Stepping into a new world (First time in Viet Nam)

by Ben Bangs, Oct 27, 2002 | Destinations: Vietnam / Ho Chi Minh City

11:30AM May 22nd, 1992 -- In the air above Ho Chi Minh City, Viet Nam Sometime in late morning of my second (or is it third) day "on the road" in transit from my home iin Upstate New York to Viet Nam (a world I can scarcely imagine is real), I am staring absently out the airplane windown with the glazed expression anyone who has crossed fifteen time zones in scarcely more hours has -- not feeling much of anything, except dead tired. The sky is grey; we must have started our decent into Ho Chi Minh City, my final destination, though at the present moment I can't summon up the energy to care. As I drift into and out of consciousness, a familiar announcement grabs what's left of my attention. We will be landing shortly, all seats and tray tables... Numbly, I comply with these directions, then head back into the land of the chronically jet lagged, my thinking about as clear as the sky outside. Then suddenly we break through the clouds and get our first glimpse of the land below -- some of the most beautiful scenery in the world! Spread out below us like an impressionistic landscape is a magic carpet of green -- a patchwork of every possible hue from pine to emerald to aqua to spirmint -- the rice paddies and farmland surrounding the commercial center of one of the world's great rice bowls. Sai Gon, Viet Nam (or as the current regime would have it, "The city with our dear uncle's name". As I will discover on the ground, nobody who lives there (even the cadre in their unofficial personas) ever calls it that though. Everyone agrees: We are about to land in Sai Gon. First impressions of the biggest, most modern international airport in the nation: An open air arrivals area, complete with whinning mosquitoes; almost-attractive looking young women in drab olive army uniforms handling customs and immigration at carols like you find in college libraries back home; a low steel fence outside which seems to hold back the entire population of the former South Viet Nam. After I am cleared, I haven't even walked up to the fence before my name is called by a young man with a white cardboard sign. L. will be my host, confidant and language teacher for the next five weeks. His wife and one year old are in the ancient French era auto which ferries us north from Tan Son Nhat airport and through the city, out the other side and up the highway to a suburb of Bien Hoa, their house barely steps from the highway, across which is the big US air force base which once so dominated military life in this part of the country. L's family welcome me with open arms and traditional hospitality, his mother especially. For my first meal in my new family, she grills fresh river fish, which we inhale with stir fried vegetables. For the past half week I've had nothing but airplane meals. It's time for some home cooking again! As we had approached my new temporary home, there had been a strangely festive procession outside. Now after lunch, I head up to the second floor balcony and stare out at the top of the bannana tree in our (non-existant) front yard, and the commotion below. They're setting off firecrackers; it's a wedding procession! L. later tells me the bride's parents and our neighbors are blocking the street in a traditional ritual designed to get the groom to cough up a higher brideprice than he's already paid. In olden days, girls completely left their families on their wedding day -- symbolically as well as literally transferring their entire allegiance to their husband's household. Often the only material advantage to having a girl, then, was the takings from a day like this. It all looked so happy and festive, but I am new here. What do I really know? After the wedding procession moves off down the highway, my host, his family and I stretch out on bamboo mats for the noontime siesta, the inevitable "ngu trua" that no Vietnamese will ever do without no matter how busy their schedule. Then it's downstairs for our own tea, and to set up for the afternoon rush hour (L's wife supports the household with a coffeeshop for the working class of Bien Hoa which takes up the whole downstairs except the dark, huvel-like kitchen/cum backdrop for family dramas morning, noon and night. We are just settling in for a liesurely cup when we get an unexpected visitor -- some kind of police officer in red pants and a white shirt, who speaks softly but firmly to my host, obviously about me. My Vietnamese isn't good enough to understand more than about thirty percent of what my new family says to me v-e-r-y sloooowwwwwly; this dialog is completely beyond me. After he leaves though, my host explains that this local cop was here to make sure I will behave myself while on his beat. My host is completely and unconditionally responsible for my behavior. It's a clear reminder that I'm not in Syracuse anymore. Suddenly I'm jet lagged again. I retreat back upstairs, chastened. As the days go by, I shake off my self-imposed worry about getting my friend in trouble, and he starts taking me on outings, first to their church at the end of the street, then on his motorbike across the Song Be bridge into a world of palm trees and one room houses. Little by little, I begin to reach out to L's neighborhood. They are all curious about me, and delighted to hear me stuttering and spluttering in their language. But when my near total lack of proficiency becomes evident, I suspect some of them laugh at me inwardly. To my face they're much too good natured. My pathetic attempts at communication are however treated with the warmth and appreciation due a nobel lauerate in my new home. I can't be much more interesting to these people than their baby, but they indulge me with the sort of hospitality which has made this part of the world justly famous. I'm a local hero, a celebrity -- at least in the three room universe I now inhabit. For the first week I eat like a glutton. I think to myself I never had it this good at home, and I vow to learn the fine art of Vietnamese home cooking. Amid this bliss, I convince my host family to take me to Vung Tau, our first trip within my trip. Shortly after our return, I get the trots, and they stay with me. Suddenly I have to be coaxed downstairs at mealtimes. I am so sick that on one morning outing I have to make a rushed pit stop, and upon my early return to America I'll have to take horse pills for three weeks. Still, I'm in Viet Nam, halfway around the world from my normal life, and I am determined to make this trip worth it. Through the endearing ceremonies of the church my host worshipps at, the wedding of my first day in town and dozzens of other joyful encounters, I've already come to love this place. Even as my insides seethe yet again at the thought of another meal, my heart beats faster in my chest with anticipation of our next planned outing -- to Bau Ca, my host's natal village. In all the years since, I have not been able to locate this one-lane hamlet on any map 9My everlasting thanks to anyone reading this who can!). My Sai Gon Stomachache continues here, but if it's possible, I become even more enamored of this beautiful, graceful land as local kids who started out calling me "Lien Xo" (dirty Russion) get to know me and L. and I spend our lazy afternoons on hammocks in their backyard with books on our laps. All too soon, the outing ends, and we find ourselves back "at home", which for me has ceased entirely to mean anyplace in North America. My appetite doesn't pick up one bit, but still we plan our third (and for this, my first Viet Nam adventure final) field trip: this one to Da Lat. The car that takes us into the mountains belongs to my host's next door neighbor, a professional driver for Dong Nai Province Tourism. It's the same car that brought me here from the airport, and whenever I sit in the front passenger seat, water leaks (from the radiator?) onto my toes. The scenery is gorgeous, but by the time we pull into Da Lat's central square, I'm doubled over with pain. I can eat only "chao", the rice porridge served to babies that night, which seems frustratingly appropriate, given my Vietnamese level and my overall presence in general, what with my sickness. We do hardly any touring in Da Lat. By noon the next day we are headed back home. As I get ready to change my reservation to a flight which will take me home two weeks early, I am nonetheless filled with joy at the experience I've had. I vow to myself I will continue my Vietnamese, and indeed, just weeks after my return home, I am on a bus for Seattle, where I hear they have a regular Vietnamese program I can take instead of the intensive summer session I'd prepared for this trip with the year before. Little do I know that this will be the start of a new phase of my life -- one which will bring a second Bachelor's degree, complete mastery of the language I've been using so abysmally and a new career as a translator/English teacher and overall Viet Nam nut. All that is in the future. For now I have only fond memories, a cured infection, and a serious syndrome that will not go away. I've gotten over my stomache virus only to contract The Southeast Asia Bug. Luckily for me, for this "ailment", there is no cure. FOUR YEARS LATER, A FAST FORWARD RETURN TO BIEN HOA In late 1996 I returned to my first host family's home for another lunch of river fish and a fond look back at old times. The one year old I remembered had grown into a rambunctious tomboy with a two year old brother who likes to play the family's electronic keyboard. The shop is still there, still doing a brisk business. But the bannana tree out in front (and indeed ALL the trees on their little street) had been replaced by the militant drabness of the "Bien Hoa Industrial Zone", causing a new friend and I to drive around for forty five minutes on his bike looking for it. This time I didn't get sick, and when I was invited to stay the night for old times' sake, I sorely wanted to. But my new friend is from near the airport, and though they no longer keep an eagle eye on foreigners the Vietnamese "Cong An" (the word means "Public Secourity", not "police" still closely monitor local's movements. Staying the night would have been problematic, so back to the city we went. I have not been back there since, but next time I'm in Viet Nam, I plan to make it a priority. Maybe then I'll take pictures and put them up here. Until then, here's to old friends!