Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

Tay Ho District & West Lake

These past couple of days I’ve felt a bit like a child, a ‘kept’ woman, or a pet.

Every morning, my generous friend and host, Bắc, goes to work, and every day I find myself behind the locked gates of her property. Yes, I have a key… but, frankly, I’m a little intimidated to use it.

She buys me bread and rice, has shown me how to get clean water, use the washing machine, and has even pointed out some plants in the yard that are suitible to eat. (Today for lunch I will make sautéed vine flower! Oh boy!)

Due to the heat, jet lag and recent cold, (the use of that word to describe sickness seems wholly inappropriate in this climate), I have been able to do little more than eat, sleep, sweep the patio, and pick vine flowers.

And so, I have passed the days contentedly drinking Artichoke tea behind bars in my little ‘Vietnam Villa’ until Bắc comes home.

Today, however, the gate has been left open.

I feel like a curious puppy — scared to leave the compound, and yet tempted to peek beyond the gates to go on a little adventure. To extend the analogy further, I also question, however, in the unknown chaos of Vietnam, whether this little puppy won’t be eaten alive.

*     *     *

There is a bike to use, but broken, Bắc explains.

Her sister, who lives next door with her two young daughters, has offered the use of her bike while I’m here.

It is a glorious vehicle: thin metal frame with peeling white paint, subtle touches of rust around the wheels, under the seat, and where the taut, black rubber grips attach to the wide handle-bars. There is a very small, stiff seat, barely wide enough to fit my wide American behind. There is a black mesh basket on the front; there is green metal baby seat in the back.

I adore it.

The kickstand, however, is stuck down, Bắc points out, and she has to leave early for work, so…

“If you can fix, you can use! [laughter]” says Bắc.

Before taking off, she equips me with the phrase xin vá xe cho em (“fix the bike for me please, little brother”), gives me 2000 Dong (roughly 10 Cents) and says chúc may mún (“Good luck!”)

*     *     *

I have a healthy breakfast of rice and tea followed by a healthy breakfast of rice and tea and vine flowers, before embarking upon my adventure. (Don’t tell anyone — For lunch, I cheat and use a spoon instead of chopsticks.)

Then, it’s Go Time.

First, I try kicking at the kickstand from every possible angle. Next, I squat and dirty my hands with clumps of grease while I fiddle with the mechanics of the stand — but I discover the wheel-lock seems to have rusted closed.

Surrendering, I repeat xin vá xe cho emxin vá xe cho em, to practice. I pick up the bike up to carry it the 1/2 kilometer to the repair shop, when the kickstand springs back and releases!

I wheel the white beauty around the yard, and she looks good to ride.

I make sure I have water, a map, a poncho and a cell phone (the lovely Bắc has purchased for me a Vietnamese cell phone and sim card). I secure my purse around the handle bars and into the front basket (to prevent ride-by purse-snatching). Lastly, and most importantly, I loop the elastic bands of my dust mask around my ears and place the cotton square snuggly over my nose and mouth.

I’m nervous… I’m ready.

I lock up the house, the front door gate, and the yard gate (at night, we also lock the “alley gate” that, for all I can understand, is for Bắc and her 4 neighbors). Wobbily at first and then more smoothly, I coast through thin, concrete passage-ways underneath a banana tree canopy.

*     *     *

The sky is turning and I can smell the humidity rise. I emerge out of the thin streets of the village onto a main road. Motorbikes and cars whiz by, horns pop in all directions like fireworks, and sweat begins to drip along my upper lip and between my breasts. Small plastic tables and chairs, about two feet high, congregate in little bunches along the road. Some host people of all ages, of all incomes, hunched over bowls of noodle soup, or stewed meat, or fruit juice.

The road curves sharply and rises — I make a right and the West Lake spreads like warm honey before me.

In Ha Noi, everything is so compact and cramped and intense; but when I ride to the broad expanse and tree-lined streets of West Lake, everything opens.

The lake, so full from the recent afternoon rains, has risen up to lick my toes with leftover puddles. As the bike glides along the shore, I float. I feel like a lotus flower, my frilly taupe blouse giggling behind me.

It is in this moment I fall in love with Vietnam.

I pedal harder. Women with fruit line the road, and I ride by white pagoda temples with red and yellow statues; stinky meat rots in the sun; red clumps of upturned dirt fill construction sites. I have to push hard to make it up the hill as I swerve around bikes carrying pots and pans and sandals and tupperware and hairclips and dustmasks and baskets and brooms, and then –

a rush of rain so loud it hurts to listen, to feel, to dive into but — there is a swoosh of air along the lake, along the slippery road, along my back that ripples through the thick fronds and dead lotus stalks — I am alive in this rain but I know it’s only a moment until it –


One. brief. moment of


still air,         before

the din of motors and horns and rains start in again. I stop my bicycle in front of a cafe. Three tables’ worth of Vietnamese stop and stare. I smile.

They go back to eating their squid.

The young waitress sets me up with a table under the canopy. I order a water and a coffee, no milk.

*     *     *

After lunchtime there are long drafts of calm.

The coffee hits me, and I let my mind scurry.

I stare at a single, perfect, yellow blossom crouching in the middle of the street. It has fallen from the tree above and somehow survived the destructive stampede of motorbikes.

We take a moment together, it and I. It’s petal tongue is a vibrant canary — a pulsing droplet of color after the gray rains. It won’t be there much longer. Any moment, some vortex of a rubber wheel will crush its sweet mouth to brown.

In the meantime, I listen.

You cannot describe my beauty,  it tells me.
Your words in Vietnam are pale.
You cannot capture the energy of a moment.
You can only sit with me until I die.

So we sit.

You cannot describe beauty. Your words in Vietnam are pale. You cannot capture the energy of a moment. You can only sit
with it until      It dies. Cannot describe beauty.  Words
are pale.                    Cannot capture a moment.

Can only      sit until It

dies.Cannot      capture       beauty
.Words      pale.   Cannot
capture      amoment.   Can

sit       untilIt    dies.

beauty. words. a.



It dies.

There is nothing to say. In Vietnam, I am no writer; I am allowed to be only an observer, witnessing a thousand births a day turn into a thousand quiet deaths. 

§375 · September 30, 2007 · Couch-hop, Location-Location · · [Print]

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