A Psalm for Vietnam

Photo: Hải Vân Pass, border of  Đà Nẵng. Shot w/35mm film

This is a creative piece I did for a class in uni, so it’s tailored to the delicate sensibilities of “dude just give me an A pls”. Hopefully you enjoy it anyway! The piece is based on one of the sweetest works of nonfiction/travel writing I’ve drunk down, called Edgelands by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts, about the inbetween spaces of England’s countryside and cities, with the central idea slightly tweaked… My prof basically conceded at the end of the course that he didn’t know what the book was even about, so with that considered, I think it turned out fine.

“And edgelands, by and large, are not meant to be seen except perhaps as a blur from a car window, or a backdrop to our most routine and mundane activities”. In Vietnam this may be true for truck and bus drivers, perhaps supply-peddlers of all sorts, though for the unseasoned traveler the country is a stunning stretch of photogenic rural landscapes, offering up some of the finer pixels of life. Here I hope to spell out some of these invisible-to-us ‘smaller identities’, items perhaps precluded from what Farley and Roberts label the ‘realm of imaginative life’ though wholly resituated from the geography of England, the topic of their 2012 treatise Edgelands. On a world map Vietnam looks spindly, like its borders were drawn up back in the day by a Laotian general averse to sand in his toes (this general was of course not a populist, refusing to drink the emergent middle-eastern flip-flop-technology-kool-aid), and its cartographic appearance like a lankier brother of Laos or gaunt cousin of Italy, for the traveler, translates experientially to one titanic stretch of scintillating beaches and shorelines, where every in-between space holds promise, or as the authors of interest write: “possibility, mystery and beauty”.

I’d never ridden a motorcycle before, or even received my driver’s licence in Canada, but I’d scored my fair share of gold ribbons and 1st-place trophies in Mario-Kart, and I figured the two would be more or less the same idea. So I bought an ugly red moped with a broken speedometer in the capital city of Hanoi for $300 in July and spent a month embracing a malleable fate sculpted by the edgelands of lovely Vietnam, fuelled by $2 petrol top-ups from service stations and the figurative lateen sails of fallibility. I met two girls prior in the visa-approval queue at Noi Bay Airport where I flew from Chang Mai who dropped on me a vexing truth-bomb, that something like 14,000 motorcycle fatalities occur each year on the manic roads circumscribing the country. This figure was immediately appropriated into my mental mantra for the journey and quelled at least a fraction of the same naiveté which impelled me to make the trip in the first place (probably a necessary tune up for my ad-libbing adventure MO). I had squeezed in approximately 25 hours of drive time in the downtempo mountainous region of northern Thailand in preparation and came across no hiccups in the process, save for one minor crash during a flash-flood in which I hydroplaned ascending an off-road elevation of loose red clay. The message here was of course both instructional and metaphysical: try not to leave the concrete.

Some observational and word of mouth research I pulled up before revving up for the long journey – 37 million motorcycles compose the official vehicle registry in Vietnam, imparting one of the world’s highest automobile densities. 75% of the country’s urban hospital budgets are spent treating motorcycle injuries under triage. A liter of gasoline gets you 40km. Families of four will squeeze onto one motorcycle and riders freight everything from livestock and crates of sickeningly-sweet tropical fruit to electronics and machinery. Crossing streets on foot is like dodging field artillery. To the naked eye there are seemingly no traffic rules other than that you should try not to die; motorists will ride cavalierly through oncoming traffic, bikers will callously flip you off for actually deigning to stop at red lights and U-turns on busy city highways are a convenient thing to do. In fact the entire motorist population seems to operate on a motto more or less informed by Satanism: disregard others and if it feels good, do it. On these roads you are a fraction away from death at all times, and if you find you zigged when you should’ve zagged, you won’t find much else. I gave myself four weeks to spend, my mortality pillion’d and time hemmed in by the contours of the country, the countryside humming with ebbing audio of burning diesel, I spent 4 weeks drinking in dark plumes and panorama views of this ragged edge of earth.

The authors write that “infrastructure forms its busy threads of connective tissue”, which in Vietnam ranges from the cells of traffic healthily making their commute on certain skeins of edgelands to the clogged concrete arteries of urban spaces like Saigon and Hanoi, on which takes place the constant shunt of motorbikes like schools of terrestrial minnows, each rider connected to the phenotypic extensions of wheels and engine. A few hours on the outer technological ripples of the major metropolitan tourist hubs however, a peaceful route is eventually to be found. Amidst deafening air horns, or ‘two tone klaxons’, whose frequency of use and volume is so liberal it is practically profane — a peaceful edgelands route, one with a countryside elapsing softly and conical straw hats of workers dotting fields is on the way. And once there, you’ll find a peaceful stretch of grazing goats, sheep and cows in what’s described as “unexamined places that thrive on disregard”.

While the authors of Edgelands use the satnav I found an artefact of modern touchscreen technology in a pawn shop for $20, whose system language changed, defiantly, only 45% into English from its original settings when prompted.  The phone had no memory. After a few multidirectional hops between rear seats of stranger’s motorbikes around street corners of the capital I ended up finding SIM cards pre-loaded with data, endowing me the pivot-point provided by Google’s digital maps to check where I’d ended up on periodic roadside stops for shots of condensed-sweet-milk ice coffee and bowls of pho.  Occasionally while plunged in the wilderness I’d drive slowly, holding the phone open to locate the blue dot of myself in one hand like a lightning rod awaiting the 3g bolt of signal, my opposite palm gently pressuring the bike’s clutch, though after a near-crash experience involving a wandering cow and a twilit road I retired my decidedly perilous en-route multitasking. Edgeland-animals in Vietnam are not the slaves of Canadian factory farm systems and will often bleed over into small towns in order to graze, posting up on surrounding roadsides.  Perhaps that cow saved my life from greater future catastrophe. While Vietnamese urban outskirts house factory farms that feed nearby cities in corroborating densities between human and animal, resident families of the country’s provincial backwaters often raise free-roaming livestock in big backyards, open spaces emitting gentle animal drones as the sun drops and drivers pack in their spirits and diurnally-roaring auto engines.

So then you’re there (for a first taste): the edgelands of Vietnam, six hours from one of the major two cities’ downtown cores. Multicolored minnow-schools of motorbikes have diluted. Syrupy-with-heat-tarmac underneath your wheels feeds into open-mouthed glades where dirt paths ribbon expanses of astro-turf green, and in your now-rapt mind every quiet highway is haunted with the specter of speed, far from the fish schools, the blur of murderous motorcades like some fatal rainbow in an oil slick. And then the heat. The whole thing is arrested in a blinding exposure, like the floodgates of heaven finally burst and spilled down all excess light with commensurate temperatures. Further towards Dalat, river deltas detail the south and pine forests blanket the central highlands.  By this point you’ve undergone some cosmetic and psychic changes – unbeknownst to you, the profusion of smog has actually lacquered your skin grey and in some places black, a chemical residue clumping your eyelashes together like some splotchy application of masquera. You smell like you’ve showered in siphoned petrol. Despite earmuffs built into the helmet your ears are ringing from the ceaseless auditory stun-grenades of commercial lorry horns.

But you realize without even calculating that it’s all worth it before the first bedtime. Forms of “pagan moon worship” and “satellite idolatry” the authors describe sight-searching for iridium flares aren’t far off from the feeling instilled by the countryside sky supersaturated with stars like a cosmic Pollock canvas.  It’s different from the city. The stars animate themselves off their axes all pressed against the grey-blue sheet of gloaming, and the highest hotel in the region is hardly a detractor from their flourishes, a mere four stories of light pollution. In fact the style of Pagan nature-worship practiced in backdrops that unconsciously command it — backdrops like these, could be an homage to the animistic and polytheistic rituals of Indo-European tribes who did not confine gods within walls, but traveled on anguishing pilgrimages to praise the lost ranges of nature. One could say we are all pagans at heart – in a desire for difficult experiences & outdoor activities — ascending Mount Everest, swimming the English Channel, riding motorbikes through the hinterlands of a tropical desert — we are essentially flagellating ourselves for the privilege of being there, sacrificing safety and sanity on long sojourns into nowhere, proud to be known as the masochistic architects of our own awe.

On the concept mentally and physically ‘decluttering’, the authors speak of “shoring up” our identities, saying “we could drive a couple miles and leave our lives behind us”. They discuss our aggregation of ‘stuff’ and its connection to our identities, leaving this reader to ponder: Which items do we take with us when we move homes or travel? And who are we taking from place to place? Potentially significant considerations. To the stranger I meet on an anonymous café patio on a random street corner in the cosmos I’m a blank slate for interpretation, and I myself ready to exhibit who I want to be in that moment. Traveling is a direct reminder you carry and consolidate a number of identities, a prismatic structure of self that will be seen disparately from different angles as anything from foreigner, tourist and photovisual blur to an incalculable exponent of other possibilities based on appearance and axis-positions of interpreters. In tandem with these intangibilities and the ‘antimatter’ of personalities are what we carry of the corporeal. In communist Vietnam this does not include much, perhaps a simple shelter, an outdated smartphone and tuned up relic of a motorcycle. “In the seventies and eighties there was something of a consensus about the game we were playing: the one who dies with the most things wins” – this is a truism of capitalism, but even as American influence creeps into an increasingly westernized Vietnamese south, there is no sense in Saigon of serious ‘stuff-collecting’ under the moral infrastructure of Mahayana Buddhism or the language of Laozi. Even in speech Farley is influenced by idioms of free enterprise – for one, “freighted with possibility”.

Unlike the ‘oases’ in deserted parts of England, hotels which flank the odd strip of road in Vietnam’s edgelands range from the faded elegance of French colonial architecture and neon majuscule signs beckoning with their blinking to the ostensible ancient ruins with vacant signs awaiting proper historical documentation. Unlike the brimming inns of England, these hotels are either entirely empty or the yellow glow suffusing window squares from street-view will never quite connect four.

Farley writes that a strange thing happens when you step outside the edgelands hotel lobby: “you’ve been here before… This car park. This row of potted plants. These grassy verges and that sound of water running somewhere. From the edgelands hotel, the lobby extends seamlessly into the surroundings”. There is an august sameness, separate from the similarity of two city-blocks. After a while the passing scenery becomes an ecological palindrome, the same stretch of sequence rehearsed infinitely forwards and backwards.

All the observers of blitz and bliss, the backpacker-bikers who’d made it from Hanoi to Hoi An relax around town nursing wounds, some bruised and flayed like overripe peaches, eliciting a reminder of one’s ignorant-tourist-status – that you shouldn’t be operating heavy machinery in the first place (it’s illegal). Foreign driver’s licenses, of which I was never in possession of anyway, aren’t actually recognized and the toll guy at the turnpike had a right to laugh at my bare feet.

Bright and early one morning, in the same fashion as the abandonment of my sandals, my front wheel hit a rock and the bottle of sunscreen tucked into the water-bottle holder at the front of the bike launched itself into the air in search of greener pastures, bouncing down a gentle slope into an Olympic swimming pool of marsh. I spent the next five hours slowly boiling alive like a lobster, renouncing rurality and its tragic lack of amenities.

“When you get to your wild place, who will you meet there? Whose hospitality will you call upon?”.

Anyone’s, but it didn’t play out. My leather skin sucked down a bottle of aloe vera the next day. While searching straw-hatted convenience huts for something to quell the burn I came up only with a bottle of salted lemon-lime vitamin C that would have been similar to lapping my tongue at the shore of the beach, a beach whose water I submerged myself in but the ocean under an ever-present 40C sun is not a cool dip.

“And if we must visit mountains, let’s always make sure there’s a café near the summit”.

These phrases signal a reliance on humanity and initially sound wannabe-Romantic in the tawdriest of ways, until you come to terms with some basic truths and contradictions in yourself — that you want ‘real’, unalloyed natural experiences and their extremes but medicine to protect you and a machine for transportation; you want the name brands of capitalism but the equality of communism, to realize the world is not so big but it’s not so small, that strangers aren’t so strange but plethoras of misfits make it interesting.

Alongside the odd roadside of Vietnam’s edgelands are gravesites. A few times a day you’ll pass a small knoll with clusters of pillars and small gravestones, multicolored paint-faded miniature pagodas and knee-high chapels as if meant for some American dollhouse of a latent teenaged goth. In Vietnam the condition of the gravesite is not as important as the location, hence mostly simple burials in destinations that take a pilgrimage to reach, with a few votive offerings of booze, cigarettes and inexpensive household objects laid on top in a space that always looks curated by someone with a sense of museum. For peaceful rest these sites are all feng-shui’d, meant to take place near a stream of water and in sight of a mountain, which given the physical geography of the place can’t be hard to coordinate. Wayside shrines will be found near electric-green rice paddies, inscribed on hillsides like neck tattoos or nestled near wrens on the edge of a lake. One such stone will likely be dedicated to a man I saw in Hue. I was eating lunch and a small crane beside the footpath bridge materialized a crowd of police and civilians. They were pulling up a body from the lake. The man had tied his ankles to concrete bricks and thrown himself in, perhaps a relative to one of England’s ‘reckless divers’ who come each year during spells of unseasonal heat. A similar fate may or may not await a man from the same town who had a concrete brick flung at his head for stealing customers off an opposing Bánh mì food cart in the dusk between parallel patio bars. Suicide has always seemed more of a cognate to the facelessness and dissociation of big cities, though in these edgelands hopeless capitulation and deaths occur, just the same.

“Our cities have been studied, mapped and celebrated as keenly as our countryside. The same cannot be said of our edgelands”. Though cities by definition in the center of the country, the small-town ‘edge-of-earth’ vibes endemic to places like Huế, Hội An and Nha Trang are not ‘urban’ in any sense of the definition, allowing only the two north and south poles, the old and new capitals of Saigon and Hanoi real ‘city’ status, the rest of the country cuddling its ocean border. Across many stretches, you are drifting through postcards, filled up and spilled over with surreal visual perspectives from birds-eye elevations. Sheets of turquoise water and white sand are touched up in margins with whites and light blues like oil paintings. All sense of time, place and myself lay fallow in the vistas, likely inhering alongside future wanderers.

“Over time, the functionality and tedium of travel becomes part of a lost past. We forget the nine hours it took to travel ninety miles south”.

And over time, it will be work to reassemble the details in your terrain of imagination.
You’ll need a break from the pronounced feeling of now what, a feeling that accompanies the end. A feeling inspired only by travel, overcome… only by travel …
Now what ran through my head, in no such syntax, no sense of anything as I sweated through a final bowl of pho in Tân Sơn Nhất Airport…
5am, running on fumes, capsaicin and salt burning my face.

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4 Comments

  1. We did not ride motorcycles in Vietnam, and I must confess that reading your account is like drinking from a fire hose, but I take a breath and swallow and go back for more. A fascinating account, well written.

    Like

    1. thanks yo! haha, like it said, it was written for a class, with a goal to mirror the aesthetic of the authors. I can’t see myself writing anything like this any time soon, I’m glad you liked it though! Oh ya the MoMA in Bangkok was tight when I went there a couple years ago! Absolutely blew my crew and myself away

      Liked by 1 person

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