Thursday, January 28, 2010


          We’re at the Thien Mu Pagoda, on the Perfume River in Vietnam.  It’s a hot, hazy day, the sky not quiet blue but sunny nonetheless.  Small palm trees and thick brush cover the far bank of the river, and it’s not hard to imagine the Battle of Hue, back in 1968, ripping through the thick leaves and into the streets of the nearby city. 

The pagoda is tall and a pale yellow, 60 feet high, with seven stages, each dedicated to a Buddha that appeared in human form.  Kem, our guide, is telling us the story of the emperor who was coming down the river and saw this lovely hillock.  Climbing out of his boat, he scrambled to the top and found himself dazzled by the view of the gorgeous hills in the distance, the smell of pine from the nearby forest, the warmth of the sun.

As he’s sitting there, an old man came up to him and told him how the villagers gathered there every full moon to see the vision of a lady in a red shirt, blue trousers, and a yellow scarf.  When they asked her why she came, she told them that—


--one day a great man would build a pagoda there. 

Upon hearing this story, the emperor took a moment and thought to—

“Lucy!!  Stop it!!”

--himself:  “Wait a minute:  I’m a great man.”  And that was when he decided to—

“Lucy!  Get down from there!

Damn it.  I hand Jamie to Ellen, give Kem an apologetic look, and storm over to my two eldest. And when I say storm, think hurricane crossed with blizzard crossed with earthquake crossed with really pissed off 220-pound white guy who hasn’t had enough caffeine.   We’ve been in Vietnam for 8 days, now, and the two of them have bickered like a couple of old ladies fighting over who left the toaster running and burned down the house.  Seriously, they’re acting like their 9 and 6, in a third-world country, and bored out of their frigging minds. 

Lucy is sitting on a stone wall, her back against a pillar, legs out in front of her.  Will is standing ten feet away, telling her to get down.

“Lu-cy! “  He makes it a six syllable word. 

“Wi-ll!  Stop it!  Mommy said I could.”

“Shut up!” I say, violating one of the two cardinal rules the Hanstedt family (the other of which is, “Don’t touch Daddy’s popcorn.”).  Grabbing Will and Lucy by the roots of their hair, I drag them to the edge of the rock cliff on which the pagoda is perched. The Vietnamese vendors stare at us—children are sacred in Vietnam, revered more than any place I’ve ever been.  The Australians and French, on the other hand, ignore us.

“See that?” I say to the kids, pointing to the twenty-foot drop. 

They nod.

“Can you fly?” I say.

They shake their heads. 

“Can you behave?” I say.

More nods. 

“Are you sure?”

Lots of nods.

“Because I’m about to test every theory of gravity ever known to man, if the two of you can’t behave.  Do you understand me?”

Lots and lots of nods. 

“Good.”  I let go of them—on the grass, mind you—and turn back to hear the rest of Kem’s story.  I haven’t gone three feet when Will says, “But Da-ad—“

I’m not sure if it’s the multi-syllabic enunciation, the whiny tone, or just the fact that he’s stupid enough to say anything to say when I’m in this kind of mood, but I turn and give him a look that would freeze most NFL linebackers in their tracks. 

He stares at me for a minute.  Then his head goes down, his hands go into his pockets, and he lets his shoulders slump pretty much all the way to his knees.  I continue to glare, and he shuffles off, kicking a pine cone. 


Once Kem has finished narrating the story of the pagoda, she tells us we should take a look around. 

“Don’t forget the Martin,” she says. 

“The huh?”

She tilts her head, looks at me through her sunglasses.  “The Austin Martin.  Behind the temple.”  And then she explains:  back in 1963, when the Buddhist monk Thich Quang Duc, burned himself alive in protest of the South Vietnamese government’s policies restricting religious practices, he drove himself to the site in a blue Austin Martin.  If you look at the famous photograph of the protest, you can see the car in the background, its hood raised.  Anyhow, Duc was from the monastery behind the pagoda, and the famous car is kept there as a reminder of his sacrifice. 

All of which seems a little creepy to me.  I mean, what’s next?  The bullet that shot Lincoln?  Lyndon Johnson’s cancerous lungs?  Strolling around, I decide to avoid the car and concentrate on the temples and the landscaped garden.  This really is the most beautiful place we’ve been since leaving Hanoi—a ragged, chaotic, dusty, and wonderful city. 

Wandering toward the buildings, I notice an information placard or two, but I’m not in the mood to read, so I just snap a couple pictures.  Coming around a corner, I find Will kicking that same pine cone, concentrating hard on keeping his head down, determined to project misery with every bone in his body. 

“Hey Will,” I say.  “Come over here.”  I gesture towards a huge bell suspended in a side-building.  It’s half-again taller than me, and wide as an oak.  It’s the sort of bell that, just looking at it, you know ways more than a fully armed tank. 

He slumps over, climbs up the steps.  The building housing the bell is open on four sides and we circle it, looking at the inscriptions on the outside.  Will notices a fly that seems to be beating itself against the metal, but then we realize it’s just a husk caught in a web being vibrated by the wind.   

We stare at the bell for a minute longer, then Will says, “Dad?”


“Can I look under it?”

I tell him sure.  We get down on our knees and peer under the immense iron lip.   Inside are more fly husks.  There’s also lots of graffiti, mostly in Vietnamese, but some in English and some in French.  One or two people have pasted yellow sticky notes way up toward the dome.  We stay under there for a while, looking at the scrawls and enjoying the echoes, even when we whisper.  Then we crawl out and meander toward the main buildings. 

The nearest holds a huge drum, the size of a cement mixer, surrounded by a knee-high wooden fence.   Clearly folks have climbed over it, though, as this, too, is covered with scratched names and dates.  Next door is a small plaster building housing three gods, each painted in bright colors that have faded and blistered in the hot sun.  The gods are all life sized, and each one rests a foot or knee on some sort of creature:  a dog, a mountain lion, a turtle.  We talk about what this might mean.  The turtle, we know, symbolizes long life, but beyond that, we’re stumped. 

Will scratches one arm, then laughs.  “You know what Bugs Bunny calls turtles?”


“Toitles.  Like that.  He calls them toitles.”

He’s grinning, thinking about the Looney Tunes collection we have back at the flat in Hong Kong.  It’s one of the few things we brought from the States for the kids, and once a month or so, Will or Lucy will hall them out and slide a disc into the computer.  Then they’ll spend an hour cracking up over Bugs or Sylvester or Wil E. Coyote. 

I laugh.  “Toitle,” I say.  “I can hear him saying that.”

Kem is standing outside the main temple, and you can tell she’s got a watch in her head set up right beside a nice little agenda that is already—just an hour into the day—being shredded. 

“Ellen and Lucy and Jamie are inside,” she says with a pained smile.  “Maybe just five more minutes, and then we go?”

I nod politely.  Ellen and I bicker about pretty much everything from the color of our sheets to the right kind of lettuce for tacos, but one thing we agree on is that no tour guide anywhere is ever going to hurry us away from some amazing place.  And this is an amazing place. 

Will and I mount the steps.  We slip out of our shoes, pad into the outer room.  It’s one of the most beautiful temples I’ve seen:  lots of hard, dark wood, clean and airy and bright, with wide open spaces and none of the usual grimy smoke stains on the walls.  The inner temple is set off by a series of wide, framed doorways, all of which are open.  At the threshold of one sits a small boy in a blue robe.  His head is shaved except for one long, unimaginably dark lock growing from the center of his forehead and swept behind his ear.  He’s at the monastery school, training to be a monk.  When they just begin, they’re left with three locks of hair; that he has only one means he’s passed his exams and will be allowed to stay—a mixed blessing for his parents, who can’t afford to keep him at home, but likely get to see him only once a year. 

Will’s about to enter the inner temple, but I put a hand on his shoulder—no one is in there except a thin monk in a brown robe.

“I don’t think we’re supposed to,” I say.

Will nods, and the two of us stand there for a long time, looking in.  The walls are lined with dark wood and colored tiles, and the ceiling is high and slanted, dark-stained wood with two small skylights.  Incense is burning on the altar, and it crosses the shafts of light in thin, woven strands.  Ever two minutes or so, the skinny monk rises from where he’s reading a book, crosses to the alter, and picks up a thick wooden club wrapped in yellow clothe.  Holding it backhand, he taps a huge brass bowl resting on the table.  The bowl chimes like a bell, low and resonant.  I don’t doubt they can hear it all the way across the river, but standing this close it sounds mellow and warm. 

“Dad,” says Will in a whisper.  I glance at him.  He’s pointing toward a girl who’s kneeling on the far side of the altar, sticks of incense between her palms as she bows repeatedly.  “We can go in.”

So we do. 

The floor is tile and cool, and the smell of incense tickles the inside of my nose.  I stand still for moment, enjoying the blue light, the rising smoke.  Will goes straight to the bowl that the monk’s been striking.  It’s silent now, but Will bends his ear to it anyway. 

Then he grins.  It’s a face-splitting grin, an ear-to-ear grin, the kind of grin I don’t get often from my serious little boy who’s less likely to tell a joke than he is to explain, over peanut butter and jelly, exactly how a metal detector works. 

He gestures for me.  I stroll over and he tells me to copy him.  I lean down. 

It’s there, soft but pure, clear as a—well, a bell:  the low, resonating hum, hard as brass, grating as copper, but still somehow so warm it weaves through your skin and wraps around your insides. 

Now it’s my turn to grin.  This is, damn it, my favorite temple anywhere.


It takes a while to get out.  We’re reluctant to leave that room, that bell, that incense, smoke drifting through shafts of light.

But finally we step onto the porch, slip on our shoes.  The sun makes us squint.  The crowds have thickened and we hear fragments of German, Chinese, Russian.  I suddenly remember the Austin Martin, realize it’s probably just around the corner.  How do I explain that one to Will? I think, and suddenly wonder where Kem is, if maybe she couldn’t steer us away from that particular icon, the image of a man being erased in a flowing curtain of flame and fuel and air and bone.  But she’s nowhere to be found. 

Crap, I think.  I’m suddenly tired, the calm high from the temple gone.

We drift around the building, into cool shade.  There’s a small garden there, with a few cabbages growing and what looks like an apple tree in the middle.  Water has pooled around the base of the tree, and some one’s left an orange watering can by the fence.

Standing beside me, Will suddenly guffaws. I look at him.

“Hey,” he says.  “You know what’s funny?”


“Bugs,” Will grins, looking at the small tree, a few wet strands of grass.  “Bugs Bunny:  he’s really just a man in a rabbit suit.”

Saturday, January 23, 2010

Wonderful Joy

       We’re in the Wonderful Joy restaurant and everyone is looking at me. 

“What?” I say. 

I’m used to being stared at:  this is Tai Po, after all, and I’m white, bald, and about a head-and-a-half taller than everyone else. 

This time is different, though.  I’m with friends—or at least co-workers—and they’re used to their freak show of a colleague.

“What?” I say again. 

It’s Hui Xuan who speaks.  “We don’t ask these questions here.”

I look at her, then at Nana, who runs our office, then at Dwight.  Dwight is our guest, a scholar on service learning, and the reason we’re all out for dinner—we wanted to show him a good time.  Nice idea. 

I look at Nana again.  “All I did was ask if she was married.”

Hui Xuan nods and blinks slowly, as though to remind herself to be patient.  Hui Xuan is from the mainland, not a native Cantonese speaker, and definitely an old soul.  I sometimes worry that she feels marooned in a field of baboons in our office—she’s the only one who’s studied general education formally, and the only one who seems to take every conversation we have very seriously.

“I know,” she says now.  “But we don’t ask these kinds of questions here.  Not unless you are very old.”

That I am very old—at least compared to Hui Xuan, and Nana, and Iris, the other colleague present—is something I decide not to point out.

“I’m sorry,” I say to Nana. 

She laughs.  “It doesn’t matter.”

“It’s just—“ and here I look at Dwight, who’s from Boston.  Wisely, he’s examining a fingernail, very careful, as though looking for a secret word or code to make the awkwardness go away.  “It’s just that in the States, it’s strange to work with someone and not know if they’re married or single, or if they have kids or not.”

“But Paul,” Nana says, “I’m only eighteen.”

I stare, then everyone bursts out laughing. 

“And she’s looking for a man who’s twenty,” Iris says, and everyone cracks up again.  The moment is broken, the awkwardness fades, and everyone goes back to normal conversation.

The thing is, though, I don’t actually know how old Nana is.  Or Hui Xuan.  I don’t know if Iris has children, or a boyfriend, or is gay or married or the daughter of the last emperor of the Bigfoot kingdom.  All of this is fair enough, of course:  their private lives are none of my damn business.  But still, all of this feels a little peculiar to a guy who comes from a country where people go on national TV and say things like, “Jerry, I once had sex with a goat, and I’ll have you know, it wasn’t half bad.” 

Now, the four Chinese—we’ve been joined by the director of some program that has a lot of initials and whose purpose is unknown to me—go back to speaking Cantonese, which is a pity, since between us, Dwight and I know exactly two phrases of Cantonese, one of which means, “I’m so sorry, but I believe the state of Massachusetts just elected an idiot,” and other of which involves ensuring your masseuse keeps her clothes on for the duration of your massage. 

Since neither of these seem useful in this particular setting, Dwight and I chitchat across the table, carefully avoiding any questions about each other’s spouses, children, politics, incomes, or religion. 

Fortunately for us, the hot pot arrives soon. 

"But what," you say, "is hot pot?"

Good question.  An even better question, though, is how the heck have the Chinese kept hot pot a secret for so long? 

Because, and I fear exaggerating here but bear with me—because hot pot is the best damn thing ever. 



Jesus liked hot pot.

So did Ghandi. 

Abe Lincoln?  Hot pot addict.

Joan D’Arc?  Requested it for her last meal. 

Even Michelle Obama, who, frankly, currently surpasses all of these people in my mind, my lady Michelle LOVES hot pot. 

The best way to describe hot pot is to harken back to the late ‘70s and the Fondue craze.  For those of you for whom shag carpet is just a rumor, Fondue consisted of a bunch of people in tacky pants suits boiling a pot of hot oil in the middle of the table and sticking stuff—shrimp, mini-hotdogs, squares of cheese, what’s left of their marijuana joints—in it to cook. 

If this sounds bizarre and even a little dangerous, that’s because it is.  And the cool thing about Chinese hot pot is that it’s even more bizarre and even more dangerous. 

Essentially, hot pot consists of a pot—stick with me here—that you put in the middle of the table and—wait for it—make hot.  The means for achieving the latter are various.  Most restaurants have special tables with a burner laid into the center.  Other places, though, need to improvise:  I was at a fast food place, once, where keeping the hot pot boiling involved lighting a can of sterno, something I’d love to see Ronald McDonald try. 

But what you ask, is in the pot? 

A good, hearty broth.  Exactly what’s in the broth depends upon your tastes.  The first time we had it, our hosts ordered a pot divided in half:  one side had lots of spices to keep the adults happy; the other had a milder broth that wouldn’t offend the children. 

When we have hot pot at Wonderful Joy, Iris and Nana do the ordering.  Iris is a little like Abe Lincoln in that she too wears a tall black hat, once freed a nation from slavery, and is addicted to hot pot.  She’ll deny this if you ask her, but one visit to her Face Book wall and you realize that an intervention is in order: 

10 January. Hot pot!  The fifth time this week!

2 January.  Hot pot tonight.  Friends got mad at me because I wouldn’t share.  Don’t care. 

28 December.  Hot pot again tonight, alone, in a sleazy hotel.  Not very good, but enough to keep me going.

21 December.  Held myself to just one hot pot this week.  Want more, though.  Much much more. 

15 December.  Had to sell mother’s pearls to get hot pot.  Feel bad.  But not too bad.

5 December.  Killed an old lady because she got in the way of my hot pot.  Hope she was homeless, so no one will notice. 


Anyhow, Iris and Nana do all the ordering, so when the pot comes, all of us ask what’s in it. 

“Chicken feet,” says Iris. 

Dwight and I stare.   “Really?” I ask. 

Iris picks up her chopsticks, fishes around in the broth for a few seconds, and pulls out a very large, very gnarled chicken foot.

“Oh,” I say.  I try to sound nonplussed, but I’m sure my face is pale. 

“Is it for flavor?” Dwight asks.

Iris shakes her head. 

“Not,” I say, feeling just a little bit white, a little bit western, and, well, sort of a little bit scared to death.  “Not for eating?”

Iris grimaces and shakes her head again. 

“Well then,” I say, “what’s it for?”

Iris considers for a moment, then says, “I don’t know.”  She drops the foot back in the pot, and returns to her conversation with Nana. 

Besides the broth, everyone at the table receives a small bowl with soy sauce in it.  To this you can add a variety of chopped delicacies:  roasted garlic, green onions, peanuts, sliced chilies.  I take most of the chilies and when everyone complains, give them each one peanut. 

Once the stew is at a rolling boil, the waiters and waitresses descend on the table with plate after plate of goodies to be cooked.   The great thing about hot pot is that you can do it with anything.  On this particular night, we can choose from sliced beef, butterflied scallops, prawns still twitching on the plate, three or four kinds of dumplings, a melon-like vegetable that have to be cooked forever before you could eat it, razor-thin slices of eel, and four or five different kinds of fish.

And mushrooms.  The mushrooms are unbelievable:  some of them are just plain old stem and caps like your mother used to put on pizza or your college roommate used to eat before watching reruns of Pee-Wee’s Playhouse.  Others, though, are more exotic:  my favorite are the enoki, long, reedy mushrooms joined at the bottom and with caps so narrow that they look like bean sprouts when cooked.

Once the food comes, it takes a while to get things going.  Everyone reaches for stuff and passes plates around the table.  Each person has a small wire basket with a wooden handle.  You put your food in this, then place it in the broth, trying your best to avoid the chicken foot floating near the surface.  Then you wait.  It seems pokey, at first, especially since you’re hungry and you’ve just been informed that all of the things you’d normally talk about over dinner are forbidden.  But eventually you draw your scallops or shrimp dumpling or pork meatball out of the pot and put it in your bowl.   Once it’s cooled a bit, you roll it in the soy-sauce mixture, then pop it in your mouth. 

And then you chew and go, “Oh my god, that tastes good.”   And then, for maybe the fifteenth time that evening, you wonder why the heck the rest of the world doesn’t know about Chinese hot pot.

At one point, I gesture toward my little basket where something pink and limp is waiting to be boiled.  “What’s this?” I say to Iris.

She uses her chopsticks to nudge it.  She looked at Nana, who shrugs.  Then she looks back at me. “I don’t know.”

“But you ordered it,” I say.

Again that shrug. 

“And you’re the hot pot expert,” I say.

Iris makes a small, gleeful smile and throws another prawn in the pot.  She is in her element.  She’s not about to be thrown off by some white guy who’s afraid of eating chicken foot.  “We ordered a lot of things.”

I lower my basket into the pot.  Within seconds, the heat curls the pink thing into a ball, revealing ruffles and ridges resembling an octopus tentacle. 

“Oh!” says Iris, “it’s—“ and then names something in Cantonese. 

I drop it into my soy mix and pop it into my mouth.  It definitely has that rubbery, squiddy texture and that mild, pleasant flavor I’ve come to associate with cephalopods.

“So what is it in English?”

Iris squints, then shakes her head.  “No idea.”

This happens two or three times, enough that Dwight and I start to wonder if we’re not being fed every form of internal organ known to man.  At one point, Dwight points to a plate near me and says, “Can I try some of that?” 

“Sure.”  I hand it to him.  I’ve had four or five of these things, and found them really tasty. 

He takes one in his chopsticks, holds it up to his face and examines it.  “What is it?”

“Jellyfish,” I say, at the exact same moment the man next to me—the director of the initial place—says, “Noodles.”

I stare at him.  “That?”  I point to the small nearly translucent white bundles.  There are probably fifteen of them, each about the size and shape of a small thumb.  Thin strands curve along the back—tentacles, I have no doubt.

The man nods.  “Noodles.”

“That,” I say, “is most certainly jellyfish.”

We eye each other for a moment, then turn to Iris.  She bends over the plate.   When she straightens, she says, “Squid.”

Nana snorts.  “Noodles.”

Iris looks at her.  “Is not.  It’s—“ and then she tosses out another Cantonese term.

“It’s noodles,” Hui Xuan says from the other side of the table. 

But by now Nana is taking another look, holding whatever it is up for closer examination.  “Paul’s right.”  The regret is diamond hard in her voice.  “Jellyfish.”

“Oh please,” Iris says, then bursts into machine-gun Cantonese.  In seconds the table has erupted, everyone throwing words back and forth across the pot.  Even Hui Xuan is animated.

Eventually the waitress comes.  Iris gestures at Nana, using a little basket to fish one of the whatever-it-ises out of the hot pot.  En masse, the four Chinese grill the waitress.  She listens for a minute, hands in her pockets, then throws back a staccato question or two.  Iris responds, and eventually the waitress marches off. 

“What’d she say?” Dwight asks. 

Nana bites her lip.  “She doesn’t know.”

A few minutes later another woman comes to the table, this one in a suit with a white shirt, looking like the hostess maybe, or even the owner.  Again the rapid-fire words and phrases, everyone at the table giving suggestions.  The hostess listens for a while, nodding at each person in turn.  Dwight and I, meanwhile, are working our way through the little white things.  Whatever they are, they taste good.

Eventually the hostess lets loose a stream of words.  Iris responds in kind, then the man next to me tosses out a phrase or two.  The woman ignores him, gesturing toward the back of the restaurant.  And then, in what sounds like mid-sentence, she turns and walks off.

“Where’s she going?” I say.

“To the kitchen.”

“She doesn’t know either?”

Iris shakes her head.  “She’s asking the cook.”

To the best of my knowledge, we never did get the answer.  It didn’t matter:  we ate every one of those little white things, then cleared every other plate on the table, and a few from a table nearby.

It’s hard to say just what makes hot pot so wonderful.  Certainly, the broth helps (god bless them chicken feet) and the ground spices in soy sauce don’t suck either.  And there’s a lot to be said for food that’s so freshly-cooked you actually scald your lips eating it.   There’s no oil that I can tell, and no grease, so everything you put in your mouth you really taste.  I like shrimp under any circumstances, but coming out of a hot pot, you get the sense that you’re experiencing shrimp in its purest form. 

It’s also possible that part of the joy of hot pot comes with having to wait.  That sounds very Victorian, I know, and rather ironic coming from a guy my “friend” Gordon once referred to as “the king of instant gratification.”   But there you have it.  As we hover over the steaming pot, eyes on our spoons, we start to talk about the impending birth of Hui Xuan’s first child .  She tells us the story of a friend who got pregnant and posted 24 names on a website, asking acquaintances to vote. 

“Did she go with the winning name?” Dwight asks. 

Hui Xuan shakes her head.  “No.  Right before the baby came, she thought of another one.  That’s what they chose.”

Someone asks if Hui Xuan and her husband have picked a name for their baby.  Hui Xuan shakes her head.  Apparently there’s a tradition in her husband’s family where everyone has the same character as their second name. 

“You mean the same middle name?”

No Hui Xuan says, and then explains that Chinese names aren’t really names, at all, but combinations of words.  In English, of course, most names are meaningless sounds separate from everyday speech—Paul, Ellen, Dolores.  There are some exceptions, of course:  Will, Heather, Angus. 

In China, though, names are made up of one, two, or three actual words that express the parents’ hopes for the personality and fortunes of the child:  Hui, for instance, means “intelligent” and “Xuan” means gem.  My colleague William is named Wai Lam, which means “Strong Forest.” 

“So what’s the name your husband’s family uses?” one of the other women asks. 

Hui Xuan responds in Mandarin.  The other Chinese look confused.  Hui Xuan thinks for a moment, then shakes her head.  She can’t remember the Cantonese word. 

“What’s the character?” Iris asks.  Mandarin and Cantonese use the same characters, just pronounce them differently. 

Hui Xuan looks around, trying to see if there’s a piece of paper handy.   There isn’t.  Finally, she holds up her hand, flat, so we can see.  With her index finger, she makes a slash across the palm, then a dot.  She hesitates, then, using her nail, makes a pair of squiggles just below the line.

I’ve known Hui Xuan for five months now, seen her on an almost daily basis.  I respect her about as much as any scholar I’ve ever worked with.  In that time, we’ve talked about assessment, about curricular development, about service-learning and cognition and writing and course assessment.  We’ve discussed coming from the north and living in the south and being far away from our families.  I’ve met her husband and seen her present at a conference and talked with her afterwards about how she thought she did.  When she confessed her pregnancy to me, long after I’d figured it out for myself, she neither blushed nor looked away. 

This, though—this flight of the finger over the curve of the thumb—this is the most intimate thing I’ve ever seen her do.  This is evident to everyone at the table, maybe everyone in the restaurant.  As she gestures, it’s like the whole room falls silent:  there’s just her one hand, palm to us, finger dancing over the skin, her eyes on us, each of us, as she writes, trying to see, trying to know, hoping we understand. 


Sunday, January 17, 2010

Our Family on the Verge of Destruction

   We’re sitting on our ship on Ha Long Bay.  The dinner has just been cleared away, and our guide comes in to talk to us about the plan for the next day.  One of us mentions how charmed we are by our little three-room junk, and the guide laughs and asks us how old we think it is.

It’s a tricky question, really.  It certainly looks old:  everything from the pine paneling to the ornate trim of the windows has an attention to detail that doesn’t seem the least bit modern.  Then, too, I think of the spot on the upper deck where a piece of trim was coming loose; and right behind us in the lounge is a joint where the lines of the wood on each side aren’t quite flush. 

Someone guesses 10 years, someone else guesses 20.  Again, our guide laughs, then tells us the ship is only three years old. 

“Yes,” he says, “it is brand new.  The company built it after the other one sank.”

Suddenly he has our full attention.  Sank?  Like, in the water?  A boat like this?  Full of tourists?

“Um,” says our friend Bay, who’s the other paying adult on this particular floating coffin.  “Sunk how?”

“Oh no, no, no,” the guide says, still smiling.  “In the harbor.  The captain put it in too close.  The tide went out, the keel broke and the ship sank.”

“Oh!” we all say, bright and cheerful once again.  In the harbor.  When the tide went out.  After the people had left.  Well, that’s different then. 


The thing is, that night when I wake up to go to the bathroom, I peer out of the tiny porthole over the toilet and notice that the water outside seems awfully—well, high.  True, I hadn’t really spent that much time in that particular bathroom during the day, staring out the window and taking measure of the waterline.

But even so, standing there shivering in the middle of the night, peering out of the window at the dark mountains against the midnight sky, my sleep-muddled brain feels relatively certain that, at those few moments I did glance out during the day, I was looking more above the line of the water than along it. 

Going back to bed doesn’t help.  Curling up under the sheets next to Ellen, I put my head on the pillow and tell myself not to worry, just to relax and go back to the sleep. 

The only thing is that my pillow, resting on my mattress, resting on the bed which rests on the floor of our cabin which rests in the lower part of the boat—my pillow acts as a sort of megaphone, magnifying all the sounds of everything below me:  the squeak of the mattress, the scrape of the wooden bed on a wooden floor, and, beneath all of that, very quietly, very steadily, this sound:

Glub, glub, glub.


You should know that one of my earliest childhood memories is pulling into the driveway of an old family friend in Pennsylvania after a long drive from Wisconsin.  We are there to visit my father’s old parish, but as we pull up to the house, all of us, even me at the age of four, notice the surplus of cars in front of the garage.  Some of them are police cars, state cruisers, an ominous sign even if it isn’t dark and you aren’t exhausted from driving all night.

What happens next is more family legend than actual memory:  we step into the kitchen of Aunt Cel and Uncle Jim; Jim and a minister friend of theirs step out of a back room and take my father by the arm; quietly, gently, they inform him that both of his parents have been killed in a car accident. 

We learn later the accident was frighteningly simple:  my grandparents are driving along a rural highway in Northern Wisconsin, my grandmother at the wheel; the right front tire of the car slips off the pavement and onto the gravel; struggling to maintain control, my grandmother steers to the left.  The tire comes free and their big old Oldsmobile shoots across the yellow line and into the path of an oncoming tanker truck carrying milk. 

A milk truck.  Think about that.  My grandfather, a small-town kid who went from pushing a broom to being town mayor and president of the local bank, was killed instantly.  My grandmother was still alive when the emergency people arrived, but was dead soon after.  One minute earlier or twenty seconds later, that truck would have been a half-mile away or thirty yards past, and I would maybe have a memory of Gus and Marie, rather than just a bunch of photographs of two people whose voices I wouldn’t recognize.

I have more memories from that night:  almost as soon as we’d arrived at Marcel and Jim’s, we climbed into a friend’s station wagon and started the trip back to bury my grandparents.  My brother and I were in the way-back in these little kid-sized sleeping bags.  I remember those sleeping bags, how they were half the length of regular ones.  I thought they were neat. 

Anyhow, I must have slept most of the drive out, because I couldn’t sleep at all going back.  And I must have been loud and antsy and asking all the wrong questions, because at one point I remember peering over the back seat and seeing my father twist in his seat, struggling against the headrest as he shouted at me, his voice ragged and wet.


Driving in from the airport in Hanoi, we pepper our guide with a million questions:  where should we eat, how do we know we’re not getting ripped off, how much should a good meal cost?  He answers everything we throw at him, even though it’s late and the kids are rowdy and he knows we’re leaving for the bay the very next day and none of this will matter. 

Beyond that, he offers us two pieces of advice:  the first is that, as good as the street food may look, we shouldn’t eat it.  Chances our, even our Hong Kong adapted digestive tracts simply wouldn’t be able to handle it. 

His second piece of advice? 

“Cross the street very carefully.”

This sounds like funny thing to say to two grown people, but once we get into the city itself, we see why he mentioned this:  Hanoi driving is insane.  Insane. 

Imagine the worst traffic jam you’ve ever seen:  cars are crowded into a single lane from three different directions, drivers are honking, fenders are inches from bumpers that are centimeters from the wheels of that Mack truck.  Congestion is so dense you could walk from one side of the road to the other without touching the ground.

Now imagine that densely knotted corrosion of vehicles is moving at a fair clip.

Now add 10,000 motorcycles—this is not an exaggeration—10,000 motorcycles weaving at high speed through this traffic. 

And keep in mind that half of these motorcycles are going the wrong way.

And that a good third of their drivers are texting. 

The only things missing from the occasion are alcohol, hard drugs, and water cannons outfitted, Mad Max style, to the top of rusty BMWs.  

 Intersections are the best part:  one day we’re cruising along with our guide, and the driver wants to make a left turn onto a one-lane road.  So twenty yards before the turn, he shifts the van into the left land, cruising into traffic.  Seriously, he’s so close to the far curb that on-coming vehicles are steering across the yellow line.

Another time, we watch as a man in his twenties straps his one-year old over the gas tank of his moped, nestles his four-year-old on the seat behind him, and pulls out into traffic without even looking to see if there was a car coming. 

Seeing this insanity, we decide that Hanoi is perhaps best enjoyed from the single city block upon which our hotel is located.  “Look!” we tell the guide  “Tons of restaurants!  A grocery store!  Even a laundry service!  Why would we ever want to leave?”

Ha just shakes his head and tells us a trick.  “Stick together,” he says, “in one big group.  And move slowly.  And whatever you do, keep going.”

We try this and it works.  Moving steadily is the key:  that way, motorcycles can anticipate where you’ll be and zoom by without actually touching you—even if you can feel the heat from their exhaust. 

After awhile, it even becomes kind of fun:  once you get used to it, you realize there are natural breaks in the the traffic, momentary lulls where a light two blocks away hasn’t yet turned green, or some old lady’s been knocked off her bike and everyone’s stopped to help put the oranges back in her basket. 

You might even say that we start to take the traffic for granted.  More than once, we step off the curb without really looking, confident that whoever is out there will be keeping an eye on us.  Only once are we actually in danger:  stepping out of our hotel, we begin to cross to a nearby restaurant when we hear a chorus of “Woooaaaahhh!” 

Freezing, we look to our left:  three young men, two of them smoking, all of them grinning, sit astride a white moped that’s just come around the corner. 

“Sorry!” they call, then roar off down the street. 


The crazy thing about Ha Long Bay is not that it’s unimaginably beautiful:  it’s not.  You can imagine it.

You just can’t believe it’s real.

Or that you’ll ever get to go there. 

Made up a karst limestone formations, the legend goes that Ha Long Bay was formed by a dragon who visited and stayed, and all you can see now are the coils rising above the water—1,960 of them, to be exact.  Everywhere you turn, you see the climbing steeply out of the smooth green bay, as forbidding and evocative as castles in a fairy tale romance.

Being on the junk only adds to the unbelievableness of the experience (and yes, that is a real world; I’m an English professor, and I should know, so don’t bother looking it up).  Our boat is thirty feet long, made of rough-hewn planks stained deep red with a pair of tall canvas sails   We chose the smallest boat we could find, and we don’t regret it at all.  There are only three cabins, and we occupy two of them.  Bay, who’s on vacation from a diplomatic job in Kandahar is in the third, and tolerates us and our kids and the late-night drunken brawls that tend to occur wherever Ellen and I happen to be (it’s just the way we were raised).  During the days we climb into sea kayaks and go skimming across the water, exploring quiet coves, floating fishing villages, and limestone caves.   Lunch is served with white linen on a deserted beach. 

At night we return to the boat to seven-course dinners including sea-mantis in carmelized onion, barbequed goat (tastier than you’d think), and vegetables and fruits carved into exotic water birds and miniature replicas of our very own junk.  Our boat has its very own chef, and as much as we love the captain and our guide and the man who makes us Vietnamese coffee every morning with sweetened condensed milk forming a creamy layer at the bottom, the dude we really love is our cook, who bears more than a passing resemblance to Johnny Galecki from the old Roseanne Barr show, and who, at the age of 21, has more talent with a sauté pan than Rachael Ray will ever have.

That said, it’s worth noting that the boat itself is hardly up to code by American standards.  For one thing, the railing along the top only comes up to Jamie’s waist.  And Jamie, of course, is only three.  Which means the railing only comes up to Lucy’s thigh, and Will’s knees.  Which means falling overboard would take nothing more than, say, tripping. 

And, of course, there’s that glub glub glub noise.  Lying awake our first night on the boat, I listen to this sound, thinking to myself exactly two things:  1)  glub glub glub  is exactly the sound milk makes when you pour it out of a plastic jug into the drain; 2)  glub glub glub is what the bubble above cartoon boats says when the boats are sinking. 


 A few years ago I was laying down for a nap one afternoon when a horrifying thought came into my head:  if my family were on one of those huge cruise ships in the Caribbean and it started to sink, could I save my family?

After thinking for a while, I came up with a solution:  we could jump overboard if we had to, Ellen holding onto Lucy (who was then just a baby) and me holding onto Will. 

But then I thought:  would we be able to hold onto the kids when we hit the water, or would the impact shake them loose from our grip?

And then I thought:  even if we could hold onto them, could a child that small survive hitting water with the velocity you’d build up free-falling four stories from the top of a cruise ship?

Then I thought:  what the hell is wrong with me?

Turns out I was suffering from acute anxiety, brought on by a incredibly difficult year that included my return to work after a year-long sabbatical, the birth of my daughter with a mysterious illness it took the doctors months to diagnose, a messy triple search in my department, and the death of a beloved pet that’d been with Ellen and me for 13 years.  And too much caffeine. 

Once I cut back on the Dr. Pepper (who knew 90 ounces a day was too much?), the anxiety went way down, but even so I spent the better part of a year thinking about my fears and my worries and where they came from and why they wouldn’t go away.

Nine years ago, back when Will was first born, a doctor told us that SIDS happened mostly during the first six months.  So, dutiful parent that I was, I spent the first six months of my son’s life, creeping into his room to make sure he was still breathing.

When we passed the six-month mark, I waited for the fear to go away, but it never really did.  There was always something to worry about:  falling down the stairs, drowning in the swimming pool, getting hit by a car, swallowing a thumb tack. 

Consider:  my senior year I dated a woman named Marsha for a pretty significant period of time.  The next year, while I was in England, Marsha went to bed on April evening and fell asleep.  Around 11, a knock on the door woke her up and she answered.  It was an old high school friend who invited her to go out for a drive.  She did, and an hour later, driving back into town, their car was hit and Marsha was killed.

She’d been in bed.  Asleep.  How much more safe can you get? 

I love the movie The Station Agent, but in it there’s a mother who’s haunted by the death of her child while playing on the monkey bars.  One minute the child was fine, swinging happily, then the mother looked away for just one second, and grief became her constant companion.  I was—I am—like that mother, only nothing has happened. 



Our last stop in Vietnam is Hoi An, a small, historic city on the central coast.  It’s a wonderful place, if not a little touristy:  the old town is a rabbit warren of narrow streets and old buildings, most of them overpriced (for Vietnam) tourist shops and restaurants.  Nevertheless, it still holds a great deal of charm:  you can take a boat to a nearby island filled with woodcarvers, and on the 14th night of the new moon, motorcycles and electric lights are banned from Hoi An itself.  On those nights, as you wander from corner to corner, all you hear are the shuffle of sandals and the occasional murmur of women singing to the dan bau, the traditional Vietnamese one stringed instrument that was said to be so beautiful that young girls were forbidden to listen to it. 

Our hotel is on the beach.  It’s a five-star affair, which is sort of embarrassing at first, but then you lay your head down on the pillow that first night and hear the surf crashing on the shore, and you think, “Well, okay.  I can get used to this.” 

The first morning, the waves aren’t really that big, but the current is strong.  Will and his friend Jacob go out and jump over the foam, and every few minutes we have to tell them to move to the right, move to the right, move to the right.  But they keep getting pulled to the left by both the waves and the undertow.  Even the lifeguards—who spend most of their time chatting in the shade and chatting up the occasional bikini-wearing hottie—seem worried by the phenomenon.  Every fifteen minutes or so they come down to the water line and gesture with both arms:  right, right, right. 

The next few days are calmer.  The kids, sunburned to the point where they scream every time they step into the shower, spend most of their time in the shade building sandcastles and catching ghost crabs. 

I’m sunburned, too, but I can’t stay out of the waves.  I’m from Wisconsin, after all:  I never saw the ocean until I was 21, and I’ve only actually had beach holidays twice in my life, the second time being this trip to Hoi An. 

I love the waves.  I love diving through them as they crash.  I love floating on them as they lift me up.  I love surfing under them as they pummel toward the shore.  I could do this all day long, for ten days straight, breaking only for the occasional Vietnamese coffee and some sort of shower to get the soap out of my eyes.  I LOVE this. 

Our last morning there, the kids have absolutely no interest in going into the ocean.  Which is fine with me:  during the night, a front moved in and the waves are huge:  standing twenty-yards out in knee-deep water, I let the first two or three break around me and realize they’re actually breaking over me.  And I’m 6’2”—6-5 in my favorite sling-backs.

Even so, I stay out there.  I dive under the waves, I ride over them.  I body surf, laying face down just as they break and letting them glide me to the shore in a churning boil of water and sand and salt. 

Every so often, as I come up from a particularly fun ride, I glance toward the beach, wiping the salt out of my eyes and making sure Lucy or Will hasn’t tried to follow me out.  When I get tired, I go in for a while, sit with the kids under the umbrella, catch my breath.  Then I go back to the waves.

There’s no surprise ending here, of course:  it’s always the last wave that gets you, because only then do you get a clue and get the hell out of the water because it’s too dangerous.   As this particular wave was coming in, I looked at it and said, “Holy crap, this is going to be fun.”  It was huge.  The biggest I’d seen yet, like something out of a surfing movie.

And it was fun, for the first three seconds.  Then it took my 220 pound body and turned me on my head, slamming my neck and shoulder against the bottom like it was hammer and I was a twisted, slanted, very stupid nail. 

I came up coughing and spitting and wondering if my right arm had been torn from the socket or just been broken into a thousand pieces.  Struggling toward the shore, I tried to move it.  I could, but every time I did, pain shot from my fingertips to my toes and I nearly fell over, gasping.

Collapsing onto the sand, I rubbed my arm and moved it, and waited for the pain to go away.  But it didn’t.  It hurt so bad, I kept thinking I was about to vomit. And it kept hurting. 

Eventually, Ellen went for a lifeguard, who found a doctor, who called a car and accompanied me into town to the hospital for an x-ray.  The pain stuck with me pretty much the whole way, right until the very moment the ER doctor stepped into the room, holding the x-ray, and said nothing was broken.  Then, suddenly, it was gone. 

Before that, though, sitting in that waiting room, filling out the forms, the ER doc asked me what at happened.  I told him what I’d been doing, told him how big the wave was, told him how it’d turned me over and pounded the back of my head and my neck on the ocean floor. 

When I was done, he just looked at me for a long time, his face that inscrutable, bland expression I get so often from people in Asia (usually at committee meetings).  Looking at him looking at me, I suddenly knew how lucky I was:  in that instant, I could imagine my spine snapping as I hit the bottom, could imagine the current tugging me out, helpless, as bigger and bigger waves came down over me.  Could imagine Ellen and the kids and those stupid lifeguards not even noticing the disappearance of one very big, very sunburned, very sorry white guy. 


I finally fell asleep that night in Ha Long Bay.  And the boat didn’t sink, of course, and I didn’t drown, and I’m not writing from beyond the grave (though, with my winter beard, I may look like I am).  The next morning we got up and went sea kayaking, paddling our boats across 2,000-foot-deep bay, carrying a nine-year-old who can swim, a six-year-old who can swim but is great at panicking, and a three-year old who sinks like a rock every time he steps in water. 

Which is pretty stupid, of course.  But sometimes you just get tired of being worried.  And sometimes it just seems out of your control anyhow, so you do it, and don’t worry about it—or, more realistically, you do it, worry about it at first, then get used to the idea and stop worrying. 

Case in point:  when I saw our agenda for the Vietnam trip, my eye was immediately drawn to one tiny passage in the middle of all the details about where we’d go and what we’d see.  It said: “Transfer to Hoi An via the cloudy Hai Van pass.” 

“Ummm,” I said to Ellen.  “This doesn’t sound good.”

She read it and rolled her eyes.  “I’m sure it’s nothing.”

“But it’s a pass,” I said.  “Passes are in mountains.  And it’s cloudy.  And clouds are hard to see in.  Which means,” I continued, following her into the bathroom where she was trying to flee, “which means that we’re driving in the mountains and we can’t see.  Ergo—“

But she was rolling her eyes again.  I let it drop. 

Then, when we’re in Hue, our tour guide hands out a binder full of photographs of the city during the Vietnam war.  They’re fascinating, including shots of buildings and streets that are still standing.  It makes the war very real.

At the back, though, is one picture that freezes my heart.  It’s called “Hai Van pass.”  In the background, you see a gritty army truck chugging up a steep mountain road.  In the foreground you see, and I’m not making this up, a human skull planted on a stick.

“Ummm,” I say to our guide.  “Isn’t this where we’re going?  Like, tomorrow?”

She glances at the picture.  “Yes.  This is a very beautiful drive.”

I point to the skull, which sports one of those conical Vietnamese hats that you still see on women selling oranges or carrying laundry.  “But it’s been improved, right?  The road?  I mean, it’s not so dangerous anymore?”

She looks at the skull, then at me, and then at the skull again.  And frowns.  “No,” she says.  “It is the same.” 

“Isn’t that kind of dangerous then?” I ask.  “I mean, we’ve got kids and everything.”

“Oh no,” she says.  Then she gestures toward the blue sky.  “If the weather is like this, we will be okay.  If not, we’ll take the tunnel.”

“It’s that bad, huh?  The pass?”

“When it’s raining,” she says, “many accidents.  But you don’t worry.”

The next day it’s raining.

“So we’ll take the tunnel?” I say as I climb into the van.  “Because of the rain, right?  Don’t want an accident or anything, right?”

She and the driver both lean forward, peer at the sky through the windshield.  They don’t even consult.  “No,” she says.  “It’ll be okay.”

When we reach the foot of the mountain the misting has increased to a drizzle, and I stare longingly at the line of cars and trucks heading toward the tunnel.  We, on the other hand, veer to the right and begin to ascend.  It doesn’t help my nerves any that the driver seems to think the best way to go around hairpin bends is to swerve into the left lane to give himself a better angle on the curve. 

Watching the line outside the tunnel shrink below us, I say, “Looks like almost everyone else is going under the mountain.”

She nods.  “Only tourists go this way,” she says.  “Tourists and gasoline trucks.” 

And then she laughs. 

And we do too. 

Sometimes it’s all you can do.


But then: 

We make it back to Hong Kong okay, of course.  We’re exhausted, but we’ve had fun.  Ellen and I are fairly impressed with ourselves:  we survived two weeks in a third-world country with three kids, the oldest of whom is still afraid to read Harry Potter by himself. 

We crawl into bed, exhausted.  The next morning we wake up, feed the kids, start the laundry.  And we check e-mail.  We have to learn to stop doing this.  It never turns out well.

This time is no exception.  Our friend Lia broke her wrist ice-skating backwards.  But that’s not the half of it.  Not even a tenth.  Not even a thousandth.

Lia’s mother has a boyfriend named Jack, an affable guy who’s a little bit deaf but a sweetheart with the grand kids.  Jack has a daughter who’s Lia’s age, who was a friend of hers, actually, growing up on Long Island.  Not a close friend, really, but a friend nonetheless.  This daughter has a husband, Jeff, and they have a little baby, Margaux, who’s only just one. 

They—the daughter and her family—teach at an international school in Africa.  Over Christmas, they decide to takes a vacation, booking rooms at a resort just outside Mt. Kenya National Park.  One morning they wake up, they take their showers, they get dressed.  They go down to the dining room and have breakfast—toast with marmalade, maybe, and fresh orange juice with slices of pineapple on the rim.  The baby eats cornflakes or bits of scrambled egg her mother feeds her with a spoon.  One of the serving ladies pauses at the table, laughing at the mzungu baby, who laughs back. 

Afterwards, the family goes for a walk.  A guide accompanies them—hotel policy—but he carries no gun; you’re not allowed to so close to a national park, and with poaching so prevalent. 

For a while they stay out in the open, looking at ants and mushrooms, taking photos of the baby as it squeals in its carrier.  Then it starts to rain a little, and they move toward the brush.  They come to a bend in the road.  The guide peers around.  Then he starts to shout.  They run.  Behind them, a mother elephant charges, protecting, it believes, its calf.  Our mother, Jack’s daughter, Lia’s friend, Jeff’s wife, mother of Margaux, baby Margaux, who’s only just one—our mother slips and falls. She is holding the baby. 


A milk truck.  A wave.  A scooter.  An elephant.  Popeye’s ship going glub, glub, glub. 

Some things you can’t imagine.   

And then there are things that you can.

You just never imagine they’ll happen to you.  

Monday, January 11, 2010

Christmas, in Vietnam, with a dead guy

       It seemed like a good idea at the time.  There we are, standing in line to see Ho Chi Minh’s body, when Will says, “It’s Christmas.”

Ellen and I look at each other.  He’s right.  Today is Thursday, the 24th of December.  With all the scrambling to finish up the semester, put together a workshop, get the kids through school, and pack for Vietnam, we pretty much forgot about Christmas.

Well, not forgot, really:  just put it on the back burner.  Friends had loaned us a small Christmas tree and a bunch of ornaments; when we plugged in the lights, we were surprised to discover that they were attached a music box that played cheery excerpts of “Here Come Santa Claus,” “Jingle Bells,” and “In the Bleak Midwinter.”  Normally this sort of thing would have offended us, but this year we just shrugged and went with it.  At least we wouldn’t have to track down the holiday tunes on the iPod. 

Being in Vietnam, I have to say, didn’t really help our Christmas spirit—it’s hot and dirty and filled with Buddhists (and we all know how cranky they get around the holidays).  Besides, we’re in Hanoi, busy seeing the sites.  On Wednesday it’d been the Temple of Literature and the Water Puppets; now, on Thursday, it’s time to buddy up with the bane of Nixon’s existence, that bringer of light himself, uncle Ho. 

“You mean he’s dead?” Lucy says when we told her the plans for the day. 

“Well, yeah,” we say, suddenly realizing that taking an impressionable six-year-old who sometimes has nightmares about baby rabbits to see a dead guy might not be the best idea. 

“But he’s been dead for a long time,” I say, like that helps.  Lucy and Will stare at me.  I blunder on.  “It’s not even really his body.  I mean, he’s embalmed, and when they do that, they basically suck everything out of the body and replace it with chemicals.”

Their eyes widen. 

“Besides,” I say, remembering something Ellen read in the Lonely Planet Guide, “the Vietnamese aren’t really that good at embalming, so every year they ship his body up to Russia for two months, you know, to repair it and everything.”

“Repair it?” Lucy says.

I glance at Ellen, desperate.  It’s hard to tell if she’s grimacing or grinning. 

“Sure,” I say, “because, you know:  stuff falls off.”


So now we’re standing in line waiting to see what’s left of Ho Chi Minh’s body, and I’m suddenly thinking, “What the hell was I thinking?  Who goes to see a dead guy on Christmas?”

If anything, all this talk about embalming and rotting parts has only peaked Lucy’s interest in going to see “The Dead Guy,” as she now refers to the founding father of modern Vietnam. 

“How did he die?” she wants to know.

“I’m not sure.”

“Did somebody shoot him?”

“I don’t think so.”

“In a car accident?”

Ellen considers a moment, then shakes her head. “Maybe he just died of old age,” she says.

“Like grandpa?”

“Yes,” I say, wondering if there are any dead pets or babies with cancer we can mention to make this an even cheerier Christmas.  “Like Grandpa.”

Seeing the body is actually a much more convoluted process than you might think.  When you first enter the compound, you’re told to leave your bags at the check-in desk.  Sliding them across the counter, you gesture, asking if you should include your camera.  Oh no, the woman behind the window says, barely able to tear her eyes from your blonde-haired children.  Cameras are okay.

Which they are, until you enter a covered walkway and walk one hundred yards forward, at which point you’re handed a bright orange velcroed bag and told to place you camera inside.  You do, thinking this is the last you’ll see of your crappy $100 digital Cannon for a while. 

But no.  After sealing your camera inside the bag, the guard hands it back to you and gestures for you to follow the rest of the crowd.  Which you do. For another hundred yards. At which point another guard flags everyone holding a bright orange velcroed bag and points to a separate hut in a grove of trees.  Wondering quietly if orange Velcro is Vietnamese for “Undersirable who needs to be terminated,” you shuffle toward the hut, blowing goodbye kisses to your wife and children. 

Inside the hut, you offer your bag to a pair of guards who are busy watching the Vietnamese version of “America’s Got Talent,” only there are no Americans and the talent part of the equation seems to involve trying to beat Elvis in a tacky costume contest.  Once a commercial comes, one of the guards rises from his chair, scratches himself in a place that qualifies as “Bad Touch” when done to children, and takes your bag grudgingly, as though perhaps he thinks that one of the other 62 guards you’ve passed up to this point might have bothered to take care of your camera—possibly the only view that you and he share in common.  Handing you a nondescript octagonal blue tag, the guard flings your orange bag over his shoulder into a corner full of identical velcroed sacks, and gestures for you to leave.  Which you do, thinking that maybe, after all, it was a swell camera, and you would’ve liked to keep it just a big longer. 


It turns out, too, that there are rules for seeing a dead guy.  For one: no hands in pockets.  For two:  no chewing gum.  For three:  no giggling incessantly, pointing, and whispering, “Jesus Christ, he looks just like that really bad replica of Colonel Sanders we saw at Madame Tussads.”  None of these rules are actually written down, of course, but all of them are very very real. 

Trust me.

Actually seeing Ho Chi Minh’s body isn’t nearly as bad as you’d think.  The room is tall and well lit and nine guards in dress whites stand at attention, one at each door, three at each side, and one at the foot of the cask—um, podiu—um, glass case they stuck him in.  You come in at the top of the room and follow a sloping red carpet that leads you past Ho’s right side.  He’s dressed all in white, with his long hands resting on his lower abdomen.  He looks seriously peaceful.  It’s hard to tell, but one can assume that by the time he died in 1969 (of heart failure, as it turns out), it was relatively clear to everyone except Nixon that the north was going to win this war and Vietnam would finally achieve modern self-rule. 

Looking at Ho Chi Minh, it suddenly occurs to you what a nightmare he must have been for the American Presidents with whom he did battle.  For one thing, say what you want, he was Vietnam’s version of George Washington.   How else can you describe a man who pretty much single-handedly led his country to independence after 120+ years of colonial rule?  Rule by the French, no less, who, as much as they are known for their fine wines and brilliant cuisines, really aren’t paragons of administrative excellence.  Take, for instance, their rationale for taking over Vietnam in the first place: 

“We’ve come to educate the savages!” they told the Vietnamese emperor when they first arrived. 

To which the emperor and his various lackeys responded by informing the French that the first university in Vietnam was founded in 1074.

Hearing this, the French looked at each other and said, “Really?  Wow.  Even the Sorbonne’s not that old.”   Then they thought for a bit, before one of them said, “Well, okay then:  we’ve come to bring religion to the savages.”

To which the Vietnamese responded that they already had religion, thank you very much.  Three, infact:  Confucionism, Buddhism, and Taoism.

“Okay,” said the French, “but do any of those religions have a guy nailed to a cross?  Because ours does.  Nailed to a cross, then left to rot for three days.”

The Vietnamese glanced at each other and shook their heads.  Then one of them suggested that, perhaps, this sort of mutilation and torture didn’t necessarily recommend a religion as “civilizing.”

So after a bit of thought, one of French said, “What about food?  You guys have decent grub over here?”

The emperor’s chef gave them all fresh spring roles and bowl of pho chain, complete with its traditional warm, beefy broth, cilantro, and sliced chilies.  The French ate, looked at each other, and just shook their heads.  Finally, one of them, a greedy merchant named Jean Dupruis who was looking for a route to supply weapons and salt to a general in the Yunnan province, threw down his bowl, grabbed his gun, and said, “Screw it.  Just give us all your money and women.”

Which the Vietnamese did, leading to over a century of some of the most inept, ineffectual colonial rule the world has ever witnessed.  I mean, let’s face it:  at least when the British took over a country, they built roads and railways and impressed upon their subjects the necessity of hyphenated names and gin and tonics before dinner.  All the French gave the Vietnamese, on the other hand, was a sloppy way of kissing and a taste for crusty bread. 

All of which seems rather funny, of course, if you can ignore the fact that millions of Vietnamese people starved to death under France’s inhumane, bestial, and just flat-out stupid policies. 

Who then, can argue with Ho Chi Minh’s efforts to free his people—or, for that matter, with his firm belief in communism? 

Having thus killed any hopes I might have of ever holding political office, even in the state of Minnesota (sorry Al:  you’re on your own), allow me to go a step further and point out that, relative to Johnson and Nixon at least, Ho Chi Minh was a formidable foe, if for no other reason than that he was kind of cuddly. 

Okay, well maybe not cuddly exactly, but definitely affable.  In every picture you see of him, he’s got this tiny little grin at the corner of his lips, as though he’s really really pleased to be hanging out with you. 

Compare that to Lyndon Johnson who, let’s admit it, looks like someone stuck a nose on a prune and painted it pink.  Or Nixon, who looks like the uncle you try not to be left alone with for too long at Christmas. 

Strolling past Ho Chi Minh’s slippered feet (one more sign of his dedication to his people), up his left side, and out into the balmy Hanoi morning, you consider all of this.  All in all, it’s a sombering experience, albeit in a relatively pleasant way. 

What strikes you most though, are the guards standing attention around Ho’s body. 

Let me explain:  back in the ‘80s, when I viewed Lenin’s similarly embalmed and enshrined body—the opening act of my three-decade long, “Dead Communist Rulers” Tour (sponsored by Wrangler Jeans)—I was less struck by the guards than intimidated by them.  They looked like cold-war guards, the kind of guys who would toss you in a Gulag or break your jaw just for breathing out of the wrong nostril in the presence of Uncle Vladimir (talk about cuddly).  They stood ramrod straight, their bayonets gleamed in the cold light, their jaws were set like something out of Dudley Do-Right.  They meant business. 

The guards around Ho Chi Minh also stand iron-bar straight; their bayonets also gleam and their spats are also spotless.  There’s a qualitative difference, though, that’s hard to explain, all the more so since his mausoleum is essentially modeled after Lenin’s.  In the end though, the whole atmosphere around Ho seems just a touch less austere, a tad less distant.

What it comes down to, finally, is the fact that, for all their weaponry and distant stares and spitty shoes, the soldiers are there seem to be there not out of a sense of duty, but because they want to be.  It’s as if they are less guards than friends, come to stand by the body of an old warrior and keep him company on his last night on earth.  And something along these lines may very well be the case:  in contrast to the French and the emperors who ruled before (and sometimes alongside) them, Ho Chi Minh made a point of living in a simple house and riding in a simple car.  Sure, some of this might have been pure political theatre (Bush clearing brush on his “ranch,” Reagan wearing blue jeans), but the significance of these gesture in a country long ruled by the greedy French and spoiled emperors were not missed by the Vietnamese people.  To them—particularly those in the North—Ho Chi Minh wasn’t—and isn’t—some distant figure who advocated obscure political doctrine.  He was a guy who cared deeply about them, who understood them, who fought for them. 

And that must have driven Nixon nuts. 


Back outside, I get in line at yet another hut to retrieve my camera.  When it’s my turn, I hand the guy behind the counter a blue disk indistinguishable from every other blue disk he’s just been handed.  He takes it from me, turns to a pile of bright orange, velcroed bags, picks one out at random, and hands it to me. 

Inside, I find my camera. 

The five of us leave the mausoleum and stroll into the garden nearby.  There, we’re allowed to admire Ho’s various cars, the big old French-style house he inherited from the, um, French, the small green house on stilts he chose to live in instead, and a couple nice orchards.  There’s a peacock in a cage, looking tired and pissed off, but it spreads its rather dusty plumage nevertheless, and we snap pictures dutifully. 

Strolling around a large pond toward the exit, I ask Lucy what she thought about the dead guy. 

“Alright,” she says. 

“Just alright?”  I was hoping, of course, for some witty observation or child-like insight into communism, or embalming, or whatever.  I’m blogger after all—I can’t just made stuff up.

But Lucy nods.  She’s holding my hand, and squinting against the sun.  It’s turning into a nice day despite the attempt of Hanoi’s pollution to shunt it down. We’ve only been there for two days at this point, but already we’re starting to feel slightly overwhelmed—it must be a city of ten million motorcyles, all of them going the wrong way down a one-way street.  In these gardens, though, it’s quiet.  Peaceful.  Almost, I think to myself, befitting the final resting place of a beloved leader. 

Or Christmas.