An appellation I knew at such a juvenile age that I didn’t even possess the ability to pronounce.
In my household, this Southeast Asian country was not just a land mass on a spinning decorative globe situated quaintly on an office desk. The effect was more of a haunting utterance. Something I would come to know in a full spectrum as I aged; whether I desired to or not.
Traveling by bus, and crossing the Cambodian/Vietnamese border was not just about an expedition for me anymore — this was personal.
You see, a young man, much like myself, came to Vietnam — probably not the one in the picturesque brochures shown by travel agents — no, this was an entirely different place.
This adolescent journeyed from far away, leaving everything and everyone he ever loved behind him, with just barely the life necessities for such an adventure shoved tightly into a duffle bag.
One could say that a boy came to Vietnam; Who came out was a man whom had seen the worst that humanity has ever had to offer, war.
Like many subadult gentlemen in that generation, the Vietnam war took everything from my father. It took with it the beautiful land and the gleeful people along with it as well — with an over abundance of causalities on both sides.
So here I am, in a country foreign to me.
Maybe I’m searching for what my father lost, maybe I’m exploring for something that tells me a more vivid story than he could, or maybe I’ll simply leave this place… With nothing but what is shoved inside MY oversized duffle bag and a few extra passport stamps.
The rainy day on a long-drawn-out bus ride seemed to fit perfectly. It was like the setting of a Poe story — storms, nightfall, and mystery — all that was needed to complete the gloomy mood was a raven tapping at my door. I have dreamed countless times what this country would mean to me when we finally greeted each other.
All I have been met with so far is a land full of life — from the markets of Saigon, to the sand dunes of Mui Ne — touristy maybe, but still brimming with character and charm. Between the noodle shops, fresh seafood, and ingredients left behind by the French, Vietnam is easily a place for delectable cuisine.
Besides the nourishments at nearly every corner, there is the ever changing geography (almost like a trip up the Pacific Coast Highway in California). Scenes change from big cities to cliff lined beaches, lush jungles to barren stretches, and, of course, the rice fields… Lots of them.
To make travel “easier” open buses take wanderers, such as myself, up the coast in just a matter of days; Saigon to Hanoi — the whole stretch of the country — can be seen in the blink of an eye if chosen.
The aforementioned pilgrimage was my own. Miles on buses or walking city streets, but for me it was mainly the buses. Long voyages in monstrous rectangular vehicles that could topple over at any turn. Staring out the panorama of bus windows is how I took in most of Vietnam.
I have to say, it not only allowed room to indulge in some self-reflection time, but also the ability to observe appealing scenes flash rapidly by, straight into my retinas.
Scenes just too intimate to photograph.
Boats glimmered against the glasslike South China Sea as my particular sleeper bus accelerated its way through the twisty hills of the coastline — almost toppling at the turns I spoke of. I found myself entranced by the illuminations, as if staring out at the vast and immeasurable night sky, counting every twinkling star.
The tantalizing aesthetics of the overland commute was about the only pleasurable part of the twelve-plus-hour expedition to the upper region of Vietnam. Driving in South East Asia is particularly hair-raising, especially when you are no longer just a mere spectator but a captive — fully absorbed in the situation at hand.
And for me, reality was pleather pillows, sporting cracked materiel from, what is most likely, years of use. The occasional stops appeared to be seemingly for nothing more than to make the hours linger and crawl by.
The only entertainment?
Watching landscapes change from beach villages to sleepy little towns, interchanging the flicker of fishing vessels to the radiant glare of the stars. Sometimes the two intersected simultaneously, which lit up so brightly that the heavens and earth momentarily merged.
And with everyone fast asleep, my inner romantic kicked into high gear, the bus window turned to a portal — showing me the Milky Way like I’ve never seen before. I imagined, once, a time ago, that my father trekked the hillside gazing at the same stars.
In an era of hate and violence, I like to think that the same little blinking lights, lightyears away, painted a similar sky.
Painted even more brilliant than Van Gogh could have interpreted himself.
And maybe it even gave way to some relief and peace during the harshness of war.