Just a beautiful day in Thu Duc
I had traveled to Vietnam in January 2005 to visit friends I had met via the internet, to escape the cold of Minnesota winters, and to discover for myself a country which had dominated the news when I was young. I never had to go to Vietnam as a young man. The American involvement there ended 2 years before I graduated. I went with a sense that I had to know something beyond the news reports. I wanted to know these people, and see this country for myself. What I found, as I traveled alone in and around Saigon, was more remarkable than I could have ever imagined.
I had met my friend Lyna on yahoo chat sometime in October of 2003. I was up very late one night just surfing through the various Asian chatrooms, when I ran across her nickname. She had a web cam and did respond when I asked to view it. I quickly discovered that this would be more of a challenge, just getting to say ANYTHING with her that would make any sense - she spoke no English at all. Well, she was very patient, and we waved, made smiley faces on the chat screen, and somehow agreed to be friends, and that I would learn a bit of "tieng viet". I did, over the ensuing 18 months or so, and we became good friends. I told her about my travel plans and we agreed to meet at her Café near the town of Thu Duc, a suburb just north of Saigon.
This particularly moving day for me occurred on my second visit to her café. I arrived early at around 8 AM. I brought along many magazines with articles and pictures about Vietnam to give to her. We relaxed at her café for an hour or two. She kept trying to ask me something, I could not quite figure out what. My Vietnamese is still far from fluent. I finally did get the message that she wanted to bring me someplace to enjoy some ice tea at another café. I later surmised that it was in downtown Thu Duc. Getting there was an adventure in itself.
She motioned for me to get onto the back of her motorbike for the ride into town. For those of you unacquainted, the traffic in Vietnam is unlike any you will find anywhere in the western world. Everyone seems to be going everywhere all the time. They rarely stop for any reason. Lane markers are mostly meaningless. The horn is used almost constantly both to warn others to move and tell the bus that is bearing down on you that you cannot. After a time, the traffic is really more bizarre than it is dangerous. You get used to it. Nevertheless, I had not too much experience with it at that time. The notion of entrusting my life to a girl less than half my weight and age was unnerving. I went along though, telling myself "they do this all the time".
The ride went well, as well as a ride can go under such conditions. We were going through an industrial part of town, when we spied a Vietnamese policeman on the side of the road. The whistle blew, the nightstick waved, indicating for us to pull over now! You did not need an interpreter for that. He barked at Lyna for some offense we were guilty of. I got off the bike, wondering what to do next. He pointed at his head. I was wearing a hat, perhaps I was being disrespectful? I took it off, trying to be as polite as I possibly could. It looked as if he wanted the bike hauled away and I would be stuck in the middle of nowhere surrounded by people saying who knows what, under some penalty of some law. Lyna was franticly calling someone on her cell phone. As I found out later, it was a section of road considered more dangerous than others, and we were supposed to have helmets on. I think the officer felt sorry for the poor bewildered American, and for Lyna also. He said something to her, she motioned for me to get back onto the bike, and we were let go with a warning - I think.
We arrived at the downtown café without further incident. It was a beautiful place. The sun was shining, there was a fountain in the center. It was all open air, with sunshades to keep you cool and keep any rain off of you. There was beautiful Vietnamese music playing from the speaker system. We sat down at a table and ordered a couple of ice teas.
I cannot ever remember a more perfect day, anywhere, weather wise. Lyna and I worked on communicating. She told me what the officer had been concerned about. We shared some laughs, I asked her about her life when she was young in Ha Noi. It was a magical day seemingly, it could not get any better, except maybe if we could each speak the other's language. I don't know, maybe it was better this way, because we each had to try harder for the other to understand. Sometimes a difficulty is really an opportunity to expand. The day was perfect, then with our second tea, it turned strangely ironic.
The Vietnamese music stopped. I am not sure why, maybe it was because I was there, but they changed to western music. The next song to be heard? "Hey Jude". I cannot describe the feeling that came over me when I heard that music, from so many years ago. First, it brought me back to when I was young, in the late 60's early 70's. I remembered being on my paper route, looking at the headlines about the war, on a day as perfect as the one now. Then the irony of it all rushed over me like a wave. Who would have thought, 35 years later, I am sitting in a café in Thu Duc, Vietnam, suddenly feeling as if I am 13 years old again but now there is no war. Sitting across from me, is a daughter of a soldier who fought for the other side. We are at peace, on a day as glorious as you can imagine, and listening to the same music I did back then. I think at that moment, many of the doubts and wounds we had all felt for years were forever closed. Lyna could not possibly understand. I smiled, I laughed, she looked at me and wondered what was going on? I tried my best to explain via my translator. I think she caught most of it, we have a way of getting out points across through it all.
Whenever I hear that song now, I will forever be in that café in Thu Duc with my friend Lyna. Life has a way of healing, and I think it is time to put the ghosts of the past behind and move onto a better future for all of us.
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Published on 2/7/05