This is my story of a passion spent and still alive with a place and people. The story about Vietnam that will come to pass is more of a love affair, a wonderful moment of moments that would be numerous visits and even living in the country. So, instead of trying to cover this wonderful, unique, funny, and sometimes strange country as a visit or places, I will cover all of my time there as one story. One time that was so many times with so many people met, friends and family found. There is no real end to the country for me. Even to this day it stretches onward but in memory only. Memories, moments, and experiences.
The people I found and lost and found again
Going West is a work of fiction and fact. Some people are mashups of groups of people but especially here in Vietnam. There are too many real life stories but the fabric of the being there, living there, loving there brings all of it all around to me. Vietnam is unique for me and I would visit so many times. When I needed a place to refuel or find peace, I’d return. Or when I wanted to find a person I shall call Nhanh. Nhanh was a fixture in my life for a few years. She entered and left and made sweet and sorrowful moments. In the end I never did understand her and perhaps my one failure was to believe I could ever understand another person. I’ve come to realize with Nhanh and others, people are not understood. They only give as much as they want you to know. Nhanh was no different yet she took my heart in many ways. I was old. She was young. I wanted something. Not sex or romance but togetherness, love, friendship. Someone to share those same memories, moments, and experiences with. Perhaps my failure was believing I could have it but we never do give up really wanting to find a person that will offer us something, give us something and take it. Nhanh was that person. She perhaps gave and I took and I gave and she unhesitatingly took. But when the time came to find how it all came together it was not to be.
Our final chapter would be in 2020 in Quy Nhon City in central Vietnam. Then would be the last time I would see her. As I drove away in a taxi with the last text message being one to her phone. The last one ever. This one thing lasted from 2019 to the end of 2020 and so many things happened within the time.
It seems only days upon recollection but I always had this other person in my life. Ly and I were friends for a long time. She lives in the Mekong Delta while I just traveled around but called Hanoi home. We would meet for dinners, coffee, beer in many places. Hanoi always seemed to be prominent but I also flew to Can Tho to see her as I wished and she asked. It was not until after I left Vietnam and after years of finding Ly as the best comrade and friend, that we both felt there was something else tugging at us. I hesitate to use any words describing the feelings because they seem deeper than some word and seeing how stubborn she is in many things and especially with relationships, it became apparent last year after I left we both needed each other. I think it has been hard for Ly to admit to feelings because the words are so different between cultures but over the times of my movement, she has been there. Now still even with movement out of Vietnam but the truth is while I lived in Vietnam, perhaps I took her for granted just a bit. I guess I am like that. I was a gypsy and hobo traversing whatever Vietnam had to offer. Truth be told I was always after just the purposeless going and not arriving.
In these wonderful yet strange times I would meet two others. He a retired American man and she a younger Vietnamese woman. They became close and then closer to me. She became my mom. Yet another mom that would forever ask,
are you sleeping well? Do you eat ok? Are you happy?
And I would tease her but under that was this love affair for all the Vietnamese moms I managed to get. My friends Stan and Boss would meet me for dinners, breakfast, beers, coffee. Their boys would give me hugs, yell they love me on WhatsApp calls, take selfies and ask Boss to send to me. We would enjoy many dinners since Boss is a world class chef and she enjoyed the most of all things, cooking. Not just Vietnamese food but whatever. Stan would make homemade burritos with salsa and we would enjoy side dishes of Vietnamese delicacies. All washed down with copious amounts of Hanoi beer. My last days were a whirlwind of dinners and lunches. Tearful goodbyes, hugs. I walked back after drinking a few too many beers and it dawned on me then like perhaps thousands of times, it was indeed my last day in Vietnam. After I left, the boys would cry and ask why I had left and that they wanted me back. It took some of my heart to see those wonderful friends in just a small window on my iPhone.
I feel fortunate though to have met so many wonderful people. Especially those wonderful caring, stubborn, and loving women. There are many and I miss them. Vung in Hanoi would forever message me to just make sure I was happy.
Another set of Vietnamese friends I was so fortunate to have were Chang, Manh, To, and Vu and their families. Chang would invite me to her wedding celebration and then introduce me to her dad. We would go out to eat at a variety of restaurants from pizza, hamburger places, or american bbq. This group in Hanoi were one of my core groups of friends. All spoke English and would always ask if I wanted to meet for dinner, coffee, beers or to just check on me.
Life was a delightful, mirthful mix of people that all seemed to reach and hold me, keep me safe in their thoughts, and also want to just meet for food in different places.
My moments of Vietnam always were of movement in the country. I loved walking the cities, finding places like alleys to enrich my life, people that entered and exited that the camera lens would forever take. For all my time spent over years in Vietnam, it was about the movement.
I loved all the country but perhaps my one true love was Hanoi. Hanoi had this wonderful social and gregarious nature. A capitol city with attitude. Part so old and yet parts that would stir my soul, mist my eyes. All in Hanoi. My first time for months I fell in love with the city and the people. Many times I visited but lets stir all these into one pot and talk Hanoi.
There’s one place in this wonderful stew. This place I called home. It seemed to have all the ingredients, recipes, pleasures that made living so worthwhile. Beautiful Hanoi. This city of neighborhoods. I came and went so many times. It always filled me with a sense of belonging. It is worthwhile to note all the places I had lived since 2009 did not seem like home. They were long or short stays. With family or not. Nothing that engaged the home feeling until Hanoi. Perhaps it was all of the soul and wonder I found. All sometime felt within a coffee shop or a moment to relax and simply enjoy a wonderful piece of art which always takes me back.
I’ve wondered why Hanoi and not Da Nang which is my favorite city. It would never be Saigon. There was too little to like and too much to hold in my heart and soul. So Hanoi it was. My home. Every time I came back I felt I was coming home. Like Hanoi opened its arms. Held me. Caressed and whispered.
I would stay short or long and then go again and Hanoi changed but waited. I feel the core of my identity is rooted in Hanoi. Like when I am there a switch is turned on. A warmth and vibrancy. People that were so warm and authentic to me. Friends met. Families even joined. In Vietnam families extend out and I became an uncle. Only in Hanoi was I so centered and full. So in all the cities I would visit over the years Hanoi held my heart and soul.
There are many lakes in Hanoi but only one West Lake. If Hanoi were my heart and soul this lake was my spirit. I could have coffee in the mornings, beers at night and find a different lake. Sunset was always this force of life.
I would wander the city down big avenues and alleys. Find hair salons and small coffee shops. Hanoi is powered by coffee, beer, pho and bun cha.
All to be found down some alley. Down another street were banh mi stands. So many different kinds and tastes. I would joke with my Vietnamese friends and say,
Vietnam is spelled F O O D
So much food. Everywhere. Down my street roast duck with vermicelli noodles so rich like a stew. So many noodle dishes. So much street food.
Hanoi. Home. Both start with the same letter. Perhaps you understand why I would return. Always return. Find that warmth. That one place Going West which was arriving. While Hanoi was home I found so much in so many places. I would travel south to north or just stay in one place. Still all was Vietnam and the wonder and wanderlust never ceased for me. In all Vietnam I felt this spirit take me. These warm arms hold me. For an old hobo finding the moments to enjoy were good.
In the space of years, I would travel up and down Vietnam a few times. One time north to south and including a train trip of 30 hours to go from Hanoi to Saigon. Other times flying the friendly skies to so many places. I’d visit Hue, Saigon, Nha Trang, Da Lat, Can Tho, Phu Quoc Island, and others. Repeatedly for some places. The times spent going were both personal enrichment but just falling in love and lust with Vietnam and the many different ways it enforces a daily lifecycle I could just take.
While I mentioned Hanoi was home, it was not my favorite city in Vietnam. Da Nang held me in this spiritual loop and would not let go. The result was so many trips back to Da Nang. I always felt that there was this link from soul to soul and spirit to spirit when I reached Da Nang. Walking so many places or so few. Close to Da Nang is Hoi An which I visited a few times. I would sit in Hoi An at a local beer garden with Vietnamese men and women and was warmly welcomed and often checked on for more beer. The people were generous and kind and soon after arriving, I was just accepted with good nature, laughs and smiles.
The golden bridge took me from here to there and left me with this wondrous mark forever in my soul. Yeah. I love Da Nang. I’ll go back some day and touch that city’s soul and heart. Perhaps back to Ba Na Hills to see the bridge again.
Ties that bind are often not kind
So Vietnam would hold me in thrall but since I am not writing this like a travel blog or Lonely Planet report, I am smashing all of this beautiful country together into my memories both real and fictitious. Perhaps it is unfair for a country with the amazing differences to treat all of it as one memory and moment but I feel what does do the country justice is my love for it. I told my many Vietnamese friends many times Vietnam held me close and I often felt it would not let me go. This was unfortunately not true as the pandemic came to be. I would stay and travel during pandemic times for almost 2 years but those ties that held me so close ended up cutting me. I feel any ties that hold us, sometimes hold us back. We all need to move on in the journey. Find our new West whether its south or east or just next door. So as it turned out I had to leave Vietnam in 2021. The journey of many moments ended up being just one and my time seemed compressed into my friend Vung telling me,
Never say goodbye Uncle Mike. Just say farewell.
So the ties that do bind can be unkind but we have to sever them I feel. Perhaps though it is not severing the ties and my friend Chang and Vu and To would say to me to stay safe, they love me, and want me to come back to them safely. They all told me Hanoi was my home forever. Unfortunately forever does not last so I left instead with one haunting song that carried me.
No End to Vietnam
As it turns out and how this story has changed, now I am going back to Asia. That means this wonderful, funny, and strange country with those people that touched my soul and spirit are going to be closer. The blog will contain the day to day and longer stories to come how Vietnam touched me. Late in 2022 or early 2023 I will return and find a new Vietnam. Not like the Vietnam of 2021 or before. A new place that has turned around just for me.
And those stories will be here. Here on the blog. Here in photographs. Isn’t it wonderful how memories and moments all come together with what will be. Xin Chao Vietnam. I’m coming.