Seeing Vietnam
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Sept 11

Seeing Vietnam

In November 1992, I went to Vietnam on a magazine assignment for Travel and Leisure to explore the country from the tourist's point of view.  I had so many vivid impressions that I could not keep them contained to a magazine article.  Seeing Vietnam: Encounters of the Road and Heart was published by HarperCollins in 1994.

The following excerpt was one of the experiences I had in Hanoi.

I returned to Hoan Kiem Lake twice more on my own, for the upside of jet lag is that if you bound out of bed at an unlikely hour, your unnatural alertness can be put to good advantage. Dressed and raring to go in a sweatshirt and down vest one nippy morning before 6:00 a.m., I strode to the park in the semidarkness, feeling brave and selfconscious. 

It was like entering a vast outdoor gymnasium for athletes of all ages and disciplines. Small contingents of women and men were marching in unison down winding footpaths, batting a shuttlecock, tossing a soccer ball. A few individuals were jogging, some had commanded a couple of square feet of space to practice their solitary, elaborate katas, and some were simply limbering up as they walked at a brisk clip, going through the motions of upperbody calisthenics. I fell into formation in the rear row of a class in basic tai chi.

A veteran of many exercise systems, I had no trouble, in principle, following the instructor's mot, hai, ba, bon (one, two, three, four), except that I was wackily out of kilter with my classmates, extending my left leg when I should have been extending my right. In fairness to my reputation for agility and coordination, I'd been trained at the New York Health and Racquet Club, and other exercise studios too numerous to mention, to follow the instructor with mirror movements, while at Hoan Kiem Lake in Hanoi, they seemed to do the reverse. Facial isometrics and accompanying grunts were also a challenge, but I felt I'd acquitted myself admirably, and left invigorated after the halfhour drill.

Two mornings later I was back in the park, brimming with confidence. A pale full moon was high in the sky. This time I found an all women's class that quickly made room for me.

Mot, hai, ba, bon, more missteps and flailing arms in the wrong direction, shy glances and gentle laughter from my classmates. The drill was over too soon. With animated chatter and a firm tug on the arm, I was directed to take my place in a double line and marched to a new location. The sun was full up now. Someone handed me a badminton racquet. Oh, okay. I did miserably with the shuttlecock, swatting it erratically, missing it altogether, almost forgetting in my mortification that the idea was to keep the thing aloft and in play. I sensed that my partner felt embarrassed for me.

The women's idea, however, had been to keep me in tow. One of them had run to get her Englishspeaking daughter, who arrived on her bicycle, out of breath and sharply dressed. My tai chi classmates gathered round.

"My mother says you joined the class for old women!"

"Tell her I'm not so young myself."

"They want to know where you are from."

"America. New York."

"They want to know, are there classes like this in America?"

"Not in the parks. Not free classes." Ah, tell them what they want to hear. I warmed to the task. "In America we have many exercise classes, and people who wear very fancy exercise clothes, and there are private instructors who come to the homes of the rich, but it's all very expensive."

The women buzzed among themselves, nodding with civic pride.

"They want to know, do you like Hanoi?"

"Tell them I like Hanoi very much. Hanoi is a beautiful city, with beautiful parks. Tell them" What was it I wanted to tell them? "Tell them . . . " Oh Jesus, god. "Tell them I'm very sorry for what my country did to your country."

And I burst into tears.

My response was a tad more intense than any of us had anticipated. Complex emotions flickered in their eyes, doubtless having to do, in part, with my appalling loss of control.

Setting her chin a little higher, the daughter met my stricken gaze. "They understand."

What could I do except beat a hasty retreat? I wasn't going to stand there bawling, a public water fountain at Hoan Kiem Lake.