Vietnam, Vietnam, Vietnam, We’ve All…

Hanoi, Vietnam – February 16, 2018

It is Larry’s second trip to Vietnam, if you don’t count the first one.

Larry did not spend his recent 70th birthday here. He did spend his 18th, 19th, and 20th birthdays here, on that first trip, the one he doesn’t count.

It is my first trip to Vietnam, and it is New Year’s Day, the beginning of Tet, a holiday known to Americans mostly because of the eponymous battle fought in this country exactly 50 years ago. The Viet Cong sacked Saigon, then, including the American Embassy, Hue, and other major cities in an attack that stunned both the American and South Vietnamese. In response, the B-52s of the U.S. Air Force bombed the cities into shards.

“It became necessary to destroy the town in order to save it,” U.S. Major Peter Arnett said.

Tens of thousands of combatants on both sides died in the fighting. Tens of thousands of civilians died in the bombing. Hundreds of thousands lost everything.

That was Larry’s first trip.

This Tet is not like that Tet. It is quiet in the streets this morning, the, perhaps, one day of the year when Vietnamese get up late, having celebrated late into the night after fireworks marked the beginning of the new year. Houses were cleaned, debts were settled, rice wine was swallowed. Even the police partied. Shortly after midnight a patrol  had pulled up in front of my hostel, shouted some things at the foreigners smoking out front, shot a tube of confetti, threw the spent tube out the back of the truck, and drove off, leaving the cannon and the rainbow river of sparkling paper lying in the lane.

So this morning is quiet. The coffee shops and pho stands mostly keep their shutters down and only a few motorbikes hum through the alleys. At Hoan Kiem lake, just south of Hanoi’s Old Quarter, people stroll across the aching stretch of red wood that links the shore to the temple island. I stand up from trying to snatch their likenesses from the morning mist.

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

The Bridge at Hoan Kiem Lake

“Did you get a good one?” someone behind me asks in American. And there Larry is, gray ponytail fluttering, smile tucked behind the points of his mustache. He is leaning on a shiny wooden cane.

We talk first, of course, about the weather, which in Hanoi is much warmer than it is his home in Juneau, Alaska, which itself is much warmer than it used to be. The snowblower he and his friend bought this year, well, they’ve only used it once. These days, the rain gets to the snow before he can. Larry’s wife, 16 years his junior, thinks that’s funny. She’s a workaholic executive in Juneau, and Larry knows the time difference by heart so he can text her every morning from Hanoi to chide her that it’s time to get out of the office.

Larry’s wife wanted to go to Africa this year, but Larry said he’s too old now to run away from rhinos.

“Where do you want to go?” she’d asked.

“I think I want to find the perfect bowl of pho,” he said.

And so he’s back in Vietnam, this time by himself, rather than with his wife and rather than with an army of other American boys.

The first time Larry came to Hanoi, about a decade ago, he’d gotten the shakes. He never planned to come Vietnam, not ever again after that uncounted first time. His wife had been planning a trip to Thailand with a jaunt into Vietnam and he’d stay in Thailand and wait, but then plans changed. The trip would be all Vietnam, instead.

Ah, what the hell, he’d thought and decided to go along. Then, as the plane descended into Hanoi the shaking started. He almost couldn’t get off the plane.

“I knew they’d hate me, after what we’d done to them,” he said.

The airport in Hanoi reeks of confusion and frustration, knots of foreigners trying to sort out their visas. It was worse 10 years ago, Larry says. He milled around trying to understand the chaos when someone tapped him on the shoulder. He turned.

The vomit green uniform, topped with that red star hat, hadn’t changed much since the  the last time Larry was here. The AK-47 slung across the man’s shoulder hadn’t changed much, either. Larry wanted to turn the floor the color of the uniform.

“Passport,” the man with the gun said. Larry knew what was going to happen. He handed it over with a trembling hand.

“American,” the man said. It wasn’t a question. “Come with me.”

This was it, Larry, thought as he followed. This was a big, big mistake. The soldier led Larry to the front of the immigration queue. As he passed, people bowed.

“American,” they said, smiling. It wasn’t a question.

Something was different about Vietnam, Larry realized. It was a realizations he’s come to again and again.

One thing hadn’t changed, though: the smell.

“As soon as I stepped out of the cab into the Old Quarter, bam, I was right back. It smelled the same,” Larry said. “There something about that olfactory memory, it never goes away.”

The smell. Hanoi is a city of things in millions: people, food stalls, motorbikes. A dash of cinnamon and anise, a slab roasting beef and onions, a plate of fresh herbs, a liter of gasoline. Mix it together and let it simmer, like the broth of the city’s most famous dish, and you get the smell.

It pervades the Old Quarter, as if the raucous, twisting alleyways were one giant pho stall during the lunchtime rush.

“If I didn’t have a wife, I’d never leave,” Larry says.

He loves that food stall more than anywhere on earth — and seen the earth he has — so much so that in the last few days he’s walked it back and forth until he couldn’t walk anymore. Bad hip, he says nodding sideways. Hence the new cane.

“Do things when you have the chance, that way when you can’t do them any more, you won’t regret it,” he says, then mimes picking up a pail of water with the hand that isn’t resting on the cane. “When people ask me what’s on my bucket list I say ‘My bucket’s already pretty full.’ I’ll tell you another thing: Don’t go to the grave healthy and safe; go screaming up to the edge, tip right in and say ‘That was a hell of a ride.'”

These days Larry doesn’t do much screaming, though, and that’s OK. He’s content to spend his mornings walking the lake, looking for students, who are always happy to practice their English and teach him more about Vietnam. Sometimes he heads into the Old Quarter searching for that perfect bowl of pho, and sometimes strolls the French Quarter to sip on the country’s famed coffee — strong and sweet, often with condensed milk — and gaze up at the jarring Hanoi skyline.

In Hanoi’s dynastic days, the crown levied property taxes based on the width of the storefront. So the vendors and homeowners built “tube houses”, narrow and really long, like gigantic square pipes. In recent decades Hanoi’s tube houses have also shot skyward, some as many as seven or eight stories, and have tacked on facades that look vaguely French, Chinese or both.

The result is a city that looks as if someone handed a toddler a set of Lego’s designed by a cocaine-addled, out-of-work architect with delusions of artistic grandeur and let the child go to town.

Larry’s made a lot of friends already on his two trips to Hanoi, even if some of his conversations happen only in pantomime. He’s going out to a village with one friend next week (he hopes someone will speak a bit of English to avoid one really long game of charades), and the hotel staff even asks him to watch the desk while they run errands.

“I’m not just a tourist anymore,” he says. “I came down this morning and they said ‘No one eats alone on New Year’s Day,'” he says. He shared their New Year’s breakfast. In a country whose culture very much still revolves around the Confucian centrality of family, there’s not much higher honor.

Through his chats next to the lake, Larry no longer fears how people will react when they learn he’s American and that once, that uncounted time he came to Vietnam, he came here to kill.

“They say ‘Nobody cares anymore; that was our grandparents.’,” Larry says, then laughs. “But I’m the grandparent!”

So they know, Larry says, the grandparents know.

Next week he’s arranged a meeting with a few of those grandparents — Vietnamese veterans of the American War — to talk. I don’t ask Larry what they will talk about. I’m not sure he knows. I do know he wants them to understand the fear he felt during that first trip to Vietnam in 1965 and the fear he felt on what he sees as his first trip 50 years later. I think that he wants, somehow, through shared experience communicated in gestures and translators, to try to atone for something.

“They kicked our asses,” Larry says, and I add the French and the Chinese to his list while he nods. “When I got back, I started reading about Ho Chi Minh. I probably read everything he wrote. We were wrong. Ho Chi Minh is a hero. For a country that is supposed to be about freedom and democracy, when they asked for it, we wouldn’t even let them have it.”

Uncle Ho rests here.

Uncle Ho rests here.

Because Larry is still trying to understand how the people of this country could embrace him the way they have even after what he and his country did to them.

“I was 20 years old when I left this place,” Larry says. “There aren’t too many of us left.  When I walk around here and I see someone my age and they see me, we just know.”


Chengdu – Closed Up

January 30, 2017 – Chengdu, Sichuan Province

Its a strange thing to turn off a major thoroughfare not two blocks from the heart of a city and into a post-apocalyptic vision. Though maybe not so unusual in China.

There’s always walking to be done, and so it was our first full day in Chengdu. With the shops closed for the holiday and the tourist sites clogged with the ambulatory masses, The Swede and I started south along Chengdu’s busy north-south axis, then ducked onto a side street. There, the world had ended.

Shattered and empty windows stared like unseeing eyes of dead, ancient leviathans, their skins and shells riven, their insides spilling out around their rotting carcasses. Each was marked with a symbol, 拆。I looked it up in my phone dictionary. “To tear open, or pull down.”

This one had been a convenience store, that one a mahjong parlor, the one over there a barber shop. Out of each leaked the telltale organs – torn up cartridges of candy bars, broken felt tile tables, a ripped up rotating chair – and other common tissues, too, like table legs, shattered mirrors, empty bottles, and even decades-old pin-up pictures of singers and dancers from magazines.

Here and there stray animals cried out and picked their way through the industrial offal.

Parts of downtown Chengdu have been slated for demolition.

Parts of downtown Chengdu have been slated for demolition.

Above it all loomed the real monsters. Story upon story of hollowed-out apartment block, the gaping wounds in the structures exposing the skeletal stairs and circulatory wiring that once held it all together.

We picked our way through the decay, stepping in here and there to check out the devastation. Other than the scavengers, which scattered at the sound of the stuff crunching under our feet, we didn’t see anyone else.

Those were our last few moments of solitude. Tianfu square had an opposite feel.

Tianfu Square

At the dead center of the city, underneath the watchful gaze of The Chairman and plenty of police,  locals milled around, twirled ribbons, and blew bubbles while the out-of-towners snapped pictures in front of Mao and a huge red banner wishing all the people a happy Spring Festival from the city government.

The Swede and I breezed through, snapping a few pictures of our own. As usual, I took too many of Mao. I’ve got a thing for statues of Communist leaders.

People’s Park

People’s Park, just around the corner, was even more crowded.

Amid the gardens, leafy pathways, man-made canals, and outdoor tea houses, people found their people. Some of them danced in the square. Some of them paddled little boats along the willow-lined waterway. Some fed fish with improvised food pellet injectors. But most of them just sat around, sipped tea, munched on seeds, and shot the breeze.

If Sichuan is anything, it is the tea house.

Tea houses are where public life plays out. They’re for afternoons with your friends and family, a friendly game of cards, a quick snack, or even some light gambling. They come in a few different forms, from the plastic chaired, living-room style found underneath apartment blocks all around the city, to the lacquered wood and opera performance style, the likes of which you can find under a bridge or two along Chengdu’s ring roads. But the most popular among locals are the outdoor tea houses in the cities parks, nudged up against canals or lakes and sheltered from the summer sun by pagodas and trees.

The seats, which range from creaky bamboo chairs to plastic stools, cost a cup of tea each. A cup of tea – loose-leaf bamboo, buckwheat, flower, and more, or a blend of a few kinds – runs between 10 and 20 yuan and comes with a hulking thermos of hot water for unlimited refills.

The century-old Heming Teahouse in People’s Park is Chengdu’s most popular outdoor tea house. There, The Swede and I managed to find an open table, ordered a couple of mugs – green bamboo and buckwheat, this time – and settled in under the budding cherry blossom trees and among the bonsai trees and rocks to plan out the next couple of days of travel and to relax after a few hours of walking.

We wound up striking a conversation with a nearby family, who’d relocated from Shanghai about a decade before. The patriarch looked over maps of Chengdu with us, pointing out the best food streets and parks, while the kids vied for our attention, handing us scraps of paper and mumbling English words before running off into the maze of tables around us.

The man told us he loves Chengdu. People here, he said, are polite and helpful. Life is relaxed, slow, he said, without the bustle of cities like Shanghai or Beijing. There’s less pressure to climb the career ladder or show off wealth.  Sometimes Sichuan people get a rap for being lazy, whiling away their days in tea houses, playing Mahjong, chain smoking cigarettes, eating too-spicy food, and chatting with their friends. But, our Shanghai-transplant said,  that sure beats chain smoking in an office, and besides, Sichuan people do plenty of work. When they want to.

It was a refrain we’d hear from people throughout the province. As the conversation lulled, I heard the clang of a beaten tuning fork growing nearer. This was something I’d been looking forward to for two years: getting my ears cleaned in the park, again.

Armed with a headlamp, some cotton balls, and a set of hooked implements that look they belong in a dentists office or a torture chamber, ear cleaners roam Chengdu’s park-located tea houses plying their traditional trade. For about 50 yuan, they’ll jam those implements in your ears, scrape them clean, and even give them a good vibration with that tuning fork that also serves as their audible advertisement and calling card. It takes about 10 minutes for both ears.

Apparently, mine were filthy.

Getting my ears cleaned in People's Park.

Getting my ears cleaned in People’s Park.

Little Tibet

After a couple of hours in the park, we left to try to find the city’s tiny Tibetan district. We strolled through a couple old neighborhoods and along the river before stumbling upon a chintzy-but-kinda-cool, neon-lit bar/restaurant street, where we’d return later in the week for hot pot. Then we kept walking.

Suddenly, the Chinese turned to something unintelligible. We’d found the Tibetan District.

Nestled beneath the mountains, Western Chengdu changes fast from low-lying plains and bamboo forests to the dry and frigid highland wastes of the Tibetan Plateau. It’s possible to get to Tibet proper from Chengdu, but a good chunk of western and northern Sichuan itself is populated (a word used loosely here) by the high mountains and Tibetans, and that nearness has left its mark in Chengdu, especially in its own little Tibet, which spans a few small blocks downtown.

The leafy, lantern-lined avenue we walked was itself lined with shop after shop of Tibetan handicrafts and Buddhist religious artifacts. Monks in full garb, cell-phones in hand as always, walked the sidewalk in groups of two or three. Above the shops sat a variety of restaurants, although we could only tell based on the menus downstairs, as most of them didn’t have English or even Chinese signs.

Unfortunately, it being Spring Festival, all of these things – stores and restaurants alike – were closed.

The Tibetan District in Chengdu.

The Tibetan District in Chengdu.

By then it twilight was approaching and the Swede had an appointment with the owner of a brewpub elsewhere in town. We took a cab through the dark, quiet, closed-up streets before arriving at the bar.

Surprise, surprise.
Spring Festival.
It was closed.