My Vietnam is like my China: accessed from the South, from the mega-urban, commercial culture, and from pre-communist traditions. It’s very much the view from Saigon (and that isn’t something I regret). Saigon would be a great place to live (in small part because the idea of calling it Ho Chi Minh City is a transparent joke).
Doi Moi looks like it should work a lot like Gaige Kaifeng (as a local version of generic ‘Reform and Opening’ in a ‘Market Leninist’ regime) — but it doesn’t seem to be quite working out. If rationalized corruptocracy is close to ideal limit of effective government among large states, Vietnam seems to have managed the corruptocracy far better than the rationalization. Infrastructure development — the magic sauce of recent Chinese hyper-growth — has not reached ignition. The country is too small to fund its own ambitions, and too chaotically kleptocratic to bring in foreign investment on the scale required. Despite many excellent things going for it, the country is floundering with a morose economic spirit that is almost Western.
Vietnamese coffee is among the most sublime offerings this tortured planet supplies. Thick, dark, and massively caffeinated, it makes a Starbucks brew seem like dishwater. One cup and the flight has paid for itself, as far as the utilitarian calculus is concerned.
A visit to Saigon’s fine arts museum is a grave disappointment. The building is a beautiful colonial structure, but the contents — once despicable trash had been ceremoniously burned — would fill a small room. There’s no way Vietnam will be setting the world art market on fire in the immediate future.
Cao Dai is very strange. Created as a new religion in 1926, with the obvious brief to make spiritual sense of Vietnam’s peculiar position with cultural history and geography, it canonized Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen as signatories of “the third alliance between God and man” (after Moses and Jesus). Cao Dai’s Masonic founder, Nguyen Gia Tri, rounded out the new sacred triumvirate.
“I saw an eye” was the way my seven-year-old daughter recorded her experience of the main Cao Dai temple. That would be the Sauronic Cosmic Eye, repeated obsessively as a motif, overlooking the white-robed devotees during their observances. The quantity of lurid symbolism is quite overwhelming. For anybody with the slightest attachment to a restrained religious tradition, the effect would be one of unbridled spiritual chaos. Apparently good natured, and seriously interesting, though.
Vietnamese water puppet theater — more engaging than I had expected.
[Typing on this device is killing me — I’m heading out into the fragrant tropical night for a cigarette.]