Sunday, January 14, 2007

After the Fall

by Tom Bissell and Morgan Meis
from The Best American Travel Writing

There were some amazing lines in this piece. Morgan: "The night that lay upon this massive, malfunctioning, astonishing city was vast, starless, as warm and secret as an embryo." Tom: "We walked through a near-noon heat so overwhelming it had a sort of oceanic weight." The city these two vivid sentences are describing is Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon), Vietnam and our two adventurers are there to observe the 30th anniversary of the day South Vietnam formally surrendered to the North Vietnamese army.

Besides being educational and my learning that the communist Republic of Vietnam is just as crazy as that of North Korea, "After the Fall" was also, given the circumstances in which they find themselves, surprisingly funny. Why some the funniest moments in TBATW should involve bowel movements I don't know. I'm not sure it that says something about the editors of TBATW or about me. What I do know is that I found Bissell's description of his debilitating diarrhea laugh out loud hilarious. "My stomach burbled out some many-syllabled sound that was loud enough for Morgan to hear, my eyes filled with stunned tears, and I began walking toward the bathroom around the mausoleum's corner...'Is it your stomach?' 'Right now it's my whole body.'"

And of course, as Bissell and Meis somewhat haplessly interview government dissidents, they are promptly followed and watched by government agents - a development that they don't find at all discouraging and, in fact, take some pleasure - and Meis, along with their photographer, are eventually taken in for questioning, then kicked out of the country on the grounds that they didn't enter on journalist visas. Meanwhile, Bissell experiences shock-induced recovery from his fever and wanders the streets of Vietnam alone. Well, not technically alone since he's being followed. "I...decided that if I indeed I had a tail, then this tail of mine was going to get a fucking workout. He would walk around Hanoi's Lake of the Returned Sword again and again and again." Eventually tiring of the game, the tail approaches Bissell and wishes him a quick and safe journey out of the country.

I admit that though it was obvious that Bissell and Meis were both alive and well enough to write this piece, I was scared for them much of the time. I have no idea how seasoned, well-traveled writers such as these two managed to seem so clueless and lost but they did. But then that was the charm of "After the Fall." As for Vietnam and the impression it left on me, I'll quote Bissell and say that it is either "beautiful or insane." Of course, what country isn't, if isn't both at the same time?

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