It’s been a longer break than originally planned from my last blog entry to this one, which demonstrates my natural tendencies when it comes to blogging. Rest assured, I have made it safely to Saigon, Ong Xa has made it back to the cooler climes of Santa Barbara, and am now happily settled at my maternal aunt’s house in Quan Tan Phu, about a 35-40 minute taxi cab ride away from the city center. (And it’s only that long because of the slow crawling pace of traffic dominated by crowds of xe honda, or scooters.) From here, I’ll be writing my introduction and my final city chapter on Saigon.
Since I’ve gotten to Saigon, I’ve been learning how to balance my work, my personal time, and my familial obligations. The latter has been the most time consuming aspect of this trip, and I’m grateful that all of my family (and it seems like everyone my mother has ever met!) wants to visit or invite me over. At the same time it has proven tiring and often difficult to accommodate or decline, since my stay is short and my priority for this trip is to my research and writing, which has been especially urgent now that I must finish in June. I feel a bit guilty prioritizing my work, given the fact that I haven’t been back in 12 years, and this of course makes me evaluate the sacrifices that we make as academics with families and lives, and with little resources, especially as graduate students seeking careers in academia. After all, it is because of research funding and small fellowships that I am able to travel to Vietnam at all, but as a Vietnamese American who has little opportunity to see extended family, it seems harsh not to spend time with family that is clearly excited to see me. It also makes me a little sad at my relief that my aunt and her husband work all day so that I can go about my work (for the most part) without feeling guilty for ignoring them.
Since making it from Hanoi to Saigon, officially Thanh Pho Ho Chi Minh, or Ho Chi Minh City, I’ve been struck by the tangible differences between the two cities, one the seat of governmental power, and the other the seat of financial and cultural influence. One woman I spoke to yesterday said that for her, Hanoi felt oppressive, and for some reason she felt like she could breathe once she came back to Saigon. Despite having little experience with the former, I still understood what she meant. The streets were smaller and clustered together, the government buildings everywhere, and national propaganda on every street. Suddenly, you arrive in Saigon and the streets seem to open up. Everything, even the scooters, are newer, shinier, faster. Capital is king, rather than the state, which still has its fingerprints everywhere. And glossy towers like the Vincom Center that house brands like Louis Vuitton, Hermés, Dior, Versace, and establishments like Restaurant Le Bourgeois…
stand opposite buildings like this one…
which bear the scars of age and a colonial past. Buildings such as these are often primed, according to sources who have tried opening businesses and gallery spaces in similar government owned buildings, to be torn down to make way for newer, more modern, towers.
It’s fascinating and frightening to see just how similar Saigon’s downtown is compared to places like Dubai and LA. And then there are places like Cho Lon which seem to reflect a more recognizably “Vietnamese” identity. As a woman on my tour stated, “Where the locals go.” A kind of authenticity palatable to tourists seeking images that reflect their imagined Vietnam.
Something that a visit to the hugely popular sieu thi, supermarket/shopping malls, doesn’t quite satisfy.
For me, the most iconic moments of this trip so far have been these:
Feasting and sweating in the street, in living rooms, on floors with my loud, massive family.
Carting all of this home with my aunt on a scooter. That’s right. A shopping cart full of groceries, AND two grown women! Also, a little Buddha.
I’ll stop there, knowing full well that I’ve left much out. At some point, I’ll get back to reflecting on Ha Long Bay, the contemporary art scene, CouchSurfers, etc…