Monday, November 25, 2013

Christmas in July: How Vietnam and Christmas Became Entwined In My Mind

Christmas in July

My father had done everything he could to avoid Vietnam.  In his early twenties, he, like most Americans, could only associate the country with one thing – war.  For thousands of men of his generation the draft was a death sentence.  No one went to Vietnam on holiday, they went there to die, and what many people saw on television was enough to redefine the meaning of hell.  I was born shortly before the Americans pulled out of the war, and less than a year before the fall of Saigon.  Growing up I learned little about the country save the fact that her soil was once drenched with the blood of my countrymen.   In school, it was as if Vietnam never existed before the fighting began, then ceased to exist the moment the South capitulated to the Communists.   I was taught nothing of the nation’s history – including the fact that it was once a French colony.  The culture of the people remained a mystery and the landscape I pictured in my head was always gray and dismal – clouds perpetually covered the sky and a thick nearly impenetrable mist left everything moist.  Nothing from my upbringing made it an alluring place to visit, perhaps that is the very reason I felt compelled to go.  It was almost as if I were driven to recover something that was lost, only I wasn’t exactly sure what I would be looking for considering there had never been a time that I had personally possessed it.  Coerced by curiosity, I flew to Vietnam to explore a world my history books had ignored and to uncover a truth that had been neglected for too long.  However, it wasn’t the place that ultimately had a great impact on my life but the friendship I stumbled into and forged over a bowl of noodles and plate of tofu in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.
By the time I landed in Hanoi, collected my things and checked into a cheap hotel, it was early evening.  The sun had slipped below the horizon and the sky was cloudy and gray.  Puddles dotted the earth, and when I walked, my shoes kicked up mud which splattered the back of my legs.  In short, the Vietnam that greeted me was not so different than the Vietnam that had thrived in my imagination for three decades.  My eyes were sleepy, threatening to shut with every step, but they were pinned back by a wave of childlike excitement.  I was eager to indulge my enthusiasm of being somewhere new, so instead of retiring to bed, I decided to take a walk, despite the dreary weather and the loneliness that had already begun to plague me.  It was often that I traveled alone, but just because I was used to it didn’t mean that I preferred it.
Darkness was rapidly descending and it was doubtful that I would see much, but seeing little was better than kicking off my shoes, flopping down on a bed and passing out for the night.  My two main objectives in the north were to go trekking in Sapa and to go kayaking in Halong Bay.  If I did nothing else that evening, I wanted to stop into a few travel agencies and price the two excursions that interested me.  I wouldn’t commit to anything, prior experience had taught me that it was always best to sleep on something before paying for it.
The Old Quarter is a quaint section of the city.  The streets are narrow and the buildings echo the influence of colonialism.  In the thirteenth century, there were 36 guilds in Hanoi and each street was named after the merchandise that was sold there.   Cars and motorbikes are loud and the drivers seemingly close their eyes to pedestrians, making it difficult and often dangerous to cross the street.  I consulted the map in my guidebook several times to make sure I was walking in the right direction.  I was heading down Pho Hang Bac (silversmiths) and it was a left onto Pho Ma May (Rattan) that brought me to the Tamarind Café, home of Handspan Adventure Travel.  My intention had been to speak to an agent about both Halong Bay and Sapa, but I was distracted by the sound of a woman’s voice speaking English with a perfect American accent.  Not used to encountering many Americans abroad, especially in Asia, my curiosity edged me towards her, goading me into rudely eavesdropping on her conversation.  She was talking to two German tourists, trying very hard it appeared to convince them to go trekking with her in Sapa.  Immediately my interest peaked and I stepped even closer.  I’m generally shy, not the type to force my way into someone else’s conversation, but my desire for companionship dominated all else.
“So, whatcha doin’,” I presented myself to the stranger without hesitation.
“Hi.”  At sound of my voice she spun around, not at all put off my by interruption.  “I’m going to Halong Bay and then hopefully Sapa, but right now I’m by myself which makes the trek in Sapa more expensive.  If there was at least one other person it would cut the cost substantially.”
“When are you going?”  I had no set schedule, so I could easily adapt myself to her plans.
“I’m leaving for Halong Bay tomorrow, and the day after I get back I’m taking the train to Sapa.”  The excitement in her voice mirrored the excitement in mine.  I knew nothing about her, yet there we were on the verge of making plans as if we had known each other for years – but in sense, isn’t that what backpacking is about?
I had wanted to go to Sapa first, but the order really was irrelevant, especially when the possibility of having a companion was tossed into the equation.  “That works for me,” and my intention of not committing myself to anything until having slept on it was promptly forgotten, or rather ignored.
“By the way, I’m Bonnie,” she introduced herself almost as an afterthought, a common occurrence amongst backpackers.  Conversation is often so completely free and open that you will learn a person’s entire history before anyone thinks to introduce herself.
“I’m Lizzie.”  And knowing nothing else about each other, save the fact that we are both Americans, we committed ourselves to a week of traveling together.
“Have you eaten dinner?”  After having organized and paid for our excursions, I was very hungry.  Since we were going to be spending the next eight or nine days together, I thought it might be a good idea to get to know each other a little better before departing for Halong Bay.
“Not yet.”
We found a place nearby to eat.  It was small, but we were the only ones there.  I was thrilled to discover that she was a vegetarian and that she would be up for sharing two different dishes.  Scanning the menu, we settled on a tofu dish and some noodles.  We must have been in the restaurant for two hours, and during that time not once did we have to suffer through a single awkward moment of silence.  Instead of two strangers making an attempt to be friendly, I felt almost as if we were long lost friends catching up on what had happened in our lives since we last spoke.  The two of us shared travel stories, showed pictures of our significant others whom we had left behind on the other side of the globe and we didn’t hesitate to speak of our dreams for the future.  We ate slowly, but time passed swiftly, and when our plates were cleared we paid the bill, said goodnight and retired for the evening.
The following morning I woke to the sound of rain tapping lightly against the hotel window.  Will I ever see the sun? I questioned as I climbed out of bed and into the shower.  Having dressed and repacked my rucksack, I walked through the rain to the agency.  When I arrived, Bonnie was already there.  In total, there were ten people in the group going to Halong Bay.  During the drive, the rain continued to fall but by the time we boarded the Junk Boat it was only drizzling.   The bay, despite the clouds, was beautiful.  Rock islands with green vegetation strewn all over them jutted up out of the blue water.  Living on the bay were families that made their homes in either small boats or in houses built on floating docks.  Both the homes and boats were painted bright vibrant colors – green, red, yellow and blue – as if to compensate for the dreary redundant life led by the men, woman and children in the area.
We went kayaking in the bay, paddling between the islands and into small caves.  It was expected that we follow our guide, but we paddled at our own pace.  There were no time constraints and we were free to explore provided we didn’t overextend our energy resources.  While we were kayaking the rain finally stopped and the sun broke through the clouds.  The sun glistened off the water and the sky reflected the blue brilliance of the bay.  The few clouds that did remain were like pure white wisps of cotton.  What more could I ask for?  I was out on the water doing something I loved in a beautiful setting with the warm sun tickling my skin.  For me it was almost as if Vietnam was being reborn.  The change in weather banished my youthful impression of the place and I was finally able to set my preconceived notions aside.  I was certain that if my father could separate the past from the present, he to would love to go kayaking in Halong Bay.  But he looked upon my holiday as a betrayal of all the young men who had lost their lives in a time when the Vietnamese were looked upon as ‘our enemy.’
Later that afternoon, after we had eaten lunch and we had begun to bake in the sun, to cool off, we dove from the top of the Junk Boat into the warm water.  As it washed over my body I felt very much at peace, not only with myself, but with my surroundings.  The group of us formed a circle and, treading water to stay afloat, we talked about everything and anything that crossed our minds.  There is nothing to fear amongst strangers who in all likelihood will never see each other again, and once the element of fear is removed people tend to be willing to speak more freely with each other.  In the absence of a long lasting judgment, secrecy becomes unnecessary for survival.
As always, when the trip came to an end, we all passed around our journals and exchanged addresses, promising each time the paper changed hands that we would keep in touch.  I had played this game before dozens of times and I knew better than to believe the words of my passing companions.  On occasion, a correspondence might be kept up for years, but it was extremely rare.  Initially parties might make a feeble attempt to call or shoot off an e-mail, but inevitably everyday life gets in the gets in the way.  Work supersedes play, and the people you once believed could become your friends slip into the afterlife of nostalgic memories.
Bonnie and I exchanged addresses with the rest, but our time to part was not yet upon us.  We spent a day walking around and exploring Hanoi.  We visited what remains of Hoa Lo Prison, better known to some Americans as the ‘Hanoi Hilton.’  It is where many American POWs were incarcerated during the American War.  Amongst the war relics in the museum was the uniform worn by the now senator of Arizona – John McCain.  It appeared to be a source of pride for at least one Vietnamese man.  He was giving a tour of the prison to a group of Japanese tourists and he stopped beside the case that displayed McCain’s uniform.  “Belonged to McCain,” he pointed, his finger touching the glass.  “He very high up in American government.  Very important, very very important man,” he repeated several times in broken English.
That night we went to see a water puppet show.  Initially, I wasn’t terribly enthusiastic about going.  In the past, I had always found puppet shows to be rather dull and boring, but Bonnie was excited about seeing the show, and since I didn’t have anything better to do I joined her.  Besides, water puppet shows are a part of Vietnamese culture, and since I was there I figured I should experience as much as possible.  During the show, the puppeteers stand in the water behind a curtain so that they are not seen by the audience.  Puppets are attached to long sticks which the puppeteers skillfully guide through the water.  The scenes often reflect Vietnamese folk lore and are accompanied by traditional music.  Despite my initial disinterest, I enjoyed myself immensely.
The following night Bonnie and I took the train to Sapa and arriving in the morning we met Lan, the woman who would be our guide for the next three days.  She spoke English very well and was excited to share her knowledge of the H’mong and Dzao people.  The trek was not difficult and the landscape was breathtaking.  Mountains rose up around us while rice paddies blanketed the ground.  Along the trail we encountered several Black H’mong people, many of whom were camera shy, but we did meet two woman who allowed us to take their picture.  They were dressed in traditional H’mong indigo hemp robes, and on their backs they carried baskets filled with handicrafts which they were eager to sell.  Bonnie made a few purchases for her family back home, but I didn’t buy anything.  However, as a token of friendship and kindness, each of the women tied a colorful string bracelet on my wrist and Bonnie’s wrist.
The children who live in the hills proved to be very curious. Oftentimes, tourists are their only link to the outside world.  Many of them live without technology and two of the little boys we met were very intrigued by our cameras.  I took their picture and, when I flipped the camera around to show it to them, they squealed with delight.
It was our second afternoon in Sapa that we went swimming in the river.  We were led by a young girl through the small village in which we would be staying.  Engaged in conversation, neither Bonnie nor I paid much attention to where we were going.  We didn’t realize that once the girl delivered us to the swimming hole she would return to her home, leaving us alone to find our own way back.  As dusk approached, we dried off not wanting to have to pick our way through the dark.  Both Bonnie and I thought that if we walked pretty much in a straight line we would find the home stay, but the both of us had remembered incorrectly.  We walked in circles trying communicate – without a common language – to the locals we encountered along the way.  They proved to be patient and they tried to be helpful, some of them even invited us into their home for the night, but no one succeeded in understanding exactly what we were trying to say.  Eventually, after we had taken a few wrong turns and the sun had bid us farewell, we stumbled upon the house in which we would be sleeping, arriving just in time for dinner.
The trek came to a conclusion around noon of the third day, leaving us a few hours to wander around town before having to catch a train back to Hanoi.  We strolled through the outdoor market, buying souvenirs for our families and friends back home.  During most of our trek the weather had been beautiful, but that afternoon the monsoon clouds made an appearance and within minutes of their arrival rain descended in a fury.  To escape the weather, Bonnie and I ducked into a café for a drink.  We were the only customers, and even though we didn’t order food they were happy to have us there.  After bringing us our drinks, the owner of the place proudly popped into the VCR the only English tape he possessed.  It was late July, five months before Christmas, but the owner of the restaurant ignored that simple fact.  The music videos showed Vietnamese men and women dressed up for Christmas singing traditional Christmas carols in English.  Bonnie and I laughed at first, but by the third song we were singing along, while the owner smiled at us.  When the rain passed and the sun poked its nose through the clouds Bonnie and I finished our drinks, sang one last song and paid our bill, returning to the street in a much different mood than we had been in when we sought shelter.  With the Christmas songs still echoing in our ears we continued to sing.  The holiday cheer may have been premature, but it was infectious, and we were anxious to share it with others.  Walking through town, Bonnie wished everyone we met a Merry Christmas.  I do not know if they understood her, if they did, I’m certain that she confused them, but not a single person failed to smile in response.
I didn’t want to say goodbye to Bonnie, but only a week remained before I had to be in Saigon and there were several places I wanted to visit as I traveled south.  Bonnie and I had already exchanged numbers and addresses, and unlike the others whom I knew I would never hear from again, I had not the slightest doubt that Bonnie would forever be a part of my life.  She sat with me as I waited for the bus that would carry me to Hue, and when it arrived she gave me a hug, ordering me to keep her up to date with the rest of my journey.
“Merry Christmas,” she called after me as I started to board the bus.
“Merry Christmas,” I turned around half laughing to myself, knowing that from now on Bonnie, Christmas and Vietnam would forever be intertwined in my mind.