Tuesday, January 31, 2012

North Vietnam and Summing Up

Friday, January 27, 2012
After becoming thoroughly acquainted with the Hoi An Chapter of the Vendors of Vietnam, we left by bus this morning to the new and smart-looking airport in Danang. There, we took a one-hour flight to Hanoi, only to get on another bus for a 4-hour ride to Ha Long Bay for an overnight stay.

Saturday, January 28, 2012
We did what one does in Ha Long Bay, take a boat ride for several hours in a beautiful natural setting. Ha Long Bay contains 1,960 fascinating limestone rock formations, including caves and grottoes, only otherwise found on the Li River in China. Afterwards, we got back on our bus for the nearly-four hour ride to Hanoi. As Franck, the tour leader, commented, I “meditated” most of the time, so we seemed to arrive in Hanoi fairly quickly. The weather here is murky, cool in the mid-teens (I’ve gone international), with damp skies.

We went to the early evening performance at the Thang Long Water Puppet Theatre, a show best described as silly – not Monty Python silly, just plain silly. As has happened most evenings, our group chose to stay together for dinner, tonight at the Rainbow CafĂ©, 38 Hang Hanh, which offers a large menu despite its small size. I had beef noodle soup (Pho) (45 Dong) and “Singapore soft fried chicken” (165 Dong), which was really a grilled quarter of a chicken with a good sweet and hot dipping sauce. Have I told you about Vietnamese currency? The Dong is worth 1/21,000 of a dollar, or one dollar = 21,000 Dong. This means that you walk away from an ATM, widely available in Vietnam, a millionaire, in Dongs at least. It’s hard not to shake your head in disbelief with each transaction, a cup of tea for 10,000 Dong, a hotel room for 2,650,000 Dong.

Sunday, January 29, 2012
Ba Dinh Square is where Ho Chi Minh declared independence from France in 1945. Now, it is the site of his mausoleum, where visitors are not allowed to hold or carry anything while walking through without stopping. For a 112-year old man, Ho looks pretty good, but his stated desire for privacy in death should have been respected. Adjacent to the square is the formal presidential palace, which he avoided, and the simple living quarters he actually used. The last element of the complex is the Ho Chi Minh Museum, which is typically hagiographic, but informative. All of the premises were well-maintained and, during this holiday season, crowded with Vietnamese. An unfortunate element throughout these facilities, to my style-conscious eyes, was the uniforms of the military guards. Unlike the tans and greens that other Vietnamese military seemed to sport, these men (only) wore bright white coats and pants with vivid red and gold trim, braid, ribbons and decorations. It combined the looks of a Good Humor ice cream man and a Mitteleuropan hotel doorman.

We then visited the Temple of Literature, founded in 1070, which now is outside the groves of academe and serves as a Confucian temple. At the end of Tet, the Temple was crowded with last-minute petitioners for ancestral support. We also spent far less time in the Hanoi Hilton than John McCain did, but it took only minutes to appreciate the misery he and fellow-prisoners must have experienced. While his actual flight suit was on display, most of the exhibits pointed to the prison’s role under French colonial rule, including one of only three guillotines France shipped abroad.

Our final group dinner was at Garden Vuon Hanoi, 36 Hang Manh, where we had a private room, which allowed for farewell toasts and tributes. While the restaurant offered interesting set menus, I was more than satisfied with spicy stir-fried beef, Thai style (150,000 Dong), fried chicken with lemon sauce (130,000 Dong), white rice (14,000 Dong), a glass of red wine (90,000 Dong) whose origins I didn’t catch, and a can of club soda (20,000 Dong), for a total of just over $19. Additionally, Steve shared his delicious chicken salad with me and I nibbled on some of his roast duck. Mission accomplished.

Monday, January 30, 2012
Wake-up call at 5:30 AM in Hanoi, that is Sunday 5:30 PM in New York; arrive at Palazzo di Gotthelf 8:30 PM, Monday.

* * * * * *
I have traveled to much of Europe and had briefer exposure to South America, Asia and Israel (which seems to connect to no continent geopolitically or psychologically). As a result, my appreciation of American diversity, political freedoms, hypocrisy, fried food consumption, generosity, all-night subways (New York City-specific) and ability to follow more than one major sport at a time has increased with each venture abroad. I still have not been converted to a believer in American exceptionalism. However, the strength of my cosmopolitan internationalism was sorely tested on this trip to Hong Kong, Cambodia and Vietnam, where we stayed in top-flight, four-star (out of five) hotels every night. Each hotel room had a remote-controlled television set, often with a flat panel screen, showing dozens of stations in a wide array of languages. A constant was BBC World News and CNN. Each of these news outlets had sports reporting at regular intervals and scores on their crawls throughout the hour. Additionally, ESPN, with or without some other international sports channels, was always available.

I will begrudgingly concede that the number one international sports event during our trip was the Australian Tennis Open, one of the Grand Slam events, which we often saw pieces of live. However, we also regularly saw coverage of soccer matches from every corner of the world, cricket, golf, US professional and college basketball. What we did not see anywhere, at anytime day or night, on any outlet, in any language, live or delayed, in full or highlights, in words or pictures, was any mention of the NEW YORK FOOTBALL GIANTS and their heroic run to the Super Bowl. Mind you, the Giants suffered no more than the New England Patriots or any of the teams that fell by the wayside during the playoffs. It seems that the international media alphabet excluded the letters N*F*L*. Steve and I were able to follow the last few minutes of the Green Bay game by latching onto a hotel computer in Hong Kong and connecting to nytimes.com. The results of the Sunday afternoon San Francisco game, on the other hand, were unknown to us until Tuesday morning in Saigon, even though it was the third-most watched conference championship game in 30 years in the US, gaining a 30.6 national rating with a 44 audience share. At its peak, it had 69 million US viewers, but not us.

To sum up our trip to Vietnam, I turn to the acute analytic insights of Ayn Rand, based on her testimony before the House Committee on Un-American Activities (HUAC) on October 20, 1947, when it was investigating Communist influence in Hollywood. Ms. Rand was born in Russia in 1905 and left in 1926 to come to the United States. She worked as a playwright and Hollywood screenwriter before publishing her first blockbuster novel in 1943.

Her HUAC testimony focused on Song of Russia, a 1944 American film made and distributed by MGM Studios, which Bosley Crowther, the New York Times movie critic reviewed as follows: “The story is pure romantic fiction—and a shade forbidding, when suggested in outline—for it is simply the story of a prominent American symphony conductor and a Russian girl who meet, through their mutual zeal for music, in Moscow before the war, fall in love, get married in the girl’s village and depart on a concert tour. Then the war comes. They are rudely separated when the girl returns to her home and the man continues his commitments to give music to the hard-pressed Russian folks. But, in the end, they are reunited in the village, which has been laid waste by war and are sent together to America to state the spirit of Russia through their art.” In case you forgot, in 1944 the Russians were engaged in a massive ground war with certain Germans whom we considered bad guys too. Not surprisingly, the film portrays, in the words of Wikipedia “happy, healthy, smiling, free Soviet citizens, blissfully living the Communist dream.”

Once WWII ended, the movie quickly became an embarrassment for MGM, which was led by the politically-conservative Louis B. Mayer. Ms. Rand, who had apparently never returned to Russian after 1926, was not fooled by the movie, written by Paul Jarrico later blacklisted for refusing to cooperate with HUAC. She testified: “The streets are clean and prosperous-looking. There are no food lines anywhere. You see shots of the marble subway -- the famous Russian subway out of which they make such propaganda capital.” It got worse. “There is a park where you see happy little children in white blouses running around. I don’t know whose children they are, but they are really happy kiddies. They are not homeless children in rags, such as I have seen in Russia. Then you see an excursion boat, on which the Russian people are smiling, sitting around very cheerfully, dressed in some sort of satin blouses such as they only wear in Russian restaurants here.”

With Ms. Rand’s sensibilities as my guide, I decided to judge Vietnam for myself, dispelling the fog of left-wing propaganda generated by Apocalypse Now, The Deer Hunter, Good Morning, Vietnam, Forest Gump and The Green Berets. I eliminated from consideration those Vietnamese for whom congeniality is an economic necessity, such as hotel desk clerks, bartenders, and T-shirt retailers. I also factored in the effect of Tet, since we have spent our entire visit to Vietnam immediately before, during and after Tet, when most people operate in a contentment-rich environment. I tried to make my observations peripherally and in mirrors so as not be seen staring at people and invoking the Hawthorne Effect. Here is my conclusion – Better Red than Dead. These folks are in a pretty good mood, whizzing up and down the streets of Saigon and Hanoi on motor bikes (33.4 million motor bikes in a population of around 88 million people), wearing clean, uninteresting clothing. Although I saw no Russian-style satin blouses, silk outfits on women were abundant. Enormous groups of young people jostled and giggled and strutted and teased and gamboled for hours on end in front of our hotel on Nguyen Hue Boulevard in Saigon, open only for pedestrians. I don’t believe that most could spell “gulag.” If these young Vietnamese might be blessed with a magical visitation by anyone, I would bet that Justin Bieber would be far favored over Ho Chi Minh. So, thanks to Ms. Rand, I know how well the Vietnamese are faring, but I am still left wondering why we tried to kill them in the first place.

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