Confusion is a word we have invented for an order which is not understood.
It’s amazing. I’ve lived here for nearly six months now and, every day, I still feel like I’ve just got off the plane. Things have changed, of course they have, but I still just don’t get this place. To be honest, I envy the tourists who see Vietnam via the scheduled stops of their tourist coaches and are told where they are, what they’re looking at and why. At least, when they leave, they’ll have an answer to the question, what’s Vietnam like? I’m not even close to answering that one yet.
Don’t get me wrong, my thoughts on this aren’t all that muddled. In fact, I have a pretty definite grasp of some aspects of life here and of how they work. The problem is that each bit of information, each item of understanding, is contradicted by the next. I was talking about it to someone the other day and could only frame it in terms of contrast. To be honest, it’s as fair a a term as any. The contrast between a kid ploughing his Father’s field on the back of a water buffalo and the SUVs piling past him on the highway.
The whole of south Vietnam sits a few meters above sea level and this is as true of Saigon as it is anywhere else. Around a month ago, we moved from the guest house we’d been staying in to a fourteenth floor flat overlooking one of the many canals that flow into the Saigon River. It’s one of the many unique things about this city that so much of it – even parts just outside of the centre – lapse into water and mangrove swamp before returning to the concrete and tarmac of old. It’s a contradiction that extends to the water itself and one that’s both beautiful and devastating in equal measure. Beautiful, because to see an old conical hatted woman pass a freighter really is something to see, and devastating, because the passage and manufacture of those self same freighters are poisoning the Saigon River and the water ways beyond.
Contrast abounds. The window of this flat looks out onto the Bitexco Financial Tower. I’m going to post a photo in a bit, so you’ll get to see it for yourself. It’s pretty amazing. It stands, visible for all around, as a glass, steel and utterly phallic symbol of Vietnam’s progress and place amongst the financial elite of the 21st Century. That this symbol of economic mastery can also be seen from the paddy fields and rice ponds of the outlying districts is not insignificant. To be honest, when I try and imagine what the boy and his water buffalo must make of it I run out of air, never mind thoughts.
This is Vietnam. It’s the old running straight into the new and coexisting in apparent harmony.
I’ll stop for a second. I’m not entirely sure if I’m being as clear as I could be. I mean, small boys and water buffalo are OK, but I’m not sure if they really communicate the over arching sense of the alien at play here. That is, if you’ve never seen a paddy field, never mind a water buffalo, you’re not really left with much to conjure with. I suppose what’s needed is something concrete to hold on to and, to do that, I think I’m going to talk about commuting.
You see, I have this thing about commutes. I can’t put my finger on why, exactly, but I think they’re important. That is, if you really want to capture a sense of something, of some other place, then asking someone how they get to work everyday seems a fairly apposite starting point.
For instance, if I think back; back to life before drunk turned to punch drunk turned to a permanent wink, mentally, I’m always sat, locked in unmoving traffic, in my car. Maybe that has some kind of metaphorical quality, I don’t really know. I’m not at all sure if I care either. The point is, that’s what comes to mind. Stasis and the thoroughly depressing backdrop of a rain drenched Warrington.
You see, talking about commutes does two things; it combines the strangeness of the foreign with the mundanity of the everyday. And that gives you an ‘in’. That is, it gives you a recognisable starting point to try and get a grip on something which is pretty unrecognisable. The other thing about commutes- other than how unremarkable they are – is that, by their nature, they involve travel. Consequentially, just by talking about commutes you’re immediately presented with a travelogue of wherever that commute takes place.
Look, let me go sideways for a second and I’ll give you a for instance. It’ll make sense, trust me. I grew up in a small/tiny village in Lancashire during the 1980′s. It was a fairly picturesque existence and one largely untroubled by the events of that period. To pay for this idyll, my Dad would get up every morning and drive out of our village, across the moors and hills, through demolished and dying mining towns, past the gaunt faces of the miners’ kids and into Blackburn. Not a mining town, true, but one riven by the habit of poverty and with unemployment as entrenched within communities as the hopelessness it bred. This, a situation that found expression in the everyday acts of racial hatred that were a daily occurrence at the state school where my Dad taught.
That was his commute.
Mine’s different. As I leave this flat, I can ether go left onto the main road, or cut right through the improvised and pretty chaotic residential street that lies on the banks of the canal and take the short cut to work. Nine times out of ten, the chaotic and the residential wins over the new and the concrete. Vast numbers, perhaps even the majority, of Saigon urbanites are a generation, maybe less, out of the village and it’s in places like this that fact really becomes evident. Life is lived on the street. Babies are washed there, children play there and food is cooked there. While the powerful and the political look to shape their world into living images of modern day perfection, the people – at least huge swathes of them – choose to remain firmly unreconstructed. Life here, like in so much of what I’ve seen of Vietnam, continues as before, the road is pot holed, the houses are careworn and a little ragged and any demarcation between the public and the private lies purely in the eye of the beholder. On a weekend, I’ll ride through here at 7am and already it’s alive and well into its day. A few metres away, and in sharp contrast, in terms of age, structure and scope, to the rustic nature of the this very ad hoc street stands the bridge that will take me into the heart of the city centre and the white heat of Vietnam’s future, which, on a weekend, can be found still slumbering in the early morning mists that typify the rainy season. The absence of the artery clogging traffic that typifies the city seems surreal and dreamlike in equal measure, (though the latter of those may be down to the hour). Either way, it’s a rare pleasure to actually open the bike up and enjoy the wind on your face, rather than the fumes and exhaust gasses that typify the majority of journeys.
It’s a very individual kind of light that falls at this time of year and at that time of day. Maybe it’s the mist, maybe its just the time of year, I don’t know. I think the best way of describing it is as milky, but as you head out of the commercial district and into the Botanic Gardens, gifted by the French in grateful thanks for years of occupation and division, the effect couldn’t be more profound. Immediately, your transported to an entirely fresh environment. Gone are the wide city streets and freshly constructed office blocks. Instead, the road lies in front of you, long, thin, perfectly straight and lined on either side by giant trees, their trunks so straight they stand on ether side of the road like rows of deciduous sentries. It’s through the bodies of these softwood guardians, if you look, that you can spot that icon of sixties architecture, the Reunification Palace, formerly the Presidential Palace and formerly the supreme headquarters for the Southern Side of the Civil/American War. And there you have it. This, within a ride of not less than a few kilometres, from shanty town, to financial hub, to colonial backwater to the American Nightmare.
Tragedy and beauty rub shoulders throughout Vietnam. I was wandering around one of the islands in the Mekong Delta a few months ago. I can’t stress how beautiful it was. It was everything you could ever imagine a tropical paradise to be. Long, slow dusty paths made their way through an abundance of jack fruit, wild bananas and coconuts, all of which you could just reach up and pick. It was silent and, just being there, it was impossible not be awed by the sheer tranquility of the place. I was looking at one of the many ponds that abounded on the island, when I noticed they fell at regular intervals. This, before the old man with me explained, slowly, patiently and as if to a child, that these weren’t ponds. These were the craters left after the Americans walked their artillery fire in.
There’s a place not too far away from here called Cu Chi. It’s awesome. If you’re ever around here, you really should go. People have been going to Cu Chi for ages. It’s within relatively east reach of Saigon and has always been a welcome harbour from the stresses and strains of city life. Cu Chi was also one the Viet Cong’s greatest strongholds against the Americans during the war. Unable or unwilling to take on the US in direct combat, it was at Cu Chi that they tunneled underground, establishing whole villages, towns even, beneath the American Infantry’s feet. The US response was to carpet bomb Cu Chi with both heavy explosive, Agent Orange and Napalm. Essentially, they transformed what had been lush and verdant forest into a moonscape. To this day, guides must accompany you throughout the area, making it very clear that you are not to stray from the path in case you come across any grotty little leftovers from the American’s war here.
Napalm is obviously nasty stuff, but its the legacy of Agent Orange that lives on. Children are still being born with half their insides on the outside. There’s a gallery of photographs of children born with the ill effects of Agent Orange here in Saigon. It’s grotesque. Children, with their bodies and faces warped into parodies of humanity. It’s like they’ve been lifted and twisted into obscene caricatures of the shapes they should have been and the lives that they should have had. Make no mistake. This is happening now. The soil is sodden with the stuff, so the plants grow with it in their veins, which, of course, infests the entire food chain and, there you are, staring at a picture of what should have been a child and you’re right back to where we started; contrasts. Because in all of these pictures, the children are smiling.
What happened here was essentially rape on a national scale. American impotence became American rage and, ultimately, American viciousness. You’d think the bitterness scars such as that would leave would all but define a national consciousness; would leave it as warped and embittered as its history effortlessly justifies, but you’d be wrong. There is no hostility here. Kids happily walk the streets wearing the US flag on their shirts. No one ever challenges Americans on their country’s war record. American films, like The Avengers, regularly storm the Vietnamese Box Office and the Vietnamese government goes hunting for US trade contracts with equal regularity.
Maybe this is a European reaction, maybe it’s just me, but I struggle to understand that. European War belongs to the annals of history, yet it still simmers restlessly beneath any Tap Room debate. Here, where the wounds have barely stopped bleeding, there is apparent forgiveness and acceptance, (not forgetfulness). I don’t know if this suggests something higher about the Vietnamese soul, or just demonstrates a sound grasp of real politic, but, again, there it is; contrast.
It’s this contrast, this apparent coexistence of that which should be diametrically opposed that I’m struggling with right now. It cuts through everything, from the ying to the yang to the Capitalist to the Communist and, here’s the thing, I get Dualism. I’ve read the books, but I still don’t get this. Maybe that’s the challenge Vietnam puts in front of European trained minds. It dares you to understand it. I don’t know, but I’m trying. I think it’s going to be a long journey, but then, the best commutes always are.