Tripping in Vietnam — Susan Fealy

(i) Saigon
In Saigon, water is omnipresent; it saturates the air, travelling down Saigon River feels more like entering the sea. It smells of rain. After rain, lacquered altars on the footpaths seem a little brighter, the three blue-and-white ceramic cups a little fuller, the incense still as frail as birds’ feet. Sometimes it’s like walking through someone else’s lounge: round a corner and your hand almost touches a pair of bare feet. They belong to a man stretched out, head propped on his elbow, smoking a cigarette, thongs set neatly at the foot of his couch; handlebars gleam near his head. Slim young men in blue uniforms stand in doorways, survey rows of motorbikes, or sit on plastic stools, lean towards a mate; their red table small as a kinder set, topped with glasses of tea or iced black coffee drenched in condensed milk.

In Saigon work, relaxation and play are like the tick of a clock; equidistant from each other, the next one never far away. Yesterday’s roses stacked in rubbish bins, today’s in the hotels, tomorrow’s on their way to dawn markets. Amid the dark roots of city trees, bright bowls of half-eaten soup, a small broom made of sticks props on a smooth, dark trunk. In open windows, above doorways, small plastic bags full of water, tethered by string: a fly cannot look into the reflection of the sun. Locals pay to set birds free from bamboo cages, each evening the birds return for food, settle in to their bamboo hotels. In Saigon, even the birds are pragmatic.

In Saigon, there are people missing: the median age is twenty-two. The ground floor is more expensive … it is easier to run away. Young trees on highways are trimmed to leave a stripe of nothing between the branches. In Saigon, water is never far away; it rains every day in September and you wait while it smashes down, then all goes on as before, except the gutters are agush with dirty water, and today a name plaque bobs along like a boat.

(ii) On the way to the Cu Chi Tunnels
Incense is the color of napalm: red and yellow. In the shadows of an open shop front, thin sheets of granite stacked against the wall, a baby sleeps inside a rattan lotus leaf; in a forest of rubber trees a man rocks inside a hammock, a motorbike his sentry. In small towns, geese patrol the footpaths, small dogs sleep on doorsteps in the sun; feral topiary lean every which way, daring each other to leave town. Coconut palms and sugarcane corral the houses; graves island the rice fields. Ancestor jars are deeper than rice jars. There are no more rice fields. The dirt road is ridged with tyre tracks; by the roadway, low houses, their rooves almost trampled by flowering vines.

(iii) In a boat along a tributary of the Mekong
Water coconuts hang their heads among mangroves, mud-slicked jetties begin to look like tanks. The crocodiles are extinct; only the boats have eyes. Locals call water coconuts dark lotus; on wedding days they float them like carved flowers across the lake. Husked coconuts spread out under the tarpaulin like a bird’s eye view of a nursery. At the centre, a lino square and a metal spike. Local coconuts have their eyes peeled—they last for a week. Some are set aside—eyes hairy- lidded—these exports stay sweet for a month. Moonshine whisky clear as rainwater; we drink from a glass thimble. The family dog is getting tetchy.

(iv) Dalat: the summer residence of Bảo Đại, the last Emperor
A piebald horse is tethered by the circular driveway. The garden is tidy, far from immaculate. The house; all smooth curves of caramel piped in white. The mildew under the sweep of the art-deco verandah so thick it threatens to unbalance its horizontal. A ceramic pot overflows with iridescent purple, the mild horse shines in the sun, dips his head now and then to munch from streams of grass. I follow his gaze down the hill. It is hard not to enjoy the view, hard not to inhale this all-around pine-scented air like it’s a newly invented health-farm cigar. This is the summer residence of the last Emperor of Vietnam.

The plush has well and truly worn off the velvet—weft under orange plush is lemon. The guide invites my friend to sit in the sturdy club chair and rest her injured leg. As she sinks in the very chair where the Emperor likely sat to read a book, it feels right and very, very wrong. The family seem to have just got up and walked out one day. They even left their books! The works of Shakespeare, translated into French, Le Bible, and above the dark wood bookcase, a divaricate of tiny swords, their hilts the edge of a fan. A marble bust of Bảo Đại is set in an alcove below the books.

Each piece of furniture so self-contained, so perfect for its function, it cannot be anything else. Yet, so matched in style throughout the house each piece seems like a relative. This is where the children sat to eat breakfast, this is where they slept and played. Even the kitchen equipment remains. The meeting room is well-proportioned, the long table is water-worn and warped. The map of Vietnam floats its silver like a dragon swimming underwater. It was gifted to the Emperor when he was still a boy. And in each room, stunning reds and yellows, the flowers of Dalat: each arrangement is silent theatre, so vivid they are like blows, like love.

The king-size bed of the Empress looks towards the window. Light falls on the thick glass of her desk, the white lace doiley underneath is ironed and very white. Her window looks out onto the balcony where they gathered to watch the moon.

In the back room, the sash window has been flung open, and on the mustard vinyl couch below, two fans, snapped shut. Nearby, a row of glittering costumes available for hire; they seem untouched, as if no one wants to pretend.

(v) Dalat: Mr Chen and the Zen Monastery
Mr Chen names flowers as if he can smell their scent. He takes us to the Zen Monastery at the top of the mountain, walks us under Turquoise Jade Vine and always below, rags of cloud, the opaque green of Xuan Huong Lake. We are between pine forest and water, overseen by a black temple bell and an alarming dragon sculpted from hedgerow green. A place where a profusion of flowers is held in check. Mr Chen volunteers in the Zen garden on weekends, gave up his work as a forest ranger when he could no longer protect the pines. He tries to explain, Buddha says enlightenment is to be light … or to be like a bird.

He walks us to the foot of the Zen lake, tells that at a certain time of year the border of cherry blossom blooms pink, the water hyacinth spills purple and the fringe of bottlebrush drips red into the lake. He smiles at a memory I can almost see, tells us that we will have to come back.

He leads us past huge temple dogs that guard the motorbikes of monks, towards the Austrian cable car that will take us down the mountain; each hang their slender color like sleek unlit lanterns. He tells us that the din of its machine may be too loud, we may not hear the birds that sing as they perch near the top of rain-soaked trees.

(vi) Approaching Hanoi
Our plane descends into green, a scatter of lakes like spoonfuls of water; white houses tilt red A-line rooves as if expecting snow. At the airport young gray-robed monks collect the luggage, their elders, draped in saffron stand back from the crowd. Our pink bus passes longer, white oblongs; factories built by the Japanese. The blood-red sun in a smoky sky is large as my fist. Small fires burn holes in the corners of rice fields. Tiny women in large hats bend into rice forests. Water buffalo large as mountains. Some of the gray is pollution, some is just the weather. Some of the rhetoric is true.

(vii) Hanoi Village
Black goats walk in a single file along the edge of a flooded rice field; white ducks spread out every which way. A man in a green helmet surveys a wide green field; on the other side of an unmade road, gray houses survey him. Three grandmothers squat in the laneway, each holding a soft baby girl. Only the grandmothers smile. Near the drain pipe, dark, shallow water, seven buds of lotus. Three empty bicycles in a narrow roadway. Five small boys stand on a tall brick fence. One flying brick.

(viii) Early Morning walk around Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Imagine a new game played out around a Koi pond: the moves are curvilinear, and there is always room to move forward or retreat; as if the volume has been turned down, tuned to shades of gray. Hoan Kiem Lake is at its most silvery-green and misty in the morning and its cool enough to keep walking and walking and walking. The wide boulevards and huge canopies of celadon trees leave spaces for doing and for dreaming. Groups of elders stretch out in Tai Chi, young men naked to the waist bend to badminton; the shuttlecock and net barely visible. A group stand in a circle, turn sideways and cheer, each tap the back of their comrade with light punches. Solitary figures stand at the rim of the lake, face the water, arms raised above their heads; an older couple dance salsa; choristers study their song sheets in a gap between singing. Someone tosses bits of fried fish; brown and white on green water, the surface ignites in gold-red then restores its reflections.

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Susan Fealy is a Melbourne-based poet and clinical psychologist who toured Vietnam for two weeks in September 2014, courtesy of her friend and fellow traveller. Her poems have won two national poetry awards and appear in journals and anthologies in Australia, India and the United States including Best Australian Poems 2009, 2010 and 2013. She is developing her first full-length collection.