Tag Archives: Culture

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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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

Saigon Sellers Hawk Cookies for a Cause

Walking through the backpacker district in Saigon means shoeing away street vendors hawking everything from hammocks to hashish, not to mention the bevy of poor Vietnamese vying for your heart strings. But there’s one group of street sellers you can feel good about supporting.

Sozo street sellers operate between Pham Ngu Lao and Bui Vien and are readily identified by their baskets of American-style cookies: chocolate chip, oatmeal raisin, peanut butter, and white chocolate. Packages of 3 cookies cost 20,000 VND (just over a dollar), the proceeds from which benefit Sozo Centre, a bakery and nonprofit on Bui Vien that provides poor families and disabled Vietnamese with job training, specifically in baking and running a business. Sozo also runs volunteer programs and funds schooling costs for some of the families with whom they work.

So before you brush off the seller who approaches your lunch table, look for the Sozo label. Not only do the cookies support a good cause, they’re tasty and more practical than a hammock.

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Filed under Causes, Food & Drink, Ho Chi Minh City, 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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The Dune Warriors

Continued from Nam, the Would-be Dune Guide

Our moment had come. The dune kids were scattered and Sarah had a clear path to Flower Pants. While she slipped away, I waded into the crowd of waiting boys who had been trying hyena-like to lure me away from the table throughout breakfast. It was my fault for having told them my name when we first arrived.

“Tom! Tom! You slide. You slide down.”

Now, as I approached, they seized upon me. “Tom, you slide with me,” said a skinny boy with a baseball hat tilted askew. He grabbed my forearm and led me across the street to the sand dunes. The diversion had worked. There, Sarah was waiting with Flower Pants, the sole girl among the dune kids

In addition to a stroll through Fairy Stream and a daybreak visit to the fishing village, most jeep tours of Mui Ne include a stop at the yellow sand dunes. In photographs posted in Internet cafes and restaurants that double as tour agencies, Westerner’s faces light up with glee as they coast down the golden dunes on plastic sheets akin to over-sized place mats. In the background are the carefree children who rent out the sleds.

Had our visit to the dunes been chaperoned by a tour operator, perhaps ours would’ve been such a joyous visit. Instead, we left with photos tainted by piggish greed.

But as we humped the dunes amongst a cavalcade of pre-adolescents, I couldn’t imagine that those bulletin board pictures were inaccurate. Nor could I make sense of what Nam had told us about the dune kids: that they were a pack of ingenuous, depraved sadists whose sole motivation was greed. Indeed, our friend Phoung had met up with us the day before, and when we asked her opinion on the Japanese tourist story, she conceded that it could be true.

But here were the kids, asking me all sorts of questions, pointing to my aviators and chanting, “Michael Jackson. Michael Jackson.” Now that they weren’t swarming around our breakfast table, my distaste for them faded. I looked back. Sarah was smiling with her coterie of kids, too. Still, I steeled myself against their charm. I handed over my sandals to Crooked Hat when he offered only because I could not think of a polite way to say no.

At the top of the hill, one of the boys asked for Sarah’s camera. “I’ll take picture of you,” he said. I looked at Sarah for confirmation, but she was already handing it over.

Crooked Hat kneeled at the apex and poured sand over the mat. “It slides better this way,” he said. He motioned for me to sit down, and once I had, he grabbed hold of the rope connected to the front of the mat. Suddenly, he lunged backwards, took a few steps, and, stepping aside, let me loose.

I fell off balance and the sled came out from under me at the base. As I got up the boy with our camera began scrolling through the photos he’d taken. I’d expected a blurry mess, but in fact, they were incredibly good photos. He even navigated the camera like it was his.

Up at the top, Flower Pants was trying to get something across to Sarah, but had found a chink in her Vietnamese. Frustrated, she sighed and pulled Sarah’s sunglasses down from her forehead over her eyes. It appeared that Flower Pants had more spunk than we gave her credit for.

Sarah came sailing down, and almost before she had stood, each boy was crowing for us to slide with him next. We ignored their calls and instead just sprinted up the hill and chose a couple boys at random. The boys sent us whizzing down in tandem. Again, they called for another side, but we told them we’d had enough.

The photographer had emerged as the leader, so Sarah got her camera back and squared up with him. She looked in her wallet and found she only had two 100,000 VND bills and a handful of small bills. She handed the boy two of the crisp 100,000 VND bills, and he walked off.

As we began to follow him, the rest of the kids surrounded us and started demanding their share. We told them that we paid the photographer, but they responded that he wasn’t with them. This, we knew, was a crock, but by this time, he had walked over a ridge and out of sight. Desperately clinging to their lie, the kids became downright rotten, calling us liars and cheats. We walked on ignoring their taunts, but then, Crooked Hat hit my last nerve.

“You don’t pay me, so I keep your shoes,” he said.

I kept my eyes averted from Crooked Hat, searching for the appropriate response. What I wanted to do was pick him up and shake him. A ten-year-old had me over the barrel. I didn’t want to get nasty, but I didn’t want to give in to this snotty little brat either. My outrage was stoked by the fact that I knew we’d given above and beyond what most tourists paid. I kept walking until I found a response.

“It’s okay,” I said. “They weren’t very expensive.”

“Okay, fine. You don’t pay me. I keep them.”

“Okay,” I said.

The kids continued to protest, and eventually Sarah gave a boy the handful of small bills, which amounted to less than a dollar. “That’s all I have,” Sarah said, simply wanting to be rid of them. Suddenly, realizing that his bluff had been called, the boy who’d taken the bills gave them back to Sarah, insisting that she buy herself a water. The mood changed like a sudden parting of rain clouds. Crooked Hat handed me my sandals and bid us farewell.

Immediately, we knew what had happened. We’d fallen for a trap they’d probably laid a hundred times. Seeing independent tourists, unaccompanied by a tour group, they’d lulled us to the far end of the dunes where we were hidden from view. We followed. They’d let their friend the photographer take the money and then feigned being ripped off by the alleged free agent. My sandals provided the collateral. Chief among our mistakes, we hadn’t set a price before sliding. My stomach might’ve continued to roil, but I knew we’d allowed ourselves to be duped.

We later found out from Phuong that the going rate is 5000 VND per slide.

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Hanoi Takes on Traffic Congestion

Viet Nam News recently reported on Hanoi’s experimentation with traffic congestion problems. With more cars than ever on the road, Vietnam’s streets, accustomed to more fluid motorbike traffic, are in a state of shock. Hanoi’s answer? Designate lanes for car and motorbike use.

Cars that trespass across lanes will pay a VND 400,000 ($25) fine, while deviant motorbike drivers will suffer a less severe VND 80 – 100,000 fine ($5-6). Jay walkers will also be penalized to the tune of VND 20 – 40,000 ($1.20-2.50).

This sounds easy enough, but the motorbike culture in Vietnam is a rootless, unwritten negotiation between motorists based on split decisions and tacit understandings. Traffic is a fluid, amorphous phenomenon. The problem is that the motorbike culture, inculcated because few Vietnamese could afford a car throughout decades of privation, didn’t anticipate the economic booms in Hanoi and Saigon. The culture simply can’t accommodate these vehicular status symbols.

But proof of the culture’s entrenchment is the fact that Hanoi has only implemented the measures on a single 1.635 km-long road. The plan is to roll out the policy on additional streets later in the year. In Saigon, the roads in District 7 are designated for car and motorbike usage, but the district’s rational planning is the result of ambitious land reclamation and redevelopment. Indeed District 7’s roads look absolutely Martian relative to the cramped motorways across the rest of the city.

Another sign that traffic departments have their work cut out for them: a few years ago, the Japanese International Cooperation Agency came to Hanoi to implement the same plan, but the joint international venture failed.

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Fire Drill, Saigon Style

We were enjoying the fire drill just fine until the maintenance men started screaming at us. Students and teachers alike had ambled down the stairway at a leisurely pace, but once we reached the ground floor of the ILA building, the blue-shirted Vietnamese jabbed their fingers violently towards the main entrance as a steady column made for the basement garage.

I was happy to escape an afternoon of English Language Acquisition methodology training, so when one of the men locked me in his frantic stare, I heeded his command. But as I rounded the glass-walled reception desk, I noticed that the massive, open frontage was draped in a curtain of water. Outside, there were no fewer than 3 high-powered hoses firing at the building. I stopped dead in my tracks and turned to find everyone behind me staring ahead as well, clearly thinking the same thing: Do they expect us to run through that?

Out came the blue-shirted madmen, keeping up their ruckus. Question answered.

People emerged from the building, drenched to varying degrees, depending on their individual abilities to duck, weave, and keep their footing on the soaked marble steps. Almost everyone turned to stare up at the building. Had an actual fire broke out prior to the scheduled drill? Had they set fire to the building deliberately?

Neither was the case. Unless ILA is given special treatment as Saigon’s premier English-language school, fire drills in Vietnam are not solely staged for building occupants to practice evacuation, but for the fire department to get in some target practice.

Living in a culture far removed from one’s own, specifically one behind the curve on modernization, you quickly learn that while some things are lost in translation, others are lost in adaptation. This occurs in a number of realms.

Take the realm of staple cuisine. As the Vietnamese develop an appetite for American and European fare — the Italian coffee fad is gaining traction — its common for non-tourist restaurants to offer a few staples from Western menus. More than anything, it seems, the dishes are added for a stylish little touch. Sometimes, however, style doesn’t translate into substance, such as when I ordered fish ‘n chips at a nice, mid-range restaurant and received a plate of fish sans chips.

In the case of the fire drill, I don’t mean to suggest that the West is the fountain of all things rational and modern. Nor do I have any special insight into the origin and development of fire safety procedures or their history in Vietnam. But generally, it’s safe to assume that modern procedures travel from modernized spheres to modernizing ones.

And on that note, someone needs to have a sit down with Saigon’s top fire warden.

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A Spendthrift You Can Count On

It would be difficult to find a travel writer with so comprehensive an understanding of European budget airlines, better experience penetrating local Caribbean culture, and more evolved opinions on Europop than Alex Robertson Textor.

For these, and many more reasons, any budget traveler looking for cheap flights in Europe or an affordable Caribbean getaway should bookmark Alex’s blog, Spendthrift Shoestring. Alex is just recently back from the Caribbean, where he was scouting out travel gems for Rough Guides, and he’ll soon be off for an extended summer stay in England.

Expect top-notch UK dispatches and cheeky humor à go-go.

The best thing about the blog is the mix of the practical — like a rundown of French-style Gites in Martinique and Guadeloupe — and the peripheral — like Alex’s unbelievable visit to time-frozen (and way off-limits) volcano-ravaged Plymouth. And you’ll quickly find yourself hooked on Alex’s short lists.

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Things I miss about NYC: FREENYC.NET

When you’re looking for a cheap night after a crap day at work in New York, there’s nothing worse than cracking open a free stuff guide and finding listings like Central Park and Times Square. Lucky for New Yorkers, there’s freenyc.net.

Despite discovering this gem just months before leaving Gotham, I had time to swing by a Der Bilderklub opening at Gallery Hanahou, where I picked up a pair of original prints for $14 each. And there was the gratis Kimya Dawson session at Sound Fix Records that FreeNYC tipped me off to (Bonus Info: stay tuned to Sound Fix’s website for frequent free shows).

Yesterday’s listings included a free film-screening of Run, Fatboy, Run with director David Schwimmer, a pool party at Hotel QT with free vodka, a film festival featuring Three Soldiers, live flamenco at Luca Bar, open vodka bar burlesque and live music at Crash Mansion, and a genre-spanning History of Hip Hop party at APT.

Granted, events sometimes demand a predilection towards weeknight drinking and a willingness to venture beyond the Bedford stop on the L line, but the listings are typically more offbeat and more frequently feature genuinely worthwhile cultural events than your average free stuff hub. For best results, sign up for the daily email blast and check the website around noon — new events are sometimes added mid-day.

One of my biggest post-departure regrets: never making it to the Ziggy Stardust-themed, free-Vodka-fueled Rebel Rebel dance party at Lit Lounge.

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Cheap Eats: Ben Thanh After Dark

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During the day, visitors to Saigon flood Ben Thanh Market to rifle through stalls selling chop sticks, dried fruit, pottery, clothing, jewelry…basically everything. But as the sun sets, the main building is shuttered and food stalls set up shop around the square.

While cheap chicken, beef, and pork dishes are available, the real draw at this Saigon staple is reasonably-priced fresh seafood.

My first night at Ben Thanh, my girlfriend Sarah and I each gorged ourselves on king prawn, served Vietnamese style with lime and a salt, pepper, and chili powder mix. The entire cost, including beer (13,000 VND each), was 230,000 VND (about $14.50 USD).

The meal certainly didn’t break the bank, but it was one of our more expensive dinners. The prawn was priced by weight (300K VND per kilogram), so we headed back the next night to see if we could cut costs in fixed-price dishes at another stall.

We started with shrimp spring rolls with lettuce (35K VND, about $2) and two Saigon beers (24k VND, $1.50). Next, we had a half-dozen shrimp fried with tamarind (100K VND, $6.30). They were messy, but the postprandial finger licking made it worth the shrimp shucking. Lastly, we tried a small portion of the vermicelli fried shrimp and crab (40K VND, $2.50). It was mediocre and misleading — with two crab legs and a single piece of shrimp, I suggest springing for the large portion.

Final cost of the second meal: 198,000 VND, or $12.50, just two dollars less than the king prawn feast. The quality at both stalls was good, and since there’s only one soundtrack at Ben Thanh — revving motorbikes — don’t waste your time combing over every menu.

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