I love America, and I love Vietnam. But I don’t like to sleep where I shit. Or shit where I eat. Eat in bed. Something like that.
Just like I wouldn’t want my sleepy little neighborhood back in the US turned into a congested thoroughfare, clogged with hundreds of Honda Waves, flanked on each side by rice paddies and marijuana/sunglasses/sex massage hawkers…I don’t want Vietnam to become Duck-Dynasty-On-Mekong.
Like any wizened old traveler sitting in the corner of a bar will tell you—in between slow, thoughtful sips of a warm Saigon Green—I got here too late. And if you’re coming, you’re really going to get here too late. So don’t even bother. Stick to future tourism hotspots like Siberia and Wyoming, where locals are blissfully unblemished by the taint of modern culture.
Is that selfish of me? Of course.
Deep down I wanted Vietnam to be an endless expanse of rice terraces, conical leaf hats, hundred-year-old bicycles and floating markets.
Mostly, I wanted every girl to dress in traditional áo dài.
But the bicycles are crowded out by what seems like a trillion motorcycles (and a growing number of psychotically driven cars).
The rice fields aren’t within comfortable driving distance.
The leaf hats are there, but so are baseball hats.
And the floating markets share space with freighters and cruise ships.
That’s all fine and dandy. I don’t have a problem with modernity—I’m obviously not writing this blog post with a chisel.
I’m no Luddite.
What bothers me is modernity for modernity’s sake; tossing out tradition simply because it’s old, and adopting new beliefs and practices simply because they’re new.
A few months ago I read a novel called Dumb Luck by the Vietnamese author Vũ Trọng Phụng. It’s a brilliant satire of Vietnam’s society during the twilight of the French Empire, and I think its themes are even more applicable now.
The novel is filled with memorable characters, but it follows the path of Xuân—a young man constantly between jobs, whether riding on the hood of a car advertising cures for VD or spying on women in the changing room as a ball boy at a tennis court.
Serendipity lands Xuan in the company of Hanoi’s Europe-loving high society. He becomes a sort of project for them—what a triumph for the common people if Xuan can be reformed into a modern man!
The European Fever described in Dumb Luck was mainly due to the the ascendancy of the Front Populaire, a loose coalition of various leftists and social reformers in France during the Interwar period.
The Front were proponents of radical colonial change, granting greater recognition to French colonial subjects, investigating human rights abuses and—possibly—granting independence.
In what must be a case of Stockholm Syndrome, Francophilia reached a fever pitch in French Indochina as the Front Populaire came into power. At a time when freedom finally seemed within reach, the Vietnamese middle and upper classes began widely adopting European customs—everything from fashion to sports to sexual mores.
Vietnam seemed poised to finally enter the modern era, and be seen as equals to European nations—but the country needed the firm, guiding hand of a few hard-line reformers to do it.
Those reformers are viciously lampooned in the novel.
Many of the main characters are part of a “Europeanization Committee,” and one of their main efforts at modernizing Vietnam is through fashion.
At the tailor’s shop, Xuan is introduced to western fashion. He quickly begins to associate modern clothes with absurdity, and therefore comes to the conclusion that clothing which is NOT absurd is conservative, and thus, no good.
An older woman seems taken aback by the skimpy line of clothes at Xuan’s new shop. One of the artists explains why traditional clothing should be done away with:
“Madame, the very concept of clothing has changed. Clothing should enhance and embellish one’s natural beauty, not cover it up. Soon clothing will progress to that extreme, exquisite, perfect point where it will no longer cover up anything at all.”
Case in point—the ao dai, Vietnam’s iconic, tight-fitting shirt and pants combo. Covers up everything, leaves everything to the imagination; now only worn for formal functions, school, and for jobs in the tourism industry.
But we can observe a conversation between one of the tailors and his wife examining clothes going back to the early 1900s—the tailor slaves day in and day out making French lingerie for his Vietnamese clients, and his wife complains that she wants to wear them too.
“Shut up! We want to reform society but we don’t want our wives to dress like whores!”
This sort of cognitive dissonance reoccurs throughout the book, and it’s the same sort of thing I see play out every day—the powers that be take reform into their own hands, but aren’t prepared for the consequences.
Xuan was taken on as a sort of pet project by the Europeanization Committee. If they can reform him—a lowly vagrant and a bit of a pervert—surely they can reform the entire country. What a victory for the common people!
Well, he does reform. Without understanding fashion, medicine or politics, Xuan bumbles his way into the inner circle of Hanoi high society—eventually being regarded as a respected doctor, athlete and savior of French Indochina. He gets too big for his handlers, who become acutely aware that acknowledging Xuan’s BS would be a complete embarrassment and loss of face.
Their “victory for the common people” outgrows their own expectations, and they don’t like the results.
Dumb Luck’s concept of modern sexual practices is equally hilarious. At a popular weekend retreat, Xuan runs into a man spending the weekend with his lover. He’s worried that his wife will catch him, and that she is staying in the room next door. His worry turns to rage when he discovers she’s also at the resort with a lover.
When confronted about her infidelity, she remarks:
“I am faithful to both of you! My husband and my lover! That’s what makes me a woman.”
Vietnamese men bring shame to their families by marrying a woman who isn’t a virgin, yet sex hotels line the streets and offer very affordable hourly rates for titillated young couples—neon signs almost cryptically advertise condoms with a giant, flashing “OK” when you’re in a pinch.
And whatever you think about communism, make no mistake—Vietnam is a capitalist, authoritarian country. You wouldn’t see Joe Stalin painting Red Square with sprawling billboards for Coca Cola just because they match his color scheme; but that’s what you get here, mainly because stylized portraits of Uncle Ho make you feel warm and fuzzy in ways that honest dictatorships can’t.
“Kleptocratic military junta” just doesn’t have the same ring as “people’s committee.”
Vu Trong Phung was enamored with the power of advertising, and that shows in the novel.
Frequently, Xuan’s background spouting advertisements from memory gave him the illusion of knowledge and power—his recited jingles for a VD ointment guru convince Hanoi’s high society that he is a legitimate doctor. In the absence of actual expertise, the ability to sell translates to power.
Xuan’s old boss, Dr. Ban, runs an extremely popular brothel that’s infamous for spreading VD. Luckily, Dr. Ban later directs his patrons/patients to his clinics and makes them right as rain.
A similar, delusional idea of customer service and repeat business pervades Vietnam’s government and their decisions today.
That’s why Vietnam’s tourism department constantly changes visa requirements, making it difficult or impossible for foreigners to stay in Vietnam—driving potential repeat visitors to Thailand.
Over the past few years, estimates put the numbers of tourists who return to Vietnam between an abysmal 80 and 85%. (I’ve seen numbers as high as 95%, but I don’t know how accurate they are.)
Is that all the government’s fault? No, of course not. Vietnam’s stagnant tourism industry can also be blamed on a handful of unscrupulous business owners and cheating street vendors. But the aggressive guy selling sunglasses doesn’t have anything to do with the endless expanse of resorts eating up Vietnam’s coastline—most of which are rarely full.
The government today isn’t that much different than the French colonial administration of yesteryear. The French built bridges and hospitals, today’s party builds subways and airports. The French exploited the Vietnamese people…and so does today’s government.
In the novel, several police officers are overheard complaining that nobody commits crimes anymore. Faced with stiff quotas for citations, they’re forced to issue tickets to each other or else they’ll get fined at the end of the month. Truth be told, the police are more concerned with training for the annual bicycle race anyway. At one point, an officer remarks:
“We’re policemen, for goodness sake! Our concern is tickets, not laws! Only normal people worry about transgressions of the law, not officers of the state!”
Today, police officers sadly don’t have enough time to practice for triathlons while on duty. But traffic police adopt the same “tickets-over-transgressions” mentality.
If you think speed traps back home are a joke, you haven’t been pulled over by a squad of beige-clad Vietnamese traffic police.
They set up at choke points throughout the city, usually during rush hour. Bridges are their favorite, but at night they love to sit in poorly lit areas and surprise you like common highway robbers.
People make excuses for them. “They make minimum wage, they only do it to help their families!”
Bull shit. Half the people they’re pulling over and fining probably live near the poverty line. And they aren’t pulling westerners over, either. It’s generally too much of a hassle. It’s a simple case of the state stealing from the people.
There really is a huge and growing disconnect between Hanoi’s political elite and the people on the streets, and it dates back to colonial times:
Like a true political leader, Joseph Thiết was deeply concerned about the good of the nation while simultaneously despising the tastes and amusements of the masses.
Massive century-old trees planted by the French are being torn down in both Hanoi and Saigon to make room for new roads and bridges. The government then paves more and more shitty roads instead of fixing the old ones, resulting in messes like this.
Or you have instances where the police can fine a family over a year’s worth of income because they decided to sell 50-cent packs of cigarettes illegally.
What I’m getting at is this…
Developing countries have the luxury of picking and choosing what aspects of western civilization they want to adopt.
In Vietnam, it seems the government has gone all-in.
As much as we like to think otherwise, our culture isn’t a great fit for every country on the planet. If some Vietnamese office worker wants to eat a Big Mac after work, more power to him. But the feeling I get living here is that American culture is considered superior because it’s modern.
Modernity is progress, progress is good, therefore tradition is bad.
From our music to our food to our clothes, there hasn’t been an American presence in Vietnam like this since 1973.
What I witness reads like a sequel to Dumb Luck. It’s probably good for the nation, but I’m not sure about the people.