Friday, January 18, 2008

The Ugly American

Written from Hue, Vietnam

Remember a couple of days ago when I said that Hanoi was managing to work its way around our hearts? That after that first disturbing night there we spent what turned out to be a pretty great day in the city? Remember how I was all excited for Day 2, saying that I'd be sad to leave the mayhem of northern Vietnam? Well, scratch that.

Our second day in Vietnam wasn't bad, but it was one of those exhausting days that make you hate traveling, make you long for home, where taxi drivers aren't out to scam you, and everywhere you turn there aren't people who just totally hate you and your American money.

See, here's the thing about traveling in Vietnam: Matt and I are both feeling some level of discomfort about being here. This is the part where I talk about that thing that's been hanging over our heads since we touched down in Hanoi: the Vietnam War, or, as they call it here, the American War. The war itself is something that affects Matt and I in a strange way. In college we took a Vietnam history class together (the first and only class we took together) and the books we read and images we saw are with us, right now, as we're traveling around this country. So too are the stories of our fathers'; not because they were here, but because in my case in particular, he worked hard NOT to get here. And yet, just over thirty years later, here we are.

Before we came to Vietnam, I joked that I was going to get my dad a hat to add to his collection of baseball caps. Now that we're here, I'm pretty sure that's not going to happen. This is the first place we've been where we'll tell people that we're from America while ducking our heads, lowering our eyes, searching the face of the person to whom we're speaking for a sign of how much they hate us for what we did in their country. And that's a strange feeling. It's the opposite of how I felt when I walked around Dachau. There, if anyone had asked, I would have shouted, with pride, that I was was Jewish. Here, it was my people who created the horror, who dropped the bombs whose holes are still in the ground. It's no wonder, then, that when we were walking around Hanoi last night, we saw a poster celebrating the 35th anniversary of the first time the Vietnamese shot down a B-52. Or is it? Because something about that feels WRONG. Celebrating the shooting down of a plane? A plane with people in it? Even enemy people? There was something about the poster that pulled at my heart, that made my stomach tighten, that made me want to hightail it out of Hanoi.

And so we did. We found some books at an English bookstore, collected our packs, and headed to the train station. A nice, official-looking man came up to us to check our tickets, then he heaved our bags onto his shoulder and showed us to our cabin. Where he demanded that we pay him $5 each. Which, in writing this, doesn't seem like such a big deal. Ten dollars isn't a lot of money. Especially compared to how much we spent to buy a plane ticket just to get here. But at the end of a long day, a day where we DID get to see Ho chi Minh's Mausoleum (which Heather was right about -- it WAS trippy and cool), but where we also got totally swindled by a taxi driver who drove us round and round in circles just trying to hike up the fare, a day where the city was just as cold and just as crammed as the day before, a day of looking at those stupid f*&%ing Lonely Planet maps and vigorously denying a need for bananas, at the end of that kind of day, $10 seemed ludicrous, absurd, unjust. It seemed like a tax levied only on the Americans, a charge for a war that was fought before I was even born. And on some level, I get it. I do. But even so, I have never seen Matt so angry. And for those of you who know Matt, and I mean REALLY know him, you know that's saying a lot. His cheeks burned red with fury as he handed over $5 and then $10 to the smiling man, who assured us that he was going to use the money to buy lots of beer. Sitting next to Matt, trying to calm him down, I was fighting the urge to burst out laughing at the lunacy and madness of the situation. There we were, sitting in a cramped and cold sleeper car in Hanoi, in a place where just a few blocks away they were celebrating the fact that American soldiers were shot clear out of the sky, in a place where what we're currently doing in Iraq holds absolutely no meaning, where $10 buys about 100 beers, and where, at the end of the day, that's all you want anyway, no matter where you're from.

So we're in Hue now, sleeping off a sleepless night spent on an overnight train. Rather, Matt's sleeping. I took Ambien in order to ensure a few hours. Matt was too angry, too hurt, too frustrated for sleep. We've decided that tomorrow we're going to do a tour of the DMZ, we're going to pack our cameras and our pride and some brief knowledge of history, and visit a place that our fathers, thank god, never saw. And we're going to do our best to keep our heads up and to be mindful of the stories on both sides of that history, all with the knowledge that in another 30 years, when our children board a plane to Baghdad, we will try to explain how it might feel to be there, how difficult and strange it is to travel in a place where you're not necessarily welcome and where your history, however removed, speaks for itself.


Anonymous said...

Very touching ....

heather said...

wow, lizzi! thank you! you know, that triggered a real guy reaction from me, one I had burried. I entered Viet Nam from the South and spent a month heading north and ended in Hanoi. But I *HATED* Saigon for all the reasons you mentioned in this post. I made the maybe mistake of visiting the war museum where you want to agree with them that what we did was totally awful but their presentation is so offensive- I mean, really it was bad enough, the exaggerations are ... well, kinda Michael Moore-ish- you lose credibility by pushing your argument a lliiiiiittle too far. So, probably skip that. It'll just make what you are feeling worse. I think I had just sort of resigned myself to those feeling by the time I got to Hanoi. Anyway, I hope it gets better and if it doesn't- just leave early. There is so much to see and you are trying to see soooo much of that, why not save yourself the frustration and disappointment and get a jump on good stuff. Or just go back to Thailand. Which is so lovely and easy and gorgeous!