Photos by Jacque | Words by Paul
What do we mean when we say the word beautiful?
We know what beauty is when we see it, of course. It is everywhere in our train travels of Vietnam. It can be found in the delicate, perfectly-spaced rows of rice paddies flashing by the window of the train. It’s in a long, rickety row of monkey bridges leading to brightly-colored fishing boats in a small village and in the carefully carved and painted eyes on the front of the boats. It’s in the soaring limestone cliffs that rise dramatically from Lan Ha Bay, the vertical lines drawing your eye from green sea to blue sky and back in a glance. It’s in the curve of a beach bounded only by the horizon, dotted here and there with small, round boats.
But often in Vietnam – a place balancing precariously between an agricultural, rural past and a runaway urban future – beauty must be found by looking deeper. A turquoise gateway buried in the noisy, crowded center of Saigon with a pattern that plays tricks on your eyes. The delicate swirl of coffee dripping slowly into a short glass of fresh milk, enjoyed right on the streets of Hanoi. The intricate painting of a lamp, one of many thousands, but wrought precisely nonetheless. Children’s toys flying in graceful, lighted arcs above the mad tourist center of Hoi An. An explosion of color on a clothesline nearly lost in a sea of green jungle around a dilapidated rural house. Live crabs dutifully packed into rows surrounded by the hubbub of Ben Thanh market, like a stoic military formation during Mardi Gras. Beauty in Vietnam must be found amongst the chaos, but it can be found.
Still, what do we mean when we say the word beautiful? Can it be the human beauty of friendship when four grown men pile on one moto? The highly-manufactured beauty of tourist boats on a river? The potential beauty of flowers wrapped in paper, ready for the weekly flower market, drowning in Sapa summer fog? The sadness-evoking beauty of French colonial architecture in a place the French never should have been but where they indelibly left the Latin alphabet, baguettes, coffee, and decades of war? The same-yet-different beauty of sunset from a balcony in Hanoi that evokes a certain balcony in Denver? Or the simple, transient beauty of banh cuon on round white plates, the scent of woodear mushrooms wafting across the restaurant?
The word beautiful captures all of these and yet is able to capture an infinite number more. We have a shared experience of the word that passes beyond its simple denotation or connotation; it evokes a feeling of contentedness commonly gained through sight but encompassing all five senses. Around the corner from your childhood home or half a world away, the feeling of beauty is the same. The feeling is why every one of us searches for beautiful places while traveling. Even in the most unfamiliar surroundings, beauty brings us closer to where we first experienced beauty with all our senses: it brings us closer to home.