Archive for February 17th, 2007

Visions of Vietnam

This is not a post about war. Despite that, it is undeniable that for many the imagery of Vietnam’s bloody conflict is inextricably linked to the country’s name, as demonstrated by the ease of relating the current situation in Iraq to a war that ended more than 30 years ago.

This one-dimensional vision of Vietnam did not begin to shift in my own mind until about four years ago, when I read the book Dumb Luck, by Vu Trong Phung, for a Southeast Asian history class. The novel, which was first published in 1936 and then banned until the late 80s, focuses on the period of French colonization in what was then Indochina. The book’s language is sarcastic and bitter, poking at the bizarre underbelly of cultural imperialism.

Phung’s writing flushed color and history into what had been and inanimate image of a war-torn country. My own experiences with Vietnamese-American friends who’ve told me stories about their visits to the birthplace of their parents have further detailed my mental picture.

Today, Jennifer Conlin tells a similar story of having her vague images of Vietnam burst with the richness and life she experiences firsthand in Hanoi, in The New York Times:

TO find the Mai Gallery in Hanoi, you must first walk down the bustling avenue of Le Thanh Tong, a street filled with flower stalls, neighborhood shops, sidewalk cafes and the ubiquitous roar of hundreds of motorbikes streaming in the direction of the century-old opera house. As you turn down Phan Huy Chu, one of a maze of narrow alleys in the Old Quarter, the throngs of teenagers leaning against parked mopeds with their cellphones cupped to their ears quickly disappear. Instead, squatting on the sidewalk stirring steaming pots of soup laced with noodles, pork and cilantro, are elderly women, their faces hidden under traditional farm-field conical hats, chatting among themselves as they give you a quick, inquisitive glance. [full article]

The article mainly focuses on Hanoi’s apparently booming art scene, with colorful and vivid pictures to accompany. More brush strokes to fill in the empty painting I have in my head, until I can visit myself …

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