Binh Nguyen: Vietnam


June 4, 2011.

ALL NIGHT, a surly gang of mosquitoes skulked through the dark. I’d decided to turn on the fan before going to sleep, hoping that fast currents of air would send chaos into their little sanguinary universe. I let it spin all through the night to keep them away, but still, they continued to whine for my blood. And worse, the room became teeth-shatteringly cold as the night carried on. My bed felt stiff at every turn, and mattresses being a luxury in the countryside, it must have been three or four a.m. before I could fall sleep.

The sun was high up when the men came to carry the tents away, along with the dishes and plates that had been ordered as part of the wedding catering. They waved good-bye as I came out of my neighbor, Co 5 Hoanh‘s house where I had been visiting for the last two hours. I was surprised to see this house, which her children had built for her, in such good condition. I remember those days when she had been living in a hut, emaciated and addicted to tobacco, which didn’t help her case as she had always been broke.

But nowadays, her son, Sinh, is making quite good money selling agarwood (oohd or aloe wood), which is then exported to make anything from incense to perfumes, to medicine and writing instruments. Agarwood forms in Aquilaria and Gyrinops trees, which have been infected by a particular mold that causes the trees to darken and produce a distinct aromatic resin as the infection progresses. The Aquilaria species grows in the wild and is currently undergoing depletion, which makes it both rare and costly. It’s a living for some and a dying for others. But agarwood (tram huong) is only one of three varieties; the others are calambac and agarwood proper. Beginning in 1580, the Nguyen Lords established a Royal Monopoly over calambac sales which helped them to maintain their state finances. The oohd lies in three baskets on the porch, in a ligneous kind of calm, seemingly oblivious to its fate. I think of trees always in just one word: accepting.

Co 5 later confessed to me that her husband had committed suicide by poison after 1975, when the Communists were coming for him, either to kill or to imprison with torture. He had been head of the police so his position had endangered his life, even though before that, they had managed to live very well, with servants in their home and a motorcycle, which in those days was a sign of power and wealth. She showed me old photographs of them in their younger days, when she had an infamous head of black hair, long and luxuriant, when he had been a handsome young man, serious and stately.

Returning home, I thought I might light incense on the graves all over our yard, but just then the sky was darkening and thunder was beginning to rumble in the distance. The thunder that came with all that dark noise eventually sent a jackfruit tumbling down from its stem. Thim saw what had happened and had Chu Nhan go out to bring it in. We were so anxious to open it as we had been eyeing it all morning.

The knife sliced cleanly through the arils, from the rind to the core. We were delighted by the fruits’ sweet scent and ate our fill. It was riper than it should have been but was still so luscious and tender. A scatter of the pointy outer coverings remained after we had harvested the rest to refrigerate, and kept the seeds for boiling.

We had crabs for an appetizer since bride & groom had gone to the beach earlier that day. They were very small but salty and just the right amount of crunchiness. Later we were served dinner, mostly leftovers from the wedding, which was still plenty to eat. There is no better meat than countryside pork since they are not fed with flour.

After our meal, I sat alone on the porch in the dark, resting. I thought of Co 5’s husband who now stares out from a photograph on her family shrine—under a statue of the Buddha of Compassion and Mercy—forever young and immune to the ravages of time.


June 3, 2011.

COUNTRY WEDDINGS are a delicate balance between gravity and lightness. There is the ceremony in which bride and groom are largely silent while their elders exchange words for the occasion. And then there is the lavish feast; the colorful, long procession through the fields; and of course, the sensuous, unforgettable ao dai.

aodaiLike many Western nations, the Vietnamese wedding is preceded by a host of other undertakings that give the finale its proper finish. Traditionally, before bride and groom even become recognized as a couple, the man’s family engages in a casual affair of going to visit the woman’s family, also known as di tham nha or di coi mat (literally, to visit the family or to go to see the eyes). In the old days, marriage was prearranged, so the man’s family would have to inspect carefully their son’s “romantic interest,” from her every physical appearance to the way she behaves, noting everything in its various and sundry minutiae.

They scrutinized her height, her weight, the shape of her face; even her cheekbones and forehead, the height of her nose, the thick or thinness of her lips and whether or not they protrude; even the particular way in which her nostrils settle under her nose, since everything is laden with hidden meaning. If her lips are too thin, then she would be considered avaricious, selfish, and truculent. If her nostrils flare out so much that it is possible to see into her nose, then she would be thought a self-publicist, prone to reveal her private business to everyone.

Such arrangements have mostly fallen out of fashion, since now young people often come together on their own. When a man is ready, he would ask his family to di noi/di hoi (to go to speak/to ask). This is a formal ceremony in which the man’s family declares its intentions and asks for the woman’s hand in marriage, on behalf of the man and in his presence. Following tradition, a bottle of wine and various wedding favors would be presented to mark the occasion.

Wedding favors come in these round boxes with a red velvet cloth on top.

Wedding favors come in these round boxes with a red velvet cloth on top.

Both families would arrange to meet again at a later date for the official engagement ceremony, called dam hoi (ceremony to ask). Di noi ensures that the woman’s family agrees to the engagement and prevents the man from public humiliation, thus losing his bachelor’s charm (mat duyen). During dam hoi, the woman’s family would welcome the man’s family into its home and thereafter recognize the couple as engaged by presenting the event to the family’s ancestors and exchanging larger favors including engagement rings and jewellery.

Wine, with betel leaves & areca nuts.

Wine, with betel leaves & areca nuts.

These are separate occasions though sometimes the second and third events can happen at once (especially if the families live a considerable distance apart). Most of the time, the first event is done away with altogether, especially if the couple has been dating for a while. In the old days, if the woman’s parents do not accept the proposal, they would simply stop the process at the second step and not proceed to dam hoi at all. A decent, respectable family would usually decline by a very subtle gesture of serving up fruits or delicacies that would signify its lack of interest.


My grandfather’s younger brother sat at a table fiddlings with his red hat (khan dong). He wore a matching red brocade robe, looking tall, gaunt, and dignified. Next to him were my father’s sister and brother, the family’s representatives for the wedding ceremony.

red hat

The eldest member of our family (91). At 3 a.m., he woke up quite suddenly and telephoned someone in a state of urgency, ordering them to bring this red hat to him right away since he had forgotten it at home.

At eight a.m., the groom’s family arrived. Our family lined up by the entrance, shaking hand, offering greetings and invitations. Both families made speeches about the occasion, followed by a presentation of gifts from the groom’s family.

wedding favors

Beautifully arranged wedding favors. Notice the dragon and the phoenix, the former a symbol of masculinity and strength and the later, of femininity and eternity. They are often found on wedding decoration and together represent the blissful relationship between husband and wife.

The bride was finally brought out with the groom, looking fresh-faced and demure, a bouquet of orchids in her hands.

The bride.

The bride.

For their parents.

For their parents.

They served small glasses of alcohol to their ancestors and parents, then exchanged rings.

Afterward, both families went out on the porch to greet the guests who were by then just starting to be regaled  by a lavish seven-course feast.

The bride receiving gold bands from her aunts.

The bride receiving gold bands from her aunts.

Before dining, the gift-giving occurred on stage, directed by an emcee who called on various members of the bride’s family to give bride and groom envelopes of money or gold bands (chi vang), in support of their future life together. During the meal, the guests were entertained by the bride’s family members and friends who volunteered to perform on stage.


The procession to the groom’s house commenced at ten. We followed the groom’s family on foot for a thirty-minute walk. The sun was high and scorching us all, the men in their suits, women in ao dai or modern dress. People and children lined the streets to get a peek at the couple and the ladies in dresses. One little girl kept prancing after us, looking sprightly in her yellow tutu skirt.

Yellow tutu.

Yellow tutu.

At the groom’s, the men spoke while the women sat by watching. Again, the feast was sumptuous and elaborate, but in that heat, it was almost impossible to eat anything. By the end of it, we were thankfully shuttled back on motorbikes and had all the rest of the day to rest.

The locals, especially children, love to see a wedding procession and some follow it all the way to the end.

The locals, especially children, love to see a wedding procession and some follow it all the way to the end.

I fell asleep thinking about the performative nature of weddings and all the role-playing that is involved in it. In all, it was a well-orchestrated event, but I was constantly bothered by the strict adherence to gender roles, the deference to male authority, and the couple’s silent acceptance of an imposed passivity. What is more, the heat had ground us all down to little helpless, breathless needles.

It was dark outside when I woke up and I laid in my bed listening to the strangeness of the downpour falling on rooftops and leaves and the ground. I was delighted by an array of sounds which brought back memories of childhood, of days bathing naked in the rain.

Finally the new air coaxed me from my warm sleeping place. I slipped out from the side door into the rain, letting it fall on me, letting it surprise me with its argent coldness. Can I live here again for a while? Will I be able to get used to this place with all of its inhospitable beauty?



There are people here filling up glass bottles with roses. Others filling balloons with air. The tent has been set up and chairs are stacked up, waiting to be put out tomorrow for the wedding. I have ironed my ao dai and now it hangs next to the bride’s resplendent red gown and golden cloak. It is so hard to believe that it has been sixteen years since I have left. Now Le Ngoc who used to play with me as a child is getting married. She showed me her wedding album full of bright photos in the sun, in a tourist park in Saigon.

cooking by fire

Cooking by firewood.

We dined on a vegetarian meal that Thim had prepared–a table full of a pumpkin-peanut soup, green beans and carrots, a wonderful sesame stir-fry, and banh tet. Now karaoke music fills the house, and once in a while, a balloon would burst and laughter follow.

pregnant pig

Pregnant pig. There are twelve piglets in her belly which sags and drags along the ground as she walks.

After dining, I took a piss in the bushes out back near the pen where a pregnant pig sleeps. It grunted a few times later when I brushed my teeth. Country life teems with brown frogs, lizards, and mosquitoes. Night is full of the chirping of crickets; the swishing of a broom wet against the cement which has been splashed with rain water; voices worrying about the last finer details. Above me,terracotta bricks lay piece-by-piece over a crisscrossing pattern of wood. An overlay of sea-green paint on the walls. A small bed of wooden panes, a simple mat over it.


Tien Phuoc, June 2, 2011.

STRANGE ROADS are thrilling. From the back of a motorbike, my mind hums with bright noise, anticipating something I might recognize. The landscape bares itself to me–its mountains dense with trees, lush paddies and the open road–startling me into feeling.


Water buffalo by the roadside.

I was here once, but I do not remember the way home. What I remember are muddy, winding roads filled with holes that gulp down wheels and jolt the body out of a bus-lulled languor. Every now and then, a bridge would enjoin the roads to meet by two or three weak, wooden slats, just enough to fit a bus; the rest of it yawning down to a deep river even muddier than the roads. Such bridges were notorious for claiming victims whose bikes would suddenly veer out of control into the rushing currents.

The new béton road is now and then a stone-strewn auburn path that intervenes fields of newly planted crops. A water buffalo lazes by the roadside, grinding its teeth into grasses, towing away clumps in cool extraction. Down a hillock, children disband in a game of hide-and-seek, leaving a skinny dark finder facing a pole, yelling out a hotheaded suite of numbers.

house well

Our house well and laundry platform.

There was a large well on the way to my house from which the hamlet would draw its water to cook with and bathe in. Now every house has its own, so this once heartbeat of the neighborhood has been reduced to a much smaller replacement, for peasants working in the field and thirsty passersby. We bathe from a bucket full of cool, well-drawn water, which on these torrid days offers momentary relief.

well-drawn water

Well-drawn water for bathing.

Over the gateway, bamboo stalks once loomed but now they have been cleared to make way for a cleaner path up to the house. Here, everyone is known by a number that signifies his birth position–Uncle Nine, Mister Three, and so on… Here, our neighbor’s wayward son had once chopped off his pinky in a drunken, adolescent dare, while another had committed suicide by hanging himself with a hammock. Time passes but some things linger obstinately in me.

Memory is a strange, elusive thing. What do we choose to remember vs what is instinctively recorded by the mind from a kind of primitive passion, seemingly of its own will, as though that will were an automatic, autonomous impulse?

Our lives are ever-expanding, but our memories are made up of a cotton-wooly snarl of time and space, dominated largely by gaps and periods of recollective silence in which, because we cannot remember, it is hard to believe that in those times we had existed at all. What do we have to prove that we had been there, had seen and felt anything, that the selves which persist are somehow connected? We make assumptions about the interconnectedness of our lives’ events when human experience is in actuality more precisely scattered, disconnected, episodic.

How and ever, we are our waking lives as well as our dreams and wishes and all that we can invent. Our imagination can redeem us from what is forgotten, because through it, the forgotten can be relived in an infinite number of ways not limited to the empirically true. But imagination does not regain or justify our loss; it offers plausibility and innovation. All that is lost is forever lost, though we might approximate. And then, of course, some things are probably better off forgotten.

peasants in the field

Peasants returning at midday.

The land is still to me a vibrant surprise, breathing with old-world charm and a quiet, rustic beauty. But what is different? Everything. Because I am not returning to this place to continue a former life. Now I am a visitor in my native soil, experiencing everyday with a different body and interpreting the days’ events with an altered kind of vision.


Boston, June 1, 2011.

VIETNAM is a land of astonishing beauty, enriched by its abundance of natural resources. In contrast, it is also a country whose history is wedded to imperialism and bloodshed. Power was wrested from one hand to another, as evidenced by the constant seeds of discord sown by long periods of Chinese domination from 111 BC to 938 AD. Centuries of shifting dynastic rule kept the land from existing freely and with unquestionable ownership. After the dissolution of centralized feudal power and French colonization beginning in the nineteenth century, clashing internal politics resulted in the country’s division and subsequent war.

Although the history precedes my birth, its consequences continue to inform my identity and perception, endowing me with a great deal of material with which to work. Oftentimes out of instinct, I return to the place where I grew up, psychically searching for ‘subject matters’ and concrete details and images out of which my poems are built, since I am made of this landscape of my birthplace whose energy and essences consistently find their way into my poetry. It is natural for me to yearn to return in the flesh, to obtain a more concentrated picture of my homeland and to capture all the facets of life there that my feelings, imagination, and memory might have missed, and so much more.