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The Good Life in Vietnam

                                    Anne Panning

Can Tho sat spiderwebbed in the middle of the Mekong Delta; it was situated at the intersection of the Can Tho River, the Cai Khe Canal, and the Hau River, and tributaries of all these snaked through the city like muddy brown veins in a way that necessitated small arched bridges to pop up out of nowhere and make passage possible.  To reach Can Tho from Saigon, you had to cross over on a ferry. Boat traffic was as busy as street traffic, and the constant sound of sputtering engines could be heard day and night along the waterfront.  When my family and I crossed the first time, I’d watched as women floated past the ferry on small wooden boats. They stood straight up, perfectly balanced, feet spread just slightly apart, and rowed with a long wooden stick no thicker than a baseball bat.  Some boats were filled with pyramids of pineapple; others were stacked with flats of bottled water; others contained whole families dressed neatly for work and school. A few of these women managed to cook noodles and rice on small wood burning stoves at the rear of the vessels.  Small puffs of smoke blew across the water with the savory smell of grilled meat and fish.  

Our street, Tran Hung Dao, connected the bustling ferry port with the rest of the city and ran at a sharp diagonal slant across town.  It was a big-loud-wide insanely busy street.  Bicycles, motorbikes, buses, taxis, and food vendors all competed for space and position. Our stretch of Tran Hung Dao was known as the “wedding neighborhood.” Several glam photo studios advertised billboard-sized photographs of brides and grooms done up in frothy white gowns and white tuxedos with syrupy soft focus shots.  Bridal gown shops lined the street with bead-encrusted, bold colored dresses hanging in the windows. In Vietnam it was not uncommon for a bride to wear red, yellow, green, or blue and for the groom’s suit to match.  We’d already seen dozens of weddings all over town; banners of bright balloons arched over hotel doorways and people arrived en masse wearing fancy velvet jackets and dresses (in ninety degree heat).

As our two taxis made their way down Tran Hung Dao—our five year-old son, Hudson, riding with me, while my husband Mark looked after Lily, our two year-old—I wondered how we would ever cross the street to reach our hem, the little alleyways where most people lived. At the corner, two women in beat-up lounge chairs sat with their hands crossed behind their heads, checking us out.  A thin orange hose ran between them on the ground, and I saw bicycles pull up to have air pumped in their tires.  Several men lounged back on their motorcycles but sat straight up when they saw our taxis turn into the hem.

Our little lane, like most of Vietnam, was lined with narrow, heavily fortressed houses.  All courtyards and homes were protected by gates secured with giant padlocks.  The front doors, windows, and every single door inside the house, were locked and reinforced with metal grillwork.  “Why does Vietnam have so many locks?” Hudson asked. A child prone to worry, he seemed to sense danger in the jail-like bars and pointed spears that stuck up atop our fence.  Some neighbors even had curls of rusty barbed wire as extra protection around their homes, like a prison. 

“It’s just to look pretty and be safe,” I said, knowing this would never fly with Hudson.

“But to be safe from what?” he asked.  “And do you think it looks pretty?”

“Sure,” I said, swatting at mosquitoes that seemed to swarm around us as soon as we entered the house.  They felt moist and newly hatched as my fingers fluttered to slap them. “But look at this cool little green refrigerator!  It’s just your size.”  And indeed, it was about the size of a child’s play kitchen appliance.  Hudson let it go, but I knew there would be more questions—dozens and dozens of them. 

Mark had received a Fulbright fellowship to teach at Can Tho University, and I was on sabbatical to work on a book. But for the six months we’d live in Vietnam, I’d also to be a full-time, stay-at-home mom—a first for me. Settling into a new neighborhood had always been strange for Mark and me, but this time it was even stranger because a) we were Americans in Vietnam, with the legacy of the Vietnam War still lingering in subtle nuances and attitudes, b) we had two little kids, and as far as we knew, were the only foreigners living in Can Tho with children, and c) with all the shiny new purchases we dragged in that first week, we were a neighborhood spectacle.  It got to be embarrassing, but I couldn’t seem to help myself in those first days. We were starting from scratch, so we needed everything: plates, cups, silverware, chopsticks, sheets, pillows, pots and pans, towels, hangers, wash basins, shoe racks (Vietnam being a “shoes off in the house” country), a rice cooker, a toaster oven, a hot pot to boil water, a laundry basket, laundry soap, clothespins, a broom, a mop—everything. 

Our second day in the house, a neighborhood woman named Khanh volunteered to take me on her scooter to Metro, a store that sold in bulk and sounded very much like BJ’s Wholesale Club or Costco—stores we deplored back in the States for their warehouse aesthetic and corporate monopolization.  As we wheeled my huge cart through the store—Khanh convincing me to buy laundry soap I knew would be too perfumey and green plaid sheets that looked to be 100 percent polyester—I thought it strange that a place like Metro existed in a country where you could buy individual beers, cigarettes, and packets of shampoo and laundry soap on every street corner.  A country which seemed to favor a micro-level economy (I had actually seen a motorcycle driver pull up to someone’s house and have them pour a coffee cup full of gas into his tank) was an odd place for a warehouse market.  But Vietnam was on the move, up and out. 

People packed their carts high, and as I stood in line with Khanh, I heard the cashiers announcing their totals in the millions of dong, which, even though it translated into only hundreds of dollars, still indicated upper class and financial means.  But truth be told, the store was very clearly not BJ’s or Costco.  Small alligators crawled inside glass tanks (for dinner, not pets).  Eels and snakes slithered in plastic basins on the floor.  Aisle after aisle of fish sauce was sold, and in the meat section could be found whole pig heads, their eyes gluey and open wide, their faces pink and still sprouting bristles.  A pile of tongue sat heaped in a refrigerated case, and yards of intestines lay coiled in pale water like spaghetti. 

It was a shame children weren’t allowed in Metro (Khanh had said it was deemed too dangerous with all the products stacked up so high, and I thought: but not dangerous for adults?) because Hudson would have loved it.  He, like me, enjoyed grocery shopping back home immensely, and often begged to join me without Lily so we could relish the experience of choosing peanut butter and salad dressing without distraction.  The wonderful thing about being in a place like Vietnam with children was learning to see it through their eyes.  Hudson, for example, loved the bright red and yellow star of the Vietnamese flag, without a whit of knowledge of its communist undertones.  Lily had said that the coconut tree leaves looked like eyelashes.  I could only imagine what they would say about alligators in the grocery store.

Weeks later, after Mark and I had purchased the necessities, things became a little trickier.  We wanted a good life in Vietnam, and there were small luxuries we could buy to make our lives more pleasant.  We had been eying, for example, a patio table and chairs for our courtyard. To our befuddlement, no one seemed to sit in their courtyards, even though many of them were prettied up with beautiful orchids and waxy jade plants in lovely glazed pots.  Sometimes people dragged a dining room chair out into the alleyway to sit and watch the kids run around, but mostly people stuck to the indoors.  We eventually decided to take the plunge and buy the nice wicker set we had looked at probably three or four times at a shop around the corner. Even though the price was higher than we wanted to pay (1.4 million dong, approximately 120 U.S. dollars), Mark and I both knew we would use it all the time. In a way, since we had gone from a 3,000 square foot house in upstate New York to a less than 700 square foot house in Vietnam, the table and chairs, we justified to ourselves, would give us another room out in the courtyard. 1.4 million dong, though, was more than Vietnamese professors, Mark’s colleagues, made in a month; their salaries were closer to 80 U.S. dollars a month.  So the purchase was not without internal and cultural conflict for us.

We waited for the table and chairs to arrive and then waited another hour and another hour—until we thought we’d been had.  When I asked Mark if he’d gotten a receipt and he said no, I huffed that he probably should have, and he huffed back that he knew he should have but he wasn’t perfect, and then finally he dashed off on his bike to go see what was up. As the kids circled around me with concern (“What happened to our chairs?” Hudson wanted to know.  “Why did someone steal them?), I saw Mark pull up on his bike, followed by a big cart attached to a motorcycle with the furniture stacked up inside it. Mark said they had simply “forgotten” to deliver it at the promised time. Mark believed them but I didn’t. 

The delivery was a neighborhood event.  Even though we were at the very dead end of the lane, everyone came to see the table and chairs.  I could only imagine what they were saying to each other.  Many people struggled through some English to ask how much we had paid.  We couldn’t lie; we had to say.  It became part of the ritual of all our purchases: letting the neighbors know the prices we’d paid so they could determine whether or not we’d been ripped off.  They would either smile and nod, or grimace and shake their heads.  Apparently, the table and chairs had been a fair price, but as the neighbors disbanded—the old grandmother feeding her granddaughter rice porridge out of a plastic cup, the ex-chief of police wandering into his courtyard in pale threadbare pajamas, our landlady next door signaling for us to put the table under the small shade of the plum tree—I couldn’t help but feel a bit unsettled.  It was such a nice patio set; it was definitely high-end, costing more than a month’s Vietnamese salary. No one else in the neighborhood had a patio set.

I had grown up in a blue-collar family in rural Minnesota, and when things got really tough for my parents, I became a welfare kid who received free government-issue lunch tickets at school because my parents made below poverty-level income.  My mother had worked as a cleaning lady for wealthy women in Minneapolis and my father had spent his “career” drifting from one factory job to another, usually working graveyard shift.  My two brothers were construction workers, and my sister was a hospital supply clerk; none but me had been to college.  Up until I became a college professor and gradually worked my way into a comfortable middle class lifestyle, I had always considered myself poor; even when I began receiving regular healthy paychecks, I was still, in my mind, a working-class, blue-collar person. To consider myself anything else would have been a betrayal.

We sat out in the courtyard regularly—morning, afternoon, and night. And the kids loved the table and chairs.  But what were they learning from us, from this experience?  That if we really wanted something badly enough, we could just go ahead and buy it?  The fact was, in Vietnam, we could. 

During our early days in Can Tho, many of Hudson’s questions had to do with class (of course he didn’t think of it that way, but I eventually did).  “Mommy, why can people in Vietnam not drink the water?” 

“Well, it’s not clean enough and they could get sick,” I said. 

“But why isn’t it clean enough?” he pressed.  “Why can we drink our water back home but they can’t here?” 

We were sitting outside in the courtyard, killing mosquitoes with an electronic, rechargeable bat that looked much like a tennis racquet.  In fact, when I’d mentioned to our landlady one morning how plagued we were with mosquitoes, she had told me over and over that I should buy a “rocket.”  Then she moved her arms back and forth in the air, causing me great confusion.  I thought there must be some kind of rocket similar to a small smoke bomb that you set off to kill the bugs, but finally Khanh explained to me it was a “racquet,” at which point I promptly bought one and then spent at least an hour each day de-mosquito-ing the house and courtyard.  It was an oddly satisfying, instant-results activity to hear their wispy little bodies fry against the mesh webbing. They even made a blue spark upon impact, and as the kids watched them sizzle, they would run away from me, hands over their heads, screaming, “Don’t zap me! Don’t zap me!”

I tried to think of a good answer to Hudson’s questions, but despite my efforts, it always came back to money. “Sweetie, Vietnam doesn’t have enough money yet to get a proper water system going.  But maybe they will some day.” I wanted to be fair and explain more about developing countries and the historical-political background of colonization that had led to such poverty and inequity.  Hudson knew there had been a war here because he’d heard Mark and me talking to our friends about it back in New York. But he also knew about the Iraq War, at least in the abstract, because his old daycare teacher had taught him one day who the real heroes were in the United States: Our U.S. soldiers are the real heroes, that’s who. His teacher at the time, Gloria, an African-American woman prone to fits of uncontrollable laughter, had a son serving in the Gulf, and it was everything we could do not to march in there and set her straight.  But we’d decided to let it be, and teach Hudson in our own way at home.  “Heroes are people who care about other people,” Mark told him one cold winter’s day after school. 

“You mean superheroes?” he said, not getting it.  His friend in daycare, Angus, was a superheroes nut. He’d spend a good chunk of each day wearing a Spiderman costume as he marched down the hallways and played on the jungle gym. 

“No, real heroes,” Mark said.  “Like real people.”

“Oh.”  I could see we were losing him. I glanced at Mark to let me try it my way.

“So, Hudson,” I continued, “let’s say you believed in something very strongly and you thought it was right but everyone else thought it was wrong.”

“Yeah.” He was looking out the window at our neighbor, Stan, who had just revved up his snow blower.

“Well, if you stood up for what you thought and were brave about it even if everyone else thought you were wrong, then you’d be a real hero.” 

Hudson ran to the window.  “Stan’s blowing snow onto our house!” he said.  “Is that okay?”

Mark raised his eyebrows.  Even I knew the conversation had moved into the inane and it was time to let it go.  I could almost hear my mother saying to me, “Annie, just lighten up!”  And I knew I should. I knew I would have to with a five year-old and a two year-old in a place like Vietnam.

Still, Hudson’s questioned us relentlessly about everything he saw in Vietnam:

“Mommy, why does that house not have a door?”

“Mommy, why is that guy peeing in the river?”

“Mommy, why does that woman keep coming to our house asking for our garbage?”

“Mommy, why is that man dragging himself across the ground like that? And why doesn’t he have any feet?”

“Mommy, why don’t Vietnamese have nice showers like ours?”

How much could a five year-old take in? I wondered. At first I’d thought not much, but I soon began to realize Hudson’s education here was going to be life-changing. I was going to be responsible for a lot.  He was a mere kindergartener, sure. But I could remember things very clearly from when I was five (my kindergarten class making pigeon soup in the basement of the Catholic church, the dead bird lying there, fully feathered, its one eye open and knowing, had haunted me for decades).  Knowing Hudson, if we told him too much, he would take it personally and end up feeling guilt over the situation. But just as I prepared myself for the next barrage of questions, he said, “Mommy, can we get some kem later?”  He had learned the Vietnamese word for ice cream, and I was relieved to be off the hook—at least for the time being.

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