Nov 18

Practical

a poem produced on the journey across the North Pacific from Beijing to San Francisco

At Vũng Tàu,
Angela and I could swim,
(at last!)
swap sweat salt for sea salt,
splash in the shallows,
where families played—

a jaunt out from
the town for the day, or
Hanoi for the week, or
Saigon for the weekend,
like us. 
Angela already had her little bikini
 
easy under the dress
that she peeled off
and tucked between 
the backpacks we’d left on the beach
at Vũng Tàu,
not minding

what might happen to them,
like the tourists we were
at Vũng Tàu—
but irresponsible ones, 
carefree ones, not 
the ones who clutched their wallets

downtown and switched 
their drawstring bags to their 
fronts to wander through 
the market, through Bến Thành,
cries of “what you want?” 
and “miss, miss, 

you want purse? 
only here, 
here!” 
bouncing, disregarded, off 
their sunburned 
noses, their dog-eared 

guidebooks, their embroidered 
conical nón lá—with the 
plastic insides
(not like the ones the hunched women 
wore to shade their faces
when they sold deep-fried sesame buns

on the street). 
At Vũng Tàu,
I waded in 
my crocs
and waves lapped playfully at
my ankles 

and I wanted to dive 
right in, beside the kids 
giggling about things
we couldn’t understand. 
I still needed to 
change. 

At Vũng Tàu,
I walked back 
up the beach, back 
across the hot sand, back 
through the booths hawking 
sugarcane juice and fizzy red Sting,

looking for a bathroom, somewhere 
to slip into,
to slip out of 
my t-shirt and shorts. 
At Vũng Tàu,
bathrooms cost money—

there was really no need for that,
not for me—
so I stood by a tree 
near the footbaths 
where mothers 
deftly dipped toddlers’ toes. 

And I wiggled from 
my clothes, my own feet sandy,
my white skin exposed in the beating sun,
for the moment before my swimsuit 
(because I wanted to swim in the ocean
at Vũng Tàu)

the very swimsuit that I worked so hard 
to find,
to cover as much as possible,
so I could be comfortable.
With its neckline
above my collarbones—

the dark blue shorts, even over 
the bottom of the one-piece—to hide
everything—
the compressing 
and the jagged patterning 
to break up the contours of my chest

that I didn’t want 
people to focus on.
And even so, 
I was okay—
I was happy—
to stand by a tree 

at Vũng Tàu
and strip down. 
Naked for a second
at Vũng Tàu.
Because 
that 

was on my own terms, 
and it wasn’t like
I was trying to show off 
my body. 
(For me, 
it was practical.)

And even so, 
later, in the setting-sun-streaked sea,
at Vũng Tàu,
when I was laughing 
with the kids I’d 
befriended, practicing my rudimentary 

Vietnamese, men 
came up to 
me and tried to get 
me to go back with 
them, for “free beer” and 
who knows what else

at Vũng Tàu.
Because I looked 
American, and they know what
that means.
(For them, 
it was practical.)
About the Author: Glühbirne
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