Friday, July 30, 2010

Finally get to relax--Ha Long Bay

Ha Long Bay.

There are two beauties in Vietnam.  There is Miss Vietnam.  And . . . . .
Well, HER pictures are everywhere.  I saw her ironically in Cambodia at a hotel.  She is really, really tall.  It's fine.  I'm not into taller women.  Actually, the tour guide and a few other people kept on telling me that Vietnamese women are beautiful, pretty, mysterious, etc.  It's even broken down by regions.  Hanoi women are different than Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City women.  I supposed the reason for these explanations is that I am the obvious bachelor of the group.  I wasn't the one calling a significant other back home.  I called to check on my psychotic cat.  Regardless, those things are best for another personal trip, and even then, I have doubts about cross-cultural/cross-linguistic relationships.  Well, no more about this stuff.   I prefer to focus on other things.    

The other beauty in Vietnam is Ha Long Bay.  It is registered with UNESCO, and it pretty much deserves all the praise that it gets.  The water in Ha Long Bay is very warm.  I went for a swim, and it was really nice.  
It is one of the wonders of the world.  Largely defined by the limestone formations, this bay has some of the most beautiful scenery in the world.  It could compare to Phang Na in Thailand, but the scope of the limestone formations make Phang Na seem like a training bike for the real thing.  
This is the junk that we took over. 

We would stop by a floating village where they farm pearls. 

After the hectic pace, I don't think Rebecca or Sara know how to relax.  Not.   

On the first day, we rowed into the floating village for pearl farming.

They showed us how the Japanese method of farming works in Ha Long Bay.

She is working on an oyster.  

Then we took a rowboat ride back to the junk.

Complete with a cool sunset. 

Then a nice wrap up dinner. 

Complete with a moonrise.  Hard to see in this pic, but it's the best I could do. 

It's time to see a cave.  The Earth Science person was stoked.  

These formations are the result of calcium deposits, as the Earth Science person said.

The thing is that the cave is massive and beautiful. 

And the view from the hills was pretty nice. 

Complete with formations that looked like legs hanging over a cliff.

A bunch of professors sitting in Ha Long Bay. 

Even here, there is commerce occurring.  This lady is selling seafood for the tour boats.  

Someone had a birthday on the boat.  Would that be Tanya?  

And Ali was a witness to it. 

Thursday, July 29, 2010

Hanoi and the Ghost of Ho Chi Minh

No study of Vietnam can ignore Ho Chi Minh or Uncle Ho.  None.  

Statue which greets you upon entering Ho Chi Minh Museum

Ho Chi Minh is a complex figure.  People literally were standing in line to take a picture of themselves with his statue at the Ho Chi Minh Museum.  If you look at the very closely, you can tell that there is a deep Soviet influence here.  
Soviet Style Architecture of the Museum

From a historical perspective, his ability to lead a country from basically a condition of perpetual war to what is now considered a lion of South East Asia is very complicated.  Uncle Ho never realized his dream of a unified Vietnam.  This is a fact often forgotten by Americans.  In fact, it is said in Vietnam, that the Tet Offensive effectively broke the heart of Uncle Ho, as his usual message of peace annually issued during the Tet holidays was used as a trigger for what would become one of the most serious combat during the Vietnam War.

A visit to the Ho Chi Minh Museum was equally complex.  As a foreign observer, much of the art work displayed was almost purely 1950s Soviet style in terms of aesthetics.  Also, there were a number of letters on display.  What is not questioned is the role and presence of Uncle Ho in the Vietnamese psyche.  Instead of a number of Founding Fathers as in America, there seems to be one founding father as embodied in him.  The question is why?  General Diep was significant.  General Ah was significant.  But it seems that Ho Chi Minh carries a fatherly image.  

Small artifacts of his have power.  In the museum, an ordinary table and chair set would become icons. Of course, they were placed in a museum for a reason.  Historical significance.  
The Sign

The table and chairs on display.

Even at the Hanoi Hilton, you can't escape the shadow of Ho Chi Minh. 

What is often untold is that the letter that you see above was a tradition of his.  He would send out a letter hoping for peace during the Tet holidays.  The thing that perhaps bothered Uncle Ho was that his letter was used as the signal to start the Tet Offensive.  This effectively spelled the destruction of the historical city of Hue and other historical sites.  It was also something that directly contradicted his own words of reconciliation.  The more you study Ho Chi Minh, the more you realize that America failed to understand that they had a potential ally.  The bigger question is: Would Uncle Ho recognize the Vietnam of today?  I'm not sure.  The level of commerce however probably would have been unthinkable in his day.   

Street Scene Old Hanoi

Hanoi is a busy city.  What will immediately impact you when you visit this country is the pervasive presence of scooters and motorbikes.  Most of them are under 200cc.  The other aspect is the active level of commerce on both corporate and individual levels.  

Chef inspects produce products galore.

Vendors are everywhere.  Chef Steve found the level of local commerce for produce and spices and dried goods to be amazing.  Some vendors wear the iconic Vietnamese hat and walking with items carried over their shoulders.  
More of a wide angle shot of a previous photo.

Local street food vendors are everywhere.  It is similar to Thailand, but the level of competition is almost rabid. 

You can’t go to Hanoi without seeing the Mausoleum.  Unlike the more mellow persona that I think defined his personality, the building is rather Soviet in architectural design.  
The Mausoleum

It is sort of like going to Russia and not visiting Lenin’s Tomb.  You just have to do it, as it seems to be a societal cornerstone.  When you visit Ho Chi Minh’s Mausoleum, it is sort of a weird surreal exercise.  There is a long line that you are required to get into.  Then, your cameras are taken right before you get into the Mausoleum.  You are required to wear appropriate clothing.  You are not allowed to have your hands in your pockets.  Hats must be removed.  It is basically going to a secular version of a cathedral.  All of this is for the purpose of walking past a body under glass.  Now, I don’t know if it is really Ho Chi Minh.  He wanted his body to be cremated and to avoid the Lenin cult of personality aspect.  What I found interesting was that it was sort of like going to Mecca for the Vietnamese.  I really wonder what Ho Chi Minh's ghost is really thinking right now.   

In South East Asia, many of the countries have a monarchy.  In Thailand, the role of the King is unquestioned.  The Royal Family is revered in Thailand.  In Cambodia, the King has returned after much turmoil under the Khmer Rouge.  Occasionally in both countries, you see pictures of the king displayed prominently in homes.  Uncle Ho also seems to play this role in Vietnam.  

Great leaders are well respected in these countries.  In fact, even if you die, they will remember you.  This is not the case really in the USA.     

Wednesday, July 28, 2010

Finally, I get the Art Scene's problems

One of the first place I visited was in Saigon.  The Military History Museum or one of many of these museums that seem to dot every single city in Vietnam should have given me an earlier signal in terms of what to expect from the Arts in Vietnam.
This is the type of art that is displayed at the Military Museums.  There is a distinct Soviet type of feel to the design.  Art serves the State.  The State is not subject to the Arts.  

Complex sculptures are often focused on the War.  It seems that war is a central part of the psyche of Vietnam, but then this might be understandable given the long history of perpetual war that the country has experienced in the 20th Century.  Remember, essentially, Vietnam has only been at a state of peace since the late 1990s to the present.  It is difficult for much of the nation to think of itself outside of the concept of being in a state of war.

When you go to the Fine Arts Museums in Vietnam, there seems to be a common theme.  This is a painting that is often put into posters.  Ho Chi Minh meets the Ethnic Minorities.  Today, there is a complex relationship between the ethnic minorities and the Vietnamese Govt.
Underneath it all, there is this underlying need to rebel with many of the artists.  Let's face it.  This sort of work does restrict the creativity of the artist when it comes down to aesthetic choices and presentation.  This gets more complicated with the issue of the literary arts, as it became clear that the only books being published were mostly about romance, sex and the glories of the past wars against the colonial devils.  

There is hope however.  Creativity often can survive very limited circumstances.  I am thinking of Shostakovich.  He happens to be one of my favorite classical composers, but he also created his texts under the censorship of the Soviet Regime. 

The 5th Symphony has a complex background.  Initially, Shostakovich was getting effectively hammered by the censors for his opera,  Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District.  As he tried to react to the political hammering by the censors for such a sexually charged character like Katerina from supposedly Stalin, he came back with a more controlled but ultimately more effective 5th Symphony.  

Shostakovich proved that you work within the system and yet create a beautiful text.  For music, this seems to be something quite possible.  Socialist Realism was the bottom parameter, but it was still possible to stretch the lines a bit. 

What is the future of Vietnamese art?  I am looking for the next Shostakovich.      

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Water Puppet Shows and Commercialization

Hmmmmm.  Let's think like a tourist.  Where should I go? Out of the perpetual noise of traffic and motorbikes, what am I going to do?  People who go to Vietnam appear to be of a certain sort.  Chef Anthony Bourdain lives for this stuff.  Actually, he goes for the food, which is what I do.  But, I'm not a typical tourist or even volun-tourist or anything.  I view everything as a subject of inquiry.  Even the very act of going to a place can be an intellectual exercise whether or not it is going to a cultural show or going to a local bar to watch the people interact.  So what did my bald head decide to do?  Everyone said, you gots ta go to da Water Puppet show.  You gots ta.  So I did.
A Show Only Tourists Go To.  In Vietnam, the Water Puppet show is sort of the big draw for foreigners.  It is a combination of a traditional Vietnamese band with puppets set in the water.  One thing I noticed was in Hanoi, I didn't spot a lot of Vietnamese people in the audience.  What did I see?  Well, musicians initially.  They were pretty good.  As far as I can tell, the music had some heavy duty Chinese influences, but don't tell a Vietnamese person that line.  

But what about the puppets.  Well, that would show up soon enough.

As you can tell, the puppets are in the water.  Originally, it was a way for the villagers to entertain themselves during the flooding that would become a pervasive part of the agricultural economy as defined by the rice harvest.  This form of entertainment would develop into this water puppet performance, which now seems to only exist in tourist spots.  
Of course, the puppeteers came out after the performance.  

Art, Museums and the State: the Shaping of a Societal Psyche

Art is the lie that enables us to realize the truth.
Pablo Picasso 

What roles do monuments, museums and other cultural and historical locations play in terms of the psyche of a state.  In the USA, we have Washington D.C.  We have the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, the Battlefield of Gettysburg.  For this post, I'm going to inspect the role of these cultural icons by reviewing their role in Vietnam.  

Ho Chi Minh's presence dominates the landscape of Vietnam.  Basically becoming a version of George Washington, Lincoln and FDR wrapped into one package, Ho Chi Minh's shadow seems to be always around.  What I am wondering however is how much of Ho Chi Minh's thoughts defined what the Communist Regime is today.  Probably, he would not have recognized the Vietnam of today, but this gets into a question of what Uncle Ho was really considering.  He was a revolutionary.  He controlled aspects of North Vietnam, but then Maoism was a shadow ideology that always seemed to permeate Asian forms of Communism.  I think this is a perfect example of how the State often overrides the desire of the individual.  Uncle Ho never wanted a Lenin like tomb, but the State decided to do it anyways.  

I had met with a  few artists as part of my process of understanding the role of the artist in Vietnam.  There are certain things that appear to be OK.  Lacquer art is OK.  It is commercial, and it can easily be sold.  Paintings are OK.  Old propaganda posters are OK.  Cutting edge art with social criticism—not exactly OK.  There is a range of permissiveness in Vietnam that is somewhat deceptive.  You have the freedom to criticize certain things.  Traffic, the food, the celebrities, corruption—but don’t you dare talk about the government.  It is a standard rule of freedom.  You are free to do anything, but not to talk about everything.  This occurs in other South East Asian countires as well.  Don’t you dare say anything about the Thai king in Thailand.  You can go to jail for insulting the King.  One sure way of getting yourself in jail is to throw a Thai Baht on the ground and step on the King's face.  It is a recipe for a very long stay in a Thai prison.  

What I also find interesting is that you don't see any portraits of a younger Ho Chi Minh.  All of the pictures of Uncle Ho are of him as a grandfather figure.  Now this might be because of the inherent nature of Vietnamese Society to honor the elders. To be an elder is very important.  In fact, many of the old generals of the NVA are still technically on active duty.  You could be 90 years old and still be considered on active duty.  In America, you would be forced to retire by that age.

Confucian values are very obvious in Vietnamese society.  Regardless of the influence of the Communist party, there are certain things that make it Vietnamese.  
The other thing that seems to be ever present is propaganda and the museums.  A visit to the Hanoi Hilton outlines the inherent nature of ‘history is written by the victors.”  It is fortunate in the USA that we can have dissident voices, but lately we have our own censors as evident in Christian Evangelical groups trying to rewrite science textbooks and inserting intelligent design into the curriculum.

The structure of the Hoa Lo Prison aka Hanoi Hilton is two fold.  It shows how the prison was used by the French to suppress the Viet Minh and the Communist faithful.  Ironically, it seems to focus primarily on its use as a prison by the French more so than as an artifact of the Vietnam (American) War.  

The French seem to be very much at the forefront of their minds.  The majority of the museum would portray the French as brutal prison keepers that the Vietnamese always had to outwit.  

The brutality of the French use of the prison seems to be used as a foil for the Vietnamese use of the prison complex.  

For the Vietnamese, it is relative.  They were not guillotining their prisoners like the French.  They did not chain their prisoners like the French.  They did not brutalize the prisoners like the French.  The mechanism of the museum was to portray themselves as basically not like the French.     
The choice of language is also interesting.  This display is both in English and Vietnamese.  This was a specific decision made by the curators.  It says basically that this is the prison cell for this particular Vietnamese patriot who was executed with a guillotine.    

Museums are often interesting cultural markers for a society.  What a society puts into a museum often indicates what is important or perhaps what may be disappearing.  Museums often have two purposes.  They are often places for education.  They are often places for preservation.  

But what of the American at the Hanoi Hilton?  It is here that John McCain's shadow comes back.   

John McCain’s flightsuit is on prominent display in the Hanoi Hilton.  Concurrently, there are two videos espousing the viewpoints of the Vietnamese government about the bombing campaigns and the treatment of prisoners of war in the Hanoi Hilton.  Most of the document espoused to show how humane the treatment of prisoners was during the war, but other testimonies seem to contradict this sentiment.  Also, there is the problem of Vietnam’s population being younger and many of them born after the American War.  Their perceptions are being colored by the clear party line outlined in the texts. 

There is a picture of John McCain at the Museum displayed prominently.  Whether or not he intended to become a political chess piece, his image now has a very prominent place in the museum.

The gist of the discourse being pushed at the Hanoi Hilton is that prisoners of war were treated humanely.  This seemed to contradict some of the other accounts that people had during their stay at the POW camp.

One person struck me though.  There was a Gordon Nakagawa in a booklet showing POWs.  I had flown over 17 hours in an airplane to visit Vietnam, and I found a JA listed as a POW in the Hanoi Hilton.  

Vietnam is a country that seems to still being defined by its wartime experiences.  It is not just about the American involvement either.  Remember that Vietnam has been at war with China, Cambodia, America, France.  This nation has been in perpetual war for decades, and the majority of the 20th Century was under some form of occupation.  Even old allies would attack Vietnam as evident in the Khmer Rouge intrusions and the brief involvement of the Chinese shortly after they removed Pol Pot from running Cambodia into the toilet.

In many ways, there is censorship and control in Vietnam.  The museums and other locations reinforce a viewpoint that promotes the legitimacy of the state.  As a democracy, we say that we are more free; I am somewhat skeptical of this statement.  Plato never liked democracies.  A democracy asked for Socrates to commit suicide, and also subsequently followed bad advice and invaded Syracuse and destroyed its own empire.  Aristotle would be of the opposite vein.  America has a different problem—indifference and white noise.  We have our museums, but I don't think they play the same role as in Vietnam.  

What system is better?  I don’t know.  

Monday, July 26, 2010

Welcome to Hanoi

Hanoi is a city in flux.  The center of the Communist Regime is now going full blown into the market economy.  In some ways, what you are seeing in Hanoi and in other cities throughout Vietnam is a return to the micro-business model that defines the street vendor culture of South East Asia.  

Hanoi is one of the oldest cities in Vietnam.  Once you get off the airplane, you get a clear sense of a different type of city versus Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City.  The traffic initially might seem more relaxed until you see it in full display during the daytime.  Although the old section of Hanoi restricts vehicles of a certain size, there is still a lot of traffic.  We stayed at the Hanoi Boutique Hotel.  It was still perpetually under construction.  My room had a shower in the living room.  Sort of weird, but there would be more weird things in Hanoi

There are a number of street vendors almost everywhere. 

You enter the Old City of Hanoi, and you can see a gate.

Street food is very prominent in Hanoi.  It's very different than the USA which won't allow such a thing.

Hanoi at night near the Old City.

The traffic is unbelievable at 10:00 PM

So, you get the pictures.  Very different city.  Very different vibe.  You know you are in an old city when landmarks are older than the United States.  

There are several things that you do when you go to Hanoi.  You see the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, and you see a few of the museums and the lakes.  A visit to the Mausoleum is like visiting some sort of religious site.  It is strictly controlled.  Ho Chi Minh supposedly didn’t want to be preserved like Lenin, but then I wonder how you can preserve a body in such a manner without natural deterioration occurring.  The presence of Ho Chi Minh in the psyche of the Vietnamese is quite pervasive. 

In my search for literature in Vietnam, I was hoping that a visit to the Museum of Literature would yield some findings.  Oh, how I was in error.  It was a place where people go to pray for academic success, not a place for academic research.  Bummer.

So, this is the Museum of Literature.  Right.  I get it. 

Well, at least it was a photo opportunity for Joy and Laurie.

You are supposed to rub the head of the turtles for good luck.  I needed all the luck I could get.  So far, not a whole lot of literature for me to compile into a bibliography of contemporary literature.  Supposedly, everything happens in Hanoi, but what I can gather, everything but literature is happening.  Art is also something that seems to be regulated.  There is a freedom of speech in Vietnam, but there are still limits.  As the economy changes, I am waiting to see how the humanities and arts follow.  Vietnam is a work in progress.  

1.  It is a country that basically transitioned from a rural farm based economy into a market economy.  It skipped the industrial revolution. 
2.  It is a country that has adopted market economy dynamics, but it still retains the vestiges of the old Communist old guard of the wars.  
3.  The people are caught in between the two stress factors.