Vietnam: Embracing seductive Saigon’s ‘time zones’



Embracing seductive Saigon’s ‘time zones’

Andrew Lam
Embracing seductive Saigon's 'time zones'

Ti Gong

Vietnamese American writer Andrew Lam at a dinner party with friends.

When I was 11 years old, I fled what was then Saigon, in Vietnam, with my family for America at the end of the Vietnam war.

Forty-four years later, I found myself moving back to the city now known as Ho Chi Minh City.

I discovered that I live in many different time zones all at once.

In the present: an energetic city where making money is the main preoccupation. I see it outside my very window. High-rises line the river, gleaming during the day and lit up at night with the promise of a prosperous future. You can also hear it, day and night, the din of construction and the roar of traffic.

If I once thought of Vietnam as backwards and America as modern, I now need to think of a new modern world versus an aging modern world.

In the coffee shop where I go in the morning to write, I spend quite a bit of time eavesdropping. The phrase — mot ty — is mentioned the most. It means one billion dong — or around US$42,000.

It is often used to describe prices of real estate, as in “that property is worth about 70 billion and you need to get it before it goes up in price.”

Most conversations somehow one way or another have to do with money, and money usually involves real estate dealings.

“Let me tell you how to get him to sell. I’ll get my company to back you,” is a sentence I wrote down after hearing someone saying it rather loudly at the next table.

I bask in this excitement. It’s an energy that is seductive and admittedly contagious. I watch with awe as the wealthy spend their money with such abandon at high-end nightclubs and restaurants.

Up the street from where I live, a shopping mall recently opened. It sells Lamborghini and Rolls Royce at its posh entrance. Always there are people taking selfies with the sparkly cars in the background.

Yet some nights strolling the darker alleys I am reminded that so many people are still mired in humiliating poverty — the hunched backs, the tattered clothes, the skin and bone bodies, squatters with cigarettes in mouth, a melancholic ballad on the radio.

Another time zone is the many memories I have of past Saigon, a sleepy town lost in time. Sometimes they arrive unexpectedly into the present.

A rush of memories

The other day on my way to a dinner party, my taxi drove past a building that I instantly recognized despite all the years.

“You came to this world at that hospital, in that room,” my mother had said many times whenever our car drove pass it during the war. There on that second floor, that room with its wooden shutters always wide open, I came to this world.

That moment in the taxi was odd — the past and the present intertwined. Old Saigon superimposed itself on New Saigon, and a rush of various memories of a tropical childhood overwhelmed and made me slightly breathless.

Vietnam is highly mobile now. The country is booming. It’s both a manufacturing hub and a hot tourist destination. And as it opens its doors wider many foreigners are making it their home, among them Viet Kieu — Vietnamese who live abroad.

Many have done well, too, investing and opening businesses, especially those who set up years earlier. To them I am a relative newcomer, and as such there is a lot of advice. Chief among them is: “Try your best not to live in the past.”

Easier said than done, of course.

Like many Viet Kieu, we are cursed with superimposed memories of this city. Sometimes we dwell on them.

The names of streets that have changed, which colonial buildings came down to be replaced by a high-rise, which restaurants once served the best pho during the war, which stalled the best Banh Mi, the dramatic evacuation at the end of the war, the bombs, the corpses.

The past can be a trap, a Vietnamese American friend who came back earlier admits.

The burden of memories keeps him from moving forward, from seeing and doing new things.

“I’m tired of the Vietnam story,” he told me over dinner one evening.

“Me too,” I said. Then we continued to talk about Vietnam.

Thus the future tense.

I carry memories of losses and exile — my childhood in old Saigon in wartime, my abrupt departure. I wear them all like a scar, or a medal.

But I am quite aware that I am also bringing the larger world back to my birthplace. Mine is after all a complicated sense of home.

Given that the bulk of my life was spent in America, writing in my third language (after Vietnamese and French), home is rooted in a sense of plurality.

And if there’s one set of self knowledge of which I am certain of after all these years, it is this: There is no such thing as coming home for those of us who were once exiled.

There is, however, something else the returnee can do — build a new one from scratch.

Diverse, pluralistic, complex is what Saigon has become. A “multi-verse.” A city of multi-ethnic enclaves. A city of immigrants. And a city full of returning Vietnamese. And it is full of young people, eager to surge ahead. Saigon is therefore both forgetful yet secretly longing for its history.

Growing more complex

In truth her nature has always been feminine and individualistic. Her power is alchemy. She turns foreign ideas into local fare.

She seduces stern conquerors and over time turns them into businessmen and epicureans with savior-faire. She takes in their ideology and idolatry, gives them back a tad of hedonism.

Standing in contrast to the public narrative of itself — the male version of events — are the stories of desires and ambition — thirst for knowledge, yearning to travel, wanting to better one’s self, dreaming of owning a house, working toward sending one’s child to study abroad, a kind of American dream.

Such as it is, Saigon, growing ever more complex, is in desperate need of a new framework.

That is my guidepost, my re-entrance. A professor at a college here recently asked me to give a talk about the history of the Vietnamese people in America. Another teacher at an international school asked me to teach a writing workshop to her students.

“Tell them how to think outside of the box,” she said.

A cafe owner who organizes talks invited me to read from my work. I tell listeners of my American life, my adventures abroad. I show images of myself as a child in this self-same city. I share my discoveries of the self. That it is multi-layer, and not etched in stone. Slowly, it feels that I am of use here.

Soon, I will make my pilgrimage. I will enter my old school. I will walk around the old courtyard, finding shade under the tamarind trees, and listen to echoes of my childhood.

I will stand in front of the old house, too, which have yet to visit, and in whose verandas I once read my books and whiled away the hot afternoons, my three dogs at my feet. I will mourn what’s lost and gone.

I will incorporate all this into a new story.

I will try to build bridges of all these fragments, across time zones and languages.

I will try my best to not recreate nor stay mired in the past. Instead, I will marry the tenses as if they are bricks and mortars and build a new home here.

China challenged Australian warships in South China Sea, reports say



China challenged Australian warships in South China Sea, reports say

Royal Australian Navy frigate HMAS Toowoomba docked at Saigon port in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, on April 19.

(CNN)Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull asserted the right of the Australian navy to travel the South China Sea, after local media reported three Australian warships were challenged by the Chinese navy earlier this month.

As the three vessels traversed the hotly contested waters on their way to Vietnam, they were confronted by the People’s Liberation Army (PLA) navy, the Australian Broadcasting Corporation reported on Friday.
The ABC said that one Australian defense official, speaking on condition of anonymity, “insists the exchanges with the Chinese were polite, but ‘robust’.”
Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, in London for a meeting of the heads of Commonwealth nations, refused to confirm or deny the report.
“All I can say to you is that Australia asserts and practices its right to freedom of navigation throughout the world’s ocean, including the South China Sea,” he told reporters.
In a statement to CNN, the Australian Defense Department acknowledged the three vessels were in the South China Sea in recent weeks but wouldn’t comment on “operational details” on the ships.
“The Australian Defense Force has maintained a robust program of international engagement with countries in and around the South China Sea for decades,” the statement said. CNN has reached out to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs for comment.
The Australian ships are now conducting a three-day goodwill visit in Ho Chi Minh City in Vietnam.
While Australian air force jets have been challenged by the Chinese in the past, this was the first time, Carl Thayer told CNN, that he’d heard of any reports of navy vessels being confronted.
“That doesn’t mean it hasn’t occurred … (But) the challenge is political, it’s intimidatory and if you don’t counter challenge then China can make the argument that the international community has acceded to China’s claims,” said Thayer, regional security analyst and emeritus professor at the University of New South Wales.

Australia, China relations in deep chill

The reported confrontation comes at a moment of frosty relations between Beijing and Canberra. Turnbull admitted to the diplomatic chill on April 12.
“There has been a degree of tension in the relationship which has arisen because of criticism in China of our foreign interference laws,” he told local radio station 3AW at the time.
His remarks followed reports in local media that Australian ministers had been denied visas that would have allowed them to attend China’s signature Boao Forum in Hainan province.
The Chinese government has objected strongly to a new set of laws being considered by Australia to tackle interference by foreign nations in their politics.
Although Turnbull stressed that those laws weren’t targeted at any one country, the legislation came after a series of scandals over large donations to Australian politicians by Chinese businessmen.
“I would like to stress hereby again that we hope the Australian side will abandon the cold-war mentality and ideological bias, stop making irresponsible remarks and work with China,” Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Geng Shuang said in February.

China tightens hold on volatile region

The South China Sea is one of the most hotly contested regions in the world. China claims a huge swathe of territory across the sea, overlapping the claims of Vietnam and the Philippines, among others.
Only last week the Chinese navy held its largest ever drills in the South China Sea, including a huge military parade overseen by Chinese President Xi Jinping.
China’s only aircraft carrier the Liaoning took part in the display, launching J-15 fighter jets from the enormous ship’s flight deck.
Speaking from the PLA destroyer Changsha, Xi called for further modernization of China’s military to further his goal of creating a “world-class” force under the Communist Party’s leadership.
To reinforce their claims in the region, China has constructed and militarized a series of artificial islands across the South China Sea, building airfields and radar stations.
The United States regularly conducts Freedom of Navigation Operations close to China’s artificial bases. Last year, Arizona Senator John McCain suggested Australia’s Navy take part alongside the US in those exercises.
“I would not try to tell the Australians what they need to do, but there are exercises where a number of nations join together — we call it RIMPAC [Rim of the Pacific Exercise]— that the Australians participate in. They’re broad naval exercises,” he said during a visit to Australia.

Outrage In Vietnam Over United Airlines Treatment Of 69 yr Old Vietnamese Born Doctor


By Mai Nguyen | HANOI

Outrage spread to Vietnam on Wednesday over United Airlines’ handling of a passenger dragged from his seat after it emerged that the 69-year-old U.S. doctor was Vietnamese by birth.

Although United Airlines has no direct flights to Vietnam, there were widespread calls on social media for a boycott after video showed a bloodied David Dao being yanked out of the plane by airport security on Sunday to make way for United employees.

The ire in Vietnam grew quickly after it was reported that Dao’s origins were not in the Southeast Asian country’s old enemy, China, as many had at first assumed.

Vietnamese also fumed at allegations over Dao’s past reported in the United States as irrelevant and possibly racist.

“Watching this makes my blood boil, I’ll never fly United Airlines,” commented Anh Trang Khuya on Facebook, the most widely used social media platform in Vietnam.

Nguyen Khac Huy wrote: “Boycott United!!! This is excessive! Let’s be loving and united, Vietnamese people!”

There was no immediate comment from the government or in state media.

Video showing Dao being pulled from United Airlines Flight 3411 at Chicago O’Hare International Airport on Sunday went viral and the worldwide backlash hit the airline’s share price and prompted an apology from the company chief executive.

Kentucky’s medical board website shows that a doctor David Dao graduated in 1974 in Ho Chi Minh City – then known as Saigon and the capital of U.S.-backed South Vietnam before its defeat and the reunification of Vietnam under communist rule a year later.

Around that time, Dao left for the United States, according to U.S. media and Vietnamese websites.

Vietnamese media said that Dao was also a songwriter and crooner of soulful ballads – including one about the memory of rain falling in Saigon.

Reports in U.S. media of an offence that had led to Dao losing his medical license in 2003 were dismissed in Vietnam as a probable smear campaign.

“Dr. Dao didn’t do anything wrong on that flight and that’s the main thing,” wrote Clarence Dung Taylor in a post that had more than 4,000 likes.

The attitude to the case shifted dramatically in Vietnam once it was reported that Dao was not from China – an ancient enemy with which Vietnam continues to have a maritime dispute over the South China Sea.

When initial reports had suggested the man being dragged from the plane was Chinese, some Vietnamese had posted strongly unsympathetic comments about him.

“So funny,” wrote Bui Nguyen Trong Nghia. “Now they know he’s Vietnamese, most people stand up to advocate. Whether it’s Vietnamese or Chinese, there’ll be discrimination as we’re Asian.”

(Writing by Matthew Tostevin; Editing by Robert Birsel)