Ivan in Vietnam:
The Unauthorized Foreword

Audrey Thompson

Preparing for his three-week trip to Vietnam necessarily involved Ivan in extensive shopping. He had to buy a special travelling watch, some new luggage components, stuff to fix and clean his glasses with while travelling, a travelling case for his sunglasses, a digital camera and ninety or a hundred photo CDs, an electronic mosquito repellent, a travelling hat, a first-aid kit, adaptors, new travelling clothes, and 21 books to read while travelling. He started getting ready months before the trip, and by the morning of the day of his flight to Saigon, he was all set except for the actual packing. Since he wasn’t leaving till well past 8:00 that night, he had plenty of time left to pack.

Ivan was completely relaxed, but I was not. When I am getting ready to fly somewhere, I am a wreck. Normally, I try to write a paper instead of packing, which may account for some of my stress level. Since Ivan was not trying to write a paper, his bearing was quite leisurely, but though I tried to fit in with his air of calm joy, I was a little anxious. I offered to get the suitcases out of the attic for him, just to get things rolling.

“I’m only taking one suitcase,” said Ivan, “and it will be a very small one. I just want to take the little carry-on that will hold my laptop and a couple of shirts and pants. And I’ll take that bag that I use for a briefcase. I don’t want to be all loaded down with luggage.”

“I don’t think you’re going to be able to fit everything in one bag,” I said. “Even apart from the fact that you are going to have trouble getting your laptop, clothes, toiletries, razor, and slippers into that bag, where are you going to put the 21 books?”

“Don’t worry, they’ll fit,” said Ivan. Ivan has always been very sanguine about fitting things in. This is because of how he understands space. Whereas ordinary people treat their living spaces as having room for books and furniture and pictures mostly around the edges, with perhaps a table or stool or lamp somewhere in the middle, Ivan views all of the middle space, including the ceiling space, as equally furnishable. A committed non-minimalist, he is able to cram twelve times as much stuff into his study as other, less imaginative people might. Naturally, Ivan assumed that he could also fit twelve times more stuff into his luggage than more conventionally minded persons such as myself might be able to.

Minimalist Style
Minimalist Style
Counter-minimalist Style
Counter-Minimalist Style, West
West end of Ivan’s study
Counter-Minimalist Style, East
East end of Ivan’s study

The flaw in this thinking was that other, lesser people do not think of packing luggage the same way that they think of furnishing rooms. I think I can speak as a representative of other, normal people, here. Most people do not pack lightly around the edges of suitcases, leaving the middle and ceiling spaces free. Most people think of their suitcases in terms of cubic footage and pretty much fill up the space available. Thus, when I said that the suitcase would be full with just the laptop and a third of Ivan’s clothes, I was thinking in terms of total space available, not in terms of what would look good on the cover of Architectural Digest.

Although he found it hard to understand where all the extra space had gone, Ivan had to concede that the little suitcase was full and that most of his stuff still remained to be packed. He agreed to take one additional suitcase, but in the end had to leave behind the laptop, rather than take out any of the books. The 21-book limit constituted his Spartan minimum, he said, and could not be reduced. Normally, I don’t do Ivan’s packing for him, but in this case I was a little stressed, and helping him pack made me feel less anxious. When I myself travel, I am even more stressed, but the stress plays itself out differently. I do my own packing three minutes before the airport taxi arrives. For Ivan, though, I thought it safest to be packed ten hours ahead of time.

I was able to fit the clothes, books, toiletries, and other items into the two bags, along with a few small items that I thought he might need, like Kleenex, lip balm, Lifesavers, nut mix, a small bottle of hand lotion, and socks. On the way to airport, I confessed to having smuggled in one or two extra items. Ivan said that it was too bad about the lip balm and hand lotion, which he did not need, but that I should have smuggled in more than one packet of Kleenex, since he was bound to need a lot more than that. In the car, I tried to persuade him to take along some mints — when he stopped smoking, Ivan started eating a lot of mints — but he refused absolutely, for reasons that I did not fully understand. Actually, I did not understand them at all, but my familial training has pretty much inured me to meaningless arguments and surreal explanations. Only last week, my brother Chuck emailed the family with a scientific explanation for why he does not like to be bored and does not care to have people repeat things endlessly. He obviously believed that this state of affairs required an explanation, preferably an official one, evidently on the misplaced assumption that his parents and sisters do like being bored and long for excessive repetition, and that we fail to understand how Chuck came to be wired so differently. Interestingly enough, Chuck has never issued any scientific explanation for why he keeps an extended family of sock monkeys with him at all times, although this is a scientific explanation I could use, frankly.

Chuck and Sneetchy
These two photos copyright © 2002 Charles E. Thompson III.  All rights reserved.
Sneetchy coloring

Anyway, I did not understand the reasoning behind the mint prohibition, so I kept silent about the Lifesavers. It’s a good thing I didn’t mention them, because Ivan might have made me take them out of the bag, and when he got to Vietnam, Ivan, along with most of the other people on the tour, was desperate for American candy. At lunch one day about halfway through the trip, Steven Leibo, one of the group’s tour leaders, came into the restaurant waving a half-eaten chocolate bar and announced that the supermarket next door to the restaurant sold candy. His ten-year-old daughter, Barbara, who had discovered the candy, stood next to him, her blissful, chocolate-covered face a testimony to its deliciousness. Instantly, a third of the group left their meals and stampeded next door. They bought so much candy that the supermarket owner sent her formal thanks via Mr. Song, the tour guide, and promised Steven a gift next time he was in town.

I am not going to tell you all about Ivan’s trip, because that is really his job, and I already did all that stressful packing for him. But I will mention one or two things about his trip, such as the shopping angle. The main things that Ivan bought in Vietnam were a hundred or so T-shirts and a couple of dozen books. Some of the books were in English and some of them were in Vietnamese.

“It is interesting that you bought these books in Vietnamese, Ivan,” I remarked, “since you do not actually read Vietnamese.”

“The thing is,” said Ivan, “that this book, for example, is a history of Saigon, and I need a history of Saigon. Besides, I can read some Vietnamese. Look, I will translate this title for you. It says, ’History of Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.’ It looks to be a fairly complete history, and that’s what I need.”

“I can see the attraction of a complete history,” I admitted. “I remember when you bought that huge three-volume set in German on the history of calendars. You thought you might very well teach yourself German some day, and, besides, you said, it’s not often that you find a nice three-volume set like that. It might be foolish to pass it up. I can see that. Given that logic, I mean.”

Sometimes I just have to pretend that I am keeping up with the logic. I am a little murky on Ivan’s T-shirt logic, for example. In spite of street vendors having shown him many children’s T-shirts that he thought Tom and Annika would have liked, Ivan did not buy them T-shirts. He said that, not being toddlers, they could not wear children’s sizes but, being children, they obviously did not wear adult sizes, either; accordingly, there was no way to buy them any T-shirts. If the logic of this escapes you, I am relieved to hear it, because it did not make sense to me, either. I am sure that there is a logic in it somewhere, but then again it may be a T-shirt-specific logic. This is not an area in which Ivan is entirely rational according to the norms of normal people. Not everyone is supportive of my own claims to normalcy, but it is worth mentioning that it is not necessarily normal people themselves who are casting doubt on my ability to gauge the normal. On our walk in City Creek Canyon the other day, Frank said, in would-be supportive tones, “Of course, I am always interested in your views on normalcy.” Although I doubt that he meant it in the spirit that he should have meant it, I took it that way anyway. “Thank you,” I said. “I am very reliable that way.”

These two photos © 2002 Audrey Thompson
Audrey, Ivan and Tommy
Tommy (with Ivan and Audrey), when the T-shirt might have fit
Annika and Audrey dancing
Annika (with Audrey), inexplicably wearing a T-shirt

Having passed up the T-shirts, Ivan will have to find something else to give Annika, because he is very much in her debt. Recently, Annika sent me some photographs she had taken last fall and winter that seemed to show her father (holding a pumpkin) and her snowman in a poor light. Both Joe and the snowman looked faintly criminal, and I wrote to tell Annika so — always acknowledging, of course, that it might be the photographic subjects’ own fault. In no way was I blaming the photographer. Annika wrote back to say that there was indeed some question as to the honesty of both photographic subjects. “First of all I still haven’t gotten that pumpkin back,” and second, the snowwoman, “yes woman, not ’man,’ as you seem to call her,” was very probably “obsested with stealing.” Regardless of whether or not they were honest, however, their appearing dishonest in the pictures was necessarily their own fault, she said, because “I knew as it being a fact of life that, if there are any ’mistakes,’ it is never the Photographers falt.” When I showed Ivan this letter, he was tremendously taken with it, at once realizing its profound truth.

Almost as soon as he got back, Ivan began loading his digital photographs from the trip onto his computer. He was showing me some of the highlights — we’re talking about something in the vicinity of 900,000 photos, here, so there was no question of my seeing all of them at once — and he pointed out a picture of the Saigon Post Office as being of special interest. Unfortunately, he said, “that portrait of Uncle Ho at the back of the room is kind of blurry.”

Crystal-clear portrait of Uncle Ho

He then proceeded to point out various figures in the foreground who, I mentioned in passing, also appeared kind of blurry. Come to think of it, I said, the whole photo was kind of blurry.

“Well, you’re not really meant to notice details in this picture,” Ivan explained. “It is really more about getting a general sense of the overall vastness of the place.”

“I see,” I said. “And, also, it is never the photographer’s fault?”

“Exactly,” Ivan agreed. “That child is a genius.”

If you go to the website where Ivan is mounting the photographs from his trip, you will notice that each image is carefully labelled with the exact degree of fault to be attributed to climatic conditions, technical problems, or interference from passers-by. “Misty lens due to inclement weather,” one will say. “Out of focus due to error in the instruction booklet,” another explains. “Skewed angle due to clumsy passers-by,” according to another. Occasionally, various flaws in the subjects themselves will be noted. Clearly, “it is never the Photographers falt.”

Interestingly, a similar faultlessness pervades Ivan’s tales of communicating with waitresses in Vietnamese. In spite of not knowing many actual words, Ivan assures me, he speaks the language flawlessly and without accent. Thus, he was vexed at being persistently misunderstood by one particular waitress when he asked for a vegetarian omelette. To tell the truth, he was not entirely surprised at her intentionally misunderstanding him, because he was beginning to gather that pretty much everyone and everything associated with this hotel stemmed from a deliberate desire, not to say active policy, to cause pain and suffering. Although Ivan loved most things about his trip, this hotel, which he described as “hateful,” was the one exception. At first, Ivan did not elaborate on this description. “Hateful” pretty much summed up what he had to say about it. When I pressed him for details, though, he said that — among other things (intoned with ominous stress) — the hotel featured a hard bed that was tipped so that you automatically rolled off, music blasting so loud that you could feel your internal organs shrivel in protest, and a waitress who insisted on hearing “omelette with vegetables” as “ham and vegetable omelette.” Obviously, said Ivan, it was willful misunderstanding, since his pronunciation was impeccable.

I did not deny this, of course, but I did mention one or two other possible explanations, such as that this waitress was perhaps unaccustomed to flawless American Vietnamese accents, or that Ivan’s accent was possibly Southern Vietnamese and hers was Northern Vietnamese, or that perhaps the waitress’s misunderstanding was due merely to the normal range of accents in a country. In the U.S., for example, people from the intermountain West often have trouble understanding folks from the East; Midwesterners are puzzled by Californians; citizens of northern and central Illinois view people from southern Illinois more or less as foreigners; people from Peoria have trouble understanding the entire rest of the country.

Ivan flatly rejected all my alternative explanations. “You are forgetting,” he pointed out, “that my accent is flawless. Everyone said so. Everyone except that waitress. The only possible explanation, therefore, is that she refused to understand what so clearly she must have understood. Obviously, it was a hotel policy.”

Sensing a certain finality of tone, I asked him, “You insist?”

“I do,” he agreed. So we left it at that. Except for these remarks that I am making here, of course.

Perhaps significantly, Ivan also was inclined to deny that there were many mosquitos in Vietnam. This was despite all evidence pointing to the contrary. He had his electronic mosquito repellant with him, but he only used it once, in the Mekong Delta. “I was never once bitten by a mosquito,” he said. This is not surprising. Ivan never is bitten by mosquitos. There is something about him that mosquitos do not like and will not tolerate, and they have shown no interest in him for the past thirty years, at least. Nevertheless, his not having been bitten by mosquitos led him to doubt that there really could be a mosquito problem in Vietnam. “There are swallows and dragonflies everywhere,” he said. “I think they must eat them all up.”

“And yet,” I said, “you tell me that every single hotel bed, even in air-conditioned hotels, has a frame over which the hotel guest drapes mosquito netting before going to bed. What do you suppose led to that custom? A kind of collective preventative worrying?”

Tailless gecko
Tailless gecko above the window in the
Mekong Delta Hotel on Stilts
Ceramic fish
Mosquito netting and unexplained ceramic fish
over the bed in the Hotel on Stilts

“No,” said Ivan, “that is where you have it completely wrong. I never said that every hotel has mosquito netting. If you are going to write this up, be sure to include the fact that this is yet another one of the many fatal flaws in your story. There was mosquito netting only at that one, unair-conditioned hotel on stilts in the Delta, and even there, they didn’t really need it. Although,” he added musingly, “some of the people on the tour did suffer from mosquito bites.”

This photo copyright © 2002 Mark Byrnes.  All rights reserved.
Hotel on Stilts
The windows at the Hotel on Stilts had no glass or screens, just curtains

Now, admittedly, I was not there and cannot testify personally to the truth or otherwise of these events. But as a trained literary theorist and philosopher, I do know how to read between the lines. Actually, I have always had to read between the lines. Any story told in my own family has so many conflicting versions that it is impossible to reconcile them without resorting to High Theory. Perhaps that is neither here nor there, however. When my family appeals to me to take sides on a family story, I tell them, “I wasn’t there,” which no one accepts as an excuse, or “Not one of your stories makes any sense,” which my father, at least, sees as a reasonable excuse. Ivan, however, argues that as I wasn’t there, perhaps I might want to accept his version of the story, particularly since the only conflicting version is mine, and I wasn’t there.

The satisfying outcome of Ivan’s having contested nearly every interesting detail in successive drafts of my story is that he is now determined to tell his own story. “Here is yet another error,” Ivan said. “The beds do not tip you out. They make the blood rush to your head. It is a different kind of tipping entirely. You will have to change that.”

“No,” I said. “I think my version is clearer.”

“It may be clearer, but it is wrong,” Ivan objected.

“You tell your version, I’ll tell mine,” I said.

“I’m going to,” said Ivan. “And in my version, the Sammy Hotel is not going to come off looking pretty.”

Afterword to the Unauthorized Foreword

The preceding foreword is primarily an attempt to insert myself into Ivan’s story, since, despite much sound advice, his version of his Vietnam trip does not feature me at all. In reading drafts of Ivan’s story, I sometimes saw opportunities for enhancement and enrichment, which I would helpfully point out. For example, when he sent me email asking for my views on changes that he had made to a sentence about not knowing Vietnamese and fearing being thrown in jail by the customs officers, I wrote back saying, “One dramatic improvement would be to bring me into it, as in, ’I wondered what my wife, who also cannot speak Vietnamese, would have thought of this situation. I thought about her longingly. How sorry I was ever to have left her, even for a second. What a mistake it was to leave her alone and worrying. Like me, she is fallible. Like me, her Vietnamese is not good enough to fill out customs forms. Like me, she would hate to get thrown in jail for it.’ Do you see how that rounds it out, gives it some symmetry and character development?” Far from following up on the suggestion that he weave in poignant references to missing me desperately, Ivan left me out of the narrative entirely. In fact, if you read the story closely, you will see that it is positively swimming with comments like, “It was great to get clean, clean away from everyone and everything in the U.S.” This foreword is an attempt to bring more balance to that part of an otherwise wonderful story.

My foreword does not attempt to do justice to the powerful, moving experience that Ivan had in returning to Vietnam after thirty-two years. For that, you will have to read his story. Detour


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