Last day here. The torpid heat and humidity does at it usually does, slowing things down to a snail’s pace, sitting and enjoying a cafe su da, the Vietnamese coffee made of a strong black brew, heavily sugared condensed milk and ice. Delicious. In its black variant (minus the milk part, with a dab of sugar) Marcella prefers it to Italian coffee. I rank them different and equal. We bought nearly a kilo of coffee from here to take back to Seoul.
As usual I’ve done little shooting though loaded down with 3 video cameras which I hauled along to let the Ha Noi workshop folks use, but only got one taker. It is normal for me to be hesitant to shoot in new places, feeling the obligation to look and absorb and find some essential before actually running up footage. For the most part I have been baffled by Asian cities, feeling a kind of moral demand to make an accurate portrait (and not the touristy or romanticized ones that are the normal view), and have yet to find some key into the aesthetic incoherence and jumble which I find to be the core of them. With more time I think I could find a way into Ha Noi, as it had a very particular sensibility in its architecture and its feel. Here in Saigon this seems absent, with a melange of French colonial, recent corporate, and a grab-bag of other improvised poor-man’s architectural forms tossed into a welter of motorbikes, smog, billboards, tropical vegetation, and dirtiness. The sidewalks are covered with motorbikes in organized parking systems, with numbers scrawled on the seats and attendants waiting to go find the right one. There’s precious little space for pedestrians, and one must detour into the frantic streets. The traffic flow is absurd, with buzzing herds of motorbikes entering traffic circles from all directions, running cross flow against each other in the thousands, with cars, buses, and trucks, along with bicycles and rickshaws, and those of us on foot wending way through this dense cloud of belching vehicles. One would think it would be the cause of a thousand accidents an hour, but last night, sitting at a little outdoor cafe drinking a Saigon bia with Marcella, we watched 10,000 wheels roll by at a traffic circle, and nary a bump. Were the same scenario played out in Italy, where the visual looks suggest a similarity, it would be a mayhem of violence, with shrieks of arguing profanity, and for sure, accidents. Here instead it flows on, motorbikes with whole families aboard, stopping where necessary, shifting wherever the current allows, everyone making room for the other without an aura of anger or hostility. It is really rather amazing, and extends through the whole city, engorged on these mechanical beasts. Watching them go by in their thousands and millions, I can’t help but wonder just where they came from and where they are going. Like many such southern climed places, few seem to actually work. The markets are crammed with little shops, each attended by 2, 3 or 5 attendants, some sleeping in the heat, and here culturally they are there to sell, at least to the obvious foreigner presumed to be loaded with cash to spend, and they seize you at the slightest hint of looking with any interest, offering for a price that plummets 50% in an instant if you appear like you might buy, but not for the opening number. Last night Marcella got hustled into trying on a dress she looked at which was too small, but the lady seized her, slipped on a larger size, offered for 600,000 which shifted precipitously to 400 and then 200 when Marcella insisted she only had 200,000. Talk about a discount. But the dress didn’t fit and they guy she was with, an adamant non-consumer, was impatiently moving on, so the sale didn’t happen.
Lazily we’ve done only a few things – a visit (described at http://www.jonjost.wordpress.com) to the War Remnants Museum, long walks through the center of the city, the zoo (more by accident than design), and yesterday to the Fine Arts Museum. It was a crumbling decaying colonial building, stained with the grime of 100 years, its stucco textured with time and no maintenance, an Italianate mansion of a building, with hints of indigenous aesthetics in the roof details. They were putting up a new exhibit of current painting, mostly art student level, illustration, gaudy colors, ranging from pure kitsch “neked lady” items, to pastiches of international styles of the last century. A few evinced some inherent talent and visual acuity, most did not. However a floor of older – meaning 1930′s through the American War period – work was quite interesting. Normally I find war paintings to be unsuccessful as “art” – thinking of the German expressionist works from WW1, and other examples. But here there were a number of works which worked as “art” while addressing the war in more or less propagandistic terms – paintings of jungle encampments, of guerillas (male and female), works which evoked the war, but in aesthetic terms that worked as painting. Some particularly interesting ones were in lacquer techniques about which I’d like to study a bit and try out myself.
Time running out as must leave hotel in a few minutes, then to wander the streets until this evening for a mid-night flight back to Seoul and new apartment and teaching on Monday.