Category Archives: Culture

Tom Gets Scribd

I’ve just uploaded seven of my greatest hits from my tenure at AsiaLIFE HCMC. (Or at least my mom says they’re my greatest hits.) Check them out at my new Scribd account or click right to the articles below.

Scooter Madness: How American intervention, an underground economy and Cold War politics created the world’s last stockpile of classic Italian scooters. April 2009.

I Want My VNTV: Local audiences remain critical of Vietnamese television, but it’s hard to deny the demand for homegrown content. Industry insiders speak about delivering better programming in Vietnam. June 2010.

Primates on the Rebound: On a small island in Cat Tien National Park, a group of conservationists has big plans to counter the trade in endangered primates through rehabilitation, research and education. April 2010

Work in Progress: Over the past decade, the contemporary art scene in Ho Chi Minh City has quietly flourished. But limited infrastructure, lack of funding, and the enduring challenges of working within the confines of state oversight have presented obstacles to providing services to artists and attracting collectors. An overview of the scene and a look at some of the art being created in the thanh pho. April 2010.

Wildlife in Jeopardy: Vietnam is one of the most biodiverse countries on the planet, but it has also suffered from decades of deforestation and habitat loss and remains a hot spot for wildlife trade. Today, conservationists face an uphill battle to save Vietnam’s beleaguered wildlife. March 2010

The Next New Battleground: Local and international businesses have found an alternative to shrinking export markets in the last place anyone expected: rural Vietnam. November 2009

Solving Saigon’s Congestion Question: The way we drive now and a look at the plans and problems that lie ahead for Ho Chi Minh City. November 2009.

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Filed under Art, Conservation, Culture, History, Ho Chi Minh City, Pop Culture, Television, Transportation, Vietnam

My Life at the Quan

Photo by Nam Quan for AsiaLIFE

I haven’t been watching which of AsiaLIFE‘s articles have been syndicated on Vietnews too carefully lately, but I just dropped by and saw that the editors picked up my piece on quan nhau: “Living the Quan Life.”

This one was a real bummer to research: head to a few local quans with friends, nosh on the savory grilled fare typical of these joints, wash it down with dirt cheap beer and shoot the shit. (That’s why I get paid the big bucks.)

As my friend Hai explains it, that’s basically nhau. Eat. Drink. Talk. No one element is more important than the other; each one fuels the other two. I go into the culture of nhau in greater detail in the article.

Oh, and I eat pig’s brain.

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Filed under Culture, Food & Drink, Vietnam

NYT Travel: Overselling Vietnam Beer?



Yesterday my sister sent me a link to a New York Times Travel section article called “In Vietnam, Traveling an Unlikely Beer Trail” in which the author embarks on what he describes as “a beer odyssey” through the country. When I read these two words—“beer” and “odyssey”—I was immediately intrigued.

To most of the beer enthusiasts I know, Vietnam is not known for the quality of its brew. Had I missed something during my two years in Vietnam? I wondered.

Alas, I had not. The article, despite being well-written and engaging, left me with a familiar impression: travel writers are still figuring out how to sell Vietnam.

There’s nothing wrong with romanticizing the beer culture in Vietnam. When I moved here in March 2008, I too was taken with the local bia hoi joints, the plastic stools and tables, the convivial atmosphere and 33 cent beer. But to suggest that Vietnam boasts a beer trail is a stretch in my opinion.

Let me explain why.

At one point, the writer says: “For the first-time visitor to Vietnam, the variety of local and regional beers can be surprising. It seems each city has a beer named after it (Bia Can Tho, Bia Thai Binh, Bia Saigon, Bia Hanoi, Bia Hue, and so on), and the best of the bunch depends on whom you ask and where you’re asking. But in recent decades, Vietnamese beer culture has morphed, adopting traditional European styles as well as embracing a uniquely ephemeral home-grown brew called bia hoi.”

To me, the phrasing here is misleading. I don’t know if “variety” is the right word. Yes, many cities have their own beer, but the contents are pretty standard: pedestrian lagers brewed with too much rice and too few hops to have much (if any) defining character. These regional beers do well in their hometowns for a simple reason: local pride. (This is according to my interviews with local market research firm TNS Vietnam.)

I also think the bit about Vietnamese beer culture morphing needs qualification. For those who have the means, beer choice in rapidly developing Vietnam is very much a social statement. Various local bar owners, the heads of international brand operations and Vietnamese friends have all told me the same thing: the beer middle and upper class locals drink is influenced by their perception of its prestige, with beers like Heineken ranking higher than Bia Saigon or Bia Hanoi, which are viewed as a workingman’s brew.

Since the emphasis is on the label rather than the quality of the contents, there’s little demand for a more diverse range of beer (except among expats, who represent a drop in the bucket). Local tastes tend toward simple lagers, so few bars serve anything but Tiger, Foster’s, Budweiser, Heineken, Miller, San Miguel, Corona and the local brews. This carries over into the microbreweries that the writer covers, as well; a brewer at one of these establishments told me he’d like to brew up something with a bit more character, but his boss won’t let him for fear that it won’t sell.

The “aspirational drinker” trend is what really drives the change in beer culture in Vietnam. It utterly dwarfs the tiny niche of microbreweries in Saigon. As an editor, I would have urged the writer to focus on either the novelty of Saigon’s microbreweries or the bia hoi culture covered at the end of the article.

Overall, I think it’s a mistake is to paint a portrait of an evolving beer culture that begs to be explored. When you evoke phrases like “beer trail” and “beer odyssey” you then have to deliver on the reader’s expectations. The fact is Vietnam’s beer portfolio remains very limited, and the trends that are really driving production are actually nudging beer in Vietnam towards mediocrity.


Filed under Culture, Media, Nightlife, Vietnam

Traveling Exhibit Focuses on Vietnamese Women Artists

While researching an article on performance art in Vietnam, I came across an interesting art exhibit currently traveling around the United States. “Changing Identity: Recent Work by Women Artists from Vietnam” is comprised of 52 works by ten female Vietnamese artists “who challenge the stereotypes and traditional roles of women in Vietnamese society.” The exhibit’s website at summarizes the show:

“Each of these women has a particular way of shaping her work and of identifying herself that is both personal and universal. Through the use of various media, subject matters, and aesthetic sensibilities, the artists explore gender and cultural identity and offer a diversified view of Vietnam itself.”

The exhibit, curated by Nora Annesley Taylor of the Art Institute of Chicago, is currently on show at the Iris and B. Gerald Cantor Gallery at the College of the Holy Cross, Worchester, Massachusetts. It will next move to the Utah Museum of Fine Arts in Salt Lake City before reaching the final leg of its tour at the Weisman Art Museum at the University of Minnesota in Minneapolis.

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Filed under Culture, United States

HCMC Fine Arts Museum

Like many cities blazing the capitalist path in developing nations, Saigon lacks an established cultural apparatus. However, of all the museums in Saigon, the Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum might be the one most worth seeing, even if the quality of its collection and exhibition is inconsistent.

Predictably, war paintings and lacquer work are given prominence at the entrances to the east and west corridors on the first floor. However, some of the rural scenes are worth seeing and there’re a few more abstract works towards the end of the corridors. Further down the west corridor is a smattering of collages, paintings and mixed media art by Western artists — most of which relates to the war — and some more modern pieces by Vietnamese artists.

You can see the museum’s collection of Buddhist worship pictures and folk paintings, as well as some impressive statuary, on the second floor. The second floor is also home to temporary exhibits; a large-scale lacquer scene with the artist’s preparatory sketches were on display during a recent visit. Opposite the east wing are remnants from provincial pagodas: incense columns, statuary and wood panels.

The third floor is mostly given over to bronze work, ceramics and the like. A large collection of bronze incense burners is the highlight of the collection.

Ho Chi Minh City Fine Arts Museum. 97A Pho Duc Chinh Street, District 1, near Ben Thanh Market. Tuesday – Sunday 9 am – 5pm.

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Filed under Culture, Ho Chi Minh City, Museums, Vietnam

R-E-S-P-E-C-T in Vietnam

Just about any Vietnamese language guide will tell you that you need to address men and women of different ages by certain titles. And just about every guide gets the titles wrong or neglects to mention a few. Here’s a quick guide to abiding by Vietnam’s culture of respect.

The titles don’t correspond to specific ages. Instead, you address people based on their age relative to yours. You’ll likely make mistakes when discerning ages, but the Vietnamese are generally pretty good natured about foreigners making mistakes.

Em – for anyone younger than you, male or female

Chi (gee) – a woman just a little older you

Co (koe) – a woman about as old as an aunt (about 40-60 if you’re 25)

– a woman about as old as your grandmother (about 75 or older if you’re 25)

Anh (on) – a man just a little older than you

Chú (jew) – a man about as old as your uncle (about 40-60 if you’re 25)

Ong (ohm) – a man about as old as your grandfather (about 75 or older if you’re 25)

Bác (back) – men or women who older than co or chú but younger than Bà or Ong. If you’re in your mid-twenties, they would be about 60-75.

Con (cone) – a young child with whom you’re friendly. If you’re an adult, an elder who could be your parent and with whom you have an affectionate relationship might call you con.

The most common uses for these titles are when you’re greeting someone (“Chao anh”), thanking someone (“Cam on chi”) or trying to get someone’s attention (“Em oi!”). Don’t be shy. The worst that will happen is you’ll be laughingly corrected.

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Filed under Culture, Language, Vietnam

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

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