"The Last Leg"

By Valerie Schumacher

Goodbye to Hue. Grandiose tombs for dead emperors where bare frangipani branches reach like blind fingers through wraith-like fog. Perfume River where flowers once swirled and eddied in the currents, breathing sweetness into the boats of the river dwellers. Fierce dragons writhing around pillars, giant bronze urns wounded by gunshot, stains where the life flowed out of them. The stark grey bulk of the Citadel's flag tower, looking uglier now that they patch its ravaged walls with cement. Silent cannons aimed at boys playing soccer.

Hue, where beauty and devastation flow together. Dying baby with staring eyes that lock in mine and say help me, in the shadow of the glory of the emperor's hall.

We bring down our bags and there's the bellboy Hieu, who'd befriended me last year. Actually, he'd wanted to have a drink with me last year; but when I found out he wanted it *in my room* I nixed that idea right quick. He looks at me in startled surprise; and he smiles, "You came back. But I don't remember your name."

I pull an American flag pin out of my pocket that I'd brought just for him. He says he cannot wear it at home because his father is a communist and does not like things American. He says, "This is my first American souvenir, and I will keep it forever."

Just what he said last year when I gave him American quarters.

The flight out of Phu Bai delayed because of bad weather in Hanoi. For once I didn't mind. Vietnam Air scared me in good weather.

We arrived in Hanoi two hours later with a signature one-wheeled landing. As my heels smacked down on the tarmac, I rejoiced in the knowledge that I would fly them no more. Boarded a bus that belched black smoke like a travelling factory and told myself this is the last leg, and then I am home.

Stunned to find an honest-to-god superhighway that cut last year's trip into town by two-thirds. The highway looked like a highway. But it made the Autobahn look tame.

Our driver drove in the oncoming lane even though he had two lanes to the right all his own. Motorbikes, travelling in the opposite direction, passed us on the right, completely on the wrong side. Vietnam traffic confusion on a larger scale. The periodic concrete medians didn't even frustrate their urges; they just stayed on the wrong side going the wrong way. No concept of the meaning of the yellow line.

Kerouac might have loved it.

Of course, it was grey and foggy in Hanoi. Somehow, that weather is appropriate to the city, frozen in time as it is in the 1930s. We reached the Phan Thai Hotel, newly built in the heart of the bustling and decaying Old Quarter. I found a room of luxury - a bed I could get lost in, french double doors with blowing lace curtains and a fanciful balcony looking out over the rooftops of Hanoi. Watched an old man in a black beret tend his rooftop garden while his cat wove a path between his ankles.

I picked up the phone in the bathroom, the one I'd found in every hotel and always wanted to use just for the sake of novelty. I called my friend Lloyd, an Australian I'd met the year before when we'd been robbed together at the Dong Ky Firecracker Festival - he of a wallet and $300 and me of a flash. The ties that bind.

Last year, he'd been in country selling the Viets used locos (trains). Back this year because of the pull of Vietnam. Funny we should meet again, same place, same time.

While the others went off to pay their respects to Uncle Ho (who Diane irreverently called "Peasant Under Glass"), Lloyd and I decided to do a walking tour of the Lake of the Restored Sword and the Old Quarter. We only got a block up the road when we ran into my group again - being filmed and interviewed for American television of all things. They were from NBC and would be airing a show on the 20th Anniversary of the Fall of Saigon at the end of April.

A man with a big camera hovered over me as I dickered with a kid over the cost of Old Hanoi postcards, so my bargaining skills may hit the airwaves at the end of the month. Something real odd about making it on US TV from Hanoi.

We cruised the town on foot while people stared. "What are they staring at?" I asked Lloyd, because it seemed worse than usual.

"Why, I'd say it's your legs. They don't see much of ladies in shorts in these parts. You're scandalous," he grinned.

Scandalous in Hanoi. How delicious.

The Hanoi Hilton, much to my surprise, looked the same as last year. They are making a museum of old French torture devices out of the Maison Centrale, and the walls are still almost entirely intact. Only the inside is gutted. Souvenir bricks for sale on the sidewalk. I tried to wile my way inside but the gate guard wasn't having any. Can't believe a 26 story hotel is going up on those grounds. Can't imagine staying there.

Tiny women on the sidewalk in tiny chairs behind tiny tables selling lottery tickets that flutter in the wind like butterflies. A bathroom scale near a gutter flowing antifreeze green. For 2000 dong I can learn how much weight I've lost. Soda bottles filled with golden gaso- line, tire patching instruments in an old ammo box.

The cramped conditions never cease to astound me. Laundry blows from anything resembling a clothes line - even the electrical wires. Wrought iron balconies like Asia meets New Orleans, mildewed and chipping plaster, trees growing through canvas awnings.

Through the Old Quarter, we walked the streets named for their specialties. Silver street, Silk street. Got a white silk kimono for ten bucks and felt oh-so elegant. Grave street. Amazing the images formed on black stone with fine chisels. Uncanny likenesses to the tiny photos propped above the stone dust. Rows and rows of plastic and rubber shoes on Shoe street, enough to shod an army. Bikes piled ten feet high with baskets like straw missiles.

In the food market, I had to put my camera on top of my head to squeeze through the narrow alleyways. Pyramids of lumpy oranges, banded branches of kumquats, baskets of ginger root and tiny bulbs, a woman perched amid hundreds of eggs. Slipping in rotting leaf matter, studying red peppers too vivid to be real, running my fingers over giant green squash, the market was a dance of color and sound and smells.

I poked my face into bowls of giant hearts and lungs and livers while women lazily brushed the flies away with long whisks. Oily sheen like rainbows on the meat. A pile of barbecued dogs frozen in that last long leap to catch a stick. Gleaming bowls of writhing eels, flipping fish. Mounds of brains and innards, two halves of a pig's heads placed together to look like a whole. Buckets of yellow beaks, baskets of curled chicken toes. Bats on a stick. Bags of blood.

Mmmmm. Looking forward to supper.

Lloyd left me back at the Phan Thai, and I staggered up the four flights of stairs. Stripped for a hot shower but instead collapsed on my bed with "Doogie Howser, MD" on the TV before I could climb into the tub. Don't know how it could have happened but Doogie lulled me to a deep and dreamless sleep, and I was unconscious through knocks on my door and several phone calls, not to mention dinner and the Water Puppet theatre.

Woke at 5:30 am to a city of yapping dogs. Nearly every Vietnamese city now has a sound attached to it for me. Dalat had roaring motorbikes; Nhatrang, crackling propaganda on loudspeakers; Ban Me Thuot, clanging 4 a.m. church bells; Pleiku, an explosion; and Hanoi, its dogs.

I bagged out on my group again that day and went over to Lloyd's hotel. He presented me with a wild aboriginal T-shirt for Bob and apologized for the rat shit stains. Seems the buggers had been in his ceiling and making deposits on his bags of gifts. That is, until they were poi- soned. Now, they decomposed up there and stunk. "You get used to it," he said. "Keep the windows and door open a lot."

He was anxious to introduce me to some college girls he'd met at the Hanoi Foreign Trade University and called a cab to take us. This was another new one on me, a cab in Hanoi, complete with a meter. My, the changes in a year's time.

Along the way, Lloyd told me of Australia's Vietnam vets. He said there were no homecoming parades for them either, as there had been for other soldiers returning from other wars. He said there are higher than average problems with alcohol, 'nerve problems', and unemployment for the vets. He said their mistreatment by Australian society was demonstrated in no desire to hear about the Vietnam War, treating many vets as outcasts, called lazy if they couldn't hold a job, war-related psychological problems denied.

Lloyd knows a vet named Paul Murphy who has returned to Vung Tau where he and other vets have reroofed, painted and repaired a primary school. They plan on working on the Vung Tau high school next. I told him of similar programs based out of the US. Half a world away. Small degree of separation when it all comes down.

The taxi abandoned us at a conglomeration of buildings that looked as though they should have been condemned twenty years before. Dormitories looking like dilapidated tenements in the Bronx. Broken windows, chipped paint, crumbling walls, AIDS billboards screaming out "Cho Chet!" against needles and unsafe sex, litter strewn on lifeless grounds. Nothing remotely cheerful about the place. A hell of a place to learn. But they come and they do it with gusto. Classroom building padlocked for the weekend. Forlorn, depressing atmosphere. Students perched on their skewed balconies stared at the two Yanks wandering about.

Came to two, long, low buildings facing one another; and they reminded me of the horse barns at our local county fairgrounds, the rooms about as big as horse stalls. Double wooden doors hanging half off their hinges, padlocked, no windows. Strung between the buildings were laundry lines full of blouses and pants, bras and panties, all hanging out together to dry in the humid air.

I peered through doors and saw jumbled, crowded rooms - bunk beds of rusty metal with their straw mat coverings, sheets strung up for privacy, walls full of the type of posters teens everywhere love, bicycles stacked in the back of the rooms. One girl giggled when she saw us and squeaked "It is bad!," meaning her room was too messy for our eyes.

Lloyd was disappointed that his friends were not about; but, as we started to leave, a group of twittering girls elbowed one another till one finally got up the nerve to say, "Excuse me. Where are you from?"

We were like fish reeled in on a line, moving close with interest. Hearing "USA" from me made their eyes widen dramatically, since they'd assumed we were "lien xo" (Russians).

The girls beckoned us into their room, which was shared by eight of them. Two spoke impeccable English, the King's English, full of charm and cordiality, sometimes halting for the correct word. One had the misfortune of having studied Russian for four years, ignorant of the fact that it would do her little good now. Hien, Tam, another Hien, Huong and Hoa. The other three were off enjoying their one day off from school.

I asked if they liked it at their school; and they replied "Of course!" as though to feel otherwise would be insane. Six classes a day, six days a week, rented time on the computer - never heard of the Internet. No typewriters, papers done in pen on paper. Not enough classrooms for the 1000 students, so they must squeeze their six classes into half a day to free them up for the other half of the student body.

The first year is devoted entirely to learning, then they work without pay at various Hanoi firms for experience. When I said "Without pay!" they replied "Money is not important. It is the experience that is important now. The money will be important later." World experience, they said.

One said that a foreign businessman had approached her about working for him but told her she could not have a boyfriend if she did, and she would have to live with him so she could learn as much as possible. I almost fell out of my chair. "Is that a good arrangement?" she asked, all innocence.

Lloyd and I exploded "NO!" Some jerk looking for a damn concubine.

When I asked what they wanted to do when they got out of school, Hien replied, "We will get what is best for us."

They sadly said they would be unable to return to their villages because of poor economic opportunities, but most said they'd stay in Vietnam.

I asked them about men. Hien informed me that since they are first year students they have been unable to find the right man yet. They all agreed they were in no hurry to get married or even have a boyfriend. After school, after school. Smart gals. When they did marry, they would have the Party's suggested number of children - two.

The university costs a monthly fee of 120,000 dong ($12 usd); and if they cannot pay before the next month's classes start, they cannot attend until they are paid up. Meals are 2000 dong (20 cents), no doubt mostly pho (noodle soup). Scholarship money is hard to come by, and their families work hard to put them through school. Hien said, "We must do honor to our families by doing the best we can."

I asked what they did in their leisure time, and they replied that with eight to a room they never lack for company. For entertainment they tell funny stories or tease one another; and if they go out, they shop, sightsee or catch an occasional movie. No dances, no keggers for these students.

A tape player was the entertainment center for their room, and they told me they love Michael Jackson, the BeeGees, WHAM, and New Kids on the Block. No Nirvana or Green Day or Pearl Jam in this place. I asked if they ever read American literature; and they all sighed and said, "Oh, we have all read Gone With the Wind...so romantic...and for Australian literature we have read The Thorn Birds."

Lloyd photographed me with the girls, and we exchanged addresses. I said I would send them international mailing coupons so they would not have to spend their allowance on stamps to write me. I gave them the last of my post-it notes, for I had nothing resembling a gift for them. Still, they were delighted; and so was I for having met them. They invited us to lunch, but Lloyd and I had to meet my group at Hanoi's "A Little Italian" restaurant. Waves and waves till we were out of sight.

I flagged down a cab after we'd walked a mile, an act which fascinated the hell out of me in Hanoi. Our guy deposited us at "A Little Italian" where a little postcard boy about ten years old asked if I would buy his cards. When I smiled and said no thank you, he put his hands on his hips and said, "What you want? You want to marry me?" and left me speechless.

Ah, Hanoi's premiere pizzaria! "A Little Italian" is a little expensive too, by Vietnamese standards. I was pretty leery of their version of Italian sausage. Hell, we don't know what's in it in the States much less Vietnam; and after a walk in the market, I decided the risk was not worth my poor guts.

I longed for a hot dog, but that conjures up new and vivid images when you're dining in Vietnam. Faint from lack of food, I wolfed down three slices of passable pizza. When you haven't seen anything resembling American food in three weeks, even its likeness tastes good.

Tom hired us a bunch of cyclos after lunch, and we had a tour of the city. It had turned hot and sunny; and with my full belly, I nearly got rocked to sleep in that baby-buggy-like seat, nodding periodically to my driver's incessant chatter, though I could not understand a word. I groaned when- ever we stopped and had to get out to look at the last statue of Lenin left in the world, a cathedral here, a citadel there, the grand Opera House.

The cyclo guys jacked the price up when our ride ended; and our guide Tuyet conducted a heated, arm-waving discussion with them, angry because they had made a deal earlier and had then broken it. Such is life. Used to be that they could con me into paying more than the going rate for a ride, but no way this time around. They'll go dongless before they try to pull that one over on me.

We had a goodbye dinner at the Indochine that night, complete with traditional music played for us in traditional dress. Tom asked us if we'd all gotten out of the trip what we wanted. I said, "Yessir and then some."

High points and low points. Hmmm. Peak excitement was Pleiku, despite its terror and frustration; but my high points were the montagnards of Pleiku and the elephant ride of Ban Me Thuot.

How to choose, though? Nearly everything was a high point. Bob's Nhatrang, going to Khe Sanh, sticking post-it notes on the montagnard kids, dreaming at night to the waves of the South China Sea. Too hard to choose. Low point? That was easy - not being able to escape Pleiku immediately. But even that turned out for the better.

I was glad to have my previous trip under my belt, which had done away with all the culture shock; so, I felt comfortable in Vietnam and far more flexible. I had seen all I wanted, done all I wanted. The only thing I mourned was having done it alone. Even in a group, still alone.

We rode the bus out of the Noi Bai Airport terminal to a Thai Airways plane on the patched tarmac. After it deposited us at the stairs to the plane, it drove off and backfired explosively, sending me flying into Schuyler's arms for cover.

The plane lifted off, and the lovely Thai stewardesses passed out steaming washclothes. I watched the rice paddies recede and felt a strange mix of emotions. Anticipation of an interminable trip home, a happy arrival at long last, yet a sadness saying goodbye to Vietnam. The place that had put me through things I'd never imagined possible when I'd set off nearly a month before. Terror like I'd never known when an old war came back to haunt. Yet finding so much beyond that war. Beauty and mysticism among Jarai graves and ornamented children materializing out of the hills.

There in Vietnam, I found a me that I never knew existed.

Even as I left it, it pulled me back. I think of it even now, scheming ways to return. I think the only answer is to get back on the horse that threw me - return to Pleiku, to what I hated worst and loved best about Vietnam.

That gossamer thread between the then and the now.

Copyright 1995 By Valerie Schumacher, All Rights Reserved