Six Degrees of Vietnam
Travel Stories: Julia Ross went to Vietnam seeking relaxation and a place to recover from a breakup. She found a whole lot more.
11.18.08 | 11:50 AM ET
What you really want is a week to decompress, recover from an untethered year studying Chinese and a man who chose his dissertation over you. You yearn for a palm-fringed escape, somewhere that won’t require too much thought. Vietnam is within reach: a three-hour flight, and you know the food will be good. You book a week in June and wait for confirmation to arrive by scooter, in the thick of Taiwan’s plum rains.
The Quiet American has left you with romantic notions of Vietnam: Whirring ceiling fans at the Hotel Metropole, wide, tree-lined avenues and crumbling colonial villas, ochre paint peeling in lazy drifts. You look forward to real croissants (unavailable in the Chinese-speaking world), thick, cinnamoned coffee and young women swanning through the heat in split-sided ao dais.
You arrive and it’s all there, like Graham Greene promised, but that isn’t the story of your trip. You figure out pretty quickly that Vietnam wants a piece of you.
On earlier trips, to Prague and Chiang Mai, you knew what was expected of a woman alone, the stereotypes locals preferred to paint you with, out of pity or curiosity or naked self-interest. You played them to your advantage, to smooth things over, but Vietnam won’t let you off so easily. Right away, it asks more: six degrees of you as a traveler, six ways to see yourself moving through the world.
The Damsel in Distress
There’s always that pregnant moment, just off the plane, when the acrid smell of unfamiliar earth hits the back of your throat, and you wonder how you’ll manage the next leg of your trip. The uncertainty brings an adrenaline rush: Your ride might not show; your visa might be rejected; the ATMs might be out of cash. But in truth, nine times out of 10, your entry comes off without a hitch.
Hanoi is the one time it doesn’t.
You’re five minutes down the highway when you realize the taxi driver doesn’t speak a word of English, and your guidebook’s locked in the trunk. You try a little Chinese to direct him to the hotel, but he looks nonplussed, so you motion that you need the book. Soon the problem presents itself: The trunk is jammed shut and there’s no help at hand, only a cell phone to call for advice. You gaze out over flat green fields—expecting to see water buffalo and tiny women harvesting rice, but finding none—and wonder if it’s an omen. The driver sucks the air through his teeth, shrugs, and signals that we’re reversing course.
His sidekicks back at the garage are equally flummoxed. When you pull in, they smile embarrassedly, kick off their flip-flops, climb onto the back of the car, and jump. You watch, open-mouthed, and when nothing gives, they pull out the tool box of last resort, go in like surgeons through the back seat, and deliver your pack as if by cesarean birth.
You’re relieved that the driver now understands where you’re headed, but on arrival, he wants a bigger tip than you’ve offered, for rescuing you from your unfortunate mistake. In Vietnam, you learn, there’s a price for princely conduct.
The Easy Mark
The first day, you’re approached four times around Hoan Kiem Lake and at the war museum, and the line is always the same: I’m a poor student from the country. But before that, there’s the buttering up. They sidle up, fresh-faced and speaking perfect English, to tell you how much they admire America. They want to know what you think of their city, whether you’ve been to see Ho Chi Minh, and recommend hiking with the hill tribes in Sapa.
You are polite at first, but underestimate their tenacity. They follow you for blocks, having figured there’s no husband around to intervene. You resent this, so on the fifth try, you turn to the smiling young woman in the pink baseball hat and Western logo T-shirt and ask, “Do you know how many times I’ve heard that same story today?”
She gets it, and cuts her losses with cool efficiency. Her demeanor melts into a scowl; she turns on a dime and evaporates amid a cloud of motorbikes. She’s practiced at this, you think—gauges her marks carefully. But you’ve caught her off guard with your cynicism, a first-time souvenir.
What you need is to get out of Hanoi, away from the death-wish traffic and the unsmiling hotel receptionist who is baffled by your frequent internet use. You decide on a two-day cruise on Ha Long Bay, hoping that a glide over jade waters will remind you why you wanted to come. Thuy is your escort to the coast. He stands at the front of the tour bus and makes bad jokes, a new graduate in a freshly pressed polo shirt and eager to please. He says things will go well for him if you compliment his service on the post-cruise evaluation.
Later, in the blue hour, he sees you sitting alone on deck with a beer and figures you need company. He recognizes you as a woman of a certain age, lines etched around your mouth like insistent parentheses. You wonder what he’d think if he knew how they got there: betrayal at the hands of a diplomat’s son and the loss of a loved one.
Thuy settles into the chair opposite and asks, unexpectedly, if you’ve heard of Arthur Conan Doyle.
“Sure—he wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories,” you say.
“Do you also know he wrote a book called ... ‘The Woman Who Travels Alone’?”
He utters the last word, “alone,” in a lower register, raises one eyebrow and gives you a sidelong glance, making it clear he thinks there’s more to your story. The limestone karsts loom over windless water, and you feel not unlike an Agatha Christie heroine. You let the unsaid dangle in midair and vow to make the “woman with a past” thing work for you in future travels.
Here’s one thing you didn’t know before Vietnam: “Sex sells in the Halloween business.” The lithe Californian, sitting cross-legged on the aft deck, should know. She tells you she’s rediscovered herself, having opened a costume store in the wake of a failed marriage to an older man who stifled her spirit, in business and in mind. Now she teaches yoga on the side and has the freedom to travel in summer when business is slow. Soon she’ll spend her days stocking the black-cat bustiers that are the lifeblood of her trade.
She, too, is ambivalent about Vietnam. Her dad was a GI and her mom is from Saigon, so she’s got a history here, but she says the people aren’t any friendlier in the South. Her sister got flattened by a motorbike on their first day and ended up with six stitches in her scalp. The trip didn’t get much better from there.
What she really wants to know is why you struck out on your own and are you single by choice? “Unattached is the way to go,” she sighs, and you imagine she has no problem finding lovers with the yoga body and the long, dark hair, and maybe an item or two borrowed from the shop. She figures you for a quasi-academic—not a likely purchaser of bustiers—but that’s OK: Out here, what’s a lack of lingerie between two women who refuse to be boxed in?
The Comrade in Arms
Back in the city, you draw on a strawberry smoothie at a backpacker café and recover from a rain-streaked afternoon jostling through the narrow lanes. You lean back on oversized saffron and magenta pillows and wonder what percentage of the clientele is Australian. They’re everywhere, but you strike up a conversation with a group of Canadians, recently out of grad school and winding through Southeast Asia.
The girl with the mud-caked sandals tells you they’ve come from Cambodia, where the poverty depressed her, but they were in for a greater shock once they hit the train station in Hanoi. The warnings were right there in the Lonely Planet guidebook: Beware of touts offering illegal guest houses. They ignored the advice, and got dropped off at a flophouse; then the manager screamed for money when they refused to check in. “You can’t trust them,” she says. “You need to be on guard at all times.”
You think, first, you’re glad you’re not in your 20s anymore, and second, you usually bristle at this kind of thing, but in Hanoi it’s been truer than not. So you tell her you’ve had run-ins, too—those motorbike taxi guys (“Madame, where are you going, Madame?”) have hounded you from day one—and agree that Vietnam is not for the travel naif.
The Love Interest
Jean-Marc is at least a breath of fresh air. He’s 10 years younger and not really your type, but still, he’s sweet and speaks some Mandarin, so you have that in common. You meet on the Ha Long boat, where he studies you through a haze of blue smoke, bats his dark eyelashes and asks, incredulously, “Why do you not have a boyfriend?”
“It’s complicated ...” you hedge, but admire him for being unintimidated and think, yes, the French do appreciate their women.
A silence swells between you as the boat heads for port. Then he says, “We should go out,” as if it’s been decided.
You arrange to meet for lunch near the cathedral, at a Western café with granite tabletops and high ceilings, a place that could have been lifted from Amelie’s Montmartre, and one that reminds him of home. The conversation is easy. You exchange your Chinese names in traditional characters and discuss the wonderful economy of the language, how it compounds words like “good” and “eat” to make “delicious.”
He tells you that Vietnam isn’t easy for a Western man, either: The staff at his budget hotel have spent the week trying to sell the delights of local women, irritated by his rebuffs.
The afternoon doesn’t take a romantic turn—you knew it wouldn’t—yet he can’t help but kiss you on both cheeks and email you a photo from the lunch three weeks later, just to make sure you haven’t forgotten.
When you open the photo back in your flat in Taipei, the night market roiling below, you see that you are smiling and unwary, and wonder if perhaps you were too hard on Vietnam. Perhaps six days in the land of a thousand come-ons restored something—a small, grudging something—in you after all.