Looking at Flowers

“This song is about the Sua Flower!” Thuong’s bell-like voice cuts through the revving engines of an impossible number of motorbikes. We’re at the anniversary concert for Hanoi becoming Vietnam’s capital, weaving through waves of music and people to get closer to the bandstand. Thuong is steering with one hand, and I am behind her, twice as tall, not sure if I’m swaying to the music or the sudden turns. She keeps calling translations back to me: “even though all this fighting is happening, we can still smell beautiful flowers!”

I pass a group of older men sitting by Hoan Kiem Lake singing traditional songs in harsh, guttural voices. A guy in some kind of uniform sees me watching and points to the bench nearby: “sit!” The guitar is passed to him and he sings such a ferocious song that he’s actually hitting the strings. The original guitarist gets up and starts dancing in the middle of the circle, wild and low to the ground. The scent of the Sua Flower is strong in the dark air. They’ve forgotten I’m watching.

I talk to a young guy at my favorite late night Com Ga street stall, he is ordering 7 chicken rices to go, today is a special anniversary of something, some kind of independence day, and he is on his way to meet friends to look at flowers in the street. I like the way the big bag swings in an arc from his handlebars as he leaves. I like the way Vietnam looks at flowers.

There’s a way the people love their colorful streets, relish the traffic-chocked curves, it’s the way the vendors bargain hard but with a smile, call everyone “my friend,” its Thuong revving her engine in delicate high heels, dodging oncoming traffic with the poise of an old-time princess . . . flowers for strength, fighting for beauty.

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