I arrived in Hanoi, Vietnam at the end of January. I will eventually volunteer at the Hanoi University for Science and Technology to assist students with their English speaking skills. Until then, I will be immersed in nature.
I had seen photos of Vietnam before visiting here, so I knew that this country would offer some breathtaking views, but pictures can never adequately capture the magnitude of beauty. My mind grew quiet when I arrived in Halong Bay. My mouth gaped in awe as I peered out from the northwest coast of the Gulf of Tonkin at thousands of islands in the form of limestone pillars jutting out of the sea. There are estimated to be 3,000 islands in Halong Bay, and thousands more beyond it.
The grandeur of nature’s majesty pierced through my thoughts and created a feeling of peace that I have not felt in a long time. How odd – to feel peace in a country which was ridden with war since long before and after the Vietnam (American) War. I had been wondering how the North Vietnamese feel about Americans since our infamous relationship is far from being buried in the past.
Dain and I first stayed at a bed and breakfast in a wealthy neighborhood in the city of Halong. It seemed that you could reach outside our bedroom and touch one of those magnificent limestone pillars. The wife and daughter in the home made us fresh meals each day. They spoke minimal English, but they did not hesitate to try.
Often I feel a contrasting sense of guilt and privilege because English is my first language. On one hand, building relationships across the globe is easier because I speak a language which is becoming ever more universal. On the other hand, I can see how hard other people have had to work to acquire the language. I watch their wheels turn as they mentally translate from their mother tongue to English and then try to find the proper mouth mechanics to make their English speech discernible for an American.
It takes some folks an awful lot of energy to carry on even a simple conversation with me. For that reason, I never overlook that they are making an effort far greater than I can fathom just to make small talk with a foreigner – a foreigner from a once “enemy” nation. Their effort exemplifies something I have always wanted to believe about the human race: common folk just want to feel safe and connected.
While I have been told that the Vietnamese language will be impossible for me to learn due to the accents and dialects, I will not let that stop me from doing some work to meet the locals halfway. The other day, I was introduced to a local man called “Binh Twi.” He has many friends who fought in the Vietnam (American) War, and has agreed to be a translator should I wish to interview some of those friends.
Wow. North Vietnamese warriors willing to open up to an American journalist about war? I am so curious to hear what it was like for the other side … Did they weep as our soldiers wept? Did they feel confusion and remorse? How have they coped with the psychological aftermath of war? I really do want to know, for something tells me that even these soldiers from the “other” side are common folk who just want to feel safe and connected.
I told Binh Twi that I want to learn some of the Vietnamese language. He immediately found a pen and a napkin and showed me the basics. My brain was fried after one hour of trying to annunciate the accents. Vietnamese will not be an easy language to master, that is certain. But at least now I will have more patience and understanding of my future students at the university in Hanoi.
Well, I need to wrap up this story now because I have a boat to catch. Dain and I are traveling to Viet Hai, which is a remote village on Cat Ba Island which can only be accessed by either trekking several treacherous miles through the mountains or by boat. I have made the trek on foot once before, but that would be a little challenging to do with a fifty pound pack on my back and this large archaic laptop I lug around to write these stories for my friends and family in Southern Illinois.
I am going off grid for the next week or so. Just me, my lover, and a North Vietnamese village of fisherman, farmers, and buffalo. I cannot wait to tell you all about it.