Thursday, May 8th 2014:
If there is here revealed a capacity to shock, to startle the lifeless ones from their profound slumber, let us congratulate ourselves; for the tragedy of our world is precisely that nothing any longer is capable of rousing it from its lethargy. No more violent dreams, no refreshment, no awakening. In the anesthesia produced by self-knowledge, life is passing, art is passing, slipping from us: we are drifting with time and our fight is with shadows. We need a blood transfusion. – Anais Nin, 1934
6:30AM. The sun is peeking through the blinds so I rip them wide open, I’m awake with purpose. I go down to the second floor of the hotel for a quick breakfast. Boiled potatoes, watermelon, canteloupe, and coffee. It could be any other day: wake up, eat, get to work. But it’s not any other day, I’m further away from those other days than I’ve ever been, isolated on the other side of the world, surrounded by the immensity of it. I go back to my room to pack some things in a tote: sunscreen & sunglasses. I’m across the street buying a bottle of water. I’m in the lobby ready for the day. It’s 8:00AM in Vietnam.
We take a walk down to the Perfume River to get on a dragon boat. These aren’t the elegant dragon boats of the past. No rowers, no intimacy with the river, there’s nothing romantic about them. The word “TOURIST” is painted on the side of each. We’re enclosed in glass, there are tables of souvenirs ready to be sold, the motor gently pushes us up river. We sit in plastic chairs as an elderly woman rocks gently in a hammock near the back, her caged bird sits silent, I can’t wait to disembark. The boat docks and we walk up the stone steps to Thien Mu Pagoda. It’s brutally hot. I take a photo of some Chinese tourists taking a photo and move on to the Buddist temple directly behind it, getting away from the group. There’s the car Thich Quang Duc, the famous Buddhist monk, drove on his way to self-immolating in protest outside of the Cambodian embassy in Saigon. It’s displayed along with a plaque near the rear of the temple. I find a tree to sit under for a few minutes, take a drag of water. It’s completely silent, incense smoke wafts up around my ears, tucks in filling my nose and I don’t want to get away from it. It feels peaceful here.
This is no longer a vacation. It’s a quest. It’s a quest for fun. You’re gonna have fun, and I’m gonna have fun… We’re all gonna have so much fucking fun we’re gonna need plastic surgery to remove our goddamn smiles. – Clark Griswold, 1983
It’s time to get on a motorbike. We all knew this was coming, some of us were excited, the majority are hesitant. There are 17 of us, 17 drivers, 17 motorbikes. We pick keys out of a bag and find the corresponding bike. Shake hands with your driver for the day. I loosen the straps on my helmet to fit over my gigantic head and we’re off.
My driver stoically kicks the motor on and heads straight into traffic, my knuckles are already white, the left hand grabbing his shoulder, the right wrapped tight around the seat. It’s a quick introduction, only about 5 minutes and we’re visiting a local incense maker. I buy a bag of freshly rolled cinnamon-scented incense and I’m excited to get back on the bike. I’m already loosening up, my left hand on my knee, my right on the handle behind the seat. We swerve down narrow dirt roads to a lookout point 10 minutes away. Here is the Perfume River. This is how a creator would have wanted it to be seen. Smoke rises from a distant rice paddy, wooden skiffs barely move down river, the trees greener than any green I’ve seen before, the brightness and contrast of actual life turned up to a cinematic level. A path leads this way, a path leads down to the river. Abandoned military barracks are behind me riddled with bullet holes washed to perfect circles from rain. Local teenagers giggle and kiss. Back on the bikes.
The next stop is the tomb of Tu Duc, the fourth emperor of the Nguyen Dynasty of Vietnam, reigning from 1847 to 1883. It’s mid-afternoon, this is as hot as it will get. We walk under the shadows of the walls, past the man-made lake, past Luong Khiem palace to the rear of the complex. Here is his actual tomb, elaborate and exposed, no relief from the heat. A local woman in a conical hat dries chili peppers in the sun. Everyone buys popsicles and we eat them in the shade. I buy a book about Ho Chi Minh from the gift shop. Just resting now. Time to cool down.