Posts Tagged With: prison

Don’t Miss Saigon

“Saigon” means “cotton trees”, possibly referring to the kapok that used to grow in the area. Now, of course, the official name is Ho Chi Minh City, or HCM, though the river that flows through it is still the Saigon River and people use the city’s two names interchangeably. By either name, it has 14 million people and looks like New York on motorbikes, only bigger. It’s a powerhouse of a city, the beating economic heart of Vietnam. Saigon’s GDP per capita is twice the national average, and its various industrial parks account for 25% of Vietnam’s entire GDP. This is not a city that you visit, it is a city that you plunge into.

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The view from our hotel balcony.  The spaceship-like building in the center is the tallest in Saigon.

We arrived at around 9:00 this morning after a short flight from Dalat and were immediately struck by the contrast with Hanoi. Saigon is very substantially and very obviously more modern, more Western-oriented, more orderly. (The drivers actually obey traffic signals here, at least most of the time, unlike everywhere else in the country.) Our hotel is right in the middle of District 1, the most upscale and busiest part of downtown; the streets around our hotel sport Dior, Louis Vuitton, and similar establishments.

But our first stop after arrival was a grim one, and of course a requirement for anyone coming to Saigon on an organized tour: the War Museum. (Technically, its name is the War Remnants Museum.) It is three stories of everything about the war, needless to say from the winner’s (i.e., Vietnamese) perspective.

Saigon IMG_9023-PanoYou might reasonably expect such a place to be a full-court propaganda press, but it’s much better than that, quite compelling and affecting. There is the required dose of propagandistic vocabulary and rhetoric — the North Vietnamese soldiers and Viet Cong are invariably “patriots” — but the displays for the most part let the facts speak for themselves: statistics on how many tons of bombs dropped, how many dead, and so forth, all copiously illustrated with photos and artifacts captioned in both Vietnamese and English. There is an entire room dedicated to the ravages of Agent Orange, particularly among children; I lasted about 10 seconds in there. There is a large gallery filled only with archival photos from well-known war photographers such as Robert Capa; there are many American weapons; and there is a gallery dedicated to documenting the American antiwar movement, including a lot of information about resistance among the American soldiers themselves. There is a replica of the infamous “tiger cages” where VC prisoners were held and tortured.

Saigon IMG_9038I was both impressed and moved. Unfortunately it all makes a very compelling case for how criminally stupid and cruel on a massive scale we as a nation behaved in that era.

More happily, the French influence on Saigon’s architecture is visible everywhere, and there are some very beautiful buildings. Among the more famous of these is the opera house and, unexpectedly, the Central Post Office. Here’s the former:

Saigon IMG_9060-Pano…and here’s the interior of the Post Office, which was built about 1890 and whose interior inexplicably resembles a train station (which it never was):

Saigon IMG_9048It’s a popular destination for visitors — people even get married there — so there’s a constant hubbub. You can see a souvenir marketplace in full swing in the foreground, with the actual post office counters at the back.

After a lunch of pho and some afternoon downtime at our hotel, punctuated by a ferocious thunderstorm and two-hour-long downpour, we went out to dinner and walked around the neighborhood with Phil. This included an amble through the conveniently located red light district, which is probably not part of OAT’s official itinerary. But it was well worth the diversion for its weird entertainment value. The area is a few square blocks, narrow streets full of restaurant and massage parlors with names like “Happy Spa”. The clientele is primarily visiting Japanese businessmen; there was quite a lot of Japanese signage. And the women were all clones, or so it seemed: every one had long straight hair, wore an ankle-length diaphanous dress in a monochromatic pastel shade, and sported voluminous pneumatic cleavage. At one point as we walked down a narrow back street, lit by Japanese lanterns fronting restaurants and “spas”, a phalanx of these women — at least 15 — came marching down toward and past us. It was like some shift change had happened and the clones were all going home, or maybe it was some kind of Macy’s parade, in either case displaying enough silicone to caulk every plumbing fixture in Vietnam. It was quite a sight, and I wish I could show you a photo of it, but taking a picture of them seemed like a really bad idea.

Tomorrow we head to the Mekong Delta, and after we return we are scheduled to have a Vespa tour of the city at night. That should be a blast, at least if it doesn’t rain. It will also add to our list of “non-standard forms of transportation” that we have used on this trip. So far that list includes, in no particular order:

  • Funicular tram
  • Cable car/ski lift
  • Car ferry
  • Motor scooter
  • Tractor
  • Junk
  • Rickshaw
  • Dragon boat
  • Golf cart

Tomorrow we should add “sampan” and “Vespa” to the inventory.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 2 Comments

Rickshaws, Wet Marionettes, and a Prison

Fun Fact, revealed to us this morning by our tour lead Phil: 49% of Vietnamese carry the surname “Nguyen”. It’s like “Smith”, “Jones”, “White”, “Brown”, and “Black” combined. The reason, as you might suppose, is historical rather than genetic: Nguyen was sort of the Kamehameha of Vietnam, a strong king who united the country and who was greatly admired both at the time and after, so much so that large swaths of the population adopted his name. He took power in 1802 in the city of Hue, which remained the capital until the end of World War II. Vietnamese autonomy lasted until 1857 when the French moved in and things got ugly. (The French, of course, hung in there for nearly a century until being driven out in 1954 after Dien Bien Phu.)

This genealogical wisdom having been imparted after breakfast, we set out on the day’s adventures. Yesterday I mentioned with just a soupçon of implied contempt about the tourists traveling around by rickshaw through Old Hanoi’s street market area as we ourselves explored it more virtuously on foot. I wrote that, of course, not knowing that this morning we would be those selfsame tourists, 15 of us in a slow-motion convoy of rickshaws, cameras clicking away. And that’s OK… we covered a lot more ground than we did yesterday. So here we are gearing up. 

…and here is the wagon train underway.

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The street scenes were much as they were yesterday, of course, so here are a few selected images. (They should appear on your screen as a slide show.)

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But the still images don’t really convey the sense of pervasive motion and noise. To help you along in that direction, here’s a one-minute video that I shot from the rickshaw:

Now you have a much better sense of what the streets of Hanoi look and sound like. (A more complete impression would require you to smell all the spices, foods, garbage, and everything else. But I can’t help you there.) The bad news is that rickshaws do not have a very promising future. There are something like 350 of them operating at present but the city is trying to cut that number by about 75% because it considers them both obsolete and hazardous. The “obsolete” part I get; but since they are being forced into near-extinction in part by the ubiquity of motor scooters — of which there are nearly one per person  — then to my mind someone has gotten his “hazardous” designations a little confused.

Our next stop was to the studio of Mr. Phan Thanh Liem, an internationally-famous craftsman and practitioner of a vanishing traditional Vietnamese art that I will admit right up front I had never heard of until now: water puppetry. (No, you idiot: you can’t make puppets out of water. You make puppets and operate them in the water.) Here is the 55-year old Liem — the seventh generation of his family immersed in the craft — in his puppet-making studio.

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The performance venue is a small indoor pool, a little bigger than a child’s backyard swimming pool. Liem and his assistant stand behind the backdrop, dressed in waders or even a wetsuit if needed (if performing outdoors on a cold day) and manipulate the puppets via attached rods that are held invisibly below the surface of the water.

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Notice that the water is reddish brown. That is by design, local red mud having been added to the basin water precisely for the purpose of rendering it opaque and thus concealing the control rods. The puppets move around, flail their arms, spritz water, and generally animate in various ways for dramatic effect as the puppeteers present various scenarios to music: a boat race, a fight, or pretty much anything that involves a lot of thrashing and splashing. Here are a pair of peacocks, the one on the left having just extended its neck.

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At the conclusion of the performance, Liem emerged to reveal both his assistant and the mechanism, and then we were allowed to play too. It’s harder than it looks: the puppets are heavy fig wood, so it takes a lot of torque to move them around in the water at the end of the meter-long rods. A puppet that is used regularly in performances only lasts about 5 months.

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Of course, what you really want to know is what the performance itself looks and sounds like. I’ve got you covered: here’s the video.

 

You will be unsurprised to hear that in the age of smartphones it is difficult to get young people (which at our age is almost everyone) excited about this. Liem has two teenage sons whom he is getting involved in the work, but it is unclear how many more generations will find enough of an audience to prevent the art from extinction.

We moved on after lunch to Hoa Lo Prison, best known by its war-era sobriquet: the Hanoi Hilton. (There is in fact an actual Hanoi Hilton as well, or more accurately a Hilton Garden Inn. The difference is that Hoa Lo never put mints on anyone’s pillow, and the Hilton staff are not in the habit of torturing their guests.)

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The original main gate of Hoa Lo

Hoa Lo is of course best known for its 1964-1973 wartime role, but its actual history goes back a lot further, and no less grimly. It was built by the French around 1890 at the height of their colonial subjugation of the region; called Maison Centrale, it was intended to house up to 500 political prisoners, i.e. anyone advocating for independence. It was notoriously cruel even then, with banks of prisoners shackled together and two onsite guillotines.

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It never really shed its provenance as an instrument of political repression, housing a number of prominent independence revolutionaries in the 1930’s and 40’s. These included the wife of Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp, who scored some serious payback by later masterminding the battle of Dien Bien Phu that drove the French out of the country altogether.

The museum display, needless to say, makes much of the Communist victory over the Americans and the subsequent normalization of relations (though the latter took 25 years; full relations were only established under President Clinton in 2000). It is alas presented in cringingly stereotypical propagandistic terms, very 1970’s Soviet in its gestalt: “brave revolutionary patriots fighting imperialistic aggression,” etc. etc. Lots of photos of bombed villages juxtaposed with images of captured Americans being very humanely treated (medical exams, trimming a Christmas tree, writing letters home). A single sentence remarks baldly and with suspicious ambiguity that US captives were treated as well as circumstances allowed.

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I found this whole tone very unfortunate. Stripped of the propaganda tropes and self-congratulatory vocabulary, much of what they are saying about America’s behavior toward them is true. We as a country were phenomenally, incomprehensibly cruel and stupid to no useful end whatsoever. (Good thing we don’t act like that any more, right? RIGHT? <throws smoke bomb and runs from room>) But having been ceded the high moral ground by our own hubristic foolishness, they kind of throw it all away by denying any and all of their own human shortcomings (e.g., torturing American captives). It seems not to be enough to paint themselves as the good guys, which in many senses they were; they seem so insecure in the role that they deny anything short of moral perfection for themselves (which they most emphatically were not). In that sense the museum seemed to me like a lost opportunity for an honest dialogue. I left the place dissatisfied.

But I guess all those years of comradeliness with the Russians gave the Vietnamese government a propaganda habit that’s hard to break. En route to dinner tonight, we were distracted by an unexpected multimedia event in a city square: an over-the-top schmaltzy song-and-dance, sound-and-light show exalting Ho Chi Minh, the city of Hanoi itself, and, judging from the images projected on gigantic screens, elaborate highway overpasses and construction equipment. Singers and lithe dancers emoted all over the stage at high volume as the fog machines cranked out the ethereal mist; hammers and sickles waved. It was utterly surreal, like some satire of a holiday celebration in the old USSR commemorating increased production of tractor parts by more than 30% over the most recent Five Year Plan.20190919_181937

They call the economic system here “Red Capitalism” and judging from the proliferation of gleeful consumerism that is taking hold here — we passed a Rolls Royce dealership today — that sounds like a pretty good term. But seeing the unabashed embrace of Westernism on the streets juxtaposed with this evening’s bizarre performance is still a little difficult to process.

So that was today. I’m off to bed now to get some rest for tomorrow’s activities. Those tractor parts aren’t gonna weld themselves, you know.

Categories: Vietnam | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Venice Day 2: Doge Day Afternoon

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The fearsome, delicious mantis shrimp

Well, we did not have a gondola ride last night after all. We were exhausted, and simply walked down to the waterfront (less than a block from our flat) and had a typically excellent Italian dinner at a seafood restaurant aptly called Pesado. I had — wait for it — mantis shrimp with pumpkin flowers over pasta. Mantis shrimp? You mean you’ve never heard of the deadly mantis shrimp? Well, I will have you know that if you are a small sea creature then the mantis shrimp is one of the meanest badasses around. About the size of a large crayfish, it sits and waits until you are within striking distance, then lashes out a barbed claw at a speed of 50 mph (23 m/s), accelerating at 100,000 g’s (!) to turn you into a kebab. I am not making this up.

Aren’t you glad you asked?

Anyway, given our state of exhaustion, the terrifying but tasty mantis shrimp was an entirely adequate substitute for a nighttime gondola ride (which we will try for again tomorrow), and so we spent our last remaining dregs of get-up-and-go walking along the edge of the Grand Canal taking some nighttime photos, e.g.:

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Venice is beautiful at any time of day and in any weather, which is fortunate since today’s weather was on the chilly, gloomy side with an occasional very light drizzle. But before I relate today’s events, I would first like to regale you with two pieces of Italian trivia:

  • 13 is not an unlucky number here, but 17 is. Alitalia has no 17th row on their airplanes, and people get all hinky because today is Friday the 17th. I have no idea why this is so. (No one really knows either why Friday the 13th is considered unlucky elsewhere; the superstition is only about 150 years old and contrary to popular wisdom has nothing to do with the Apostles.)
  • Gondolas are not symmetric. Alice pointed this out to me, and it is very definitely true. The gondolier’s oarlock is of course at the rear and is always on the starboard side. Since he is always rowing on the right, in order to help keep the boat moving in a straight line instead of a wide counterclockwise circle the starboard side of the hull is flatter than the port side. That is, if you look at a gondola from above then it looks a bit like a backwards “D”. Who knew?

Now that you can win a couple of bar bets with the above information, let us carry on. Jet lag having had its way with us, we slept in this morning and then set out to a couple of small local stores to buy breakfast stuff (cheese, eggs, bread, etc.), returning to the flat for a meal before setting out on the day’s peregrinations, which turned out to be seven straight hours of walking.

Our first destination was back to St Mark’s square which, today being Friday, was significantly more crowded than yesterday. (I can only imagine what a Saturday in July looks like; an ant colony perhaps.) It’s kind of obligatory to see St Mark’s Basilica, and the line to get in moves very quickly, so we checked off this particular obligatory item pretty quickly. I suppose this sounds insufficiently respectful; the basilica is of course huge, famous, decorated with enormous elaborate paintings of the saints who appear to be covered with gold leaf, and so on. For me (whose appetite for pre-Renaissance religious art gets sated very quickly), the most interesting part was the architecture: the domes are ornate and elaborate, and the marble colonnades intriguingly complex, with every column seemingly made of a different type of marble.

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St. Mark’s Basilica. It is very Catholic.

Our next stop, immediately adjacent to the basilica, was the Doge Palace. The Doge, as you may know, was the chief honcho of Venice, the office having been created in about 700 AD and lasting for a mere thousand years. It was an elected position although for a period of a few hundreds the practice was to allow the Doge to name his successor, which in practice made it largely hereditary. In 1172 everybody had had about enough of that, and the position became determined by a council of 40 elders, rather analogous to the College of Cardinals. (Fifty years later the number was increased to 41 because of a deadlocked election.)

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Hercules at the Bat.

Anyway, the Doge was highly influential, even powerful, but under a number of constraints. He could not, for example, conduct official business without having a member of the council present; he couldn’t even open official mail in private. (Hillary Clinton, are you reading this?) But he was still a big deal. When granted an audience with him, the honored visitor was required to climb a specially reserved staircase — the Giant’s Stairs — to meet him. He would never descend those stairs to meet you; even the Pope had to climb them. The stairs are named for the two “giants” at their apex: Hercules and Atlas. Atlas is of course shown shouldering a globe in the traditional fashion. Hercules, however, is depicted clubbing the Hydra to death, apparently with a Louisville Slugger baseball bat as you can see in the photo. (It is not widely known that Hercules batted right, but threw left-handed. He hit .522 in his best season with the Delphi Deities but was eventually traded to Thessalonika.)

The Doge Palace is enormous and ornate in a fashion that Versailles would echo centuries later. Every room that we visited was limned in gold, the walls and ceilings virtually tesselated with the great artists of the era, notably Tintoretto. This will give you the idea:

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And that’s just the laundry room. (Not really.) But there is room after room much like it.

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Don’t cross this bridge when you come to it.

The palace is connected directly to the adjacent prison (convenient!), the connection being the famous Bridge of Sighs that you see here. Legend has it that the bridge gets its name from the sighs that the prisoners would breathe as they crossed the bridge and beheld the beauty of Venice for the last time before being incarcerated. I am skeptical of this. It’s easy enough to believe the sighing part, but personally if I were being marched off in shackles to a 13th century prison cell then no longer having a nice view would be the least of my worries.

Because of this historical association with the Doge Palace, the Bridge of Sighs is considered one of the go-to sights of Venice despite being architecturally less interesting than many of the other bridges throughout the city (and there are many, crisscrossing the spaghetti network of small canals).  But having toured the palace, we did in fact cross the bridge. No, we didn’t sigh. But if any of the prisoners who crossed didn’t either, they probably did by the time they got to their cells, which we also saw, and which I can pretty much guarantee would have gotten zero stars on TripAdvisor had it existed at the time.

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Worst. B&B. Ever.

As it happens, in one section of the palace there was a temporary exhibit of Henri Rosseau’s art, for me at least a welcome change from endless gold-leafed crucifixion scenes. We spent a relatively idyllic hour or two looking at Rousseau’s paintings, very cleverly and informatively displayed alongside his contemporary artists whom he influenced. (These included even Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera.)

But when you’re in Venice, you are never very far from a crucifixion scene, and my pastoral neo-impressionistic relief was short-lived. After leaving the palace, we walked across town to the Accademia Museum, a particular goal of Alice because of its large and impressive collection of Tintorettos, Bellinis, Carpaccios, and Mozzarellas. (I’m not sure about that last one.)  By this time we had been walking for over five hours, and while I will be the first to admit that it was a very impressive collection — in some cases due to the sheer wall-sized immensity of some of the works — and that Alice very greatly enjoyed it, I was by this time pretty much crucifixion-ed and Madonna-ed out. Oh, and also St. Mark-saturated. As you may have already inferred, San Marco is pretty much the iconic figure of Venice in much the same way that Ben Franklin is the local deity of Philadelphia. We admired many paintings of Mark the Evangelist being martyred by the Alexandrians by being dragged through the streets for being a tad too evangelical.

After an hour and a half of this I reminded Alice of the wise words spoken by our almost-three-year-old grandson after an hour and a half at the National Aquarium: “I’ve seen enough fish now.” So I’m a Philistine. Sue me.

We walked back across town to our flat, by which time we estimated that we had hoofed roughly ten miles over the course of the day. Venice is a very walkable city, but you will walk a lot. It is a maze of medieval alleys barely as wide as your outstretched arms, a spiderweb of crisscrossing tiny streets and canals, and it is no coincidence that the first question one of my friends asked me after our first day here was, “Did you get lost yet?” But we didn’t, and I will tell you how. Download the wonderful app called “City Maps 2 Go”, which loads up your phone with a very highly detailed offline map of whatever city you want. It doesn’t need a cell or wifi connection to operate, just a GPS signal, and it guided us through the 10th-century street warren without a hitch. Highly recommended!

We went out for another late dinner on the Grand Canal — salmon gnocchi for me, seafood soup for Alice, both excellent. Which was a fine way to end the day, as well as this blog entry.

Categories: Italy | Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , | 3 Comments

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