Tuesday, July 28, 2009

The land is sliding

My time in Bac Ha has rushed to an end as quickly as the beginning seemed to crawl. I had the company of a friend the last two days, a fellow English professor also traveling solo through Vietnam. We have a former student and friend in common, who put us in touch, and I am profoundly grateful for the chance to talk about our experiences for hours over coffee and other beverages that were not coffee. On Monday morning he leaves early to return the rented motorcycle and get the train to Hanoi. I have a few hours to make my goodbyes to the people I've come to know here, though there's a part of me that just wants to slip away without a word. I'm not sure I know how to do this.

The hardest parting will be with Hoa, the young woman who works at the Cong Fu with whom I've spent many hours working through English and Vietnamese words and sentences, she so much better at her new language than I am. I come by the hotel around 9:00, and we sit at the oversized table in the lobby, awkward and formal. She busies herself by working on the tea, and I rummage around in my bag for the ceramic Texas-themed shot glasses I’ve brought, trying to decide if they would appreciate that corny addition to the tea service at the hotel. I've already given her a personal gift of a small writing notebook. I plunge ahead and present the cheesy souvenirs from home, and everyone is kind of taken with the strange offering. I like that I leave a little bit of Texas there on the table. Hoa and I dance around the farewells a few more times, struggling to understand the platitudes we are each uttering, prolonging and complicating an already awkward situation. Making small talk, she asks if I get carsick, but it takes forever for me to figure what word she’s saying because I can’t see that one coming. She means airsick, but carsick is as close as she could. get Why is she asking me if I have cussing, because, hell yes, I do. Or maybe she wants to know if I have cashews. Or cousins. I don’t know, but I’m grateful for the distraction. Other employees and the manager come by for some solemn handshaking and promises that I stay at the Cong Fu next time I come to Bac Ha, and when am I coming back. Maybe one year. More bowing and nodding. Finally, Hoa and I have to make a final goodbye, and the semi-jerky manager breaks the ice a bit by making crying noises and laughing at us. It’s his final victory in the battle of wills we’ve waged these past weeks. You win -- I’ll cry. And Hoa and I both do, stepping outside for a little privacy. We clasp hands the Vietnamese way and then draw each other into a glancing hug -- very much not the Vietnamese way. I shove my sunglasses on my face even though it's raining and try not to let all the people on the curb and the stoops see that I'm crying, and make the same little circuit of town I’ve done every day when I was sure that no one knew or cared how I was feeling. This time my emotions are hanging out like a shirt-tail sticking out of my fly.

After a few more stops, I pack-up all my stuff and check-out. All I have to do is sit in this hot, dark, empty lobby at the Sao Mai for a half an hour for Thanh and his driver to arrive. I'm grateful that no one is around because it's midday on Monday, the slowest day of the week, and all the Vietnamese people are at home for lunch and naps.

Now I’m done; I’ve already departed emotionally, and just have to make it through the half-hour lag time between my mind and my body. But turns into an hour and a half because my ride is late. I’m sorry, Thanh says, we’re late because the land is sliding. He means that there was a landslide on the road and they were delayed, but I feel the same. The land is sliding, tilting me toward home.


  1. I love the Texas shot glasses. Someday someone from Texas will walk in and see them and your hosts will tell stories of the American woman who came for a month.

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  3. We'll be happy to have you back, Elisabeth, but it sure has been fun reading about your journey. Hope to talk more over a coffee...or a beverage that is not coffee...sometime soon. ~Kristina Moore

  4. hello, xin chao!
    see you congfu hotel

    khanh mr , manager.