The Inner Voice of Who Knows What

the pilgrimage: Henri Nouwen and my own topsy-turvy little heart

Vietnam, strange and ragged.

I feel strange and ragged and like the Prophet who has walked across the land to bring the dark Word, and the only Word I have is “Wow!”

Kerouac’s words ring incredibly true… reading On the Road amidst the traffic and lights and buzz and sheer foreign life of Saigon makes the words all the more potent. A feeble“wow” is about the best I can muster from twenty-four days in Vietnam, a country where my mind is still and my heart will be for a long while.

Perhaps I feel particularly strange and ragged because of the jet lag, but this is a feeling not easily gotten rid of. It seems that from now on I need to learn how to be strange and ragged as a way of life. Vietnam has pushed me over the edge of being contented with a life of normalcy. Even as I am back in Fresno for only a few days before traveling again, I feel restless, needing to be on the move, needing to discover some new remarkable sight or dig some new remarkable people. A few nights ago I took a simple walk around the Tower District, where I can always find something unseen before. There were no motorbikes, a surreal shift, but venturing out into the unfamiliar is essential. I will be strange and ragged and discovering newness and somewhat out of place for a long time, I suppose.
I’m okay with that.

I am not the same by any stretch of the imagination. The last three weeks have been transformative. I can now meet a Hmong mother at Cedar and Tulare, and wonder if I have visited her people’s home; I can now window shop for boots and know how many young women it took to make a pair; I can now answer the question of why I am a pacifist because I have seen fetuses of those who would have been born were it not for Agent Orange; I can now eat a delicious spring roll and know at least vaguely how to craft my own; I can now visit a Buddhist temple and remember the smell of the coiled incense that burns for the same reason across the globe; I can now think about Communism as more than a daunting red glare, as a comforting and iconic legacy of our dear Uncle Ho; I can now share lunch with an old veteran on a highway median, who may be crippled and ostracized and altogether strange and ragged, and understand a small part of his story.

My first impressions of Vietnam were mostly of amusement and confusion – and those certainly remain. The juxtaposition is hilarious – rich European tourists and friendly sampan rowers without all their teeth, magnificent Ha Long Bay and a Hoi An alleyway under construction where the children play, loud loud dance music for the university crowd and gentle traditional strings for the purists, toilets made of holes in the ground and showers made of toilet rooms, a heartily depressing tour of the Cu Chi Tunnels and the glee of shooting an AK47, the bright noisy children and their quite embalmed beloved Ho Chi Minh, and of course the proliferance of very-French-but-very-Vietnamese baguettes. The image of the Vesak float will always remain with me… Getting off a plane to be greeted by such a display of Buddhist pride and horticultural talent, and fondness for very loud and very synthetic music, was an honor.

The only word I have is “wow…”

I did have one of the most spiritually significant moments of my life on top of a rooftop in Saigon, among the drying laundry and giant water heaters and the company of a very significant Djarum menthol. But that’s not put into words quite yet.

I am convinced this means I need to go back to Vietnam to find more words.


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