Scenes from Vietnam:
In Hoi An, Vietnam, honeymooners and backpackers enjoy a tourist paradise in the central pinch of the country. It’s an old town on a river, where foreign traders from the South-East Asian trading port established their homes in the 16th and 17th centuries. Now the buildings are occupied by hotels, restaurants, and tourist shops so that in the old city one can and hardly see a wink of local culture. Why go? Ask the sonny-boy from Australia, clinking beer with his buddies on a quaint street of multi-colored lanterns; or the overweight German couple lounging like royalty in a fishing boat rowed by a toothless old woman; or the family-funded French hippie who – for the first time in her adult life – can afford as many parachute pants as she pleases from the tailor shops, and eat squid by the river, and buy organic banana chips from an 8-year-old-school-boy-beggar to boot.
When I originally arrived in Hoi An, I was naturally put-off by the contrived nature of the setting, which looked like an outdoor-simulating lobby of a quaint hotel. In fact, I probably would have regretted traveling to Vietnam at all had it not been for a charismatic tour guide named Tony.
Our third day into our stay in Vietnam, we decided that the best way to venture outside the tourist area was to, ironically, take a tour. By this time the historical sites had long been explored, the merchandise on the roadside had unveiled itself for the factory-produced tourist-candy that it was, and my friend Stefanie and I were desperate for new stimuli. Fortunately, just outside the old city was a culture reserved for its residents, and it was this culture our tour was designed to explore. The bikes provided for the journey had been falling apart since the 1970s; on the other hand, our guide, Tony, was young and sprightly: a polished-looking local of small stature. Tony grinned at us with an air of pre-pubescence while placing water bottles in our bike baskets like a kindergarten mommy. And so, well-hydrated and perched on squeaking wheels, we made our way into the streets dominated by motorbiking men wearing helmets inherited from the Vietcong.
FIRST STOP: TEMPLES WITH SMILING BUDDHAS
Before we venture further, are you aware why Buddhist and Neo-Confucian traditions place so much value on the smile? Most Buddhist communities attribute Buddha’s “happiness” to the fact that Buddha, through his enlightened state, has already made peace with himself. Citizens of Hoi An seem to perceive the smile as a tool as well as a result: a form of protection against one’s misfortunes in every-day life. Perhaps this is why the happiest-looking people in Hoi An are not the foreigners, but the old men and women grinning over soup and fried bananas.
The bikes, even in their ancient state, offered an immediate sense of freedom. Our tour group passed the spas and heritage sites until we lost sight of white people in neon, and at last rolled into the clearing of a temple called “Smile Temple”. In the past few decades this temple — Neo-Confucian and long without use — had been converted into an incense factory. There were several pillars standing in front of a pagoda where the Buddha sat, each signifying a desirable attribute of men and women. For women: an intelligent mind, beauty, skill in cooking, and good manners; for men: an intelligent mind, skill in kungfu, the willingness to thank others for generosity, and the ability to keep promises. Apparently the standards for men and women had been altered since Western traders introduced a more liberal interpretation of sex appeal.
In a room of the temple once used for worship was now a factory where men and women sat at machines, filing incense or bending wood. Some of these workers had diseased eyes or missing limbs, signifying – as Tony later affirmed – that this place was a work outlet for the disabled castaways of society. The tourist industry now looked brighter to my snobbish senses, and I actually saw that priceless trinkets went a long way for the financial security of a people I was too culturally removed to understand.
After leaving Smile Temple and riding for several minutes past homes where shirtless men played cards, we arrived at another heritage site. Sitting on a sea of rice fields was a pastel-colored monastery with pillars sporting swastikas. We walked through the gate designated for un-enlightened visitors. Around the pastel monastery were bushes holding dioramas arranged with miniature statues: each exhibiting its own world themed around meditation and nature, each inviting its observers into a setting that was pleasantly simple and still. Beside the monastery was a cemetery for the holy monks, and at the center of the courtyard was a fat buddha smiling with big ears that could hear all the beautiful sounds in the universe.
STOP 2: FARMLANDS OF GREENS AND WATER CREATURES
Rice fields seemed to dominate the majority of the farmland, but vegetable gardens also thrived where the land was firm. We visited a vegetable garden behind a series of residential homes, where greens of every variety grew in neat rectangular patches. Among the rows of budding greens, Tony identified bean sprouts that enhanced one’s sexual virility as well as kind of basil called “Morning Glory,” which supposedly substituted for a Western man’s “Morning Wood.”
Shrimp farms stretched along the roads like sunken swimming pools. The farmers watched their breeding shrimp from closet-sized wooden huts roosted on posts at the center of their farmland, where they ate and slept. “Vietnam’s seven-star hotel,” announced Tony after convincing us to take a roadside toast with our water bottles. Nowhere else would we find better accommodations than a hut overlooking lush Vietnamese fields, where we could also breathe in damp earth by night and dine on fresh prawns by morning. For travelers accustomed to privacy and packaged meat, we could only dream.
On a short ride along a river path, we stopped to examine wooden structures that emerged in spike clusters from the Hoi An river. Their formation was designed so that tall wooden spikes arranged a circular fence, and in the center: another set of wooden spikes cramped to form a nucleus. The Vietnamese fishermen placed fish bait in this nucleus so that the fish would venture inside to feed. In the mornings the fishermen placed a net around the circular fence and disturbed the water so that the fish sprung outwards from the nucleus into waiting nets, which were then hauled into boats that looked like straw teacups.
STOP 3: SITES TO COMMEMORATE THE DEAD
We stopped at a graveyard for the Godless. This cemetery was by far the most beautiful I had ever seen. Between its clean, Buddhist-style grave designs and its pastel varieties, the gravesite looked like a somber lego-land. Despite the fact that 80% of the population considered itself “non-religious”, the Vietnamese took great care of their dead, who seemed to hover in an ancestral dimension between spirituality and superstition.
At one point we stopped in front of a Buddhist shop that sold items to burn as ancestral donations. Throughout our tour we had passed shrines illuminated in red light, often containing framed photographs of the elderly. Tony watched as I examined the artifacts for sale, explaining that the burn rituals weren’t reserved for old members of the family, but for any relation who had passed away. He confided his past New Year’s celebration in which he bought a paper umbrella for his brother who died due to illness. The body dies but the soul survives. Tony said this as he peeled the petals off of a small flower to reveal an internal stem that stuck to the skin.
On our journey we occasionally came across barren patches of land, on which austere tombstones emerged from the grass, often surrounded by nothing, almost unassuming in the way their faded rock frames blended into the surrounding gray and green.
A NOTE ON LUCK
It seemed that most of the spiritual energy in Vietnam came from traditional ideas of what was “lucky” and what was not. To me this seemed too superstitious to be non-religious, but – then again – I knew nothing of spirituality under pressures of Communism. There were certain rules of “lucky” conduct, such as regimented ways of greeting new neighbors or leaving one’s home. It was considered “lucky” to observe a wedding or the passage of a snake upon leaving one’s home, but dangerously “unlucky” to witness the same occurrences upon one’s return. On certain holidays it was unlucky to have sex or sweep the floors.
I wondered who, if the traditional Buddhists didn’t believe in God, actually distributed the fates of positive or foul fortune. I asked Tony if the fates of the living lay with the ancestors, but even he didn’t seem to know.
CONCLUDING BY BEACH AND BOAT
At the beach, we had a few minutes to walk around. An old woman selling tourist merchandise knelt beside us in the sand to show us her products, repeating the words “happy hour” as if she were selling margaritas instead of refrigerator magnets. At a self-designated reflection spot where the beach met the trees, I watched small crabs camouflaging flawlessly with the sand as they chucked sediment out of burrows. Nearby: water buffalo in a herd with their calves; among the trees and cacti: two wild dogs locking their butts in an embrace as a third dog watched.
We were taken home by boat. On the dock as we waited, Tony showed us how to make fake eye-glasses and watches out of lakeside reeds. Our bikes were loaded onto the boat by a 70-year-old Vietnamese man who smiled with black teeth, and who paused every few minutes to pose with one of our reed spectacles. He laughed and pointed good-humoredly at the large stomach of a beer-bellied Bavarian who had joined our tour, then showed us muscles that bulged miraculously from a skeletal frame. Some communication doesn’t need words, which should go without saying.
I sat at the pointed end of the fishing boat where I could best feel the breeze and watch the water. I could still smell the incense that had been burned earlier that day. The exhausted shafts of incense pressed up against my knees as I knelt at the bow, and at once my associations with river water became fused with the scent of cinnamon. Tony took a seat behind me and asked if I had seen the movie Titanic. I grinned, glad that Western hyper-masculinity hadn’t spoiled the South-Asian fixation with romance.
Five minutes later and I found myself tiptoeing at the front of the boat. Tony gripped my torso for support, and I was surprised at the strength of his tiny hands. I closed my eyes as Tony – my Romeo – cried out into the evening: “You fly here! You fly there! You fly everywhere!” I suppose I should have felt embarrassed, but I was too busy enjoying myself. There was no reason to feel ashamed for wanting to feel free. Ever.
The day grew dark on the boat ride home, and I remember feeling envy for the passing fishermen, who were so privileged in their liberated way of life – in their ability to feel this wind every night, watch the colored riverside lanterns that never went out.
Vietnam, despite its occasional hints of gray, will never be without smiles, luck, and the strong scent of cinnamon. And somewhere from that sappy, half-repressed place: the soft hum of Celine Dion.