The lady with the good squid
Came to bake it on her clay pot stove
In front of our low plastic chairs at the corner bia hoi
Just past Mao’s Red Lounge
Where the scooters grazed carbon monoxide
Over our relaxed elbows and knees
After we had drunk too many codeine cocktails.
The bride-to-be we had just met could speak English
Well enough to tell embarrassing stories about our friend,
Her fiancé, and well enough to sadly swear
How much she was going to miss the fresh-baked cephalopods
When she moved to America.
Our friend had spent enough years in Hanoi
To get us into altercations with overcharging taxi drivers,
One of whom got out his tire iron
While we locked ourselves inside another friend’s bead store,
Taxi driver banging on the metal grate with his stick
Until we threw money at him through the peep hole.
There was a deep age to the concrete, a dirt-seeped gray,
As if we were in a pre-war photograph,
And a retro sophistication to the food and the art
As if we were in a chanson réaliste
About lanterns and papaya salads.
Papier-mâché sculptures of life-sized airplanes
Sprouted in the front garden of a famous sculptor
Who performed art in white body paint and lamented his love of Swedish women
Over tea and a pretense of commerce—
Such lightly piano plinked evenings
Punctuated at regular intervals
By loud speaker announcements
Regarding the Communist spirit.
We visited the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh
At his imposing gray mausoleum,
Our demeanor pressed of wrinkles
Our hands respectfully clasped in front
As we double-filed slowly past
The wispy white, liver-spotted head
Of a softly glowing revolutionary,
Like a museum-quality artifact in a nationalist carnival show:
My favorite frozen body of a foreign dignitary.
Slowly starting to lose my mind to a jet lag deprivation,
I could no longer convert money or make judgements,
Asking “Is this good or bad?” to every interaction.
The terrifying scooter traffic weaved gracefully through each other like a Shibuya crossing
And the phở kept getting better as the establishments got dirtier;
The tailors who were making our wedding clothes to order
In a dimly wooden store stocked with charcoal pinstripes and navy woolens
Did not seem too much in a hurry about the impending date—
“Is that good or bad?” I asked.
My friends transported me up northern Vietnam
As if I was a wan painting of some value,
But not enough value for a helmet
When we rented motorcycles from a kid named Hip Hop
At the base of the mountain
After a harrowing overnight train ride
To the misty rice terrace town of Sapa.
The train ride might’ve just been stuffy
With the bad tea and small oranges
Not really harrowing except for a midnight attempt
To decipher a moving bathroom,
Especially compared to the subsequent
Helmetless motorcycle ride past water buffalo
Taking far too much space on the landslide cliffs.
The Black Hmong girls in town spoke English
Almost as good at the bride-to-be, descending upon us
Strangely Asian tourists who spoke only American
As if we were made of candy.
They wrapped their legs and their babies in indigo
And we bought everything they sold:
Richly woven textiles that stained our hands
Questionably silver jewelry and surreptitious opium
That didn’t work at all.
“Was that good or bad?” I asked.
“It didn’t do anything,” my friends said.
“Then you smoke more, smoke more,” said the Hmong lady
Always quick with the upsell.
It had been a long time since a place made me feel like a foreigner
Unable to camouflage and blend into the landscape
Even with my Asian face,
Knocked off the preposterous idea
That I was world weary already,
And that was most certainly good.
Aliya Kinzel is a Guest Writer for Panorama.
Share this piece: