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.

Schopenhauer the Bad Buddhist (Like Me)

Jim Holt, in his new book, Why Does the World Exist? An Existential Detective Story:

Schopenhauer himself hardly practiced the pessimistic asceticism he preached: he was fond of the pleasures of the table; enjoyed many sensual affairs; was quarrelsome, greedy, and obsessed with his fame. He also kept a poodle named Atma–Sanskrit for “world soul.”

At least my terriers don’t have pretentious names. (Jett, Dash, & Candy, since you ask. And since they are all rescues, they came to us with those names already given.)

The Sacred & The Secular

One of the first things that struck me about Vietnam when I first came here was the way the Vietnamese failed to draw a sharp line between the sacred and the secular. It is not that these categories do not exist in Vietnamese culture so much as they constantly interpenetrate each other. Little temples pop up in commercial districts, certain ancient trees are venerated with incenses and offerings of food & flowers while in front of the temple & beneath the tree commerce goes on at its usual frenetic pace.

Guardian Dog

Guardian Dog at temple on Lo Ren Street, Hanoi Vietnam


A Calm Dog in the Old Quarter

Took a walk around the Old Quarter yesterday evening. Lots of dogs, as I noted earlier, but this one struck me by his self-possession. It’s hard to tell from the photo, but he’s sitting in a narrow alley where motorbikes regularly whizzed by six inches from his nose while he practiced a Buddhist sort of equanimity. Perhaps some old bodhisattva radiating peace & quite in a noisy city.

Dog in Hanoi

A calm dog in an alley in the Old Quarter of Hanoi.

Long Walk around Hanoi

Walked out to West Lake yesterday morning & visited two famous temples, one Taoist & one Buddhist. I’ve been to both before & in fact Tran Quoc–the Buddhist one–figures in my poem “What I Like about God,” which came out in the Georgia Review a couple of years ago. It is located on a narrow peninsula that juts out into West Lake. The present buildings are from the 19th century & are in fact getting some restoration now, but there has been a temple on the site for three-hundred years & a predecessor temple in another part of the city. In the pictures below it is the one with the tall brick stupa. Quán Thánh has one of the most architecturally perfect courtyards I’ve ever seen anywhere, though it is quite modest in size & the actual temple building at the end opposite the entrance gate is small, though beautifully proportioned. Perhaps the courtyard is so inviting because after going through the ornate gate, you descent several steps below the entrance level. Even though there are busy main thoroughfares on two sides, the traffic noise seems to fade as you go down the steps into the courtyard. After crossing the courtyard, you can stop to light incense before going up several steps to enter the temple with its initial alter & then, behind a screen, the sanctuary of the Protector of the North, who is represented by a three-ton bronze statue. The God of the North would have been very important, for China, Vietnam’s perpetual antagonist, has applied economic, cultural, political, military, & imperial pressure from that direction for 2500 years. The huge black figure sits with one finger raised in a sort of mudra, but to me it looks like he is saying to potential invaders, “Don’t even think about it.”

To get up to West Lake and the temples, I walked through the old French administrative quarter north of the oldest part of Hanoi and the Citadel, guarded by the Bac Mon (Northern) Gate, which the French breached with cannon fire in 1882, pretty much completing France’s colonial project in Vietnam. The Vietnamese commander of the Citadel hung himself in the guard tower of the gate, using his mandarin’s turban. The gate, as well as other parts of the old citadel, have recently been restored and archaeological efforts continue. A large hole made by a French cannonball has been left in the restored gate. The French were essentially bandits in Southeast Asia (to say nothing of Africa), but they lived well. Their broad tree-lined avenues contrast sharply with the narrow alleys of the Old Quarter.

One does not need to romanticize the old Imperial system of the Vietnamese emperors–some were better & some worse in following the Confucian mandate to care for their people–to feel the rapacity of the French. The French of course are long gone and the Vietnamese military now inhabits their old administrative buildings and much of the Citadel. The country prospers & when the country prospers the leaders retain the Mandate of Heaven, though the mandate is held, the old Confucian scholars would say, only as long as the virtues are upheld. Vietnamese modernity is an astonishing hybrid of  old & new that continues to surprise me every time I return. It is a modernity quite distinct, I think, from that of the West & no one should expect that it will conform to Western forms & expectations.