I am not a photographer. I have a camera and I take pictures, but the camera is not the way I think. So I look through my pictures now because I am curious. What motivated me to pull the camera out of my bag? What story does that choice have to tell?

I find a lot of pictures of food. That makes sense. Food is how I negotiated Vietnam on my first visit. These images might reflect a subconscious need to be fed, or to take refuge in a common language.

I find contemplative images because I am drawn to Buddhism. I remember taking some of those pictures because I liked their aesthetics and for me aesthetics and spirituality are linked.

Then I find these:



These are Spirit Houses, shelters for the spirits of ancestors or of a place (if there is a difference). The spirits are guardians, so they are honored and given gifts.

The house on the left is on the path to a Buddhist convent in Hue where we ate a vegetarian lunch. It is brightly painted and has, to my eye, a charming, folk art quality. Because it is whimsical and eye-catching, it is the perfect, happy visual souvenir.

The house on the right is in a side yard somewhere in the Central Highlands. It is surrounded by litter and rusted metal and is worn and battered. At first I thought it had been discarded but then I saw there were flowers inside and two ceramic candle holders in front.

Each alone tells a different story about Vietnam. There is the bright story of energy, innocence, and simple, picturesque spirituality. There is the story of poverty, struggle, and pathos within the detritus of a modern (or postmodern) industrialization. So which is it? Which one is the “real” Vietnam?

To generalize (Ellen Goodman says that generalizations are generally true), Americans are straightforward. We want Good Guys and Bad Guys, innocence or guilt, good or evil. With regard to Vietnam especially we want it to come down to something. We don’t like the confusion, upheaval, and alienation we associate with “Vietnam,” so it is natural that after all these years we want clarity. We want an end to the story, one we can enjoy in our lifetimes.

But if there are lessons to be learned here, it means we have to accept that we are not in a position to draw any conclusions about Vietnam, the Vietnamese, what they think, who they are, etc., etc. We lost that right a long time ago. The lesson, if there is one, is humility. We need to shut up for a minute and listen. No judgment. No interpretation.

So there they are, those Spirit Houses. Neither is more real than the other. Neither of the stories I have read into them outweighs the other, or is, in any way that makes a difference, even true. I saw them. Each made an impression on me. Each touched my heart. I hope I did not offend the guardians. I bow and, in silence, back away.