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August 08, 2022

Saigon 2: The Quiet Irish Man

By Phillip Donnelly

On Trinities,
Luxuries and
The Vegetable Market

"In a higher phase of communist society, after the enslaving subordination of the individual to the division of labour; after labour has become not only a means of life but life's prime want; after all the springs of co-operative wealth flow more abundantly -- only then society inscribe on its banners: From each according to his ability, to each according to his needs."
Karl Marx, (1875)

And they sold their possessions and goods and distributed them to all, according as anyone had need.
New Testament, Acts 2:45

You don't hear so much from Marx and Engels anymore, and even the New Testament isn't as new as it used to be. The world is in a state of flux, old philosophies are disintegrating and we are cursed to live in interesting times; in the age of the individual, who takes according to his abilities.

I too was at a crossroads. I had learned to cross the Rubicon of the Saigon Street, but where did I want to go? The future was uncertain.

To delay the decision, we took an aseptic refuge in one of those nowhere lands that Starbucks have branded, 'The Third Place'. How infatuated the human mind is by trinities and how humdrum modern trinities have become. Where once we laboured under the eternal mysteries of The Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost, we now have little more than work, home and café.

And what could it mean that we prefer The Third Place to be uniform? Starbuck's, Coffee Bean and Java are only three variations on a theme. If it wasn't for the logos, it would be hard to tell them apart. The human mind -- a trinity of the limbic system, the cerebrum and the cerebellum -- has not evolved since the birth of our species and so the needs it seeks to satisfy must also have remained the same, at their most basic level. The technology has changed and the artificial environments we create have altered beyond any caveman's recognition, but the core needs have not. Is today's Third Place a substitute for the church, I wonder -- a shameless shamanless holy place? Or is it, as Oldenberg suggests, merely a commercial variant of the community building; but a poor substitute, since it is not free and there is little social interaction outside of one's own clique? More and more teleworkers have also come to inhabit these Third Places, spending their day in the company of other human beings but never actually communicating with any of them, wrapped in the cold embrace of their virtual network. As I said before, society is in a state of flux and our primordial needs are being satisfied in different ways.

And what of the reader's need for narrative?

Our Third Place was called Highlands. It's a Vietnamese coffee chain with more than a passing resemblance to Starbuck's, but one chain is very much like another. But there were some Vietnamese touches -- primarily a lack of concern for hygiene. My coffee mug had lipstick stains on the outside because it had not been washed properly, there was a used condom packet on the windowsill beside me (the mind boggles!) and hundreds of mosquitoes were calling Highlands home -- so many that they must have been breeding in some in-situ stagnant water.

I tried and failed not to focus on all this, but with a supreme effort of will, I managed to turn my head, adjust my pupils and look outside the window.

The cafe overlooked Ben Thanh Square, dominated by the figure of General Tran Nguyen Han, a mounted celebration of Le Loi's expulsion of the Chinese in 1428. I stared at him: a mounted warrior stranded in the middle of a busy roundabout; a statue on a horse, raised on a plinth, the great general. Every city has these statues, these mounted generals; and when you find a universal, look for the universal need behind it -- the need for the larger-than-life hero.

Other needs are more primitive, such as the mosquito's need for my own blood and my primitive determination to deprive them of it, even though I had plenty to spare. We beat a hasty retreat, puzzling one final time over the used-condom wrapper, and returned to the heat and humidity of a Saigon day.

We decided to skip the Ben Thanh Market. I've never been to a market yet that didn't want me want to run from it, kicking and screaming, pleading for sanctuary.

Markets bring out the autistic in me, and even small ones, such as the one in the tiny town where I lived, Do Son, left my breathing shallow and confused, with tiny twitches making my cheeks quiver. Brought up in an environment of sanitized supermarkets, where cleanliness is godliness, I find the markets in Vietnam to be filthy, wretched holes; insights into one or more of the seven rings of Hell. Forgive my directness, but we are all prisoners of our upbringings, our sense of propriety conditioned before we reach double figures, and this is the repulsion that markets inspire in me; this is the visceral sense of disgust they command. All of them seem to be begging to be bleached and scrubbed; to be spayed and sprayed. Cleansed.

But in Do Son, a town without so much as a mini-market, let alone a supermarket, I had two choices: I could either learn to shop at the local market or survive on six months of biscuit rations. The devil and the deep blue sea looked on and bid me make my choice.

The restaurants, you see, of which there were many for Do Son is a tourist town, dealt almost exclusively in seafood, and even before I became a vegetarian, I could not bear to eat anything that looked like a monster. If it's wrapped in a shell and looks like snot, then I'm not going to eat it!

So I had to adapt. I had to desensitize myself to my irrational fears, as the behaviourists would put it, and learn the ways of the market, to mire myself in the morass. By the fifth month, I was almost immune to the horror of it all and I no longer felt the need to hold my breath and close my eyes whenever I went shopping, which is just as well, because it's difficult to haggle in such circumstances.

'The hand of little employment hath the daintier sense' and I was now an old hand. I had become a market veteran, a Mark Vet, with tales of derring-do the likes of which would grey men's hair and harden the nipples of all and sundry.

But I still averted my eyes from the hens and roosters, encaged and confused, waiting for the final chop; and the crabs and lobsters, bound and belligerent, waiting to be carried off alive for the instant death of boiling water.

But all food is death and all animals, even vegetarians, can only prolong their life by bringing death to other organisms. We cannot photosynthesize: we must be predators. It is our biological imperative. We feed on others to feed ourselves. We are walking talking maggots all; and so, who am I, your word maggot, to bad mouth the traditional market? What do I fear in that raucous, metal-roofed centre of commerce?

What we all fear from the moment of birth: death. In the market, death stares you in the face, claws and all; in the market, you buy death; you buy all the filth that is the fungus of the soiled earth on which we feed. In contrast, in the piped and perfumed air of the sanitized world of the supermarket, we are fed the delusion that life is something other than vulgar; something more than brutish, ugly and short. As hospitals hide death, so supermarkets hide the realities of life. No such deception is practised in the Vietnamese market.

But I was on holiday and had no wish to return to the Horrors of the Market. Instead we headed to the the Fine Arts Museum.

Fine Arts Museum, Ho Chi Minh City

Housed in a poetically crumbling French villa, the Fine Arts Museum has an impressive selection of Communist Art, but unfortunately this section of the museum was temporarily closed, and the rest of its selection is so non-descript that as I write, a couple of months after visiting it, I find it difficult to remember any of the paintings or sculptures. Our photos too also dwell on the beauty of the architecture rather than the exhibits themselves.

I made do with memories of Hanoi's Fine Art Museum, housed in another immaculate mansion near the Temple of Literature. While one of the two museums is filled with bits of pots and other earthenware exhibits that bring out the yawning philistine in me, the other building contains some 'war art', for want of a better term, that impressed me greatly. There are also good examples of impressionism and every other style you can think of, such as the sublime 'Portrait of Little Thuy' by Tran Van Can, but it is the Socialist Realism that I remember.

Communist Art receives a very bad press, but there is an attempt to focus on the heroism of the masses that is lacking in the art of the bourgeois or the art of the church and the aristocracy that preceded it. In the Prolekult, the extras become the focal point, the background the foreground. It is not social realism, which shows the masses as they actually are, but an idealised depiction of what they might become.

I wandered among the muscle-bound torsos and the jutting chins of soviet man; I gazed into the bright eyes of the factory worker, the peasant and the soldier, all working together to build the utopia; I saw their vision and I sighed for the demise of socialism.

I sighed again, on leaving the museum and walking along the riverfront. Rivers show humanity at their worst, or rather they carry the worst of humanity, bearing our poisons seaward for marine burial. What has the sea ever done to us that we treat it so?

All of the filth of our species resides in the once-clean water: effluent, the rotting remains of fish guts, industrial pollutants -- they are all borne by the Saigon River; and in its distemper, it releases pestilent vapours to remind us that 'thus doest thou'.

As I walked along its banks, overflowing with plastics and other hand-jettisoned waste, smiling over-friendly strangers asked who I was, where I hailed from and where I was heading. I was tempted to tell them that I am a Dong with a Luminous Nose and that I hailed from the land of the Jimlies. If they enquired further, I could have retorted, with metered rhyme and port contorted:

"Far and few, far and few,
Are the lands where the Jumblies live;
Their heads are green, and their hands are blue,
And they went to sea in a Sieve."

Alas I did no such thing, since to begin a conversation with these travelling salesmen would be to invite a long and tedious correspondence, in which wares of all types and descriptions would be proffered: guides, taxis, drivers; day trips, night trips, scrivers; restaurants, food halls, dolphin divers; massages, passages, and girls and boys and all things in-between. If you seek the death of a salesman, then just say 'no!'

No, no, no -- a thousand times no! No!

"A small man can be just as exhausted as a great man," warns Arthur Miller; and the malodorous river, the oppressive heat and the rumbling hunger in my belly meant that the more basic needs in Maslow's Hierarchy were reestablishing themselves. This small man was exhausted and in need of succour and sustenance.

I was also in need of luxury, or rather in want of it, since no-one needs luxury. Vietnam is a relatively inexpensive place to travel, so our financial resources were far from exhausted, even though the trip was nearly over, so we decided to splurge.

And there is no better place to splurge in Vietnam than Saigon. Designer labels are de rigueur for the elite and there are more five-star hotels than should be allowed. I had intended to frequent The Continental, in search of The Quiet American, but the heat was affecting my memory and I misremembered the Park Hyatt as being the locus in quo and we walked towards it, up Hai Ba Trung.

Inside every earnest traveller there is a Whicker trying to get out. Alan Whicker, I should explain, was the host of a travel programme that ran for thirty years in Britain. Although there was some insightful journalism and some classic episodes, my memories of the series were of Alan Whicker living the high life in the world's most expensive locales, hob-nobbing with the most hob-nobbable nobs around. When I say there is a little Alan Whicker in all of us, I mean there is a desire to see how the other half live, or rather how the top percentile live; the movers and shakers, the fat cats; the oppressors of the proletariat; the people who know what all the different knives and forks are for.

Dressed in an inappropriately scruffy T-shirt and a dusty pair of trainers, I entered the hotel lobby, a sniffer hound in search of the blood of wealth. The long walk had left my T-Shirt heady with sweat and my forehead was dimpled in perspiration, reflecting a slick oily silver luminescence under the chandelier. In short, I looked like a dirty scruffbag.

My wife, who notices such things, suggested we adjourn first to the air-conditioned bar to our left before dining, and there we let the moisture of our bodies dissipate in the cool dry air.

We chose a restaurant called 'Opera' and our ill-kempt appearance did raise the eyebrow of one or two of the well-heeled diners. However, we were adorned in white skin and this alone proved sufficient to furnish admission. Had we been dressed as we were and covered in a Vietnamese skin, we would not have got beyond the antiquated dress of the doormen.

Once seated, the staff introduced themselves in immaculate English and delivered brief eulogies on the pleasures of dead flesh, that is to say, the specials of the day, but on being informed of our vegetarian lifestyle choice, they left us to the peace of a la carte.

We dined on mediocre pasta dishes and topped them up with delicious breads. We marveled at the size of the plates and the smallness of the dishes. We discussed the obsessive attention to the details of presentation and the blasé indifference to content and taste. We drank a glass of wine as slowly as possible.

Ever the faithful correspondent, I tried to eavesdrop on nearby conversations, but they were either in languages I did not speak or inaudible, so I cannot report what the elite discuss at table.

If there was a Quiet American in the vicinity, I did not hear him, but if he had been looking in my direction when the bill came, he would have my face grown purple and heard faint gurgles and gasping.

One hundred and twenty dollars were prized from my wallet; and with a shaking hand, I folded the crestfallen toothless thing and returned it to my trouser pocket. I then left the House of Hyatt with the sobering thought that to make this quantity of money, a Vietnamese rice farmer would have had to labour for four months.

In the Socialist Utopia, or the Christian one for that matter, in which there is common ownership of goods and they are distributed according to need, then there can be no Whicker's World. A meal that costs the sweat of a hundred and twenty day's labour is an abomination to humanity and an affront to God.

And yet I knew this before the meal, and during it, and after it; and still I ate, straddling the fence of conscience; knowing what I did to be wrong but doing it nonetheless; a willful sinner who debates the very existence of sin.

How long can one dabble in excess before corruption sets in?

"Sooner or later, Mr. Fowler, one has to take sides, if one is to remain human."

And what side was I on? Was I exploiter or exploited? Was I, like Mr. Fowler, playing the role of reporter on life so as to be able to avoid committing to it?

Article © Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.
Published on 2011-03-07
Image(s) © Phillip Donnelly. All rights reserved.
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