Monsoon season

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D
ownpours at the start of the rainy season are routine, appearing and departing like the clicks of a clock ticking time. At three, the sky turns moody and darkens. At four, a downpour. By six, all is clear and the diesel thick air gets washed, the clouds hang, dripping pastel prettiness, just in time for visitors to take to sky bars and watch the sun dip into the horizon.

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Em Chua 18: Some thoughts on the most successful film in Vietnam

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“All Americans are sluts”, said my friend Vu.

“Wait… What?” I exclaimed, assuming this was just misspoken English on Vu’s part, though he is fluent in the language.

“Yeah, Americans are all sluts, man. That’s what most Vietnamese locals think just from watching Hollywood films and shows.”

The group of male friends, all Viet Kieus and Americans, nodded their agreement. Vu was the only local in the group, and he had our attention:

“Everyone is sleeping with everyone else. Different kinds of people all sleeping with each other in different ways. We think Americans are all slutty.”

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No Colours of Green Fields: Inside the caves of Phong Nha

Part 1 of the trip is here: Through Caverns Measureless to Man

…through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o’er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colours of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams.

  • from The Prelude, by William Wordswoth

Wordsworth saw mountains as reminders of the divine, links for the human mind to the heavens, fearsome conduits. These “huge and mighty forms” loomed over and overwhelmed his childhood self, troubling his dreams, but they also cracked open his childhood imagination, expanding his interiority just as water flows through limestone to form grand spaces. The Romantics were drawn to mountains, seeing them as the fearsome sublime, beings that remind us of our small existence in a gargantuan world.

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Through Caverns Measureless to Man: Exploring Quang Binh Province

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n Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure dome decree
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Awakening from an unrestful sleep, perturbed by an ever roaming mind and a good hit of opium, Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote these lines in a rush of creative inspiration. He may have been dreaming of Vietnam’s Quang Binh province when he wrote them.

Certainly for me, the landscape and geology of Quang Binh province have come closest to the natural realization of the romantic chasms and caves of ice in “Kubla Khan”. The area is a dense jungle in shades of green, with tall vine-entwined trees and dense foliage forming a thick canopy that conceals hundreds of caverns and the streams and rivers that course through them.  Continue reading

The Short Happy Lives of Saigon’s Creative Spaces

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I

like to visit 3A Station in the late afternoons, when visitors come to browse its galleries and shops, or take photos next to its graffiti covered walls. The exteriors of old colonial warehouses that used to be here are kept intact, extending to form colourful alleyways.  Small trees, industrial art, and painted walls refract the late afternoon light; on most afternoons, a breeze blows directly from the river and cools the alleyway. A bar at the alley’s end, The Great Hornbill, plays soft dixieland jazz or classic 80s tunes from a lone speaker running into the centre of the makeshift square. A gentle, affecting pace contrast the alleyway with the din of Nguyen Van Cu, the busy avenue that leads into it, offering respite from the ubiquitous construction noise that typify the new Saigon.

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The changing lives of Saigon’s sidewalks

W
hen he first visited Saigon in the late 1940s, the writer Norman Lewis made this observation of the sidewalk life he saw here, after a short amble through the city:

“It was clear from the first moment of picking my way through these crowded, torrid streets that the lives of the people of the far East are lived in public… The street is the extension of the house and there is no sharp dividing line between the two. At dawn, or, in the case of Saigon, at the hour when the curfew is lifted, people roll out of bed and make for the pavement, where there is more space to perform most of their toilet. Thereafter they eat, play cards, doze, wash themselves, have their teeth seen to, are cupped and massaged by physicians, visit fortune-tellers; all in the street” (Lewis, 22)

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A motorbike ride to Vung Tau

Halfway on the road from Ho Chi Minh to Vung Tau you turn from highway 51 onto Hoang Sa road, and the land opens up on both sides. You come upon salt marshes, with their mixture of sky, island clusters, waterways, briny sea and pungent drafts of dried fish. Views here are expansive: tufted grass, mangrove clumps, an occasional boat docked next to makeshift homes, become dots upon a larger canvas of sky and marsh water.

It took two hours to get you here on motorbike. Two hours splitting the road with careless cars, packed buses, delivery trucks loaded twice their heights with wood, metal shutters, construction sand and pebbles that bounce out their useless tarp covering and pelt you and motorbike the entire way there.

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A tour of Saigon’s pagodas, and my mother’s year of living in one

O
n a warm, humid Saturday in February, two American friends and I drove our motorbikes west of the city to visit some Buddhist and Taoist temples in Cho Lon. Cho Lon, or “big market” in Vietnamese, is Ho Chi Minh city’s massive Chinatown, noted as possibly the largest Chinatown in the world, in fact, and has been here for as long as the main section of the city has been. Even before the French made of this slice of Vietnam its Cochinchina, building up Saigon’s most emblematic buildings, Cho Lon was already a separate Chinese township, its homes packed together like any dense section of Hong Kong, existing in its own particular sphere of culture and housing the many immigrants from China living, trading, and setting down roots here.

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Where I live in district 4

L

ong known as the poorer, more dangerous sibling of district 1, district 4 in recent years has been shedding its reputation as repository for thieves, pickpockets, and gangsters of the city, or as a thoroughfare between its more prosperous neighbours, D1 and D7. Now, it has picked up noted prestige as a place to go for the best street foods, to shop in busy markets, a location to find every imaginable necessity sold cheaply and in bulk. District 4 is more true to Saigon’s old pace of living than D1, and its profusion of pastel painted, closely packed low rises reminds visitors of a different city and time, even as high rise behemoths and razed plots of tufted grass and gravel demarcating future apartment complexes appear ever more frequently.

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