Monday, January 19, 2009

In Case You Forgot Who Is Running the Country...

While walking around Saigon there's no getting around the fact everyone is out to make money -- especially off the foreign tourists & businessmen coming to town.

But in case you forget who is running the country, you get little reminders here and there. We came across this shot at a Buddhist temple in Cholon. Uncle Ho is watching you -- even in the temple.

The reminders that this is still a Communist country forged together through a God awful series of wars with the French and the Americans can get a tad silly at times. Over in the Dong Khoi district of the city we came across a big photo exhibition of military propaganda across from all the upscale foreign chain stores.

Louis Vuitton and RPG's. Truly an odd mix.

I can sort of understand, though, why the government does silly things like put military displays in the middle of an upscale international shopping district. Even though the Vietnamese are in charge of their own country there is still a colonial relationship going on between rich foreigners coming to Saigon and the Vietnamese who cater to them. Vietnamese want, and need, the money, so we foreigners are often treated like nobility -- especially in an upscale international shopping district.

Displays like this are probably the government's way of reminding their population who they are, where they came from, and not to let themselves become the slaves of these rich foreigners coming to their country.

Sunday, January 18, 2009

Vietnam & the Big Brother Up North

After visiting Hue, and seeing some of the Lunar New Year related preparations in the streets of Saigon, the thing that strikes me about Vietnam is that it is probably the most Chinese-influenced of any of China's neighbors that I have visited.

Looking around at the Imperial Tombs in Hue and whats left of the Citadel, the colors that jump out are yellow and red. Those imperial colors are kind of familiar aren't they? The whole terminology of rulership (Mandate of Heaven) and so many of the rituals that the Vietnamese Emperors performed as part of their duties (sacrifices every year at the Temple of Heaven in Hue), are the same as those conducted by the Chinese emperors.

The tour guide in Hue made no effort to hide the fact that so much of the imperial court's rituals and style was Chinese derived. He almost made a point of it to me specifically that China was the source.

The influence also seems to extend into the day to day life of people on the street. Whenever we passed by an open living room in Saigon we came across ancestor worship altars. When I flipped on the TV, I came across multiple TV channels showing Chinese language soap operas being dubbed into Vietnamese. During my final days there I read "Catfish and Mandala" by Andrew X. Pham. He talks extensively in his book of how his parents fixated on Face, relative social status, and differentiating themselves from others around them as a way of motivating their kids. Pham is not from Vietnam's Ethnic Chinese population, but his parent's value system is a carbon copy of their Chinese counterparts.

What's so special about all this? Because up until the French & the Americans came, China was the bane of Vietnam's existence. Vietnamese history is littered with battles and rebellions against various imperial Chinese dynasties. Yet Vietnam, more so than say Korea or Japan, adopted China's culture -- the rituals of the Imperial Court and the value of system of the man on the street.

Vietnam also, at least in my experience, isn't really thought of by either the East Asian studies scholars I studied with in college, or my older Chinese relatives who harped constantly about China being the root of all things Asian, as being part of the same family of East Asian cultures. It was never specified exactly what membership in this family entailed, but general outlines were the influence of classical Chinese culture -- usage of Chinese characters for written communications, Buddhism, Confucianism.

Seems to me the Vietnamese have no problem acknowledging the Chinese influence in their culture, but the Chinese have difficulty acknowledging the Vietnamese into their cultural sphere of influence.

Saturday, January 17, 2009

Impressions of Saigon

Before arriving I had read Anthony Bourdain's "A Cook's Tour," which has several chapters on his travels in Vietnam, all of which are centered around food. I also did a fair bit of online research on traveling Saigon. I wasn't really expecting to be awe inspired, or to find Saigon that interesting. It didn't have that many photogenic landmarks, ancient monuments, the kind of things that jump out of a travel porn book.

Looks are deceiving. Photos can't capture atmosphere either.

What makes Saigon interesting isn't the landmarks, its the crazy kinetic atmosphere of the place. The morning after we arrived I got up early to get some coffee and to get a feel for the neighborhood. Between the sweat, humidity, auto exhaust, honking horns, vehicle and pedestrian traffic going every which way, and street vendors badgering me to spend my money, the first thought that went into my head was;

"Yeah baby...I'm home!"

Vietnam -- dealing with customs.

Vietnam was the first country I've been to where I was not granted a visa upon entering the country.   For US nationals, you can either apply for a visa in person before leaving, or get a Vietnamese travel agency to arrange a visa for you upon arrival.  For the later option, you also have bring two passport photos and $25 US for cash as a processing fee.  

I tend to be a bit sloppy when it comes to these types of regulations, so I decided this time I would be anal retentive.   For once, being a bit anal paid off.  When we landed in Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, whatever you want to use) I went to the visa window that is separated from the main immigration line.  What I encountered there was a clucking mass of bodies all gesticulating in front of a bunch of bored Communist officials sitting behind a thick glass.  After I dropped of my forms, I took an inventory of what was going on.  The groups of frustrated visa applicants included;

- An older American couple who had flown in from the US via Tokyo but who HAD NOT read the visa regulations,  and were stuck in airport while Vietnamese immigration guys figured out what to do with them.

- A frustrated Russian couple that tried to pull rank on the immigration guys, calling a heavy hitter from downtown on their cellphone, and having that heavyhitter yell at the immigration guy over the phone;

- A half a dozen down on their luck Vietnamese-American, probably in their 40's, who alternated between nagging and joking with the immigration guys.  At one point I think one of the Vietnamese-Americans might have tried to bribe the immigration guy.

It took them about 20 minutes, but I got my visa, and left.  The American couple were taken to a local hotel for an overnight stay while Vietnamese customs expedited their visas for them.  The Russian's were still stuck there when I left, as were the Vietnamese Americans.

I had read stories about how the Vietnamese government doesn't completely trust ethnic Vietnamese from abroad, particularly those from the US, and put them through a tougher screening when granting visas.  Now I now what they are talking about.      


Vietnam -- first post of however many..

Spent a couple days of this month in Vietnam.  It was wonderful.  Too much to write about.  The next several posts won't ever be able to capture everything.  

The pictures here though might come close.