Category Archives: Books

Four Kitchens, One in Hanoi

A few weeks ago, I journeyed to Sunset Park to meet Village Voice restaurant critic Lauren Shockey at the far-flung Vietnamese restaurant Thanh Da. I’d been introduced to Lauren through a college friend who thought we might get along, as Lauren had spent some time in Vietnam. By spent some time in Vietnam, I thought my friend meant that Lauren had passed through on the backpacking circuit.

But that was not what she meant. Lauren, in fact, had traveled to Hanoi for a residency at La Verticale, the home base of Didier Corlou, a chef who separates his own salt from nuoc mam and plays chemistry with essential oils extracted from local herbs.

I can now only marvel at how pedantic I must have sounded to a woman who’d punched the clock at one of Hanoi’s best kitchens.

Fortunately, Miss Shockey is a kind gourmand who drew no attention to my presumptuousness. She’s also a seriously talented food writer with a new book due out soon: Four Kitchens: My Life Behind the Burner in New York, Hanoi, Tel Aviv, and Paris. As the title suggests, the book documents Lauren’s experience as an apprentice at four kitchens around the world. The anecdotes Lauren related over dinner were enough to win my pre-order, but it’s her time in Hanoi that’s really got me curious.

During my stint as managing editor at AsiaLIFE HCMC, I spent a few hours in November 2008 with Didier Corlou, back when he was in residence at On the 6 in downtown Saigon. The man is a hurricane. We had barely finished shaking hands when he hauled me into his kitchen and hoisted uncorked jars of his herbal concoctions to my schnoz while rhapsodizing in a thick French accent about his passions and process. I could barely understand him, but I was rapt. I can only imagine what an extended stay in his world was like, and I’m looking forward to reading Lauren’s chronicles of life with Corlou.

(And for the record, the bun bo Hue and che ba mau at Thanh Da are well worth the long ride on the N train.)

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Filed under Books, Food & Drink, Hanoi, New York City

The Cu Chi Tunnel Mantra: How Killing Fields Became a Jungle Gym

If any stage of the Cu Chi Tunnels was going to activate my claustrophobia, this was it. I had answered the tour guide’s call for a skinny tourist, but now they were asking too much, this tour guide and military-drab chaperone. Yes, I will pose inside the tunnel entrance with trap door held aloft while fellow tourists snap pictures of me. But actually shimmy into the shoe box-sized hole and seal myself in? No, thank you.

But before I could protest, the military man was shoving me down the hole. I have no problem with enclosed spaces; it’s not being able to move within a confined space the sends me into panic. So as my shoulders brushed the wooden perimeter, the air went out of my chest. Luckily, as I squeezed through a fraction of a second later, I managed to avoid hysteria. I slid the trap door into place and knelt down, twisting my body to test the parameters of this underground vestibule. The fact that I could move calmed me…as did the laughter of Asian tourists above ground.

In fact, only about one tourist per tour group gets the trap door experience at the Cu Chi Tunnels. The rest are shuttled through 100 meters of tunnels that have been widened to accommodate Westerners. The experience, for which the historical site is named, takes place at the end of the tour and lasts about 7 minutes — provided you don’t take one of the escape exits along the way.

The tunnel crawl, along with everything else at Cu Chi, encapsulates the mission of most historical sites in Vietnam laid out by Robert Templer in Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam, which is to mint a “mantra of heroic resistance” as “the single, unifying theme of Vietnamese history.” In doing so, Templer suggests, “Cu Chi compresses the war’s problematic layering of civil, international, ideological and personal conflict into a neat David and Goliath struggle.”

Cu Chi is plotted out in guided stages, and the first hint of Templer’s thesis hits visitors at the introductory documentary stage. But the designation of documentary is generous. Visitors are seated in front of a small television and shown a propaganda film produced during the war. While no gem of cinematography, the film’s narration does manage to spin innumerable rhetorical permutations on the concept of villagers who only wanted peace and blood-thirsty American commandos.

Propaganda is surely more interesting than most video installments at historical sites, but the fact that the film is never referred to as propaganda is what’s a bit surreal. You get the sense that no new documentary on the Cu Chi tunnels has since been produced, or that it was never deemed necessary to create another specifically because this one proved so adequate. The audacity of this possibility gives one the sense of being displaced from time, plucked out of the present and dropped into an alien context where such a film might be considered credible.

This seems to be what Templer means by the compression of problematic layers — only a fraction of Vietnamese probably ever considered such reports credible. I can imagine quite a few tourists walking away from Cu Chi, amused by the simple people who would’ve imbibed such pale imitations of reality.

The life-size dioramas depicting Viet Cong soldiers sharing a canteen, writing letters, and turning scrap metal into useful objects (such as booby traps) only feed the sense of a cobbled together propaganda machine. When the tour guide flips the switch to set the soldiers to work sawing a detonated bomb in half, you just feel a bit embarrassed.

But in fact, these are the same dioramas you find throughout Philadelphia and DC. The Cu Chi dioramas only feel so much like propaganda because (1) you’re coming off the film and (2) you’re viewing a familiar genre that’s being used to illustrate the opposite of what you’re used to it illustrating. Dioramas are supposed to depict Abraham Lincoln brainstorming the Gettysburg Address and Pilgrims shaking hands with Native Americans, not Viet Cong guerillas fashioning bamboo shoots into tiger pit spikes meant to impale American GIs.

But in fact, this cognitive dissonance illustrates something that Brian Eno once wrote about propaganda. On his first trip to Russia, he met a musician whose father had been Brezhnev‘s personal physician. He asked the musician about having lived “completely immersed in propaganda” during the Brezhnev era, to which the musician replied, “Ah, but there is the difference. We knew it was propaganda.”

Similarly, Bruce Chatwin wrote of Bolshevik Russia that “Authoritarian societies love images because they reinforce the chain of command at all levels of the hierarchy.” I wouldn’t be so restrictive. It doesn’t necessarily matter whether the instrument of propaganda is a herky-jerky Viet Cong dummy at the Cu Chi Tunnels or a sophisticated Hall of Presidents at Disney World — any monument meant to reinforce an idealized notion of the past, or to make you feel good rather than think, does the work of propaganda. For propagandists, there are simply different shades of indifference to (or contempt for) nuance.

The one aspect of the tour that really caught me by surprise was the working display of ghastly, spiked and barbed traps once used to ensnare American soldiers. Templer mentions in Shadows and Wind that new attractions are constantly being added at Cu Chi, and indeed, since its publication in 1997, some of the attractions he notes have disappeared, replaced by other gimmicks meant to bring to life this spent battleground. One can imagine why the army’s sports and recreation department did away with the trip wire-ignited fireworks — I only wonder how many visiting American and Vietnamese veterans had to suffer this thoughtless ploy.

Still, the row of cordoned-off traps is unexpected. When Americans think of the Vietnam War, they tend to envision unsuspecting soldiers suddenly blown to ribbons by hidden land mines. These iconic weapons, which symbolize the blind terror and paranoia of the war, are burnt into our collective memory by latter-day films and books. Throughout the novel The Things They Carried, author Tim O’Brien uses the land mine as a unifying motif, revisiting the moment the narrator’s friend is suddenly obliterated by a mine during a game of catch throughout the novel.

In comparison to the traps, which snap and swing closed in horrific variations, the idea of land mines seems merciful. Surely, mines killed and left mutilated thousands of soldiers, but the relative swiftness of their devastation seems less brutal than the idea of the cruder traps and the prolonged agony they might cause before their victims were released. This likely explains why they occupy a less prominent position in the media surrounding the war, as well.

Or it could simply be that these traps weren’t terribly effective. The same can be said for the Cu Chi area as a whole. While the tunnels helped the Viet Cong hold the line and were a source of pride not only for their display of Vietnamese ingenuity but because they were positioned merely 60 kilometers outside Saigon, tens of thousands of soldiers and civilians died in cave-ins within the tunnels.

What’s more, Cu Chi took the brunt of America’s chemical assault — the effects of which continue to cause birth defects and cancer — making it a (barely) living monument to one of the country’s worst military atrocities. Now, visitors laughingly crawl beneath the poisoned landscape through tunnels widened to accommodate their Western frames.

Time has transformed these killing fields into a jungle gym.

For these reasons, Cu Chi is actually tremendously interesting. Like most historical sights, it tells us far less about what actually happened than how we feel about, or choose to remember, what happened.

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Filed under Books, Culture, History, Ideas, Vietnam

Update Saigon

It’s been a busy few days here in Ho Chi Minh City. Here’s a quick rundown of what’s going on and what’s to come:

1. I’ve moved into and (partially) furnished an apartment with Sarah in a new apartment complex in District 7. We were hoping for a house rental nearer to the center, but thanks to HCMC’s economic bubble, housing prices are in flux right now. It is now not uncommon to pay $500 – 600 to rent out a floor in a house. Western-style apartments in Saigon largely remain the domain of foreigners, so sizable units in new unfilled apartment complexes can still be rented cheaply. I’ll soon get to work producing an audio slide show highlighting the tower-in-the-shantytown aesthetic of District 7.

2. Now that we’re settled, Sarah and I will join a few friends in Mui Ne this week. After 3 weeks dealing with the smog and heat in Ho Chi Minh, I’m eager to enjoy the beaches and dunes in this quiet coastal town. My prediction is that the Internet/cable guy will still not have come by the time we depart.

3. I’m currently reading Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnam by Robert Templer. Four chapters in, it’s so far engaging. Like Tobias Jones’s The Dark Heart of Italy — my touchstone for readable contemporary national studies — it does an excellent job of shedding light on the interstices between the personal and political in Vietnam by rooting its analysis in historical context and personal narratives vis-à-vis meticulous, long-term research.

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Reading Geoff Dyer at the MET

It turns out the Walker Evans Archive at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art is named thusly for a reason. If it were on exhibit, it would be called the Walker Evans Exhibit.

I visited the MET after finishing The Ongoing Moment, Geoff Dyer’s not-quite-comprehensive survey of photography. Dyer writes considerably on Evans, and I wanted to see if I could trace what Dyer calls his “inventory of American memory,” from the clandestine subway shoots to his latter-day Polaroid experiments.

But instead of a proud print collection anchored by the MET’s extensive Evans collection, I found a lonely corridor of about a dozen prints (none by Evans), a well-appointed mezzanine between wings of the MET’s European painting collection.

Stieglitz would have been apopleptic.

Not ready to recycle my MET button, I instead tried to extend Dyer’s thesis in The Ongoing Moment to this inglorious collection. Essentially, Dyer draws lines between found motifs — hands, benches, open roads, anything — and posits that photographers are in conversation with one another. Writes Dyer: “Often it turns out that when things have been photographed they look like other photographs, either ones that have already been taken or ones that are waiting to be seen.”

Despite a limited catalog, Dyer’s thesis held up. The Ongoing Moment offers readers a way of seeing, and so, deserves a spot on every traveler’s bookshelf. Here’s what I saw:

A hand tests the threshold of the picture plane, a study in “selective focus” by Czech photographer Lucia Moholy. Though she is exploring, in the curator’s words, the Bauhaus view of photography as a “specific technique to be systematically explored in the modern spirit of exuberance,” Moholy’s iconography seems easily explained. Dyer cites various sources who imply that photographers are drawn to hands because, while artists of other mediums struggle to approximate their likeness, rendering them is a snap for photographers.

I glanced back at the preceding photo, André Kertész’s Distortion. A lamp bends in a funhouse mirror to imitate the contours of a nude hip in the background. Resting on the lamp is a delicate hand, a cigarette burning between fingers. It is a playful still life, a departure from Dyer’s Kertész, documentarian of the blind accordionist and transitory cloaked man. What remains is the Kertész who feels perpetually unappreciated — Kertesz first shot with these mirrors in 1933, the period his work fell out of vogue in Paris. Distortion, taken in 1938 after his unhappy exile in America, seems to affirm that Kertész — if only Kertész — remained convinced of his enduring contribution to the form.

Umbo‘s Mystery of the Street (1928) likewise demanded a second look at William Klein‘s Down from my hotel window (1954). While Umbo turned his overhead viewer upside down to render the reality of his street scene purposefully dubious, Klein is merely elated at returning to New York City. The scene below, for him, captures its gritty energy: a crowd gathers around three parked cars, one with passenger side doors mysteriously ajar. We cannot tell for certain in the hazy, light-saturated print, but another of the cars, with its dichromatic hood, appears to be a police cruiser. Though their projects are not identical, both artists, like those discussed by Dyer, are attracted to the window by its irresistible promise: to render the photographer invisible.

Interior Detail, Château Impérial (1867) by Charles-David Winter anticipates the “eternal arcade” and its “inbuilt capacity for memory” (Dyer) that Evans captured by photographing a seemingly endless corridor reflected in a mirror in 1931. Ironically, Winter’s image appears to be the older, haunted version of the later photo by Evans. The mantle below the mirror is rotten with time; the shadows that gradually swallow the corridor are denser. And though we know the black veil is really just Winter beneath the photographer’s sheet, the spectral figure tucked into the bottom right corner consumes the viewer’s attention. Evans’s image is unadulterated by this presence. As Dyer notes, Evans “liked to ‘suggest people sometimes by their absence.'” Winter suggests absence by his presence.

And in the last photograph, Dyer’s man in the black hat and cloak. Throughout photographic history, he is always obscured, in retreat or distant from the picture plane. Stieglitz encountered him on Fifth Avenue in 1900. Strand photographed him in Central Park in 1913. Andre Kertész couldn’t escape him. And in Steve Schapiro’s image of him in 1961, he steps into a thick fog, “marked by elegy and nostalgia,” Dyer says, he “prepares to pass away, disappear.” If this is the case, then perhaps he first stepped into the frame for Louis-Auguste Bisson and August-Rosalie Bisson in Portal of Saint Ursin, Bourges (1855). Staring up at a set of Romanesque doors installed in a more modern building (gazing at time out of place?), he offers only the top of his top hat. Here, he sets his precedence for occlusion in the Old World.

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Filed under Books, Culture, Museums, New York City, Photography