Vietnam – Ho Chi Minh City (“Saigon”): February 5 – March 9, 2019
It’s been nearly 100 days since we said goodbye. At that time, I needed my space. I needed time to process the last 31 days of what had taken place. I only see you once a year but each time the experience is so jolting that I need to make my peace, learn my lessons, and find ways to love you again.
I loved you before I ever met you. I became enraptured by your history, your resolve, your potential, and the words you speak. I studied your past and grew excited about your future, even our futures together. Yet, the more we interact, the more I grow conflicted. I find it hard to live under your roof for long periods and hard to adapt to your way of maintaining an “orderly abode.” And while I know that my “home” in current times is in historical disarray, many times it feels like your future is beset by your intrinsic pattern of growing your limbs by continually chopping off your fingers.
I try like hell to keep an open mind, straining to find pillars of appreciation rather than stakes of discouragement. But you don’t make it easy. You seem warm and welcoming but only when it’s in your best interest. You want to accept the best of others but deride them when their imperfections emerge.
It’s taken me these nearly 100 days to gather my thoughts in a coherent and synthesized manner, such that I can try to show you the contrast that I feel for you.
Love and hate all in one breath and in the same sentence.
As we are like family at this point, perhaps this dichotomy is to be expected. But given that we’ll need to find a way to get along, I feel it’s best for me to provide my perspective – in the hope that we may find common ground and push the pendulum of our binary bond to the more positive side.
A Tepid Tet Arrival
We don’t usually spend time together during the holidays. You have enough going on and I don’t like to get in the way. But this past year, fate brought us together at the time of your biggest celebration and, let’s just say, it gave me a chance to see a different side of you.
I’ve never seen you so quiet. You weren’t your usual self. At first, I thought it was nice, as I tend to be pretty mellow and figured in your subdued state, we might have a better chance to relate. But I’d grown accustomed to your ways, your energy, and your constant state of openness, such that when you shifted ever so slightly for those first few days, I couldn’t process it.
It felt eerie and uncomfortable. Streets completely dark and desolate in usually densely populated areas. Stores and food stalls shuttered for days on end. I felt like I didn’t recognize you. As much as your seemingly erratic personality can get the best of me, I began to miss it. For in that time of disillusion, it was the only thing that I understood.
Such is the contrast of visiting you on the holiday. It’s the time of year when you are the most welcoming – letting your guard down and opening your arms to all. But you are so different that it’s jarring and it made me uncomfortable. I couldn’t believe that I was actually yearning for when you would return to your normal state of craziness, so that I could feel comfortable again.
The previous time I visited, I surmised that we should only see each other in “short bursts” (see “Facing the Friction of 5 Weeks in Vietnam”). So if our times together shall be brief, perhaps it’s best that I see you when I understand you – rather than wasting precious little time trying to calibrate to your bipolar tendencies.
Your Humble Abode
Speaking of bipolar tendencies and your way of maintaining an “orderly abode,” I have some advice to share with you. Now it’s true that what you do in your own house is up to you. You’ve paid for it (in blood, sweat, and tears), and it’s your sanctuary in the world. But if you want make more friends and have others visit you more often, you might want to expand your thinking just a bit, as to understand their point of view and leave them with a good impression.
History hasn’t been kind to you and you are certainly the product of your experiences. Trust comes hard for you, especially after having your brothers and neighbors turn on you in your post-adolescent years, pillaging you for all that you had built and leaving you to fight for scraps of opportunity. So it’s understandable that you’ve hardened.
You’ve grown to put up barriers to defend yourself and protect what’s yours. Like a happy and energetic child that endured a rough adolescent period, you’ve become calloused, set in your ways, and find it difficult to trust others. While this is totally understandable, what you may not realize is that it’s also made you succumb to the personality traits of those who beat you down and ruptured your trust.
Now you’ve become mistrusting and slight of hand. When we first arrived, you barely said, “Chào!” before whisking us up into a dark apartment that we hadn’t booked. We specifically requested a room with windows and a view, and you used the excuse of the holiday to say it was unavailable, while at the same time acknowledging that it was not the room for which we paid. Bipolar…I tell you.
Days later, you acquiesced and moved us to a room with a window and a slither of natural light. Those first few days were terrible for my psyche. You know how much I love natural light. To wake up at 8am and think it was still 2am tormented my soul and suppressed my daily energy.
But this torment was only the beginning. First, it was the darkness and then it became critters – nasty, disgustingly large, and fast cockroaches. We saw the first one near our bed two days after moving into the “better” apartment. When we told you about it, it was as if to be expected – not a big thing, in your eyes. But it made our following few nights unbearable.
It’s one thing to have roaches near food or trash but it’s another thing to have them as a result of cracks in the wall near our bed. The final straw was when I had to smash one on the wall above my wife – jolting her from deep sleep at 2am. So we told you about it and you came up with the ingenious solution of moving us to a new apartment – the one directly adjacent the roach infested burrow. Luckily we didn’t see another critter “in the apartment” during the rest of our stay. But we saw a couple on our patio and the feeling of having one crawl on us while we slept never left our minds.
Trust me, I get it. Roaches are like ants for you. They are everywhere. But know that people from other cultures find them appalling and it would be nice if you showed a bit of compassion in the situation. It would also help if your housekeepers didn’t leave garbage and trash in the hallways for hours on end, creating a ripe environment for these critters to feast. But maintenance didn’t seem to be your virtue during this last period.
You also used the excuse of the holiday to explain away the absolutely toxic conditions of the rooftop pool during the first two weeks of our stay. We booked the place for the view and pool, and for much of our stay we enjoyed neither. Matter of fact, even though you ended up cleaning the pool to acceptable conditions, it looked so bad when we arrived that we never felt comfortable even dipping a pinky toe for fear of the chemicals required to make such a drastic change. Cutting off your fingers to grow your limbs. It’s become so natural for you but it doesn’t have to continue this way.
You have such a beautiful cityscape and in spite of all that I endured in your humble abode, I made the best of its beauty. The rooftop terrace became my sanctuary morning, noon, and night. It’s where I’d go to conduct early morning calls with clients 14 timezones away, enjoy midday $1 delicious fruit smoothies and egg coffees, or do my evening exercises at sunset.
Your sunsets were awe-inspiring. I lived for them everyday, along with the evening cool breeze that swept away the day’s heat and humidity. You even surprised me with a sunset super moon halfway through our stay. Seeing the setting sun over one shoulder and the rise of a super moon across the other shoulder is a moment I’ll never forget. For me, it was a once-in-a-lifetime moment gifted to me from you. Perhaps as recompense of all that I endured in your humble abode… the epitome of love and hate all in one breath and in the same sentence.
Punctuated by Perfection
Speaking of sentences, we’ve always had a rough time communicating. Over the years, I’ve tried many different ways to reach you, almost always on your terms. I have a love for languages and you were my fourth love. I say “were” because like all other aspects of our relationship, it’s also love-hate.
Sometimes I love your language and sometimes I hate it. It challenges me in ways I never imagined. While it’s made me laugh, more often than not it has nearly brought me to tears – tears of frustration (see “The Senses Succumb to the Sounds of Vietnam”). I’ve tried so hard to understand you and find the words to reach you, but it’s often perfection that gets in the way.
Not my perfection but mostly yours, and I’ve learned that it’s necessarily your fault. Unlike my language, which has been bastardized and mutilated by hoards of merchants, armies, and multicultural interactions, yours hasn’t had quite the same history. As a country you are young, as a language you are old, but in your old age you simply haven’t had the same experiences as others. Experiences that would have calibrated your ears to the imperfect pitch of others. Instead, the difficulty of your language resigned you to default to that of others, and so try as I might, my imperfections are amplified by your ear and blocked by your brain. Sometimes you simply can’t process what I’m trying to say, regardless of context.
So this time I tried something different. Instead of painstakingly studying the intricacies of your language, I used the time to listen and feel the words. I know enough to slowly absorb your thoughts and feelings, and find clever ways to humor you. So I walked and I listened. I listened in the streets, listened on the radio in taxis, listened to conversations in the distance around me as I sat in cafes. And to some degree it worked. I started to feel your words, your thoughts, and understand some of your cute and witty expressions.
We started to engage in brief (albeit, sometimes choppy) conversations. I was able to tell you about my family, my likes/dislikes, my love for coffee, my travels, and my life journey. I was able to ask you for (mostly) simple things but I still find it ironic that you sometimes simply don’t process what I’m saying because you look at me and expect me to speak in English.
My Vietnamese voice sometimes doesn’t register for you. And in the past, this would befuddle me. I hadn’t had enough confidence in my own Vietnamese voice to know if I was correctly pronouncing the words but now I do. And so rather than curling up into the mental fetal position for fear of imperfection, I learned to trick your brain by reiterating my words in an attempt to force you to recognize my unfamiliar voice.
We still have a long way to go to understand each other but we are getting better. So much so that I received many unsolicited and surprising compliments that my Vietnamese had gotten better during this last season. I understood more and I could communicate more. Yet, it always feels like one step forward and two steps back. Someday soon, I hope to reach the inverse of that emotion.
Where Do We “Go” From Here
Saigon, you challenge me in ways I never imagined and yet you find subtle ways to reward my patience and perseverance. You delight me with the unique flavors of your foods, sometimes feeding me more than I handle. You show me sides of you that can only be appreciated in person – as pictures simply can’t do any justice to the beauty of your night sky, the feel of the evening breeze on the back of motorbike riding under the gleaming lights of your emerging economy, or the aromas radiating from the alleys (i.e. “hems”) where we’d find little stalls to slurp down some of your best soups and snacks. You’re such a different person at night, and no matter how challenging my days may have been you always find a way to soothe me before I sleep.
It is through these experiences that you were able to bring out the best in me. I find that you have a power over me, and each time we are together, it takes time for me to harness it. Once I relaxed and tried to understand you as you are, I was able to understand myself better. I was able to “Go” down in the recesses of my soul and unearth some of my most creative prose to date (see “Noah – A Tapestry of Words”, “Malaysia – Six Hours & Fifteen Minutes with the Focus of Mr. Fogg”, and “Thailand – The Precious Time of Life In-Between”).
Before we bid adieu, I’ll leave these final words with you…
I continue to learn that it’s not easy for you to change;
It’s not easy for you to see another side.
I’ve also learned that this is not easy for you;
simply due to pride.
But we can’t live without each other;
we can’t run away and hide.
We may not see each other again for another 200 days,
but time is on our side.
Time to learn about ourselves,
Time to improve on the sweet subtly;
Of reading between the lines.
So I’ve said my peace, tried to be honest, and confide.
Yet after all that said, the question remains.
On what side of the pendulum does our binary bond now reside?
Read more Tales from the Nomadic Adventure and find out where we’ll be in the coming months.