Taking no prisoners. Including herself.

How I thought I could go to Vietnam and write, I know not. There is an unfathomable energy, and noises to rattle the calmest nerves.

There is an ever-present hum of traffic punctuated by the piercing blare of vehicle horns and sounds all through the night of creatures — cats in heat, dog-barking, pig squeals, and something I couldn’t even begin to place (a child in distress? An animal being slautered? Duck giving birth?! …Maybe a child being slaughtered?)

It is slighty distressing.

*     *     *

My friends Bắc and Hà picked me up from the intimate Nội Bài airport. I felt like Amazon Woman, clearing at least a foot over both of them.

They brought me home to Bắc’s house, where I’m staying for a few weeks. We sat in the kitchen with the floor fan on, eating cashews and grapefruit with our fingers and giggling.

I haven’t seen these girls for well over a year. Nothing has changed.

*     *     *

The next morning. Hà and Bắc both head to work, leaving me behind to… I’m not sure what I’m supposed to do.

I am stupidly exhausted; I am barely able to unpack my clothes. Bắc recommended I not walk around by myself before she ‘registers’ me (in this part of Hanoi, all foreigners must be registered with the local ministry); and to be perfectly honest, I think I’m a little too overwhelmed to do so.

The language barrier has immediately begun to chafe. It is difficult doing the most trivial of tasks. I needed help making sure I had food for today; before work, Bắc took me to the morning market to buy some white bread, tomatos, cucumber and an egg for lunch.

It certainly ain’t hummos.

The key thing is culture shock. In Israel, the prevalence of English usually over-rode my being alone in a foreign country. There were wisps of isolation, but these thin tendrils of difficulty were brushed aside with ease when I opened my mouth and made a new friend, found comforting food, or felt a sense of purpose offered by my work.

Plus, in Israel it’s not unusual to be ‘white.’

Here, I am instantly foreign. I am staying in the nha qùe (“countryside”) where there is no tourism infrastructure, clean water, or for that matter, a mattress.

I sleep on a hard bamboo mat. As she was hanging up my mosquito net and handing me a pillow, Bắc looked at the bed and asked if I would like something softer to sleep on. I replied Yes, that might be nice. She handed me a sheet.

At Bắc’s house, getting water is a four-step process: pump the water, filter the water, boil the water, cool the water. (Now you may drink.) 

The weather is so hot, and water takes so long to prepare, that I am constantly attending to the water filter and kettle to make sure the water supply is full. Bắc laughs, and has nick-named me Thùy — which is a common name in Vietnam, derived from the Chinese word for ‘water.’

My motorcycle ride with Bắc to get bread this morning confirmed I was an anomoly. Usually an entertaining experience, it felt more like work when I met the curious eyes of every passerby and, at every stop, had to answer to the friendly-but-inquisitive standard list of questions:

Where from?
How old?

(When I answered “26″ and “no” to the last two, I would always get beautifully confused looks)

As the day wore on, I felt a such a shade of desperate homesickness that I made myself a Ketchup sandwhich — nothing but Vietnamese “Catsup” and French bread.

To quench all suspicions, no — it was neither good nor satisfying of hunger.



§374 · September 28, 2007 · Couch-hop, Location-Location · · [Print]

1 Comment to “Welcome to Viet Nam!”

  1. M says:

    This piece warmed my heart. I know that despite culture shock and difficulties, by the time you leave Viet Nam, you will have begun tofeel at home and it will be hard to leave for the next adventure. Each place you visit seems to leave a positive imprint on your spirit.

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