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Innocence Abroad: In Hanoi, 'Another Beaming American'

By Matt Bradley
Special to The Washington Post
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.

But with my self-conscious Americanism comes an awareness of the complicated legacy left by other young Americans in Vietnam. Before I left the States, I had been told to expect bitterness and hostility. I was advised to hide my American-ness, as if it were something I could slide into my pocket. As Vietnam folds itself seamlessly into the international economy, I often wonder how a city that Americans spent a decade pelting with bombs could be so forgiving.

Sounds Like a Native

One way I've tried to escape this stereotype is to learn the native language. The more I learn about Vietnamese, the more I respect the English-speaking Vietnamese staff at the Viet Nam News. The language has almost no grammar -- no conjugation, tense, gender or even number. But what it lacks in grammatical complexity, it makes up for with its near-impossible pronunciation. For a non-native speaker, the spoken form of the language is extremely challenging. Vietnamese relies on a system of six different tones. If a speaker's voice does not match the proper rising, falling or breaking pitch, his words are almost incomprehensible. The effect is something like singing -- but if you sing off-key, you're out of luck.

A few weeks after I arrived, I was sitting in a bar chatting with a Vietnamese customer and a waitress. I tried to answer the usual pleasantries in Vietnamese with moderate success.

"Your vocabulary is very good for having only studied two weeks," the customer said. "But your pronunciation could use some work.

"I think you know about the English sentence, 'She sells sea shells by the beach'?" he asked tentatively.

" 'She sells sea shells by the seashore.' Yeah, I know it," I said.

"Well, there is something like that in Vietnamese. It will help you say the right tones," he said as he scribbled a sentence on the back of the bill. The sentence read something like "Chi buoi trua an buoi chuoi" and meant "You eat fruit for lunch." He read the sentence aloud and I dutifully repeated it.

The waitress nearly fell over laughing and the customer had to brace himself on the bar. I waited for them to stop chortling. I've grown accustomed to playing the fool.

"You did not say it correctly!" the customer choked. "Instead, you have said, "The woman eats [rude reference to part of the male anatomy] at lunchtime!" More laughter, more falling over.

I asked if the man could please repeat the sentence so that I might learn to pronounce the words correctly. They slowly composed themselves and the lesson began.

"Don't worry," the waitress said eagerly. "When I first work here, I ask English-speaking customer if he wants peanuts, but I said penis!"

I accepted this. It appeared to be the only consolation I would receive.

The next morning I reviewed the situation with my language teacher. After she collected herself (this may be the Vietnamese national joke), we reviewed the correct pronunciation, as well as how to avoid the many similar tricks with other Vietnamese potty words.

The Vietnamese also communicate without a complete set of tenses. There are short words called "particles" that signify past, present and future, but they are rarely used. The language exists in a kind of timeless, tenseless vacuum. Time is suggested or implied, and it's the listener's responsibility to place events and conversations in their proper context.

It seems likely that in the same way the English language has an impact on our culture, Vietnamese affects its listeners and national identity.

Vietnamese culture is very forgiving. But unlike in the West, forgiveness is hardly discussed -- it is assumed and expected. The undeniable benefits of the globalized economy and a predominantly young population have made blame and resentment for what is known here as the American War both inconvenient and unnecessary. Buddhism teaches the primacy of the present moment and a perspective that looks constantly forward.

For the Vietnamese, forgiveness is built into the language, like the vocal tones. It's entrenched in the national dialogue.

Peril on the Open Sea

A few weeks ago I took a day trip to Ha Long Bay, about two hours east of Hanoi. The bay is one of the most beautiful places in the world, with limestone columns jutting from the water like an enormous expanse of pillars. To get to our boat, my group of British, Australian, Canadian and U.S. expats traveled by van to Hai Phong, a large port on the Tonkin Coast and Vietnam's third-largest city. No relatively well-informed tourist would ever pay more than $35 for a catered two-day cruise through Ha Long Bay, but my friends and I forked over a royal $90 each for a hoity-toity private boat.

Our guide elected to take a hydrofoil on the open seas from Hai Phong to Cat Ba Island, where we would meet our boat. This way, we were told, we would avoid the tedious island-hopping from Hai Phong to Cat Hai to Cat Ba.

I bounded happily and naively onto the small craft, which resembled an airplane fuselage but without the modern safety equipment. As the boat slowly filled with people, I remembered my father's two warnings before I left for Vietnam: Don't get on a motorbike without a helmet, and don't ride on an overcrowded boat. He had read too many short blurbs in the newspaper about ferry accidents in developing countries.

I remembered that advice again about an hour later as the horizon slowly disappeared and the boat began tossing violently in the water. The aisles were packed with standing passengers clinging desperately to their children. No one spoke, and the only audible noise besides the crashing of the waves was the sound of about 200 Vietnamese quietly vomiting into small plastic bags. Without moans, cries or gasps, the cabin had erupted into a low gurgling rumble. About half an hour later, one of the crew stumbled through the center aisle to distribute more bags.

One of the girls in my group stepped over me to get to the aisle. "Um, I'm just gonna stand," she said softly, her voice cracking. "I just think it's, umm, you know . . . I just think it's safer."

She knew that I knew that she knew that if the boat went down, we were all going to die no matter where the hell we were standing. Two things were on the tip of my tongue at that moment: Either "I'm desperately in love with you" or "Hail Mary, full of grace." Instead, I just said "okay" and closed my eyes. I kept them shut for 10 minutes until I heard a shrill English accent coming from the back of the boat. It was a member of my group.

"Keep this door unlocked!" she screamed. "Hey you! Make sure no one locks this door!" In retrospect, it was more than alarming that we passengers had been locked into the cabin of the boat. At the time, I hadn't expected to make it out alive anyway.

But what struck me most about the boat ride were the reactions of the Vietnamese passengers. During the entire trip they'd been eerily quiet, with hardly a gasp or even a quick breath. As we finally disembarked two hours later, no one seemed angry for having been subjected to such danger. Instead, there was a feeling of resignation and calm. The patrons stepped onto the dock and left the boat, leaving their fear and nausea behind in the so unconveyable past.

Moto Madness

Back at work Monday, as I regaled my colleagues with the tale of my near-death experience, there was a loud scream, and staff members began running from one corner of the room toward the exit. Since I tend to learn nothing from near-death experiences, I walked confidently toward the feared corner of the office. Smoke was spewing from one of the light fixtures.

A young Vietnamese guy cut the circuits, grabbed a fire extinguisher, mounted a chair and sprayed the light. My colleagues broke into brief applause before returning to their desks.

I kept standing, but there was nothing left to ogle. The moment of fear was over, and it was time to get back to work. Once again, we were back in the present tense.

After work that night, I stopped by my local bar for a quick beer. The waitress greeted me with a smile and quickly fitted two chairs together. The beer turned into three or four (easily done at 10 cents a pop) and soon I was grinning and speaking awkwardly in Vietnamese to the other guests.

When I left, the street was packed with motorbikes and cars. My xe om driver sped past the brightly lit Opera House and then Hoan Kiem Lake, with its illuminated pagoda sitting proudly in the middle. We weaved through motos at a maddening clip, barely missing the pedestrians wading through the traffic. I screamed like a woman, then laughed to myself.

Matt Bradley is a freelance journalist living in Hanoi.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company