Monday, February 1, 2010

Images of Vietnam

This is the time of year when my thoughts turn to travel. Perhaps it’s the fact that the Bay area has been drenched with rain in January and tells us to expect seven to ten days of showers this week and next. Moss is growing on sidewalks, my lemons are turning brown and soft on my trees, gutters are so full of debris they threaten to detach themselves from my garage. Some people turn to their seed catalogs for respite; I turn to my travel guides and cookbooks. On my list of places I would like to visit, Vietnam is working its way toward the top. Not this year. Perhaps not even next. But soon.

Most of us who came of age in the 1960s first became acquainted with Vietnam because of the war. We recall my then Governor Ronald Reagan’s October 10,1965 statement in the Fresno Bee, “It’s silly talking about how many years we will have to spend in the jungles of Vietnam when we could pave the whole country and put parking stripes on it and still be home by Christmas.” Vietnam, the culture and the people, dismissed with a swat of the hand. The images of the war which went on way past Christmas, are seared in our minds, a horrifying reminder of the harm we are capable of inflicting on each other.

It wasn’t until 1994 when a friend at Duke University gave me Pico Iyer’s Falling Off the Map: Some Lonely Places of the World, that a different image of Vietnam started to emerge. Written in 1993, there is no doubt that the scenes Iyer paints in his chapter on Vietnam, “Yesterday Once More,” are now very much out of date. But never mind. Hue, the “reticent capital of old Vietnam,” captured my fancy then and has held on to it all these years later. He writes of Hue’s “gracious reserve and faded glamour,” of “students on their bicycles [who] carried themselves like ancient porcelain,” of “watching the famous local beauties, flowerlike, in their traditional ao dais, pedaling, with queenly serenity, across the Perfume River, long hair falling to their waists and pink parasols held up against the sun…” Beautiful and calming images of people living normal lives.

Having recently re-read this chapter, I must say that my enthusiasm for traveling to Hue and also to Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City, and the countryside is as strong as ever. I’m readying myself to see the sights, old and new; to eat French bread, a carry-over from the time of French colonialism; to visit the markets and to slurp up the fish sauce. Ah, the fish sauce.

Iyer says “The only preparation you need to make if you plan to visit Vietnam is to sweep your mind clear of all preconceptions.” True for all travel but particularly true for a place where the strong images we have stored in our minds can prevail over the reality in front of us. I would add that you also need to get the taste of Vietnam in your mouth, in your body, in your spirit. Armed with my two Vietnamese cookbooks, I am ready.

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