Hanoi Spleen (Another List of Five)

  1. The ugly cathedral really is ugly, a cement monstrosity deposited by the French, who, when the were driven out of Hanoi in 1954 razed the 1000 year old One Pillar Pagoda, an architectural marvel. It has since been rebuilt. Now the city is infested by twenty-something French hipsters smoking their execrable cigarettes in the coffee shops.
  2. The German hipsters are a little less annoying, perhaps because Germans have no history in Vietnam.
  3. There are hardly any American hipsters–just a few fresh-faced college students with almost no awareness of their country’s history in Vietnam.
  4. The Vietnamese word for tourism is du lịch; for history the word is lịch sử. Because the unbarred letter “d” is pronounced “z” the two words sound & look like mirror images of each other, at least to my insensitive Western ear. I know nothing about Vietnamese etymology, but I don’t think lịch is the same word / syllable in these two words, Vietnamese compounds working differently from those in Germanic languages. The joys of false etymologies & strained analogies!
  5. Compared to traffic in HCMC or (from what I have been told) Bangkok, traffic in Hanoi is not so bad, but it is bad enough. For my first four weeks here I was able to join the dance–and it is a dance–but the last few days it’s just seemed chaotic. Usually, at a major intersection, when the light changes there is a liminal period during which the more aggressive motorbikes continue through as the bikes from the perpendicular direction begin moving out. Usually the side with the red slows & stops, though individual scooters will continue to dart through along the edges or go up on the sidewalk to skirt around. It’s hard to describe. Sometimes the liminal period of one direction goes on so long that it overlaps with the period of the other direction, which is when you have chaos, the dance broken down. So, now, go cross the street to get to your favorite coffee shop on the other side.

List: November in Hanoi

Note: Before coming to Hanoi I loaded up my Kindle with several things I thought would suit the short attention span of traveling. Among the things I downloaded was Greil Marcus’s Real Life Rock: The Complete Top Ten Columns, 1986 – 2014. When Marcus is not showcasing his mastery of the most obscure details of popular culture, he is an incisive analyst of contemporary American myth. While I do not aspire to anything so engaged, I have decided to adopt the literary genre of the list, posting an occasional list of items here. The list as not-quite-literary form has the advantage of cutting short the compulsion toward completion, a fatal check, ironically, to finishing anything. My lists will not always run to ten items, but ten will be the upper limit–otherwise infinity might beckon. I’ll begin with a list of five items:

  1. Phương works in a restaurant & goes to college, studying English. I met her because, standing behind me & speaking to another waiter, I found I could understand her Vietnamese. (Usually, I get anywhere from ten to thirty percent of overheard conversations.) I introduced myself & the next day she took me for a cup of coffee. (I’m so old now that young Vietnamese women know they need have no fear of me.) When I mentioned that there was a character in a Graham Greene novel who shared her name, Phương corrected me: “Phượng has the low short tone (nặng) and means phoenix, but my name has the level tone (ngang) and means way or direction.” One wonders whether Graham Greene was aware of this distinction, since he spells the name stripped of it’s diacritical marks.
  2. Hanoi streets in the hour before dinner: Jammed with traffic ranging from bicycles & cyclos to motorbikes in all stages of repair, trucks & cars from little Korean compacts to Land Rovers & BMWs. Sitting in my taxi, stopped dead in a shoal of these vehicles, I gaze out the window at a family of three sitting on their motorbike, each looking placid ahead as the massive tide of traffic pauses & prepares to surge forward again.
  3. 70º in Hanoi & most Vietnamese are wearing jackets, even parkas; tourists in tee shirts & shorts.
  4. A version of Lou Reed’s “Walk on the Wild Side” playing on the restaurant sound system that can only be described as bubblegum-disco, produced & performed by people who do not know what the words mean. Or if they do know . . .
  5. Rainy morning on Lý Quốc Sư across from the ugly cathedral: the usually snarled traffic even more snarled because a work crew in bright blue ponchos is running new wires under the street. I suppose this means that the overhead tangles of electrical wires will eventually be replaced, leaving visitors one less thing to be astonished by.

Phở Cuốn

My friends Long & Giang took me for lunch yesterday to a restaurant on Trấn Vũ beside Trúc Bạch Lake that specializes in Phở Cuốn, which is basically all the ingredients of a bowl of Phở Bò minus the liquid & rolled up in rice paper. It’s eaten by dipping in a slightly sour dipping sauce. This is the best thing I have eaten on this trip to Vietnam.

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The restaurant is on a little island separated from the city by a narrow canal & Trúc Bạch is itself separated from the much larger & more famous Hồ Tây (West Lake) by a narrow causeway. After lunch we went down the street & drank coffee beside the lake.

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Red Music

At the singing competition the other night, most of the songs were sentimental tributes to the relationship between students and teachers, but maybe a quarter of them were in a genre the Vietnamese unselfconsciously call “nhạc đỏ,” red music. It is both frankly patriotic and martial. Imagine a genre of contemporary American pop based on Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets,” complete with march time and military drumming.

National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam

Yesterday was National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. The night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.

The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.

The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophy’s subsequent evolution:

The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as power’s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the “sacred” Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . . modernization.

At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacher’s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as one’s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:

It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community – hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.

The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally don’t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.

 

Show 1 footnote

  1. David Hinton. The Four Chinese Classics. Berkeley: Counterpoint, 2013.