Sleepwalking Abroad

BalloonsThere’s a lot of family stuff to be done while I’m here in Viet Nam, leaving me with scant little time to try and provide the tourister narrative that Jason Kottke did such a good job with during his trip here. I’m probably not the best such guide in any event. My experience here is fairly atypical, I think, due in part to my stranger/familiar status as a Viet Khieu: a returning Vietnamese who, quite unfortunately, doesn’t speak the language very well at all, but who looks just Vietnamese enough for the locals to expect a certain level of fluency I just can’t manage.

It’s frustrating, because I do make an effort to communicate in what is ostensibly my native tongue. Members of my extended family encourage me to speak it more frequently so that my skills will improve… but ultimately their own mastery of English is sufficiently superior to my pathetic mastery of Vietnamese that they all speak English to me anyway. I’ll never learn, it seems.

Hazy Days

Below: Hot air. Every morning, balloon vendors walk down the main street of the Dalat with a fresh batch of pink goodness.

So I essentially wander through my time here in a kind of numb daze, basically at the whims of my family. This is nice and quite pleasant in its own way, especially the time I get to spend with my grandmother. At ninety years old and increasingly frail, her remaining time on this earth is undeniably finite, so it means quite a bit to me to be here with her. On the other hand, I don’t have the wide-eyed, trial by error experiences that a complete stranger might have in Viet Nam; I don’t often find it necessary to navigate unfamiliar streets on my own, or to negotiate purchases or plan excursions on my own — there’s always some exceedingly helpful and kind member of my family to intercede on my behalf.

Detour in Dalat

A good example of the double-edged benefits of this familial buffer is the trip I just took with my family to Dalat: four days spent in the former royal mountain retreat where the air, unlike in Saigon, is crisp, cool and clean. On the plus side, the trip was inclusive of all meals and three nights of quite acceptable lodging in a four-star Novotel for about US$120. On the minus side, the entirety of the trip ran about two days longer than it really needed to; the tour, marketed to Vietnamese natives and conducted in Vietnamese, included more visits to flower gardens and tourist traps than any one person needs to see in a lifetime. (You can see some of the photographic evidence at Flickr, though I’m having trying to upgrade to a Pro account at the moment, do to my remote location and PayPal’s headache-inducing intransigence.)

Below: Small town blues. Not far from the city center, Dalat is essentially a mountain village, albeit relatively congested. The weather is cooler and generally more pleasant than in Saigon, but scooters still rule here.

I was bored silly, and in some ways it dampened my enthusiasm for being here altogether. I’m being quite reactionary, I know, but there’s a huge part of this country and this culture which, I have to admit now, will always be foreign to me, and to which I will never be able to relate in any way but awkwardly, uncomfortably and remotely. It’s fair to say that I’ve always known this but that I’ve been reluctant to accept it; this time out it’s started to become a more acceptable reality.

That said, when we returned to Saigon, with its maddening, polluted character, I was quickly reminded of my earlier enthusiasm. It rained here this afternoon; around 4:00p the dimmer on the sky went down to the halfway mark and a torrid, immutable precipitation pounded on every tin roof in the city for an hour. It was loud and unkind to anyone lacking for cover, but also in its own, familiar way, really great.

  1. Rain in Asia, particularly, south east asia is just different in many ways. It’s louder, heavier, more “real” in an odd way.

    Of course, I’m being nostalgic and in some odd way living pseudo-vicariously through your photos and words – I’m having a bit of a pleasant rememberance.

  2. With regard to the issue of having difficulty with Vietnamese, please allow me to express my envy that you’re having the problem at all…

    I grew up in a monolingual environment, and I’ve always been envious of friends who had a passive knowledge of a second language, even if it was only a couple years’ worth of knowledge as a young child.

    It’s like the words are in there, somewhere, you just have to dig them back out. The return on your effort is very high.

    In my case, learning another language is about *putting* the words in there in the first place, a much more difficult task.

    So, for what it’s worth, I wish I had your leg up on Vietnamese. If you keep at it all those memories will bubble back to consciousness.

    This was a lovely post and photos.

  3. Great photos. I just got back from China but wished I had photos like yours. I’ve got the camera, just need to spend time working with it. I lived in China until ’94, so my Chinese is good… but I found myself talking to my folks in English from time to time, forgetting my once extensive vocabulary… odd, I felt.

  4. Beautiful photos!
    I’m getting nostalgic for Viet Nam and the furthest east I’ve been is Ocean City, MD.
    WellЁ almost.

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