Edited by Kathryn Hummel
Forty days and forty nights: a biblical honeymoon for an interfaith queer couple. We begin in Bangkok on New Year’s Eve. Jetlag mixes with our hope that things will be different in the new year —that we will be different.
It has been a shit year — health problems, surgery, wedding planning, and a dead-end job leaving me in a state of chronic anxiety. What is ahead of me must be better. It has to be better. I have to have hope. We are traveling through Southeast Asia — Thailand, Laos, Cambodia, then Vietnam — and it feels like real life is on pause. There will be space enough to imagine ourselves into the future we want to build, but right now there is only giddy exhaustion after eighteen hours of travel.
We crawl underneath the thick white covers of our hotel bed and tumble into a too-long nap, waking dry-mouthed and hungry. We go to the hotel restaurant and order pad thai and fruity drinks, then pick our way around the giant prawn that rests in a nest of noodles. Drunk Italian guys crash the karaoke scene and stumble through a love song, making up half the words. A hostess, bedazzling in gold glitter, hands out noisemakers. I squeeze my wife’s hand under the table and wonder if it’s safe to kiss her.
Perked up by the food, we wander through the neighborhood in the first minutes of the new year. On the main road, it seems as though a great roving party has passed through, leaving confetti and plastic detritus in its wake. We mug for photos beside giant cartoon cat statues, and the world feels new and strange and exhilarating indeed.
As a child, Ho Chi Minh meant nothing to me except this: a skinny blue silhouette you could see on a gas tank off Route 93 somewhere between Quincy and Boston, if you looked in just the right way. It was like a magic eye picture. There, and then not.
I never learned about that war in school — U.S. history had a habit of stopping at McCarthyism — but I got snippets from books and war movies. My parents were in college during the Vietnam War years, and I peppered them with questions. Why was showing up to Spanish class more important than protesting? Would my father have served, if his number had been called? Would he have fled to Canada?
Their answers didn’t satisfy me. I treasured my certainty.
I would have fled. I would have marched. I would have been a peace warrior.
In Ko Lanta we collect shells and draw in the sand, revelling in the chance to play after months of wedding planning. We snorkel, too lost in the kaleidoscope under the waves to notice the strong sun. That night we get aloe vera massaged into our skin, and I jump when the masseuse dips her hands beneath the sarong to rub aloe into my breasts and belly.
In Chiang Mai we hold hands and leap out of the way of Chinese motorists. Rain soaks through our rain jackets. We sleep off a downpour in our hotel room, then venture out to the night market, where we purchase a Hmong blanket that smells like the smoke of village fires.
For the rest of the year, I will be tan. We will sleep under the Hmong blanket. But we will not — cannot — go home again. The happiness we find in Thailand shows us, funhouse-mirror style, how miserable we have become.
Laos smells like charcoal from the braziers set up on cobblestone alleys, and like burning garbage. A sweet plasticky residue rises toward the sky. We trek in lush, green mountains and ride bicycles through the jungle to glimpse the rare Irrawaddy dolphin. We scream over distant, bobbing animals, and our tour guide laughs at our delight.
We surrender to this newness, to the present, and start to ask big questions. Why stay in a city we dislike? Why pay so much for rent, when we could save money and travel more? On the banks of the Mekong, through the smoke of a Hmong village fire, we begin to dream.
My grandfather had his war: World War II, a med school flunky serving as a medic in the Philippines. He chugged milk so he could win drinking contests and pushed Jeeps into the ocean rather than leave them behind. His war seemed fantastic to an impressionable young girl with an overactive imagination. Was he fooling me, or was this how the world really was?
Once I interviewed him for a school project and he told me, There’s no such thing as a good war. He served on Leiti, pronounced ‘lady’, and Luzon. Those were facts, but the rest of his war story seemed outside of time. It could have been anywhere but it was in the Philippines, so what was that like? He never spoke about what he saw, and anyway has been dead for 10 years; I’ve long since lost the audio recordings.
I want to see the Philippines because the flight is less than three hours from Vietnam. Because I think I might see the Jeeps in the ocean. Because then I might understand the things my grandfather didn’t say.
I want to see the Philippines, but we are running out of time.
The Ho Chi Minh trail ran through the Plain of Jars in southern Laos, and so did the bombs. Two million tonnes of munitions dropped in nine years via secret missions, left here by my country and unaddressed by the history books.
Laos is littered with unexploded bombs. Farmers die digging up crops in their fields. The land bears scars: bomb craters as large as water buffalo.
Here, I see the war. And I want Vietnam to move me the way its war stories always do.
But the more we see of Southeast Asia, the more I realise the Vietnam of my dreams is only that. I need to meet Vietnam on its terms.
So we watch villagers melt aluminum from unexploded ordnance, then mould spoons, bottle openers, and jewellry.
We bear witness to America’s legacy by purchasing souvenir spoons.
Cambodian border guards hike the visa fee, claiming a new price has gone into effect. Then our bus is oversold: the driver lines the aisle with stools and packs in another dozen passengers. We take that bus to another bus — with a cracked windshield and grating, rusted springs that poke through the vinyl upholstery — and then have to bargain for a ride from the bus depot to our hotel. Tuk-tuk drivers follow us for blocks chanting their prices, hoping we’ll change our minds about walking through the filthy streets and pay double a fair rate.
We pay because we have no choice, but since Cambodians use the U.S. dollar, we understand how much we’re being fleeced.
Charity shops and Tomb Raider tours of Angkor Wat promote tourism to save Cambodia from its past. I can eat at cafes that double as vocational training programs. I can be massaged by the blind or by former sex workers. Simply by being here and bearing witness, I am doing good. That’s the slogan, and it sounds fine enough — a virtuous twist to our honeymoon, which would come with a life-changing lesson if this were a movie — but what we see does not move us in the way we expect.
At the genocide museum in Phnom Penh, I drift from one room to the next. The Brutalist school-turned-prison could be my town’s high school, except the checkerboard floor tiles are made of real stone, and it’s holding up well. It’s only inside the former classrooms, where rusted cots sit against splattered walls — blood? mud? — that you get a sense of horror. Black-and-white photos show corpses found by Vietnamese soldiers. They’re awful, but we grow immune after a while.
In the reflections room, we walk past rows of yearbook-format faces of victims until we notice the photos are repeating. We share a smirk and move on to the next room to learn about the Khmer Rouge trials, in which those responsible for the genocide of up to 3 million Cambodians escaped accountability. History, again, repeats itself.
I want to get these people mental health services, but money is all I have. With each con, I’m less inclined to give it. Back in our hotel, white people lollygag in the swimming pool and send out for rounds of beer, taking a holiday without leaving the hotel. That’s not what I want, either. So we book an early flight to Ho Chi Minh City.
It’s slow going in a tuk-tuk to the airport, which leaves me plenty of time to people-watch. Taken out of context, from the tuk-tuk, Phnom Penh feels busy and buzzy — a little unstable, but going somewhere.
Saigon is warm air, palm trees, and Latin script. We make it through customs and then out of the airport, following pictograms. A guy plucks us out of the taxi queue and asks, in English, if we need a taxi. Taxis are lined up by the curb, but he takes us toward a parking lot. I slow my walk, sifting through the highlight reel of cons. This feels weird. But why?
Then I get it. Fake taxis. Not imposter Vinasuns but, worse, illegal taxis that might dump us in a dark alley and demand money. I grab my wife’s arm and whisper, and we run for it, back toward the terminal where I drop her hand and join the taxi queue.
We get a ride to Pham Ngu Lao, the backpacker area. Our cabbie drops us off at an alley where Westerners and Vietnamese talk and shout over one another and the din of Viet pop, eating street food at sidewalk tables. Old white men hunch over bowls of pho, smoking cigarettes and drinking sweaty cans of 33. Young Vietnamese women perch beside them, examining their nails. Children weave through the crowd selling gum and candy, ignored by everyone.
Our hotel is the second building down the alley. It’s almost spartan in contrast to its surroundings. We fall into crisp white sheets and dreamily discuss what we want to see in Saigon. So much life after so much death.
In the morning, the street is quiet but dirty, with remnants of the party ground into the asphalt. Our tourist map doesn’t tell us how to leave the alley and cross four lanes of traffic with no pedestrian crosswalk or traffic-lights in sight. Cars blaze by too rapidly for us to dash across, the way we did in Chiang Mai. It seems silly to stay glued to the curb, but the longer we wait, the more certain we become that the cars are not going to stop, will never stop; that we will only see the things that we can get to without crossing the road.
Until shrunken ladies in pastel tracksuits step out from the curb. One takes my arm. Her friend links arms with my wife. When they smile at us, we smile back. They take a baby step forward, pulling us into the road. Together we inch across one lane, stop, and look. We take a few more steps, and we wait again. When we reach the other side, the women let go. They disappear before we can thank them.
A coconut vendor yells out as we peer through the wrought iron gates of the Reunification Palace. In 1975, a North Vietnamese tank crashed the gates of the onetime colonial capital building, ending the war. The coconut vendor jerks his head toward the stately gardens and mode grandeur and explains the palace is closed for lunch.
We exchange wry looks as he sets down his load, two trays of coconuts and a long carrying pole. The ‘it’s-closed-now’ scheme was popular in Thailand. Are we about to be offered an incredible deal on gems, today-only, best-price, buy-something-lady? Or is he being nice while on a break? Maybe it’s his energy, or maybe it’s his smile, but we warm to him as he asks us how we like Saigon.
He gestures to the basket and smiles. ‘You want to hold this?’
‘Sure.’ He hefts the long plank up across my shoulder and it feels smoother than I thought. The trays are heavy, but a larger weight falls away. After our struggles in Cambodia, it feels good to be here.
Besides, this will make a good photo.
‘Go ahead, walk,’ the vendor tells me.
I clutch the pole and take careful steps. The coconuts bob as I move. The load is heavy enough that I can’t imagine carrying it all day. I tell the vendor he can take it back and pause, waiting for him to relieve me. He lowers the tray to the ground, then selects a coconut. He shakes a knife around the top, floats a pale yellow straw in the juice, and hands the coconut to me. ‘Oh, no. I didn’t want one’. I take a step back and smile.
But his hand doesn’t waver. He holds out the open coconut with a smile.
I get it then: the long con. His break; all the recommendations he offered. Those don’t come free. ‘How much?’
He names a price: tens of thousands of dong. I have no concept yet for this new currency. I hand over a bill — not what he’s asked for, but close enough — and say, ‘This is what I have’.
That afternoon, I find a Saigon tourist guide. According to the chart of street food prices, I paid eight times the cost of my street coconut. Yesterday, I would have been furious, but things have shifted. Caught off guard by a charmer, it feels like the perfect introduction to Vietnam.
Guys on motorbikes circle us as we step off the ferry in the Ho Chi Minh. We hug our bags and wait for our home-stay host. When they roar off, we’re relieved until we realise we’re alone on an island that has dirt paths for roads, with no phone to call our host.
The guys come back. ‘We take you, it’s okay,’ they say. We share a look and shrug, out of options. They load our luggage on their motorbikes, balance us on the back, and head out. The jungle is close upon us. For a few seconds, it feels like the terrain of those war movies. Dense. Choking. But I see buildings between the trees, and then our home-stay. Our host comes out to pay the guys and all falls back into normalcy.
We settle into a cabin built over the river. Boats drift past and movies play in my head: soldiers hiding in the edges of rice paddies, gunboats hogging the water, choppers whining. The water lapping against the cabin pulls me out of the past. We sip tea and watch the river, and the water becomes mud-brown, longboats trickling past, back-lit by late afternoon sun. Water chestnuts make a mat by the river edge. There is a ladder into the Mekong, so we change into bathing suits and climb down.
In Laos, we floated down this river in black rubber tubes, but it is not the same river here and we are not the same people from two weeks before.
We let go and float. I let go.
The war is here. The war is in me. But there is so much else here, too. The war is a small part of something I don’t know, but long to.
I have one more week.
This trip, anyway.
Lindsey Danis lives and writes in the Hudson Valley, New York. Her work has appeared most recently in Taproot, ROVA, and The Establishment, and her LGBTQ YA novel is longlisted for the WriteMentor Children’s Novel Award.