I stood on the edge of a double lane highway in southern Vietnam, screeching at a taxi driver who couldn’t care less, in a language he didn’t understand. Iain was inside the taxi, his left elbow swollen to the size of a small melon, his face pale with shock. He abruptly opened the door, to pace desperately beside the taxi.
Just an hour earlier, we’d been devouring lunch in a large outdoor restaurant in Vinh Long, with all its specialities out on display: fish in tanks, pigeons in cages and coiled snakes in a cement pit. Lunch had arrived piled on platters: pumpkin flowers stuffed with pork, beer-braised chicken and spicy beef salad, washed down with 555 beer. It was far too much food, ordered out of curiosity as much as hunger, and we left happy, to make our way to a home-stay on the Mekong Delta. Backpacks slung from our fronts and backs, we moved through the restaurant’s garden in monsoon drizzle, across a bridge of electric blue tiles, gleaming in the rain. “Careful,” Iain said, turning to me with his hand resting on a low banister, “It’s slippery.” Just at that moment he slid: down the bridge’s blue slope, down two blue steps at the end, and onto the ground. Loaded with thirty kilograms of luggage, his elbow broke the fall.
Vinh Long Hospital was filled with people milling through grey corridors. I left Iain in a daze at the entrance and raced through the building, looking for a doctor or a nurse – or anyone – who spoke English. People shook their heads or pointed, sending me running every which way. Someone led me to a counter where a lady tapped out a figure on a calculator – but what treatment it would cover and whether there was an English-speaking doctor in the hospital was unclear.
I rushed down passage after passage. At the end of one, I found Iain sitting on a wooden chair in an otherwise bare room, a steady stream of curious people wandering in and out to look at him. A nurse had appeared briefly, he told me, but with no common language between them, she had simply taken hold of Iain’s arm and tried to see how much it would bend. We were soon back in the taxi, negotiating a fare all the way to Saigon, over 100 kilometres and about three hours away. Yelping at every bump in the road, Iain took the two codeine pills I’d mimed out of the hospital pharmacy, and lay down in the back seat. I phoned our insurance company and tried to stop imagining that a bone would, at any minute, start poking through his skin. It would be a long, painful drive, but for $80 we were on the way. All we had to do was sit patiently in the car. And then the driver pulled over.
We sat in the taxi on the side of the road while car after car after car zipped past. I shrugged at the driver, pointed at the road, then shrugged again, trying to ask why we had stopped. He sunk into his chair and turned on the radio. I took a deep breath and tried to wait for a full minute to pass; something had to happen, I reasoned. But a minute later, still nothing: not a gesture or a smile. Not a single word.
Iain occasionally glanced down at his swollen arm in horror. It only seemed to get bigger: his upper forearm was now almost double its normal width. I began tapping an imaginary watch and pointing at Iain’s arm. “We have to hurry, he has to get to a hospital… Please! Drive! Go!”
The driver got out the car. “What are you doing?” I shouted. “We need to get to the hospital! Saigon, Saigon!” He looked away. Iain had begun to pace beside the highway.
Fifteen minutes passed, and another taxi pulled up behind us. Our driver sprung into action, writing down the amount he wanted us to pay for the kilometres covered so far, and another amount, in dollars, for us to pay the new driver to take us to Saigon. We were powerless.
Vietnam was several weeks and a few hundred kilometres behind me when I first opened my journal to re-read what I’d written in the country. After arriving in Saigon under a cloud, we’d had no choice but to stay while Iain’s arm got worse before it got better. I resigned myself to a few weeks of work, rewriting the final chapter of my book, again. Days in generic coffee shops melted into one another. With Saigon as little more than a backdrop, the work of writing “location independent” took on new meaning.
I began to spend more time in our hotel which effortlessly became home, like so many before it. The staff were cheerful and the phases of each day were always the same: baguettes and Vietnamese drip coffee in the morning, instant noodles and spring rolls for dinner. I felt more like a boarder than a guest. Travellers came and went, and came and went, while we woke in our pink bedroom at the start of another day. Beyond the hotel, the sense that in Vietnam everything came down to money wouldn’t leave me.
Three weeks later, we moved north, excited to leave the room that had been Iain’s sick bay. But apart from a few days in Hue and a handful of isolated moments, I would never be completely at ease in Vietnam. When the time came to sit down with my notes and find a thread that connected my time in Saigon or Chau Doc or Lao Cai or Hanoi, the cursor blinked more menacingly than usual. There was nothing I wanted to write. Several weeks later, I found a pirated copy of Catfish and Mandala in a second hand bookshop in Luang Prabang.
Both travelogue and memoir, Catfish and Mandala is the story of a Vietnamese-American’s journey to the country of his birth. Andrew X. Pham was only a child when he arrived in America, in 1977, having fled Vietnam with his family after the war. He slowly learns to fit in, but when his older sister commits suicide, it provokes questions about his identity and sense of home. Pham sets off on a bicycle soon afterwards, working through uncertainty on its saddle, while pedalling his way around the Pacific Rim, Japan and Vietnam.
After six weeks in Japan, he flies with his bicycle to Saigon, where he battles illness, bureaucracy, and more than one armed mob, as well as the same callousness I experienced so often, until I finally stopped hoping for civility from strangers. Pham’s experiences across cities, towns and villages resonated with me. Reading about them with a border between Vietnam and I reminded me that my feelings, though generalised, were honest. Being an outsider doesn’t mean you don’t have a right to be critical.
The cabin tilts in descent [above Saigon]. Passengers, mostly Vietnamese, begin fighting their luggage out of the overhead compartments, spilling packages into the aisles, rallying toward the exit. A Vietnamese couple across the aisle furtively jam uneaten airline cheese and crackers into their handbags, squirreling away the freebies, knowing better but unable to resist old immigration habits. A middle-aged pair, luggage in hand, rush up from the rear and plop down in the empty seats next to me. Sporting a lavender double-breasted suit and half a pound of gold around his blubbery neck, the man grins at me… Another Vietnamese-American immigrant success story coming home all spelled out in jewellery and gaudiness… Husbands and wives squawk directions at each other, squeezing hands, grinning the victor’s grin. Young children caught up in a rush of adrenalin wail. Their triumphant homecoming is at hand.
The Japanese and Koreans, all business travellers, flinch, scorn thinly veiled, drawing back from the Vietnamese. From both ends of the plane, flight attendants, round sensual faces distorted in desperation, scream in Korean-accented English, ordering the horde to put their luggage back into the overheads. On the intercom the captain orders the passengers to return to their seats for the landing. A duffel bag becomes unzipped and rains new toys into the aisle: action figures, fist-sized teddy bears, and Ping-Pong paddles. Somewhere up front, a little boy howls, and on the instant the party shifts into full cry. Mutiny.
A tall European flight attendant spearheads the assault, her smaller Korean counterparts covering her flanks. With small white hands, they wrestle the Vietnamese one by one onto seats. They slam closed the overhead compartments. Someone complains about his bruised fingers. Harsh Korean, countered by Vietnamese curses, rattles the cabin. The din alone should send the plane tumbling out of the sky…
Mortified by the Vietnamese’s behaviour and equally dismayed that I feel an obligatory connection to them, I sink deeper into my seat, resentful, ashamed of their incivility.
When Pham enters Saigon airport’s luggage-claim area, one of the staff is forcing his bicycle through a portal, causing what looks like irreparable damage. “This cheap old bike has taken me far,” he writes, “farther than my imagination. Thanks to nitwits in flip-flops, it is practically scrap metal. Oh God, if this is how I see the Vietnamese, what sorry sights they must be to Western eyes.”
While I could never truly understand Pham’s inner conflict, our experiences were regularly in parallel, and too often I shared his stubbornness. I couldn’t bring myself to pay a bribe or turn a blind eye at the right moment, and I wouldn’t go limp when elbowed out of a queue. Reading about Pham’s frustrations was cathartic; with his journey behind him, he saw humour in even the worst situations.
In Hanoi, he spends his days moving among clans of backpackers, sometimes being as obscenely overcharged as his more foreign-looking friends. He writes about the city’s commercial areas, all separated by trade. Shoes are sold in a dedicated shoe district, electronics in another. Near my own guesthouse, a street was lined from one end to the other with buttons, braiding and thread: a haberdashery street. The division of trade wasn’t unique to Hanoi. I’d seen it in cities in the Middle East, India, Southeast Asia, and in the odd district in Shanghai, too – when shopping malls hadn’t taken over.
“Our favourite is the street of nem nuong diners,” wrote Pham. “Around dinnertime, straddling the sunset hour, the street is perfumed and greyed with the smoke of meat sizzling over coals. If you catch a whiff of this scent, you never forget it. It is a heady mixture of fishsauce marinade, burning scallions, caramelised sugar, pepper, chopped beef, and pork fat. Women sit on footstools grilling meats on hibachi-style barbecues. Aromatic, stomach-nipping smoke curls to the scrubby treetops and simply lingers, casting the avenue into an amber haze. When hungry folks flock from all over the city to this spot, they have only one thing on their mind. And the entire street, all its skills and resources, is geared to that singular satisfaction.”
One evening, Iain and I set off to find Hanoi’s nem nuong street. After weaving for over an hour through the Old Town’s impossible lattice of streets, we were still unsure how much farther it was – and by then we were ravenous. Iain hailed a taxi, showed the driver a road name and within five minutes, we were being driven along a highway. “Good thing we got in a taxi,” I said, sinking into the seat, thinking about how long it would have taken us to walk.
Ten minutes later, we still hadn’t arrived. The meter was turning fast, as rigged taxi meters do. “How much further?” Iain said to the driver, to let him know we were wary. He only pointed ahead. We turned off the highway, down a narrow street where everything looked infuriatingly familiar. “Oh no…,” Iain said. “Stop. Stop here. STOP! Stop now!” The driver pulled over, still looking straight ahead. We were back in the Old Town, just three or four blocks away from where we’d hailed the taxi, and the rigged meter had racked up at least double the ordinary fare.
“You’ve been driving us around in circles,” I shouted, making circular motions with an extended finger. The driver shrugged and, for a moment I worried we were mistaken, but Iain was in no doubt. He thrust his hand into a pocket and pulled out just enough money to cover half the fare.
When the driver looked at the note, his expression instantly changed. He slammed his hand onto the meter, demanding we pay for the scam in full. “No,” I barked back. Iain was casually walking away, hoping the driver would accept that his ploy had failed, but our street performance had only just begun. The driver marched up to me, waving the money in my face. Hands on my hips, I shouted back: “Do you think we’re stupid? I’m not paying for being driven around the block!” Onlookers watched me with distaste. Red-faced, his lip quivering with rage, the driver bellowed insults in Vietnamese. He looked as if he might punch me. If I were him, I might have punched me. It was an uncomfortably familiar scene.
Iain strode back to the car, put an arm around his fishwife of a girlfriend, and together we began walking away. The driver – still shouting – lurched forward, pursuing us, arms waving wildly. Scam or no scam, he wasn’t going to lose face. “Call the police!” I said meaningfully to Iain. “Okay,” he replied, only pretending to dial a number. “Police!” he said, waving the phone in front of the man, then put it to his ear and started to speak. A row of onlookers were watching our every move. Still backing away from the man, I watched, amazed, as he gave one final roar, walked around his car, got in, and drove away.
In Saigon, I’d watched as a friend’s bag was cut at the strap and whisked away by a man on a passing motorbike. Later, in Hue, I was short-changed by a government official at a UNESCO World Heritage site. Women shoed me out of three different shops saying “No big size! No big size!” when I tried to buy a sweater in Hanoi. A fruit seller swapped the strawberries I’d bought with a rotten bag she’d specially kept aside, and I caught a masseuse winding the clock fifteen minutes forward out the corner of my eye. I’m sure I wasn’t the first self-pitying foreigner whose massage she’d cut short. “Time’s up!” she said. My time was up. After seven long weeks in Vietnam, I left.
I was in no hurry to return. Then, three months later, Iain and I were turned around at Hong Kong’s border with China. The cheapest flight off the island was to Hanoi. Who said the gods don’t enjoy a good joke? If I couldn’t eat mala tang or yang rou chuan’r dusted with Chinese five spice-flavoured MSG, Vietnamese food was a fair substitute.
Sniffing out new varieties of local cuisine has always given structure to our long walks. In Hanoi’s Old Town, the stalls, street corners and restaurants with the tastiest food became my landmarks, wedged between anonymous shops all selling the same lacquer curios. If long, S-shaped Vietnam is a bamboo pole with baskets hanging from either side, Hanoi in the country’s north and Saigon in its south are the two baskets, laden with rice. Delicious food and evocative temples became our rewards for hours of wandering through traffic-choked streets in the monsoon rain. Before long, I had grown to love Vietnamese cuisine.
We devoured it in grimy eateries or at greasy plastic tables, where the smell of motorbike exhausts hung thick in the evening air. In Hue, we wrapped rice paper around fresh noodles, pork, vegetables and slices of star fruit, and drizzled peanut sauce over the tightly-rolled morsels: nem loi. We regularly stooped through the low doorway of a hole-in-the-wall in Hanoi, where a grumpy old woman sat surrounded by deep-fried dough: crab dumplings, spring rolls, miniature meat pies, and juicy mystery snacks. In Saigon, we ordered barbecued beef kebabs which arrived on lemongrass skewers, and in Hanoi, clumps of rice noodles with grilled pork patties, served with fish sauce and chopped chilli and garlic. We worked our way through Vietnamese restaurants’ ubiquitous plates of leaves – lettuce, basil, mint, watercress and coriander – and everywhere we went, we ate bowl after bowl of steaming pho.
We had com-phon – or com-dia in the south – at “commoner’s cafeteria[s]”, as Pham called them. Com is rice, served with a selection of hot and cold dishes, much like the canteen food of China: squash and ground pork, green pepper and beef, silver-skinned river fish, or onions and pork, all fried with salty sauce. The Vietnam that Pham cycled through in the late nineties may have changed, but some things were just the same, and the restaurants he described could have been the same restaurants Iain and I frequented. “Sided by low benches,” he wrote, describing a small eatery in Hanoi, “seven coffee tables form a single long board running the length of the corridor-like space illuminated by three dim bulbs dripping from bare wires. A dark layer of grease and soot from cooking fires skins the wall. Leprous white patches glow where the plaster recently peeled off. The ceiling, stringy with cobwebs, sags ominously… I sit down at the end of one bench and cannot find the floor with my feet. Bones, napkins, cigarettes butts, vegetables, and sticky rice cover the concrete.”
The description reminded me of a dinner spot Iain and I regularly visited, on the pavement of a busy street in Hanoi. They grilled beef luc lac to perfection, and caramelised onions until they were a deep brown. The roadside restaurant served pigeon, too, which I found surprisingly tasty when persuaded to try it one evening. The restaurant’s food was reasonably priced and beers were cheap, but it wasn’t the kind of place you could linger at comfortably for too long. In summer, the industrial fan that kept diners cool blew the residue from the deep-fryer straight onto us, and after an hour or so, my glasses would be finely sprayed with grease. The scattered pigeon bones, napkins and the other debris on the ground didn’t usually bother me, but at the end of a busy Friday night, the ground would be stacked high with the remnants of many a wholehearted meal, and child-sized furniture put you right at the level of the muck piled on the floor.
The chairs and tables were quite literally child-sized, as they are at eateries all over Vietnam. Iain felt – and looked – ridiculous, but the components of a modest-sized restaurant – chairs, tables, woks, pots and pans – could be stacked onto a single food cart at the end of a night and wheeled away, streaks of grease on the pavement their only remaining trace. Pham felt ridiculous too. “I sit obediently, wondering yet again why Vietnamese prefer kindergarten furniture. I haven’t acquired the penchant to sit with my butt lower than my knees. With the tabletop so low, whenever I eat I feel as though I am licking myself like a dog.”
Despite all his good humour, Pham’s journey rarely allowed him the reconciliation he sought. “I try not to let my disappointment show,” he wrote after visiting the village where he was born. “I come searching for truths, hoping for redeeming grace, a touch of gentility. But, no. The abrasiveness of Saigon has stripped away my protective layers. I am raw and bare and I ask myself, Who are these strangers? These Vietnamese, these wanting-wanting-wanting people… Saigon gnaws at me… its noise… its uncompromising want…”
My own frustrations paled in comparison. I may have left the country disenchanted, but I was just passing through. I didn’t have to like Vietnam’s culture or its people; I had come neither for a holiday nor redemption or truth. I was trying to make connections – between places and people – while inching my way through Southeast Asia, north. I saw how much Vietnam had inherited from China, the time-honoured foe that ruled it for 1000 years. I learned something of how stubbornness and pride are intertwined, and wondered whether having China on their doorstep contributed to the hardiness of so many Vietnamese. Thailand and Laos’ borders had often seemed blurred, but Vietnam stood with its back to China on the edge of Southeast Asia, as if looking in.
In some ways, I’d had the same sense of looking in, as if only half of me had ever really been present in Vietnam. For much of the time I’d been preoccupied with work, and after Iain’s accident, I’d become defensive and detached. It is the only country I’ve ever visited that I have no intention of returning to, but how much of that was due to my own shortcomings? I should have spent longer in Hue, I sometimes think, and ventured farther off the beaten track. We shouldn’t have based ourselves in Hanoi, where my jaundice reached its peak. If I’d been less sensitive, or learned to see things differently, would I have found the Vietnamese more likeable? This was, perhaps, the most difficult of Pham’s realisations: “I am in awe of the Vietnamese,” he wrote, towards the end of his year-long journey. “I admire them. I respect them, but what I really want is to like them, to find them likeable.”
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