In America

by aengelson | July 21st, 2010

Take me out to the ballgame...are you really going to eat that whole thing?

Well, our whirlwind three-week trip to the United States wrapped up a few days ago, and now I’m sitting here in my office in Hanoi looking out on the Sheraton and a muggy, overcast day. This morning I went for a run amid the honking motorbikes and conical-hatted fisherman at Tay Ho lake,  and it’s hard to believe just a few days ago I was in the Pacific Northwest.

For a gallery of photos from the second half of our U.S. trip, click on any of the photos in this post, or go to my Flickr site.

After a very good visit in Seattle, Bremerton, Redmond, and Chelan, we flew out to Denver, Colorado–where Joanie’s from. The weather had finally warmed up in Washington state the day before we left, and then–of course–the cold weather followed us to Denver. But no matter, we were there to see family and friends.

One of the highlights included a trip to watch the Colorado Rockies beat the St. Louis Cardinals. Baseball! Foot-long hot dogs! Cotton candy! And beer! Also, in Denver we met with friends at Joanie’s old neighborhood, Bowmar Lake for some swimming. And I was really impressed with Denver on this trip: a great light rail system, terrific walkable parks and neighborhoods, community bikes for rent, and just a few hours from fantastic mountain hiking. Oh, and a new law has resulted in a proliferation of medical marijuana shops (with prescriptions pretty easy to get, judging from the condition of the patrons I saw entering these “farmacies”).

The girls enjoyed their time with Grammy and Grandpa Joe, who had moved back to Denver shortly before we moved to Vietnam. And then it was time to meet up with Aunt Mary and Uncle Robert and Grammy and Grandpa for three nights in a cabin near Rocky Mountain National Park.

Hiking to Big Meadow, Rocky Mountain National Park

We stayed at Columbine Lake, on the southeast edge of the park. It was a lovely place to stay: mountains all around, wind whistling in the pines, and during one walk around the lake, we spotted a huge bull moose nibbling on someone’s garden. And in the town of Grand Lake we played mini golf! The girls loved all the Rube Goldberg-like contraptions designed to convey or thwart your putts. In the late afternoons we hung around playing Uno, reading, and visiting the playground. We caused quite a stir playing goofy Follow-the-Leader on the way home to our cabin.

One night I took a stab at cooking Vietnamese, with ingredients found at an Asian market in Denver: green papaya salad (of course), stir-fried beef in oyster sauce and lemongrass, and mojitos. (OK–so mojitos aren’t technically Vietnamese, but they’ve become our adopted drink of choice in Hanoi).

Then one day it was off for a hike–ah yes, a sweet, glorious hike! It was 1.8 miles to Big Meadow, plenty long enough for the girls, and I figured I’d take what I could get. Sun-drenched pines, calypso orchids, columbine, and fresh, crisp mountain air. At a lunch stop, Robert took the girls to observe the teeming insect life in a little pond. Crazy-looking larvae all wrapped up in little bundles of pine needles walked along the bottom while a parade of bugs were hatching. Fiona said “it looks like a little city in there…” We also spotted one of my favorite flowers, elephantella, which has what look like hundreds of little pink elephant heads on it.

Some of us went all the way up to the final meadow, which didn’t disappoint. Vast expanses of grass and wildflowers. A family of four moose in the distance. Silence. Neither Joanie or I wanted to leave, but we had more U.S. adventures ahead.

Fun times with Grammy in Colorado!

After our cabin experience, we drove through Rocky Mountain National Park on Trail Ridge Road, a high, gorgeous route that tops out at over 12,000 feet (4,000 meters). The thin cold air was bracing. I filled up my lungs, hoping to carry some of it back with me to smoggy Hanoi. On the way back to Denver, we stopped in at the Oskar Blues Brewery in Lyons for beers, and some fantastic grub, including burgers, shrimp and grits, crab cakes, and deep fried pickles smothered in spicy remoulade. Yu-um.

Back in Denver, the weather had heated up (still, it was amazing how balmy 100 degrees and low humidity can feel after sweltering Hanoi heat!). We cooled off at the pool and in Grammy & Grandpa’s sprinkler. We met with more friends, and Joanie and I made a morning pilgrimage to one our favorite bookstores in the world: the Tattered Cover.

Then, after such a brief but fun visit we were back on a flight to Seattle. The views on the flight were extraordinary, including glimpses of Mount Hood, Mount Jefferson, and Three Sisters in Oregon. Plus, a dramatic fly-by level with the massive glaciers of Mount Rainier, with Adams and St. Helens in the distance. I ate it up.

Fun times with cousin Garrett

A few more visits with family in Bremerton, then it was time to fly “home” to Hanoi. Our flight from Seattle to Seoul was uneventful,  but it turned out tropical storm Conson had other plans for us. Because of high winds and heavy rains, our flight to Hanoi was canceled. Thankfully, Korean Airlines put us up for the night, covering a room and meals at the airport Hyatt. An extra day of vacation, and in style! The buffet was huge and impressive (but the wine was extra–holy cow, 20 dollars for a glass? Well, the rest of it was paid, so what the heck…) and it was nice to have a night of sleep on 250-thread-count sheets. And they had robes!

So now we’re back (although Joanie had to turn around and travel for a work trip for three nights). It’s been a long, strange voyage. It’s odd how it feels to slip back into your old neighborhoods and routines in America–things I hadn’t thought about for nearly a year. It was great to connect with people back home, even if briefly. And in fact, I was lucky enough to meet with some old friends whom I’ve reconnected with via Facebook and this blog since I’ve moved to Vietnam. What an amazing modern world we live in.

The U.S. is a strange place, a wonderful place. People were fascinated to hear about what we love and hate in Vietnam. Many were surprised to hear about restrictions on speech and activism in Vietnam. And then there’s all the crazy excess in the U.S.: huge meal portions, absurd reality TV shows, noisy political “news”…and all these huge people (both tall and overweight). America is quiet but frenetic: it seemed to me that people generally walk a lot faster in America than they do in Vietnam. I kept wanting to toot my car horn when I was driving. And miracle of miracles, the kids were dutifully buckled into car booster seats the entire time.

...I'm sensing we're not in Hanoi anymore...

It was great to talk politics again (even if some of us have our differences). It was great to put trash in recycling bins. To enjoy open space, fresh air, and trails (all accessed by petroleum-consuming cars tanked up with gasoline from the Gulf of Mexico!). Riding public transit that doesn’t spew black clouds of diesel. And eating Mexican food! We noshed on as much as we could get our hands on (since it’s in short supply here in Hanoi)–from cheap taco stands in Denver to an El Salvadoran restaurant in Seattle.

It was jolting to see how multicultural America is: African women in headscarves, Latino teenagers, Asian-American commuters on the light rail, paunchy guys in cowboy hats and gay men walking hand-in-hand on Seattle’s Capitol Hill. It’s often talked about, but it really is a thing that makes the U.S. special. Don’t get me wrong: I know racial, ethnic and economic stratification and segregation are alive and well in America (just look at the situation in Seattle’s public schools–oh don’t get me started). And the ugly immigration debate rages on. But there is a sense in America that anyone can be an American. Coming from a year in Vietnam, you realize this is a radical concept. For the Vietnamese, there is a huge divide between Vietnamese and outsiders. You can’t become Vietnamese, no matter how long you live here, no matter if you learn the language, learn the culture.

Joanie enjoys breakfast at the Tattered Cover bookstore

My Vietnamese teacher pointed this distinction out to me before I left. In Vietnamese, there are two words for “return to.” The word ve means to go back to your home, and quay lai means to come back to some other place (like your office). We practiced saying that I was going to return home to America, and then tried to say that after my trip was over, “Anh se ve Hanoi.” She corrected me: it should be “Anh quay lai Hanoi,” since my home was in America, after all.

Well, sitting here looking out at the green murky waters of the lake outside our house and thinking about my next meal of bun cha, and a glass of strong caphe sua da, and all our friends here in Hanoi, and my daughters’ schools, and the manic traffic that I now know how to navigate with some proficiency–well, it’s good to be home–for now, at least.

2 Responses to “In America”

  1. Great post, as always. I so agree with your statement that “in America…anyone can be an American.” I don’t think this is true in any other country; maybe Canada, I don’t know. Even in the Netherlands, my sister told me, there are people of Indonesian descent who have lived there for generations and can pretty much only speak Dutch, have never been to their “homeland,” and know Dutch culture much more so — yet the Dutch will never consider them “Dutch.”

  2. As always your introspection and view into what makes “us” different from “them” is fresh. In a year or so, I’ll be interested to see how this post differs from the one you will write after your next visit back.

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About This Site

Andy Engelson is a writer and editor who lives in Hanoi, Vietnam. He's currently working on a historical novel set in the Northwest United States during World War II. He's also a freelance writer, essayist and member of the Hanoi Writer's Collective. In a former life, he edited Washington Trails magazine for six years and before that was freelance journalist. He likes to hike, travel, and play with his family.

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Once the realization is accepted that even between the closest human beings infinite distances continue, a wonderful living side-by-side can grow, if they succeed in loving the distance between them which makes it possible for each to see the other whole against the sky. — Rainier Maria Rilke

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