Innocence Abroad: In Hanoi, 'Another Beaming American'
Sunday, November 21, 2004
My favorite lunch spot in Hanoi isn't much to look at, with only a cluster of knee-high tables and dozens of plastic, kindergarten-size chairs. But the homemade beer costs about a dime and the place is always filled with the Vietnamese lunch crowd: Men taking their daily two-hour break to drink, smoke and eat their fill. In short, it's not a tourist spot. It's the real thing.
But hard as I try, I'm not the real thing. The first time I ate here, wielding my trusty Vietnamese phrasebook, I managed to mangle my order completely. Then, to compensate for bungling the language, I leaned back and affected my most masculine pose. But the tiny plastic chair wasn't built for my Doritos-fed stature and crumpled beneath me. While I was writhing around on the floor, the waitress stacked one chair on top of another, gestured for me to sit, smiled and went about her business.
After several months in Vietnam, my original image of myself as a savvy international traveler has collapsed like a large man in a cheap plastic chair. I arrived in June, fresh out of college as an aspiring journalist, and work as an editor for the Viet Nam News, a state-run English-language newspaper serving Hanoi's expatriate and tourist communities. I spend my days editing articles that have been translated into English from the pre-approved Vietnamese press. With no plans, no agenda and nothing holding me back, I'm a would-be Hemingway, searching for my movable feast.
If there's one thing I've gotten used to -- even learned to love -- it's my own identity as the Innocent Abroad. The British woman who lives below me in our five-story walk-up described me to a mutual friend as "yet another beaming American." And why shouldn't I be? I unfold large tourist maps in front of imperialist relics and burn incense inside ancient pagodas. I take pictures of myself on bicycle rickshaws and exclaim loudly just how interesting it all is! I force myself to love -- love -- the entire spectrum of ugly to beautiful, kitschy to genuine. And it's all "for the experience."
This may have been why I was so excited to attend the American Club of Hanoi's Fourth of July party. There, at its clubhouse downtown on Hai Ba Trung Street, were hot dogs, hamburgers, barbecued chicken, pasta salad, palm trees, barbed wire, metal detectors and machine-gun-toting Vietnamese police officers. After a few beers, it started to feel like home. Surrounded by my fellow Americans, I was more than willing to sacrifice fake bravado and affected savoir-faire for that comfortable home-grown feeling that comes from gaudy XXL Hawaiian shirts and size 12 sneakers. And for the first time since I arrived in Hanoi, I wasn't the only guy around wearing a sweat-soaked shirt.
Before long, I was mingling with NGO (non-governmental organization) representatives, embassy officials and businessmen. I started talking to a gregarious guy from Indiana whose wife worked at the German Embassy.
"Hey," he asked, "have you ever eaten any of that dog meat?" I told him I had not. I was planning on working my way up to it from eel and snake meat.
"Well, I can't imagine touching the stuff," he said with a broad grin. The embassy official and I nodded and seemed to share the same thought: It was good to be "home."
After the barbecue, I chatted with a girl from Louisiana who was recruiting students in Vietnam to participate in a faith-based educational exchange program. She told me about trying to convince a top government official to send his son to the United States to a Christian religious school.
"This government guy is real suspicious of me," she said. "It's real hard to convince him, 'cause he's, you know . . . " Her voice trailed off and her eyes darted around the room. She leaned toward me. " 'Cause he's communist!"
Apparently, I wasn't the only American ingenue in Vietnam.
A few more beers and business cards later, I decided to take off and hopped onto the back of a motorbike taxi, or xe om (literally, "hugging ride"). They are the best way to get around Hanoi because the drivers go terribly fast, weave fearlessly in and out of traffic and, when necessary, head straight at oncoming cars in the left lane. This kind of aggressive driving is necessary in Hanoi's chaotic streets, and I'd rather risk my life in the hands of an experienced professional than botch the job myself. Besides, it's a cheap thrill. Careening through the streets, I try not to let my face reveal my underlying panic.