I had no plans for my second Lunar New Year break in South Korea, content to spend my three-week break from teaching sleeping until five. I never knew if it was five in the morning or five in the afternoon, since the January sky was dark for both. This was in humanity’s pre-smart phone days, when we all fumbled by with alarm clocks and hitting the 8 key four times to get to the letter T.
About a week into my cycle of sleep-Starbucks-repeat, I got a call from my friend Jenny. If I had $400 for a ticket, $100 to expedite the visa, and the ability to get my passport to the consulate in Seoul by tomorrow, we could be in Vietnam in a week.
Sidebar: Visas for Americans cost more than visas for the citizens of any other country, and, also, in hindsight, I’m pretty sure there was no fee and we just got grifted.
Overjoyed, I called my parents. “Guess where I’m going next week,” I yelled at my mother.
“Oh, honey,” she cried. “You’re coming home.”
“Or Hanoi,” I offered.
“Oh. Honey,” she repeated, the joy stripped from her voice like it had been washed in paint thinner.
* * *
Our week in Hanoi was chaotic and delightful, with fireworks and mangos, temporary friendships with fellow travelers forged on Halong Bay. And a door with a sticky lock on the fifth floor of our hostel, which required at least one of us to head back downstairs each time we wanted in.
The day before we flew out, Jenny and I queued up to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh. I’m a sucker for history, and how often do you get to see an embalmed dead guy?
(Rarely, hopefully. Like, it really should not be that often. Where are you finding all these embalmed corpses? Weird.)
We struck up a travelers’ friendship with two other women in line, the kind of intense, immediate liking for a person that comes from knowing you have at least enough in common with them to be waiting in the same twenty-minute line to see an embalmed dead guy.
Our travelers’ friendship proved, perhaps, too intense, as right before the entrance and guard with a machine gun slung over his shoulder pointed at our group of four and shushed us with rather more force than seemed necessary. I immediately began to giggle, which prompted the guard to beacon me over, and, after violently searching my purse, point a finger in my face and declare, “No laughing!”
Y’all, I tried.
I stood in the winding, un-air conditioned line winding towards Ho Chi Minh, and I thought over every single sad and/or awful thing that had ever befallen me. I thought about my Nana being unwell and how in first grade I was too embarrassed to ask to go to the bathroom and made the deliberate, intentional choice to pee myself. I thought about that perm I got in the eighth grade. I thought about how badly my first college boyfriend had broken my heart and how much smaller my life would be if we were still together.
And it worked. Right up until I stepped into the room actually holding Ho’s body. I’m not going to dwell overmuch on the specifics of the body, which may or may not bear a passing resemblance to a Yoda and may or may not look small enough to stash in the pockets of some cargo pants. That wasn’t the kicker. The top of the glass coffin, however, with its intricately carved wooden flowers and flourishes, reminded me immediately of a sheet cake one could buy at the Piggly Wiggly. I thought about birthday parties at the skating rink, and the battle to get one of the three corners not set aside for the birthday celebrant. I became convinced that an aerial view of the coffin would reveal the words Con-GRAD-ulations Uncle Ho in blue icing scrawl.
Y’all, I tried.
But I failed.
An armed guard grabbed my wrist, pulled me from the line, and shoved me out the nearest exit. I don’t know if he spoke little English, or if “No, no no, go now,” is all he wanted to tell me. He shouted something in Vietnamese to the guard by the main gate, and when I stumbled across the road, the main gate guard drug me back across the street, towards the mausoleum, and forced me to repeat my walk of shame via the crosswalk.
My memories of being ejected from the mausoleum are fragmented and uncertain, like looking at my life through a dirty window. What I remember most clearly is the sharp corners of the person I believed myself to be, a savvy, considerate traveler, grating against the person I actually was: a sunburnt, day-drunk asshole laughing at the history of the place she had come to. There is a lingering queasiness, even in hindsight, to knowing I was the villain.
Twenty minutes later Jenny found me across the street, chastened and terrified, but not actually any worse for the wear. Years later, friends would physically bar me from the entrance to Mao Zedong’s mausoleum in Beijing. “They send Americans to jail all the time. Your disrespectful ass will get shot.”
I laughed, because my friends are funny. I laughed also in relief, that I had been stopped before I could be the worst version of myself, because I had been granted more time to learn how to be the person I told myself I was.