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The Scent of Perfume - Perfume Pagoda, Vietnam

After opening up to the world in 1986, Vietnam has rushed head-long into the 21st century, if not it’s government, at least it’s people. Things are happening at a breakneck pace, high-tech buildings sprouting up, more and more tourist infrastructure being laid, and their unique cultural identity usurped by Coke and Motorola.

But right now, as we speak, it is still ‘off-the-beaten-path,’ full of surprises and delights. The inefficiencies and lack of resources are exactly what differentiates Vietnam from other sterile, ‘perfect’ destinations and reminds you that it is still a work in progress. The people tend to respond with completely charming naivete, and you can’t fault them for trying. These same inconveniences, when taken in stride can become some of the most memorable experiences. Case in point…

We hooked up with a few Aussies and arranged a day trip to the Perfume pagoda outside Hanoi. Not easy to reach, it entails a two hour drive to the nearest city, then a two hour boat ride on a small rowboat big enough for two and the tiny Vietnamese women rowing you.  It all began en route to Ha Tay. Our small van was flying past endless green rice paddies and small remote villages when the strangest loud boom came from the left rear of the van. Instantly we thought blowout, as the van limped and lurched forward before our driver finally brought it to rest on the side of the road. We all climbed out to gawk, but were surprised to see not a flat tire but instead, a ‘loose’ axle. The entire wheel and axle had slid out and was about a foot from the car, still connected. What horrified us, seemed but a simple problem to our drivers. They began to push it back into place, thinking we’d be up and going shortly. However, they too finally came to the conclusion that it was much worse than they first realized and we hunkered down to wait for another van to set out from Hanoi and pick us up. As we waited we noticed two young girls across the way from us, tending water buffalo grazing by the rice paddies. They were shyly peeking out from under their conical hats and then once catching our eyes, collapsing in a fit of giggles. I went over to say Hello.  Unfortunately one Aussie followed me with his camera poised to sneak a photo. He scared them off, and I sat down patiently to wait. We had all the time in the world. He finally grew bored and went back to his friends. Then, I made my move. 

Using my broken Vietnamese, I began to talk to them, introducing myself and trying to find out more about them. It was slow-going at first. Then I took out my secret weapon, my sketch book. It always wins them over. They hung over my shoulder as I flipped through my pictures. Before I realized it, a small crowd had gathered. Villagers passing by on bicycles stopped to see what all the commotion was. Locals working the fields nearby stopped planting and came over. Each time a new person joined us, I was encouraged to start over again and go through each drawing. Finally at last, I closed the sketch book and looked up only to realize that we had become a town meeting. 

More introductions followed. They were so excited when they learned I was Vietnamese. They asked about my mom and about where I lived, what America was like and if they could touch my arms (they had never seen anyone with hair on their arms.) I gave them postcards of Chicago and spent a long time explaining the Sears Tower. They had no concept of a building over two stories tall. They even asked me about Hanoi, only an hour and a half away. These people have spent their entire lives in these same fields, developing a patience only born of the knowledge that a year, ten years, twenty years from now they will still be working these same fields. Why hurry? Progress had yet to rear it’s head. 

We shared peanut candy and told jokes. I realized that my grasp of the language had come a long way as all this was conducted in Vietnamese.  I taught them how to count in English and they taught me a simplicity of lifestyle many long for. When the bus from Hanoi arrived, I was sad to leave and continue on with our journey. My lasting momento, some paper with addresses scrawled on them with two few indicators to ever assure that a letter from me would find its intended reciepient.

The Vietnamese people are overwhelmingly friendly and hospitable.  Far from jaded, their generousity of spirit has amazed me at every turn. Another memorable experience was on the return boatride from the Perfume Pagoda. We were paddling along when some kids on a nearby rock started yelling at us. The usual questions, “What’s your name? Where are you from?” They then climbed into a boat and paddled after us. There were three young boys and a girl. They paddled alongside and we laughed and joked our way back. We teased the boys for letting the girl paddle and do all the work. We teased the girl about which one was her boyfriend. She was sixteen and in usual teen fashion, pronounced them all yucky! Then she asked if we had kids and when we said no, she was sad. She fished in her bag and pulled out something that she threw into our boat with amazing accuracy. It was a small package of about twenty tiny gold and silver bracelets. She said a gift for good luck in having many babies, baby bracelets. She wanted nothing in return, except for the friendship of her ‘big sister.’ 

We took turns leading silly songs and tried to splash each other along the way. Once back on land, she asked to look at my conical hat. Upon inspecting it, she pronounced it ‘tourist hat, bad quality’ whereby she switched hats with me, giving me her own personal conical hat that she had made herself. The inside was covered with images of her favorite Vietnamese movie and pop stars, drawings, and quotes. She had also laced together amazing threadwork on the inside that I have never seen before in any store. Truly one of a kind, and again, pure generousity that astounded me. At least I have her address and she will soon get a gift herself from her big sister.  

Later I translated one of the quotes written in a girlish script on the inside of the hat. It read “Laugh today and laugh forever.”

It really was the people that made all the difference in Vietnam. Curious, inquisitive, tenacious, generous of spirit and above all, hopeful for the future. While the landscape and food is spectacular, we will return to find friendship with the people once again. To laugh with them and laugh forever.


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