Singapore Adventure

Saturday, October 14, 2006

If I Had A Hammer
by venitha

Vietnam looms large on our southeast Asia map. Pretty in pink, it arches in a graceful layback spin, its delicate wrists dancing seductively into China, the toe tips of its pompom-ed skates whirling up a typhoon in the South China Sea.

Before we moved to Singapore, Vietnam was the only country I could have accurately placed on this map. I'd still have been mostly guessing, but hey, I can pass the US 3rd grade.

Much harder than assembling the jigsaw puzzle of this map, however, is fitting together the disparate pieces of Vietnam's history. I have an overwhelming assortment of shell fragments and bombing debris, ten times more than can possibly fit in one slender country, even one as war-torn as Vietnam. None of them - how can this be? - go together. I need a hammer. Or several aspirin.

There's the country of ancient Confucian traditions, where mandarins and the educated were revered, merchants and the wealthy despised.

There's the country colonized by the French that sent its sons to study in Paris, that romanized its alphabet, that learned to bake baguettes for breakfast.

There's the jungle hell my sister-in-law invoked when we found ourselves hiking in Vermont in its biting black fly season. "My God! This is what Vietnam must have been like."

There's my university (Go Badgers!) where student war protestors rioted, were beaten with clubs and gassed in the very dorms and classrooms where I would later live and learn.

There's the country devastated by war that somehow mustered an army to oust the Cambodian regime infamous for its killing fields.

There's Young's restaurant in my Colorado hometown, where I fell in love with spring rolls and lemongrass, and I discovered the world of Asian food beyond chop suey and sweet and sour pork.

There's my friend Stephanie in Colorado, who as a baby was a Vietnamese boat person. I'm embarrassed that I learned this fact about her more than 5 years ago, but I only this month bothered to learn just what it means.

There's the Vietnamese embassy in Singapore where I got our visas: no security, a filthy paper-strewn room, and a sweaty man who furtively put my cash in his shirt pocket.

There's the lovely modern-day Hanoi I will enjoy next week: its cafés and its water puppets, its and, what Jim highlighted in our Lonely Planet guide, its bia hoi (fresh beer).

But mostly, there's the biggest piece, the Vietnam War, which just doesn't fit at all. It's a jagged rusty scrap of shrapnel shaped like gritted teeth, like a broken heart, like a clenched fist, like an ocean of tears and eyes too empty to cry, like a ditch filled with bodies and a flag-draped coffin, like a nightmare, like futility. It's got the don't-fall-for-it boyish charm of JFK, the stab-you-in-the-back treachery of , the weak-stomached queasiness of Lyndon Johnson. It's missing limbs, and its skin is burned off, and it's blind, and it lives on bark and lizards and fervent belief in flawed political systems.

I need a really big hammer. And several aspirin.

Clearly, I've been doing a bit of reading. I can highly recommend The Things They Carried, The Quiet American, and The Sacred Willow.