Monday, January 28, 2013

Vietnam, Reading

Vietnam was delicious, bustling, carefree, and -at moments- magical. We ate our way from south to north armed with chopsticks and a long list of excellent recommendations from bloggers, Instagrammers, and friends.

Stop reading if you want the light version, the Yay! Vacation in beautiful Vietnam! The food was awesome! version (although all those superlatives are indeed true).

Still with me? Ok.

The breezy spontaneity and gustatory hedonism of our travel was in stark contrast to the historical backdrop of the Vietnam War, which is almost possible to ignore as an American tourist, especially for someone my generation and younger. Vivid case in point: slurping up a bowl of crab noodle soup in Hanoi and angling to get a good shot with my big Canon, then making sudden eye contact with a sun-pickled man in his late 60s on crutches across the street; one leg of his soiled trousers was neatly hemmed below the groin. Probably a traffic accident I told myself as I reflexively looked away, but I knew better.

We started in the south in Saigon, where I read Graham Greene's classic novel The Quiet AmericanWhich should be required reading for any liberal-arts-educated, idealistic young pup before they are unleashed upon the developing world. I wish I'd read it long ago.

I plowed through Philip Caputo's staggering Vietnam War classic A Rumor of War as we made our way north, to Nha Trang, Hoi An, Hanoi. We visited the infamous "Hanoi Hilton" where my great-uncle Hervey Stockman was imprisoned and tortured as a POW for six years. Every morning we sucked down our cà phê sữa đá -iced coffee with sweetened condensed milk- among the flirting teenagers and aloof, cigarette'd intelligentsia, and every night we ate our hearts out in excellent, welcoming company in the makeshift sidewalk restaurants the come to exquisite life after dark.

In the margin of our Lonely Planet, next to the starred recommendation for some orgasmic bánh xèo joint (rice batter crepes, I die!), I scribbled "never eaten so well while being so emotionally conflicted & morally dumbfounded at same time." Maybe this isn't the case for most people. I don't know.

One afternoon we rented a motorcycle and tooted along the berms between electric green rice paddies, my arms around my Iraq War vet, my thoughts wandering to the distant jungle hills where Hervey was captured some forty years ago.

"You think our hypothetical kids'll visit Fallujah on vacation in forty years?" I yelled into the wind to P.

He didn't hear me over the clamor of the engine.

More soon. 


  1. A year removed, I get downright giddy looking at these pictures - longing for the adventure of crossing the street, the morning ambience of street pho, the giggles shared over our ridiculous height reduced by the plastic stools... But this is a great reminder of the conflict we often feel while traveling, that gets forgotten with hindsight. When we went on a two-day kayak trip around the Ha Long Archipelago, it was just us and a 20-something local who was our guide and great company. Kev and I paddled slowly along together on our way back, discussing how bizarre it was that just forty years ago, they could have been trying to kill each other. We were left with just one word: "Why?"

    1. EXACTLY.

      And you should know your insight and recommendations were invaaaaaaluable, Liz. We called your email the Weird Birds Bible to Vietnam. xoxo

  2. I loved following your photos over Instagram! Im even more enthralled to hear of your families connection to this faraway land.
    Sometimes it's hard not to imagine pasts like this one as a page in a history book or even as some novel of fiction. I guess because I have never experienced anything so terrible; it's hard to imagine it as some people's actual reality, historical or not. I just can't imagine being in the middle of a war and I am so grateful for that. So grateful for people like your uncle, my uncles (3 Canadian soldiers in the family!) and your husband.

    You should write a fantastic travel guide already! Or some great novel.

  3. As always, Lil, I am impressed with your ability to capture an exact emotion I would be sure to feel. My grandfather served 3 terms in Vietnam and I feel certain I'd be constantly trying to come to terms with feelings similar to yours.

    Either way, I was totally entranced by your photos on Instagram and have been anxiously awaiting your blog recap. How do I get myself on the Ash + Lily travel plan to exotic locations?

  4. "You think our hypothetical kids'll visit Fallujah on vacation in forty years?" I yelled into the wind to P.

    i mean, i hope so.

    unrelated: i think that's the biggest durian i've ever seen.

  5. Beautifully photographed, beautifully written.. And now I want a Vietnamese iced coffee.

  6. Beautifully captured photos! Those red fruits are my favorite :)

  7. Touching post! My husband, an Iraq and Afghanistan vet himself, just traveled to Vietnam for school. I was sadly unable to join him (gots this thing called a j-o-b) but he also felt the historical tension you felt. I hope to go one day too, although would need to do some reading up before hand in order to appreciate it more deeply.

  8. It's important that the memory of this lives on with you.

    Beautiful pictures, and some food for thought, as always.

  9. Oh, Lily. This is wonderful! I cannot wait to read more! And when I visited Bulgaria, I had similar conflicting emotions. It was so apparent how the Cold War (and subsequent corruption) destroyed the country, and as I was there to primarily research the Roma's plight, it was even worse. I cannot even imagine how Vietnam is trying to recover.

  10. and so interesting how these feelings surface in places that are unfamiliar to our everyday, when of course there's the same disjunction of past heartache and present 'normalcy' right at home. glad for your thoughtfulness as always.

  11. Dichotomy: discomfort/delight - it's a difficult balance. Eloquent as always, Lily.

    The very concept of our children's generation vacationing in Fallujah is... well, I'm going to quietly think about that for a while. As an art history & cultural anth undergrad student my professors were frequently framing the area in terms other than war. And yet... many of the people I knew in college took trips to Croatia (2004-5ish?) and never even thought about the history of war/conflict in that area. Just how cheap yet decadent their European beach vacation would be.

  12. So glad you're sharing both aspects of the trip.

  13. My father was stationed in Viet Nam twice... at the very beginning (1963) and the end (1972)... he always thought it was one of the most beautiful countries he had ever seen. He loved the people. I hope to travel there shortly.... just wish dad was around to share my observations.

  14. Beautiful post - very true words. I felt the same way when I visited Vietnam. I also recently visited Mostar, Bosnia & Herczegovinia - gorgeous, beautiful land, such beauty...bittersweet and drearied by the hardships of war. Sarajevo is the same way. Even when I went to Outback Australia and camped under the stars and rose in the mornings to spectacular desert sunsets, learning about the holocaust of the Aboriginals and the suffering of the people on that very land brought such melancholy to my trip. Most of that trip was spent writing in my journal, staring into the distance, trying desperately to reconcile the fun and beauty of the present with the haunting shadows of the recent past. I think having this ying-yang appreciation of the world and for traveling experiences is very important; it sets you apart from the average traveler and gives you a finer awarenss of humanity. Thanks for sharing.

  15. I'm so glad you guys went. And that you actually think about these things. xoxo

  16. I think your sensitivity to the social environment around you is something that makes you, you. And you are awesome.

    What a freakin' cool trip! Ah, all that food!! I'd love to hear what your kids say about Fallujah.


  17. exquisite. can't wait for more. xoxo

  18. Beautiful pictures and words. So well said about the places that are so fun to visit, but also so hard to wrap your head around the dichotomy of it all. Can't wait to hear more! Also, your book recommendations are the best. Adding The Quiet American to my list.

  19. I had a friend who went to Vietnam about ten years ago and felt the same. Maybe being Italian the moral issues could have been slightly different but he told me he could still feel the war all over the place, even when there was no actual sign of it. He talked about Vietnam food for about six months after he came back. I can't wait to read more about Vietnam, I love the way you describe things.
    Your book recommendations are always the best. I'm curios, do you have a kindle? I love actual books, the smell of the paper and the feel of having one in my hands, but I read so much and kindle books are sometimes a lot cheaper so I'm considering buying one, but I don't know...

  20. Ah! My comment got et. I wanted to say I felt like this, but maybe even more so several years ago when I went to Nepal to visit the man I was dating. He moved to Nepal because he had been in college and wanted to do international aid work. He then got a job helping at an NGO and I just...wrestled with everything about it. About how much money he made in comparison to everyone else he worked with- making a US wage, not a Nepali wage, about how deeply sad I found the country- children prostitutes huffing glue, riots, civil war, the machinations of China and India, the Tibetan exiles living in Nepal and being spied on by China, the caste system, and the way he seemed to fetishize the whole place, and accuse my feelings of being "your decision to not like Nepal". I was uncomfortable the whole time I was there, which was only 2 weeks, but it was just so rough there. I had been to poor countries before but there was just this sense that this country was so so very far behind in all the steps it would need to get people infrastructure and government and education, and then all these NGOs just swooping around, and helping some, but also feeding off the situation.

    On the other hand, I loved going to Thailand and Costa Rica. I think because to me, both those countries had struggles, but I got the sense that the capacity to work on those struggles was there- there was a middle class, there weren't that many big external forces getting in the middle of things and pushing people around- so they were sort of free to figure it out in a way that Nepal doesn't get- its so much a pawn between two huge states, that are invested in making sure it doesn't get powerful enough to cut off the hydroelectric, so Thailand felt like it was alive and kicking and taking every single tourism dollar it could, and Nepal felt like it was falling under the weight of so many punches while jerky americans hiked around with those cargo pants that unzip into shorts on.

    I love traveling and I think if you did it respectfully, spent money in the local economy, and thought about the whole bit, "what does it mean?" question, then it's ok.

  21. What an amazing trip, Lily. Seriously, will all our hypothetical kids be vacationing in Fallujah someday?

    Beautiful photos, as always.

  22. You are such a wonderful story teller, among other things!! Thank you for sharing.

  23. keepin it real, girlfriend. yes one does hear that the food is insane. jealous over here.

  24. I hadn't thought about our children going to interesting. As a Canadian I have weird feelings about militarization and going to was just not part of my upbringing. It was not valorized the way it is in the USA. When I was in the Philippines I felt conflicted about being an observer - a consumer of the "other" but I had none of the historical conflict (other than being a white person who may as well have been an american for all everyone else knew)....

    My father in law was a photographer stationed in Vietnam during the war. Wouldn't I kill to know what those photos were like. He doesn't talk about it ever.

    Did you ever have the feeling of "taking" when you took pictures? Sometimes I felt like I was fetishizing when all I wanted to do was share the beauty I saw in the Philippines...Different is beautiful and sometimes it is hard for us to see that kind of beauty except for in a place our eyes are not used to looking at...

    I love your instagram photos. Official lobbying for vietnam trip has begun in my home. I need to go.

  25. Incredible story about your great-uncle. I think I would have the same conflicted thoughts as you, with my background in history, I can't help it anywhere I go. Gorgeous photos, love all the bright colors.

  26. I keep checking in to see if you've posted anything else about your Vietnam trip. This time, I clicked the link leading to your great-uncle. How fascinating! Thanks for must feel wonderful to come from a family with heroes in it.

  27. I just left the above anonymous comment. I started googling to find out more about the situation for POWs in Hanoi and I found this amazing online article...

    About halfway through it talks about the tap code and the various ingenious ways it was used by American prisoners. (I'm sure you've heard more than was ever written, having a family member who was actually there.)

    This kind of survival in the face of the unknown is incredible. I'm a liberal gal, but I can't help being in complete awe of the culture that formed over several years in this prison.

  28. as always amazing trips you lucky gal. id like to go myself someday. what a horrible thing concerning your uncle. no where near that same experience but my father had a nervous breakdown while serving there in the 1960s. i cant imagine either.

    Also that pink corridor of sorts is gorgeous.

  29. I have been quietly following your Instagram for some time now and just began delving into your blog. Each post has been entertaining and enlightening, but I had to comment on this one. I feel you're such a kindred spirit, I work with artisans in Guatemala to produce my line of accessories and I see so many parallels between your work in India and my work in Guatemala. I also traveled to Vietnam last spring for about a month. I completely share this sentiment: "never eaten so well while being so emotionally conflicted & morally dumbfounded at same time." I loved my experience there, but am still processing it months later.

    ps- I just ordered my first Block Shop scarf and I cannot wait to receive it!

  30. Vietnam has a diverse culture and rich cuisine draws many travelers look to. visa vietnam


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