Travels in Hyperreality
The Vietnamese have a wicked sense of humor. But before I get to that, you have to see some images of Da Lat's Crazy House:
We actually stayed here, trying to warm our clothes from the eagle's egg in room #4. As you can see, the fire was flimsy and went out quickly, and the effort to dry out the effect of nine hours in the rain looking at farming practices in Da Lat was largely wasted.
Except for this guy. When not showing us how mushrooms were grown, he told us that he had fought for the South Vietnamese Republican Army. "Because I lost, I had to be a farmer," he said. When a North Vietnamese General went by at lunch he looked at me and said in a stage whisper: "VC! VC!" Like I said, a wicked sense of humor.
For the Da Lat Crazy House, you have to imagine living inside a Bosch Painting. Actually, you don't have to imagine it:
I have more but I'll spare you. No I won't - I spent two nights there so you may as well see the Octopus Garden, where we had breakfast. It has a shark on the floor and a giant frog serving drinks.
Got nightmares yet? Vietnam is full of these wacky places. You go to a pagoda and someone has left a ChocoPie for the dead.
You go to Da Nang and there is a giant dragon breathing an actual fireball at 9 p.m. on Saturday.
As you can see, everyone turns out to watch. At China Beach, where gunships patrolled after the Tet Offensive, there is a comic book sign saying "Da Nang" and a sampan.
This I think is deliberate, an erasing of an authentic and painful history through the embrace of the inauthentic. Baudrillard would call it a simulacrum. I actually found one of Roland Barthes's super-symbols, the Citroen DS, hanging out on in a Da Nang Hotel. For Roland Barthes, the DS (déesse) fell from heaven, a superlative sign from a world above us:
But what do you do with something like this?
This is the Ba Na Hills. Come on now, I want to say, you beat these guys. There's no need to go all French colonial on me. There is something deliciously inauthentic about a wedding picture in front of a fake Notre Dame on the top of a French hillside town outside of Da Nang:
The Vietnamese love this place. It costs 750.000VND, which is 150 bus fares. There is a Beer Plaza that plays incessant polkas next to a mockup of the Trevi Fountain. The Golden Bridge, a new addition to the excrescence that is the Ba Na Hills, is the most instragrammed site in Vietnam:
"Wow," I said to the lady next to me. "This place is hideous." We had met going up on the cable car - she said "Oh, I think it's a beautiful message." And it is. Whether the statue's hands are offering security or displaying the world, the message is a peaceful one. But the fake 3-D printed stone, not so much. We live, the Vietnamese would say, in a world of authentic inauthenticity.
Here is Da Lat, another hillside town, which everyone compares with Paris:
There is a railway here that was built by the French. The name of the railway is nearly impossible to say in any language: La Crémaillère. It goes literally nowhere, and is the favorite photo spot for lovers, who sit on the tracks and take selfies.
It was bombed by the Americans during the period that the Vietnamese rightly call the "American colonization":
The last railway car is preserved, having been built by the French, destroyed by the Americans, and preserved by the Vietnamese:
My fellow Joycean Vincent Cheng has written about this, in Inauthentic: The Anxiety over Culture and Identity (2004). He asks whether the authentic is even desirable, in an exploding world of signs. In a country that seems to suffering from the collective PTSD of colonization by the Chinese, the French, the Japanese, and the Americans, not necessarily in that order, why do we need the real? Why not just surrender to the impulse to turn life into one great glorious fashion shoot?
Umberto Eco said much the same thing: does a site as overdetermined as New Orleans require a connection to reality?
Well, I found something real. Something authentic. It was in Can Tho, on a dinner cruise up the Mekong River.
I had been forced to order from a menu I didn't understand, and Google Translate had given me French fries in tamarind sauce. Still hungry after an hour, I ordered the next thing down and it turned out to be a catfish (here is a picture of one from an earlier meal).
The man next to me, taking his family out, raised his beer glass to me sympathetically. We clinked mournfully, and I went back to my catfish.
The boat was full of people, and I was the only Westerner there. Three beers cooled by giant cylinders of ice hadn't improved matters. In a flash of insight, I motioned to the lady serving Imperial Blue Whiskey to the table to my left. Perhaps I could offer this man (you can see him hunched over in a gray shirt), who seemed to be about my age, with his wife and daughter and grandchildren, a round of drinks. The lady in the dress serving the drinks ignored me, but I finally got a waiter to work out what I wanted. A bottle of whiskey and five shot glasses. The whiskey came, I poured the shots, and gestured to the family beside me to join me. They did, to great hilarity. "Mot Hai Ba" we shouted - "1, 2, 3" and down the hatch.
Another shot and my new companion waved his car keys at me, indicating that he had to drive his family home. We had another one anyway. I don't have a picture of him, sadly, just of his hand, and of his daughter and his wife. When the dinner, such as it was, was over, I stood up to shake his hand. He embraced me and said something unexpected: "I hope that we will meet again." And whether it was the effect of the Tiger Beers, the long day up and down the Mekong, the Imperial Blue, or the Vietnamese music crooned from the microphones as the sun went down over the Can Tho Bridge, I choked up. When would I ever meet this man again? I had felt his spine, had held him tight, had met someone in a way I never would again. This man had seen horrors. He had grown up in a landscape of loss and death. Can Tho was the last place to give in to the North Vietnamese, even after Saigon. It is now home to the Cham, the Khmer, several Viet minority people (there are 56 of them, all with different languages), those who escaped the colonization efforts of the French, the Japanese, and the Americans. The Delta is mentioned as part of the ancient Chinese kingdom of Funan. It is home to Muslims converted by Malay traders, Cao Daists, Buddhists, and Catholics. And the one thing that brings them all together, that keeps the area to the North of Can Tho in a harmonic convergence, is the river.
So there is something authentic about Vietnam after all. There is a sense of community here, of a shared space, that is deeply real. Hyperreality is for the tourists.