of laughing their heads off.
The laughing people motioned to us to join them. Why not?
“Ha, ha, HEE,” we all shouted in unison, as we stretched and moved in gentle yoga-like ways, following the leader as best we could; breaking into more free-form laughter as we formed into a shoulder-massaging congo line; and then making different laughing noises as we clustered in circles, crossing hands, vine-stepping our feet, and just generally trying to keep up. Which we did, for about forty minutes.
I can’t think of a better way to prepare for a long day of air travel.
I can’t think of a better sendoff from this small country that we had so quickly grown to love.
I’m surprised I waited a whole month to write this post. I’ve been thinking about Vietnam every single day since I got home. Maybe I just needed time to ponder the emotions Vietnam stirred in me.
It’s easy to talk about Vietnam’s natural beauty and friendly people. It’s easy to talk about its renowned food.
Or even about the many museums and memorials commemorating the American War.
But the experience of visiting Vietnam is much more than that. The Portuguese concept of saudade comes to mind: that mixed-up feeling of longing, love and melancholy.
When you land in Vietnam, you are
suddenly in a place that you’ve heard about all your life. And what you heard, and when you heard it, and how old you were when you heard it, shaped your young view of the world in ways that do not at all match what you are now, in 2019, seeing and experiencing. And that paradox stays with you, every step of your trip.
For a contrasting example, take Paris. When I was a child, Paris was where Madeline lived, one of twelve little girls in two straight lines, in that old house covered with vines. When I went to Paris for the first time, it looked and felt something like I had always imagined it would.
But Vietnam is different.
When I was a child, Vietnam was the place where the worst photos I’d ever seen came from, the ones in my parents’ and grandparents’ TIME and LIFE magazines. Vietnam was a word that meant moral confusion and horror and sorrow.
But then, as I grew into adulthood, we all began to hear of a different Vietnam. Beginning in the 1980s and picking up steam in the 1990s and the 2000s, we began to hear phrases like, “It’s such a beautiful country,” and “The people are so friendly.” And so my thinking about Vietnam began to shift, and though that left me even more perplexed and saddened by the legacy of the war, it also made me feel like maybe I was old enough, finally, to withstand the emotional currents inherent in visiting a place that is both forever symbolic of American hubris at its worst and vibrantly alive with the astounding ability of human beings to forgive, to repair, to choose love over vengeance.
That’s what Vietnam was about on this first visit. It was about feeling this saudade, this sense of love and tragedy and beauty all wrapped up together and ever present while we were enjoying all the above-mentioned joys: the beauty, the food, and the exuberant hospitality, on our final morning, of the laughing yoga people.
Where we went: Ho Chi Min City, Whale Island, Quy Nhon, Hoi An, Phong Nha-Ke Bang National Park, and Hanoi. We stopped briefly in Hue, Marble Mountain and Son My (My Lai). There are many more places I look forward to visiting on my next trip.
Recommended reading: When Heaven and Earth Changed Places, by Le Ly Haislip, The Sorrow of War, by Bao Ninh, and The Sympathizer, by Viet Than Nguyen. I also recommend watching Ken Burns’ PBS series on the Vietnam War.
For those of you who read my last post: I hit send on my first book pitch last week! I’ll be sending several more, soon. I’ll keep you posted. It could be a long haul.