Another American in Vietnam

Through the @VietnamBlogs Twitter feed, I came across the  Antidote to Burnout blog, written by American architect Mel Schenck, who lives & works in HCMC. I was fascinated to read this description of why he came to Vietnam. Though he has come here to live & I only return obsessively & though he is drawn to HCMC & I am drawn to Hanoi, we share an admiration for the energy & creativity & openness of Vietnamese society.  From his architectural perspective, Schenck writes:

 I believe the Vietnamese have an innate sense of good design that creates sophisticated vibrant colors, patterns, sounds, smells, and tastes in the urban environment. Yes, there is messiness and chaos in Vietnamese urban life, but I sense that is a manifestation of the high energy level. By the time the Vietnamese make the urban environment more orderly and convenient, it is likely the energy level will have decreased with that progress.

This strikes me as both true as description & insightful as analysis. Schenck the architect is naturally naturally interested in Vietnamese modernist buildings whereas Duemer the poet is more interested in the amalgamation & layering of old & new structures & the inventiveness of the vernacular. There a lot of gorgeous pictures of new buildings on Antidote to Burnout. I admire them (both the pictures & the buildings), but I don't love them. Here's what I love, at least from the outside:

Vernacular Architecture

Americans in Vietnam seem to be either "northerners" or "southerners," preferring either Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Personally, I much prefer Hanoi, with its old trees, many lakes, twisting streets, & admittedly crazy traffic; but I know plenty of people who prefer HCMC, which is certainly more cosmopolitan (Westernized) & international--it's a port city, after all. The usual formulation is that Hanoi is the political & cultural capital & HCMC the commercial capital & that's true as far as it goes. There are no doubt deeper differences--HCMC is more Catholic though at the same time more open to the wilder forms of the Cult of the Holy Mother (though come to think of it this makes sense.) In the south, perhaps it's the religion that is vernacular & layered, like the architecture in the north.

Author: jd

Joseph Duemer is Professor of Literature Emeritus at Clarkson University in northern New York state. His most recent book of poems is Magical Thinking from Ohio State University Press. Since the mid-1990s he has spent a good deal of time in Vietnam, mostly Hanoi. He lives with his wife Carole & five terriers (four Jack Russells & one Patterdale) on the stony bank of the Raquette River in South Colton.

1 thought on “Another American in Vietnam”

  1. I am happy you liked my writing on the energy and design sense of Viet Nam. I am intrigued by your use of the word “layered”, partly because my pen name on my blog as well as on Twitter is @layered. But the word layered for me is a philosophical metaphor that I suspect we might share. This is an oversimplification of the idea, but basically the world is not as black and white as people over industrialized history have preferred, but rather is a layering of complicated systems that are layered up from many different perspectives.

    On the practical side, the “layering of old and new structures” that you cite, as well as religion being layered, are subjects that I am very interested in. Since I am an urban planner as well as an architect, I recognize that the best plans are layered up from the existing fabric of the city or countryside, with the new introduced over time to reflect the innovations and necessities of the new times. The “inventiveness of the vernacular” that you cite is the key element of the Vietnamese streetscape — architects and planners provide a framework for the people to apply their personalities and commercial necessities, such as signs.

    What I don’t understand is the predilection of northern Vietnamese for classical architecture while southerners prefer modernist architecture. If anyone has any opinions on this, I would love to hear them.

    — Mel

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