Saturday, November 11, 2006

First Impressions (sans Robin Williams references)

Vietnam is layered -- in some ways contradictory. The motion on the surface is constant, unceasing... but orderly. There seems to be a stronger core underneath, supporting things. The traffic in particular you notice right away, streaming steadily in and out of side streets, countless motorbikes and buses crossing paths with cars and pedestrians in inexplicably fluid, easy interchange. It shouldn't work, but it does. A self-regulating system. After some careful observation, I push off from the curb and the movement folds seamlessly around me.

The people here are beautiful, especially the older ones. You can see in their faces they have stories, that they're not afraid of work. I get the feeling that they don't forget things -- but maybe I've read one too many Graham Greene novels. I'm itching to take their pictures; however, the power imbalance inherent in the act makes it overly intrusive, almost colonial. I settle instead on photographing the buildings, which are strangely quiet; all the life here is outdoors, on the street. Parents hold their children over the curb to urinate in the gutter; families lounge on their front steps, cooking dinner on the sidewalk; haircuts and earcleanings take place wherever there's a tree on which to nail a mirror... Private acts are made matter-of-factly public. There's a certain truth to it that I can appreciate.

The colors, the lighting are different than in Japan -- the place has almost an island feel to it. They keep birds in wooden cages above their doorways; where I eat lunch, I'm joined by two kittens, who sit in the plastic chairs across from me, peeking over the tabletop. I watch a line of ants move across the peeling yellow plaster of the wall, skirting the Coca-Cola poster of the happy vietnamese family pouring each other soda. It's hardly distinguishable from the communist propaganda posters. Everyone else in the open air cafe is watching me.

Lunch costs 12,000 dong. This seems to be the going rate for any service offered a foreigner, and I'm sure I'm being overcharged. It's 16,000 dong to the dollar -- what moral right do I have to complain?

In the park, a young police officer keeps coming round to talk to me. Eventually he asks if I want to go to dinner. I wonder what his government would think of that? Two Americans were convicted here this morning of 'terrorism': broadcasting anti-communist rhetoric. The talk in the western press is how this will effect Vietnam's chance at a trade deal with the US. I question our priorities sometimes. Leaving the park, an older policeman trails me for a few blocks. I pause so that he has to walk ahead of me, then turn to look him full in the face when I catch back up. There are signs everywhere welcoming APEC delegates to Vietnam.


Anonymous said...

You have beautifully painted a verbal picture of Viet Nam!! All I could do was shop and take photos! I can't wait til we can discuss the experiences in person!


melanie said...

hi, it's melanie! when i was in viet nam and saw all the haircuts out on the street i figured it was just a matter of finances - no need to have a big shop when you have a chair and mirror. but, a friend's friend is doing ngo work there and apparently a lot of that is due to hiv/aids. many salons/beauty parlors involve happy endings and such and doing things outside relieves the possibility of that.

Katie said...

Hey Melanie! How's it going in Dhaka?

I never considered that angle... It makes some sense, though enough of my (male) friends were propositioned by cab drivers and such on behalf of young lovelies that I'm guessing AIDS relief has some ways to go. There certainly weren't any massages taking place on the street...

One explanation I received was it being the lasting effect of the more Big Brother-esque state of years gone by: everyone was spying on everyone else, so you might as well be as transparent as possible in your actions. Seemed plausible.

My favorite example of the inside-out nature of the place was a dentist's office with a wall of glass for a front, so that passerbys were afforded a splash zone view of all the grisly ins and outs of a toothcleaning. I was happy to have brought dental floss.