It was like cleaning out a junk drawer before a move. It was the last few boxes of our storage unit containing the remains of our marriage. But instead of rubber band balls and expired coupons, it contained fragments of my life that I could not part with or bring with me to China. Diaries. My grandmother’s China. My purple Doc Martins.
And there it was, underneath the other half of my bike lock.
The black leather cover of our wedding Bible.
I froze. Just what do I do with it?
I picked it up and leafed through the onion skin thin pages, surprised at the memories that jumped out. A picture of a friend, a letter from my mom. A program from a funeral for a baby, his little foot prints on front.
I flip through the pages again finding more surprises. A door tag from a hotel in Bangkok. A frayed tag from my dad’s navy days. I put the Bible down on a stack of boxes I was ready to haul to the dumpster.
I look at the date embossed in gold on the cover. 1999. My marriage was a thing of the past like floppy discs,Y2K emergency bunkers and Wow potato chips.
I had an Olestra moment. It was time to get going.
But throwing out a Bible? It would be bad luck like walking under a ladder or drinking tap water in China.
I hummed and hawed. Do I donate it to a shelter or give it to someone who needs it more than me? I thought of a favorite Bible that I gave it to a down-and-out friend who was trying to kick her habit. The gold trim was worn off. Verses were highlighted like rainbows. She ended up using my Bible as a place to write the phone numbers of her drug dealers.
Don’t want to do that again.
I brought the Bible back to China as part of my hundred pounds of checked-in life, along with my chunk of cheddar cheese and Pepperidge Farm goldfish in a box that the TSA would slice apart.
I felt like a jet set bag lady schlepping my life in a luggage cart.
Thirteen time zones later, I arrive at my new apartment and make a hundred pound mountain of me in the center of the floor.
I pick up the Bible and leaf thru the pages again. I find something I never did before, a fan folded letter from my husband scribbled on a piece of legal paper. It was tucked in the Old Testament prophets.
Dear Dad, I’ve been kind of a jerk to Ginger…
A few tears come out when I realize when it was written— closer to the date on the cover than the date flashing on my phone.
I returned the note to Nehemiah where I will never find it again.
I go back to the mound of my life spreading on the floor of my apartment. I dig out from a tangle of socks a package of Sharpies that a friend bought for me.
“I thought you might need these in China,” she said.
You’re damn right.
So every day as I watch the sun come up, I do what I should have done before. I open the Bible, grab a Sharpie and share my thoughts in technicolor: lamenting, celebrating, underlining and recharging and take in the distinct smell of something permanent.
For the LORD is good and his love endures forever. Psalm 100:5
There’s a lot to smile about in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City) Vietnam.
The endless allies to explore…
And the food
Zigzagging through traffic on a Grab-it scooter Taxi…
And the food.
The fish lady…
And the coffee you enjoy after you food.
And the nipple guards. (I bet you thought I’d say food again).
Saigon has so much good street food, you should pack a spare stomach.
But there are things that don’t make me smile about Saigon. The wounds of the Vietnam War.
The War Remnant Museum allows you to see the history of the war, the good, bad and ugly. You’ll see a powerful exhibit on war crimes and agent orange…
I wonder if the toxins leeched into the soil that grew all of the food …
I was curious to see the underground tunnel system built by the Vietcong but decided against it. They are the Cu Chi tunnels and a day trip from the city. The tourist agency handed me a glossy brochure with an American tourist poking her head out of a tunnel opening like a ground hog while smiling. Other brochures featured tourists laughing while holding machine guns the size of viking oars.
That was the only thing I found tasteless in the entire city.
Even the chicken jerky is worth a try.
So if you go to Saigon, AKA Ho Chi Minh City, bring your expanding waist pants and smile!
They were both so much more than their choices.
Flashback to three lifetimes ago, 1985. Tom Cruise was still normal. Denim was stone washed. Coke tasted like Pepsi. A few kids from my youth group hadn’t died yet. I lived in Chicago and volunteered with inner-city teens on Friday nights.
A fight broke out between a tall girl gangly arms and a boy who’d eventually take a bullet.
I didn’t know much about the girl other than her zip code wasn’t a winning combination of numbers that had a decent school. Tall, disrespectful, a good left hook. I looked at her thinking, you are so much better than your chances.
I hauled her inside the iHOP next to the church, her eyes bugging, her adrenaline simmering. A homeless guy was slumped over in the booth near the register, his smell competing with the bacon.
I threw her a menu. “Order anything you want.”
She scanned the laminated pages sticky with syrup. “I’ll take the shrimp basket.”
The shrimp basket at iHOP? Of all the rooty-tooty choices that’s was she gets? There was only one reason why. The shrimp basket was the most expensive item on the menu. I still remember the price. Thirteen dollars.
The girl chased the shrimp around the waxy paper, not eating them. She just occasionally glanced at me, her eyes saying, “Who’s this crazy white lady buying me a meal?” I tried not to get pissed. It was only thirteen dollars. Instead, I sipped my Coke then pushed it away, forgetting how the formula changed.
Finally, she says something. “Why you be nice to me?”
I used my spoon to fish out an ice cube. “Girls aren’t supposed to fight guys and guys aren’t supposed to hit girls.”
She looked at me as if she never heard that before, her elbows on the table, her long fingers flicking the shrimp. She gave me a head roll but never a thank you.
I hadn’t thought about her or those overpriced shrimp until yesterday. I was in China, not Chicago, and in a school, not at a pancake house. I was waiting for a parent-teen conference to begin.
The smell of money wafted from the mother as her heels clicked into my classroom. Her face was shiny with an expensive cream that makes skin look dewy wet. Her shoes matched her bag matched her cell phone.
I shook her hand, or tried, her delicate fingers slipping away. “Where’s your daughter?” I ask.
“Her driver picked her up from school,” the interpreter said. “She didn’t want to come.”
The mother gave me a helpless smile.
I took a breath, feeling steam pour from nostrils. I smile at our interpreter. “Can you tell the mom to call her daughter? She needs to be here.”
It was an awkward thirty-minute wait.
When the teen finally stomped into my classroom, she slumped down into the seat, crossed her arms and let out a loud breath. Every gesture screamed, “Everybody, I’m an entitled Chinese teenage and I’m not happy!” If looks could kill, you’d be reading my obituary.
I looked at this girl thinking, you are so much better than your choices.
Two teens. Both feral, hissing, their claws out, ready to pounce. For one, money would solve problems, for the other, money was the culprit. One with few choices, one making the wrong ones. As one shoved around her shrimp, and the othered glowered at her helpless mother, I wondered in both instances: how do you help the child who has never been disciplined?
“And remember to check your email for assignments.” I say.
“Oh, I don’t do email.”
“OK,” I bite my tongue again. “Then have your mother check them.”
I don’t know what happened to Miss Shrimp Basket. If she’s anything like the girls I still keep in contact from that program, she’s grand-mom by now, working a degrading job with a uniform and no overtime pay. Did she grow up to be knocked around? Did she realize her worth? She probably doesn’t even remember that day or the shrimps or the smell of that homeless guy.
My thoughts drift back to the entitled Chinese teen from yesterday. Her pouts. Her eyerolls and flagrant disrespect. Would a shrimp basket at iHOP would make her happy or would she have to buy the entire iHOP? Then I thought about my days as a teen. Flooding the chemistry lab. Countless visits with Mr. Bannon, our principal. Being kicked out of so many classes my senior, I was an honorary member of the 6th grade band.
Guess I was feral, too.
So what do you give the teen who has everything –but discipline?
The same thing others gave me.
OK. I cried uncle. I couldn’t handle Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City). Too many bikes. A motorcycle even drove through this dive while I was eating, giving a new meaning to drive-thru.
I was in Saigon just long enough to fuel up on some tasty dishes and caffeine.
The food? I could eat there forever. While northern Vietnam is all about noodles, Ho Chi Minh City has a lot of sassy sausages and grilled meats.
But the traffic was psycho. The only people who walk in Vietnam are the tourists. So I made my escape from the psycho traffic to a homestay in the Mekong Delta. It wasn’t in a village on the outskirts of Ben Tre (imagine a jungle version of Hooterville minus Uncle Joe plus a lot of bugs). I rode my rickety bike to the main drag and food choices were slim pickins. About all there was to eat was frog and dog.
I kept peddling until I found chicken, or at least something that tasted like chicken. So that means it could’ve been about anything.
While Saigon has insane traffice, Mekong has insane scenery. Homestays are a great way to experience the country areas. You won’t always get a hot shower, but you will get wifi. I recommend making reservations at a portal such as Agoda.com and train tickets at 12Go . Both have great customer service to help you with problems because when you travel in Asia? You will have problems.
How to get from Saigon to Mekong? If you are dong-pincher, take a bus from the Mien Tay bus Terminal, which serves the southern provinces of Vietnam (not the same station that goes to Hanoi). Price? (100,000 dong, just over four bucks) TIP: if you are buying your ticket at the station, tip your cab driver to stand in line and purchase the ticket for you. The bus station is as chaotic as Saigon traffic.
The ride down from Ho Chi Minh City south was less than ninety minutes. The bus line I took to Ben Tre was Futa: the bus company arranged for passengers to get rides to our destinations. Not, this guy, but vans.
Bummer. Trains do not go to Ben Tre but hey, it’s only ninety minutes. TIP: if you take the train in Vietnam, splurge and pay a bit extra for first class. That way, you’ll have head room to sit up if you get tired of laying down.
The best thing about being left by my husband in the middle of Asia in the middle of your life is that every day is a new chance to figure out who I am.
But screw that. I’m on holiday. It’s the Vietnamese New Year so instead of figuring out my purpose, I’ll be searching for something really challenging. Cap’n Crunch. It’s one American thing I haven’t seen in Asia. I just burnt a hole through the roof of my mouth with this spicy stuff. It was time to tear the rest of it to shreds.
So where exactly am I? I’m in Nha Trang, a twelve-hour train ride from Da Nang, where I just left, which snaked through an endless blanket of green velvet, rice patties, and small villages. The train itself sorta sucked, the berths being too small to sit in anything other than a yoga position. But the view was worth the Restless Leg Syndrome. Here’s a one minute snippet. I apologize for the bird poop.
This baby had the right idea.
My hotel in Nha Trang is in a colorful district of the town (code for not the most glamorous neighborhood). It is next to a pool hall /coffee shop…
Which is next to a karaoke/coffee shop…
Which is next to the Phat coffee shop…
Which is across from this coffee shop loaded with card players and girls tugging their spandex minis.
There’s no shortage of caffeine here.
I got up early to go see the sunrise and have an inspirational poster moment. That lasted for about thirty seconds. After that, I was back on my quest to find the Cap’n. And low and behold, on the way back to my hotel, my prayer was answered. Well, sort of. I stumbled upon an all-you-can-eat breakfast buffet for 100,000 dong (about $4.30). They had items from here to the flipside, including eggs, bread, juices, salad, an assortment of fruits and noodles, cheese, meats, and stop-my-heart: Cocoa Krispies.
OK. So it wasn’t Cap’n Crunch with Crunch Berries, but I enjoyed a bowl with some dragon fruit as part of a complete breakfast.
Other than coffee and Cocoa Krispies, what is the food scene like in Nha Trang, Vietnam?
Well, you got to love a town where you can get a lobster on any corner.
I don’t know what this lady was making, but she sure used a lot of dishes.
This thing I ate? It came with a free prize inside. A quail egg. I’d prefer a decoder ring.
And here’s me, still trying to figure out where to look when I snap a selfie. That’s almost as hard as figuring out what to do with the rest of my life. Here’s to more coffee until I figure it out.