International Writers Magazine: Vietnam Moments
Nordstrom in Hanoi
fairly sick the entire four months I was living in Hanoi, I was
sicker than usual for a full week after editing an economics thesis
called "Inequality and Education." I blame bad grammar
for the illness, and after the non-excitement of reading a 56-page
paper in broken English on a topic that involved a ludicrous number
of statistics, I spent a long time recovering.
I accomplished this
by lounging lazily on my bed to watch bootleg DVDs while living a very
absorbing imaginary life inside my mind. Several hysterically funny
fictional things happened during the week; my madcap state egged on
by the fact that my roommate was away with her visiting parents and
I had nothing but the sound of honking horns and people shouting to
keep my sense of reality in check.
Eventually, tired of being bedridden, I decided to take a trip across
Hanoi to collect my paycheck for the illness-inducing editing job. I
was not sure how physically up to the challenge I was, but I had begun
to bore myself and experience the first signs of cabin fever. I had
an e-mail from the man that gave me the job telling me to simply "stop
by" and pick up the check at his office, a good 45 minutes away
from my dorm by bus. Despite his e-mails implication, the errand
was definitely not close enough to consider casual; nobody with any
life at all, fictional or otherwise, would have been able to step out
of my dorm and simply "stop by." I began the pilgrimage, however,
on a motorbike driven by a giddy young man hellbent on learning my entire
When I finally arrived, the doors to the office were locked and the
gate partially down, although a motorbike was parked outside. Nobody
was in the street and all of the other businesses on the block looked
fully closed. I knocked loudly, and after several false alarms I was
finally buzzed in only to find that nobody could figure out what I was
doing there. The Australian man I had discussed my payment with was
not around, and his assistant, who spoke English only in a strictly
theoretical sense, had never heard of me nor the graduate thesis I had
spent days editing. He suggested I come back later, when his boss was
around, and quickly went back to pretending to do work at his computer
while surfing the web and chatting on Yahoo! messenger.
Confused, lost, and still sick, I left the office in a huff and wandered
around the neighborhood looking for the bus stop that would bring me
back to my dorm room and allow me to resume my fictional life.
I finally saw it in the distance, across a busy four-lane road with
a solid cement barricade dividing it and no crosswalks in sight. Running
across the street, I nearly killed myself trying to hop over the barricade
without catapulting myself into traffic, and made it to the bus stops
shelter. I could feel a wave of exhaustion coming on, aided by the fact
that I had not eaten in days, and sat on the metal pole that was propped
up in the place of a bench under the shelter.
As I waited for the bus, an old man came and sat on one end of the pole.
He was joined by a friend a few minutes later, who greeted the old man
and sat down between us. They did not talk, his friend choosing to stare
at me for several minutes instead. This was not an uncommon occurrence,
since I was apparently very funny looking to most people in Vietnam,
with my unnaturally pale skin, ridiculously pointy nose, and oddly brown
hair. Willing to let it slide for the moment, I averted my eyes in an
attempt to look as casual as possible, as if somebody had yelled "act
natural" while sticking a large lens in my face and snapping pictures
of me. Eventually I began to feel uncomfortable being inspected, however,
and silently chided the potential driver of the next bus to hurry up.
After growing tired of staring, the old mans friend decided he
had been silent on the matter long enough and turned to me. He began
the requisite, "Where are you from? How long are you in Vietnam,
etc.?" conversation in spotty English, although he did not understand
my answers beyond the word "America."
"Ngoi My!" ("American!") he said to himself, flashing
his blackened teeth and nodding to nobody in particular, as if this
explained everything. Then, he promptly ran out of English words and
got up to walk to the other side of the old man, who could evidentially
only hear in one ear.
They were discussing me, I could tell, because when they were done talking,
the old man turned to me and began to stare as well. Other people on
the pole followed his lead, and soon I was beginning to feel that something
bigger than just my general appearance might be wrong with me. The old
man moved in closer and said something in my ear sounded like it was
in predominantly gibberish. I smiled at him, shrugged, and then I realized
that he was asking me where I was from in heavily accented French, the
language of Vietnams former colonial leadership.
Although I had expected Vietnam to be filled to the brim with French
speakers, up to that point the only other French-speaking experience
I had had was with a bicycle taxi driver in Hue who had asked me "Allez-vous
to hotel you? You nom what?" during our ride. This worked out well
for me, since I was generally self-conscious about attempting French
conversation, and was in general not interested in speaking the language
of colonialism in a nation that is still very much affected by that
period of its history. After pausing a moment in thought, however, I
responded to the older man on the pole in my own pathetic French out
of amusement, answering "Amerique? No! Etats-Unis? Je ne sais pas
le mot." His friend laughed and explained to him in Vietnamese
that I was American and therefore spoke English, not French. The older
man pressed on, however, asking me what I was doing in Vietnam, in French.
"Qest-ce que tu faits au Vietnam?"
I smiled as his friend explained to him again that as a "ngoi my,"
I spoke English. I also nodded and said "Ngoi My," for emphasis.
Smiling, the older man wagged his finger at me and indicated that he
finally understood. Thinking of how to best salvage the situation without
a common language between us, I decided the best thing to do would be
smile really wide and nod, which then made him think that perhaps I
deserved an explanation.
In French, he casually explained that he knew French because of the
French had colonized Vietnam a long time ago and had made it necessary
for him to learn it. I nodded in the most understanding way possible
as the entire line of people sitting next to me, who were also in on
the secret that I was an English speaker, giggled to themselves. He
looked pleased with himself, and as he finished the story my bus finally
came. I waved, shouted "Au revoir!" over the engines
roar, and stepped in. He waved back and smiled, tapping his friend on
the shoulder to indicate that he should wave to me too. So ended my
first true reality of the week, and I was back to the joys of non-fictional
© Lila Nordstrom Sept 21st 2006
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