"I used to hate the fool in me. Now I tolerate him all day long." - Perfect Timing, Drive-By Truckers
Had there been a job description for Assistant to the School Photographer, it may have read something like this:
Seeking an individual with minimal to moderate computer skills and an intuitive eye to capture the image, likeness, and adolescent awkwardness of international students, ages K-12, for all of eternity.
Duties include: Set up/break down of equipment/backdrop when arriving/leaving schools, as well as the ability to use a steamer to keep the backdrop looking wrinkle free and pristine. Help with the white balance and focus, as well as ensuring that flash bulbs are working, by acting daily as a model.
Requirements include: Applicant should have an eye for detail and be able to handle occasionally stressful situations and workflows. Possess a curiosity to explore neighborhoods so as to procure a decent breakfast and lunch. Be willing to make multiple coffee runs a day in the pursuit of the perfect cup of cà phê đá (Vietnamese coffee).
Benefits include: Compensation upon the completion of each assignment, free travel, lodging, food, and booze during the duration of each assignment, as well as frequent professional massages (however all costs incurred due to massages will be the responsibility of the employee).
International travel experience, an easy-going nature, an adventurous appetite, and a willingness to make a fool of yourself will put you at the front of the line. You think you have the chops? Apply now.
I’m sitting in the Before and Now bar in Hoi An, Vietnam, after spending a week in Ho Chi Minh City, formerly known as Saigon. When Saigon fell to the communists, it was named after the former leader of the communist movement, Ho Chi Minh. It’s located in Central Vietnam, about 30 kilometers south of Da Nang, the airport you fly into and out of to explore the middle of the country.
This evening I was wandering the quaint streets of old town Hoi An, a UNESCO world heritage city, and stumbled across this bar. As it turns out, it was the same bar my new friend Suzyn suggested, but chances are it would have pulled me in regardless, as All I Need by Radiohead could be heard from the street.
As I write this I’m sitting in the back section of the bar near three Australian blokes watching Arsenal play Liverpool, however they are actually waiting for a Rugby match to air. The music is comfortably loud playing a mix of Cake, Muse, The Red Hot Chili Peppers, Smashing Pumpkins, and a lot of Radiohead among others, which always makes me happy. Several floor and ceiling fans push around the humid air, just barely taking the edge off the oppressive humidity of Vietnam. A painting of Bruce Lee in a karate pose holding a Coke can adorns the wall, as well as a painting of Kurt Cobain, a quadtych Warhol-esque mohawked Robert Dinero from Taxi Driver, The Mona Lisa listening to an iPod and wearing a Che Guevara shirt, the Buddha wearing a black and white checkered robe made by Vans, and a picture of Jason from Friday the 13th wearing a hockey mask with, “Google knows what you did last summer,” written on it in Google’s branding. Another close-up of the Buddha with his hands by his mouth hangs near the bar and upon the painting is written in the font from the movie Apocalypse Now, “I love the smell of mypalm in the morning.” The bar has the vibe of something you might find in the East Village of New York City or in the Hawthorne area of Portland, Oregon, and if it were in my neighborhood, it would definitely be one of my local watering holes. Kid A, by Radiohead is now pumping through the speakers, I just got served a Biere Larue, and I’m feeling pretty comfortable.
From what little I have seen, Vietnam is a very clean, borderline pristine country, granted I was previously in India. It may also be one of the slipperiest countries in the world. It seems as if everything is tiled, and when wearing flip-flops in the rain, it puts your health and well being at risk. All of the curbs on the sidewalks are also at a 45-degree angle as opposed to being square, so that mopeds can easily roll up onto the sidewalks to park. Inevitably, every afternoon or evening that we were in Ho Chi Minh we seemed to get caught in a downpour, and most often we were completely unprepared, and most often, I nearly slipped and fell.
The most important lesson in Vietnam, and the most critical one to learn, is how to cross the street. It requires a boldness and fearlessness not found in the Pacific Northwest. If you hesitate, you risk causing an accident, or worse, injury. Traffic is relentless, a nearly impenetrable stream of bicycles, motorbikes, mopeds, taxis, and cars. The key is to wait for the smallest opening, then move into the stream with the blind faith of Kierkegaard. Cars are not going to move or slow down so you need to watch out for them, otherwise you assume/trust the motorcyclists will steer around you. That is what could be referred to as street smarts in Vietnam.
The first two days in Vietnam, Daimien (my friend and the photographer) and I spent getting acclimated at the Bong Sen Hotel, located in central downtown Ho Chi Minh. We spent each day rantum scooting through Ho Chi Minh, walking miles and miles at a time while getting a taste of modern Ho Chi Minh and moving through the outskirts where nothing has changed in perhaps 30 years. Each day we used the Bitexco Financial Tower, a recently completed modern skyscraper that is destined to be the new world-class icon of Ho Chi Minh, to gauge where we were. One afternoon we found ourselves so far out of downtown that we lost sight of the skyscraper. On that same day we got caught in a downpour about two miles from home. We tried to wait out the storm but we were already wet and it was relentless, and so we traipsed and slogged our way through urban rivers and lakes of rainwater. Each local we passed smiled at us from within the dry, Saran Wrap-like cocoon of their cheap ponchos, which can be found on every street corner for about 20 cents.
On the second day we went to the Vietnam War Remnants museum (otherwise known as the American War in Vietnam), which is exactly that—remnants of the war we left behind when we made a hasty exit from the country. Tanks, heavy artillery, Chinook and attack helicopters, and jets and smaller aircraft lined the courtyard, and inside the museum, medals, clothing, and other artifacts could be found which American G.I.’s donated. In one display were a few G.I.s possessions with a note on which he wrote, “I was wrong. I am sorry,” and in those simple words, you could feel the heaviness of one man’s lifetime of guilt, sadness, remorse, and horror.
The museum, rightfully so, is from the perspective of the Vietnamese, and pictures of protests from all over the world such as Palestine, Bolivia, New Zealand, and Zimbabwe to name a few, suggest the entire world was united against the war. Photography exhibits displayed the effects of napalm and another displayed American atrocities, which were hard to stomach. I found myself nearly breaking down in the first five minutes and silently wondered, how could my country do this? Towards the end of our visit Daimien had to walk out of the room we were in. It was a humble reminder that while the United States is one of the most leaders in the world in terms of creativity and technology, it is also one of the most destructive forces in the world.
My heart broke in some of those rooms not only for the innocent Vietnamese villagers who we caught in the crossfires, but for the American soldiers, kids from all over the country who were thrown into a rich men’s war, kids who under the duress of combat committed unspeakable acts out of fear, anger, and moments of madness. And thus kids from Alabama, Texas, Washington, Maine, and every other state in the country had to live with the nightmares, both sleeping and waking, for the rest of their lives. One would think we would have learned our lessons by now and yet we continue to go down these paths. Thus is the great folly of humanity. When will we learn? The greatest tragedy of mankind is that our destiny as a species rests in the hands of a few rich and powerful men, men to whom the world occurs as a game of Risk.
The routine of our week consisted of getting up at 6am for a 6:45am pickup, then heading to the school to work anywhere from 2-4pm. When I wasn’t trying to negotiate my way through an Excel spreadsheet of Vietnamese names, I was taking about 4 seconds per student to determine which of the 3-10 photos would cement their image and likeness to the time and place of childhood and adolescent awkwardness. So many toothy smiles were marred by the straightening railroad tracks across their teeth, and still others refused to smile so as to not show the tracks. In time they will learn life’s most simple truth; like all processes in life, a time of uneasiness and growth is required for transformation.
It was interesting to be back in this setting after so many years. In a split second one can tell so much about each child; who will be an artist, who will be the boy who is going to get any girl he wants, who will be gay, which girl will use her sexuality as a weapon, the child whose curiosity will push them to explore the world, the girl who will find countless, unforeseen complications due to her beauty, who will be the class clown, the child whose anger is going to hold them back from connection, the musician who will dabble with heroin, the child who will be a prisoner of their shyness their whole life, or the child who no matter how they look later in their life, will always see themselves as the awkward teenager.
After the first two days downtown we moved to the Phum My Hung section of Ho Chi Minh, a planned community of wealthy Vietnamese and expats which is dotted with BMW and Porsche dealerships, as well as restaurants that tout western breakfasts and international and fusion cuisine. After school we would lounge in our dorms for a few hours napping or working. With the exception of the night we ordered Dominoes, which—let’s be honest here—is never really a good idea in any country, we would venture into the city in search of good food and good massages which ranged anywhere from places that were mildly dirty and sketchy to spa-like atmospheres where they prepared fresh cucumber masks on your face. We never paid more than $15 for a 90-minute massage. It’s quite a luxurious footnote to a hard day’s work as the Assistant to the School Photographer.
One evening we went out with my friend’s brother who is an expat living in Vietnam. We had street food, which at first I was leery of after India, but I soon found out it’s quite different. Street food in Vietnam is merely sitting outside of street kitchens that throw out a few tables and chairs. The food is authentic, delicious, and dirt-cheap, and most of the time it’s filled with locals. Between the three of us, we had about 10 beers and countless Vietnamese dishes for under $25.
On our final night we went out with Suzyn, an artist and art teacher at Saigon South International School. It was Friday night and she met us downtown at a restaurant filled with drunken local Vietnamese, as well as Chinese businessmen throwing back shots of whiskey as if they were liquid Pez from a Hello Kitty dispenser.
After dinner we took a cab to the backpacker district in an attempt to see live music but instead found ourselves sitting on the street. Telephone wires crisscrossed the street in tangled knots and loud, thumping music blasted from every bar that had a Yaegermesiter sign out front. Christmas lights adorned the exterior and interior of each establishment while out on the sidewalks in plastic chairs, locals and tourists got to know each other while being disarmed by the effects of alcohol and drugs. Women hawked brands of cigarettes and a constant sound track of shitty music and motorbikes enveloped the area. From the street, behind each bar, spirits were backlit like awards on a trophy shelf. Vietnamese women cozied up to tourists and it seemed that a fireside sale was underway where anything and everything was for purchase. Basically, it could have been any backpacker district in any city in the world.
Suzyn brought along Son, her son’s best friend who is now living in Vietnam. Son has an interesting story. As a 23-year-old aspiring filmmaker, he decided to take up Brazilian Jujitsu because he wanted to make a documentary about it. A few years later found himself in the number 2 spot in the world for his weight class. As if on autopilot, he devoted his life to the art, training 10 hours a day for weeks at a time. With his success came all sorts of external pressures and it was beginning to weigh upon him. He was approaching 30, without healthy insurance, and the sport was taking a toll on his body. His latest coach was a tremendous fighter but a poor coach who Son felt had too much self-interest invested in Son. And so in a dramatic act of resignation, Son shaved his long hair which he had sported for years, left it in a bag in his coach’s office, walked away from professional competitions, and traveled to Vietnam in an attempt to better understand his heritage and immigrant parents—and at least for a while—leave his professional fighting persona behind.
We had some great conversations about sports and burnout, as I once played Division I soccer for a top 20 program. The pressure, the business of it, and my coach ruined my passion for the game when all I wanted to do was play the sport at the highest level possible and still be a college student. It felt much more like a job than being a college student. He told me how he could tell so much from a person by the way they fought; whether they approached life aggressively or defensively, or whether they were an asshole, taking dirty shots when possible, or compassionate, perhaps letting up on a choke hold moments before the final count.
Since arriving in Vietnam, he has been teaching a few students English slang and also started the first Brazilian Jujitsu gym in Vietnam. It’s filled with people who want to learn to fight, but he does not want to teach these people fighting. He wants to teach them the art of fighting, which not only requires skill, but discipline and improvisation. Like any art, you learn the foundation, and when you have mastered the foundation, your can throw away all the rules in the act of creation.
While sitting on the street, Son showed me a highlight reel of him on his iPhone and the first thing that struck was his calm centeredness and focus. While his opponents lunged at him in herky-jerky manners, he was centered, both in his stance and laser-like focus, waiting patiently for an opening to strike. I could see in him not just a fierce warrior, but much like a writer, painter, or musician, an artist whose craft had become a way of life. It was most impressive to watch and if the stars line up, I may see him in his first fight since resigning in Bangkok in late October.
Each time one of us went to the bathroom to flush out the Tiger beers, we played musical chairs, and when I sat next to Susan she too told me a most fascinating life story of leaving home at an early age and wandering the world, a story of outlaw love lost and gained, and of the ever-present need to express herself as an artist—to bring that inner vision, that inner feeling and emotion into existence. As one artist to another, we talked for a long time about process, about the decisions that have to be made in art, such as removing elements of a painting or story that you may love, but coming to terms with that fact that it may not serve the greater whole.
By the end of the night in the Before and Now bar, I was hanging out with three British women in their mid-twenties. They had each just finished law school and were living it up before they were to begin their professional lives. The tunes were cranking and around the pool table a mix of convivial and jovial British, Australian, Chinese, Brazilian, American, and Vietnamese patrons drank heartily and heavily, inflicting injury upon their livers and sobriety with likes of Irish Car Bombs.
Around midnight a girl came into the bar to promote a party at the beach, which was about 4 kilometers away. The British girls were gung-ho and tried to get me to go, but intuition told me not to. Or perhaps my future self told me not to, informing me how come sunrise, should I chose to spend the night drinking on the beach, the injuries I would sustain due to alcohol abuse would not be worth the hangover. And so, for once in my life, I made a mature decision and turned down the party. The next day I saw the girls on the beach. They had slept only three hours and had a glossy, faraway look in their eyes as if they had been through war and back.
When I left the Before and Now bar it was fast approaching 1am. The ancient streets of Hoi An were desolate and a motorcycle driver asked me if I wanted a ride home for 50,000 dong (about $2.50). I didn’t have the strength to bargain so I agreed to the terms of the agreement. I hopped on the back of his motorcycle and off we sped through the streets towards the Vin Hung 3 Hotel.
When he dropped me off he said in his thick Vietnamese accent, “You want boom-boom tonight?” I laughed and said, “No, thank you. Maybe boom-boom tomorrow night,” to which he replied, “Yes. Maybe boom-boom tomorrow night.”
It’s good to be in agreement.
I entered my room, stripped off my clothes, and fell onto my bed, falling deeply into a heavy, dreamless sleep somewhere in Central Vietnam.