Last night I had a dream that I was in Vietnam. I was pacing back and forth frantically, worried that I wouldn’t make it to work on time. Crying in frustration over having misplaced my lesson plan, I began yelling at anyone who would listen, although I knew the locals couldn’t understand my language. In some feeble attempt to make myself heard, I began pleading to people in Spanish, but still they just nodded and smiled, oblivious to my words. I walked outside and fell to my knees, exasperated. I felt anxious and angry and resentful. I rose from the ground, worried the mud beneath me might be harboring some sort of parasite that would infest me. And then I awoke.
The train ride to the province of Lao Cai was the most restful of nights during my stint in Vietnam. Recalling a sailboat expedition around the islands of Hawaii when I was twelve, where I vomited profusely while my family mocked my ability to feed all the fish in the Pacific, I made a last-minute decision to take more than the recommended dosage of Dramamine, and my roommate decided to throw in some Melatonin for good measure.
The lull of the train gliding across the tracks, and the rocking back and forth of the car eased me into a peaceful slumber rather quickly. I did awaken around midnight, burning up under the silk sleeping bag I purchased in Hanoi for four American dollars. This was also a last-minute decision I made after listening to some veterans of the trip talk about the thousands of people whose heads and bodies had graced the surface of the mattress and pillow I would be sleeping on that night.
I painstakingly unwrapped myself from the sleeping bag and clumsily fell from the top bunk. The effort to descend gracefully from my perch would take entirely too much time, and besides, I didn’t want to waste the effect the cocktail of drugs I had already ingested was having on my body and mind. After five minutes of struggling to unlock the door to my room, I stepped into the muggy hall of the train car.
In a fog, I bounced from side to side, hitting the windows of the train car and then the doors of my neighbors, but I finally made it to the restroom. I pushed my way past the train attendants, who had been sleeping on the hard, filthy floor, and slammed the door shut, neglecting to lock it. The window was open just above the toilet, so as I hovered over the hole, I could feel the heaviness of the humidity seeping in, and I could see the shadows of the jungle in my peripheral view. Even in the heat that enveloped me in that tiny room, I shivered thinking about all those men in Tim O’Brien’s books. For the first time since I had landed in Vietnam, I felt torn.
As I made my way back up the hallway, I realized I had no idea what room I had come out of. I leaned against a window and pondered my next move. In a fit of desperation, and a desire not to waste my Dramamine/Melatonin high, I began trying to open doors. Surely, I thought to myself, mine would be the only one unlocked since everyone else seemed to be sleeping. But alas I was wrong, and opened a door to find the French backpackers I had seen at the train station lying in their underwear reading. I cursed them for their disregard for door locks, and for being so liberal with their penises. Angrily, I whipped around to find one of the attendants smiling at me.
She asked in broken English if I was okay, to which I shouted “no,” and for some reason (language barrier, perhaps), she immediately began banging on doors. By then it was after 1:00 a.m. After two wrong tries, my roommate opened the door. I didn’t even apologize for waking her. I simply climbed up to my bunk, crawled into my sleeping bag, and cried myself to sleep burdened by visions of dying soldiers and smiling Vietnamese women. At 6:00 a.m., I awoke to my roommate scrambling to get ready. The train would be pulling into Bac Ha soon, and we would not be given much time to exit the train, she informed me.
I jumped down from my bunk, grabbed my toothbrush and a bottle of water, and hurried down the hall to the sink area. I was walking and squirting toothpaste on my toothbrush simultaneously when I suddenly stopped. There she was. That tangled mess of trees and rain and war stories that had sickened me the night before, had transformed into something so surreal that I wept again. But this time I did not weep for the American soldiers of the past. I wept for the women and children of My Lai. I wept for that naked child running up a dirt road in Trang Bang covered in Napalm. I wept at the beauty of the land before me and the history that negated its beauty.
As I stood at one of the windows when the train stopped before entering the station, I watched men emerge from their shanties to begin their day of tedious farm work. Women, with babies tied to their backs in brightly-colored, hand-made baby carriers swept their dirt floors with brooms made of straw. I saw children herding water buffalo with a stick. Toddlers stood knee-high in water in the terraced rice paddies that covered the land before me. What I noticed most was the silence, as if everything my eyes were witnessing was an animated painting.
In my dream I loathed everyone around me, but really I was the only culprit to blame. On the train, I became angry at the naivety of complete strangers, yet I couldn’t even decipher for whom I should feel the most sorry—American soldiers or Vietnamese women and children—when really, neither should be pitied. I realized that recently I have been going through life fretting over my ability to perform perfectly, because for some petty reason, I have felt so imperfect. Yet, for whom was I trying to prove myself? All the other imperfect humans?
In the process of my inability to obtain flawlessness, I, once an avid hiker and lover of nature, had become flawed in my ability to see the perfection around me that was not manmade. As I stood there, I realized that poverty is not simply a monetary burden; it is comprised of many factors that include blinded humanity. As I watched this primitive act of life unfold from the train window, I felt whole again. When the attendant who struggled to understand my pleas the night before walked past me, we exchanged smiles, and I realized that language transcends linguistic understandings. In that moment of silence, a rebirth occurred, not only for me, but for the ghosts within the books I had read and the photos I had seen.