Brief Layover in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City.

The official name of a city re-named for the revered revolutionary who defeated French and American powers to unite the country we now know as the Socialist Republic of Vietnam.

(French and American tourists, of course, still stubbornly call it “Saigon” to this day.)

Looking out the window on the bus to the city centre from the airport, I’d wondered what to make of the eye-catching propaganda billboards in the city I’d worked in so many years ago. How much of an indication were they that there remained a certain innocence in relation to commercial things, a relatively sweet, laid-back calm/inertia from a lifetime of state-sponsored welfare?

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)Amidst the roundabouts of relentless beeping of motorcycles and honking of cars, and the fumes of old exhaust pipes that made commuters cough up phlegm behind their cloth masks, and shiny new buildings jostling against the yet-to-be-bought-out crumbling ones, the Bitexco Financial Tower stood shining in the afternoon sun, holding aloft a helipad – like the Statue of Liberty and her torch.

Bitexco Financial Tower. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Thanks to Đổi Mới, perestroika-like economic liberalisation, HCMC had taken on the feel of the capital of her capitalist Thai neighbour, Bangkok.

Commercial signboards and advertising were more in evidence:

motorcycles at a roundabout. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

And in Ben Thanh Market, where formerly, you had to rouse a sleepy salesgirl to ask a question, you were now preyed upon aggressively once you entered its shady confines. “Hellloooo. You buy something. Cheap!” called out the predators as you attempted to navigate the narrow alleys between stalls. Some reached you in time to tug a sleeve, or thrust a mass-produced souvenir into your chest.

“I give you good price!”, they chorused, making no effort at all to extol the virtues of their wares,”Buy some thing!”

In the food section, my favourite stall had shuttered for the day,

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

leaving me at the mercy of the food touts. I ordered a Bún bò Huế, and sat down. Some time later, I was given a pho bo.

“Sorry I think I ordered Bún bò Huế?”
“Yes, yes.” said the woman, and hurried off. A few minutes later, I saw her waving a menu at tourists. There was no one fixing a Bún bò Huế.
I hailed a man who seemed to be somewhat related to the enterprise.
“I ordered a Bún bò Huế but this is a pho bo.”
“Okay, okay,” he said, and showed me the menu.
“No. This is not Bún bò Huế.”
“Okay, okay, this is Bún bò Huế.” he said, and gestured at what was obviously the wrong colour for such a dish, and left with the menu.
It took a third attempt with a different member of the jolly gang to have someone make me a Bún bò Huế.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Bún bò Huế, Benh Than Market, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

It was difficult to tell if this was lack of language ability or an attempt to cheat the tourist. I’d plump for the former, since the man was quite apologetic after.

(What did this mean then for the training we’d done for some local friends? When they’d nodded and appeared to have agreed, could those gestures have meant nothing more than the acknowledgement that we’d said something? Though what, exactly, might have been a mystery to them?)

While this little skit was unfolding, I noticed a stream of people rocking up to the stall across the way. Banana fritters.

Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
The woman deep-frying the local bananas smiled with her eyes, and indicated that she was happy for me to take some photos. There was soon a fresh queue of people staring hungrily at the boiling oil, plastic bags ready to receive the golden crunchy snacks.

8,000 VND each (S$0.48, £0.24), the chuối chiên were tummy-warmingly good – the ratio of tasty crisp batter to hot sweet banana was just right.

The squares of recycled English language class notes though, were dodgy. Excuse I, I’m afraid I regret informing you that did not meet my expectations.

Dodgy English language notes. Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
Dodgy English language notes. Banana fritters from Ben Thanh Market. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Felt the sting of God’s judgement at Babel quite badly. How marvellous a reversal the gift of tongues recorded in the Acts of the Apostles must have been – to finally be able to tell the good news to other nations. Yet, how desperate it is that such a gift isn’t quite widespread.

An incoming deacon at our small church recently suggested strongly that we stop mission trips to other countries. After all, he reasoned, there was so much work done with very little visible fruit – the translation work, the travelling, the inability to communicate effectively once there… Why not just stay in Singapore where people speak English?

And yet, and yet…
globe roundabout. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)



To get to the city center from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport, walk out of the Arrivals hall.
bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

You can either take the air-conditioned yellow 109 bus (mostly for tourists) to the bus interchange across from Ben Thanh market for 20,000 VND (S$1.22, £0.61):

yellow bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
yellow bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport to city center. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

bus ticket for yellow 109 bus from Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

or just 30m further along, where there are green-ish seats but no ticketing booth, take the local air-conditioned 152 bus to the same interchange for 5,000 VND (S$0.30, £0.15):
green 152 bus to city center, from airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

green bus from bus interchange to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport. Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)
ticket for green bus from city center to Tân Sơn Nhất International Airport . Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon)

Sleeper Train from Nanning (China) to Hanoi (Vietnam), and Rousseau’s Romanticism

London -> Harwich -> Hoek of Holland -> Amsterdam (Holland) -> Copenhagen (Denmark) -> Stockholm (Sweden) -> Riga (Latvia) -> Moscow (Russia) -> [Trans-siberian or Trans-mongolian Express] -> Ulaanbaatar (Mongolia) -> [Trans-mongolian Express] -> Beijing (China) -> Hong Kong (SAR, China) -> Guangzhou (China) -> Nanning (Guangxi, China) -> Hanoi (Vietnam)

train from Nam Ninh (Nanning, China) to Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
sleeper train from Nanning China to Hanoi, VietnamBid farewell to China and headed down to south-east asia by train. First stop, Hanoi in Vietnam.

Ga Gia Lam, Hanoi, VietnamWalked out Ga Gia Lâm,

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnamand following the familiar smoky aroma of pork grilling on the street, was heartened to see the familiar roadside scenes and hear the beeps of motos coming in both directions. I couldn’t decide if I’d consider Copenhagen or Vietnam my third home.

Phở bò, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò shop, Hanoi, Vietnam
Phở bò, Hanoi, VietnamThen, the first person I talked to, a phở bò seller, laughed at my very rusty Vietnamese.

Ho Chi Minh's Tomb. Hanoi, Vietnam
communist poster, Hanoi, VietnamHere are more photos of lovely peaceful Hanoi scenes interspersed quite randomly (ah, can anything be random?) with a continuing read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax:

The Authenticity Hoax: A False Return

“The Romantic response to modernity was an attempt to transcend or mitigate the alienating effects of the modern world and recoup what is good and valuable in human life.”

“What [Jean-Jacques] Rousseau came to realise is that the gap between appearance and reality is not just metaphysical (as Plato thought) or epistemological (as it was for Descartes) but that it has a moral dimension as well, since it is the source of all that is wrong with the world. Appearance is the realm of guilt, reality is the domain of innocence.”

“The problem ultimately lies not with men and their bad intentions, but with society and the inevitable friction it introduces into relations between people. Society is necessarily the land of appearances, and it is society that introduces evil into the world, in the form of the quest for prestige, status, wealth, and esteem.” [Comment: (i) here Rousseau apparently discounts any responsibility Adam and Eve might have had for eating that fruit. (ii) this was exactly what i thought too as a kid! need to find those angsty diaries.]

“For Hobbes, the state of nature is a large, multiplayer prisoner’s dilemma, where what is good for everyone, collectively, is undermined by each person’s individual rational calculations. Without a coercive authority to enforce cooperation, each of us retreats into tactics of self-preservation that are collectively self-defeating. It is not human nature, but the structural lack of restrictions on people’s behaviour, that led Hobbes to assert, infamously, that life in the state of nature wold be “solitary, poor, nasty, brutish, and short.” Rousseau has a rather different account…as he imagines it, it is rather a congenial sort of place, in which man enjoys a life of isolation, equilibrium, and self-sufficiency.”

communal dancing, Hanoi, Vietnam
communal exercises in a park, Hanoi, Vietnam“In contrast with Hobbes’s monotonic “psychological egoism” (the claim that we are utterly self-interested), Rousseau sees human nature as characterised by two basic drives…self-love (amour de soi) and…pity…Rousseau sees self-love as motivated by nothing more than the need to promote the survival and flourishing of the individual, by satisfying each individual’s rather modest needs…finding food and shelter, little else, but even this minimal amount of self-interest is moderated by the second drive, pity.” [Comment: a just-so story? The Bible’s explanation of human sin in Romans 1 is far more convincing.]

“How did we get from the congenial state of nature to the cutthroat selfishness of modern life?”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnami just like the juxtaposition of this evidence of community in Hanoi and Rousseau’s whine

“Before, social intercourse was transient and fleeting. But then these transient relationships started to congeal into a more settled form of life…inevitably, this nascent society led to the idea of comparison, or what Rousseau calls “relations.”…In becoming aware of how they compare with others, men got into the habit of self-regard, and “thus it was the first look he gave into himself produced the first emotion of pride in him.”…The sense of pride…gives birth to a new motivation, and a new form of self-love, which Rousseau calls amour-propre…it is nothing less than the quest for status, from which all the evils of civilization follow.”

“…the real problem with society is not social alienation, but self-alienation. Once amour-propre comes to dominate the relations between men, everyone becomes obsessed with appearances and with questions such as who sings or dances the best, who is the best-looking, or the strongest, wittiest, or most eloquent. Status becomes the only good worth pursuing…”

“In such a world, deception becomes a necessary survival skill. In a society dictated by relations of vanity and contempt on the part of social superiors, and the envy and shame of inferiors, it becomes imperative to appear better than you actually are. The mediated world of seems is now paramount, and the unmediated and unmasked world of is ceases to matter.”

motorcycle jam, Hanoi, Vietnam
on a motorcycle, Hanoi, Vietnam“When it comes to coping with the downside of the modern world, there are two lines of approach. We can try to eliminate the causes of our problems or, alternatively, we can work toward mitigating the effects. That is, we can see about changing society and eliminating competition and inequality or we can focus on building stronger, more self-sufficient individuals within the sphere of modern life. As it turned out, Rousseau thought the second approach had the best chance of success…”

“…Rousseau’s rather dismal account of civilisation…had considerable uptake among his contemporaries. Characteristic of the neo-Rousseauian genre is the work of …Dom Deschamps, who dreamt of a world free of the petty jealousies and enviousness that arose out of prideful men competing with one another in a market economy. In a passage that makes…the Khmer Rouge and the Taliban seem urbane in comparison, Deschamps proposed a world where intellectuals would be banned and everyone would live together in a hut, “work together at simple tasks, eat vegetarian food together, and sleep together in one big bed of straw. No books, no writing, no art: all that would be burned.”…Modern civilization is alienating, while primitive societies promise a return to our lost unity and natural wholeness, where we can avoid the status competition and raw commercialisation of society and embed ourselves in a true community based on simple, nonexploitative relationships. In this view, the search for our lost authenticity is essentially an exercise in retrieval, as we hearken back to our own premodern past.”

“If contemporary evidence is anything to go by, there is nothing peaceful, congenial, or even terribly solitary about tribal life. Instead, it is a world of “despotic chiefs, absurd beliefs, revolting cruelty, appalling poverty, horrifying diseases, and homicidal religious fanaticism” (a state of affairs which has been almost completely eradicated from the modern world).” [Comment: this sort of bunk thinking is truly alive in the present world. Recent examples include the refusal to vaccinate children for measles due to misinformation about children’s “natural immunity” and allegations that it causes autism (what’s wrong with autism? an autistic writer then asked).]

“…a more charitable reading of Rousseau is to think of his state of nature as a “regulative ideal” that is unattainable in practice but that an be used to evaluate actual social institutions and relationships and to measure our progress toward a more egalitarian and less exploitative society.” [Comment: but surely if the basis of the theory is inconsistent with facts, then the purported goodness of such an ideal might not be valid.]

street-side meat seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
street-side meat-griller. Hanoi, Vietnam“…on the living tree of Rousseau’s intellectual descendants, there is one group that has enthusiastically adopted this tunnel vision and developed it into a root-and-branch condemnation of the modern world…Let us call the people who seriously foresee the coming apocalypse “declinists,” and their animating philosophy “declinism”…the rights-based politics of liberal individualism, combined with the free-market economy, have served to undermine local attachments and communitarian feelings, leading us to seek meaning in the shallow consumerism and mindless entertainment that is leading us to ruin.”

“In order to recover from this alienation and restore our lost authentic wholeness, we need to learn “the grammar of harmony”, restore our lost “balance”, and achieve “organic order”, by inventing technologies that “work with the grain of Nature rather than against it.”…It is typical of this genre of critical declinism that any positive programme must remain unstated, and any concessions to the benefits that have accrued to humanity over the past hundred years or so must be grudgingly downplayed or even denied.”

Hanoi, Vietnam
Hanoi, Vietnam“…the central concern of Rousseau’s philosophical project is to distinguish what is natural from what is artificial in the state of men in society. He knows that civilization deforms human nature, but the precise contours of that deformation are unclear.”

“And so the popular, primitivist view of Rousseau’s ambition is mistaken: instead of looking for some sort of modernity-free sanctuary somewhere in the world or in our distant past, he proposed that we look inward and find our authentic self by attending to our most basic, spontaneous, and powerful feelings and emotions. In this view, the authentic person is someone who is in touch with their deepest feelings, whose emotional life is laid bare…Who am I?…Je sens mon coeur…”I feel my heart”…”I truly am what I feel myself to be.””

Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, Vietnam
Bún Bò Nam Bộ 67 Hàng Điếu, Hanoi, VietnamBún Bò Nam Bộ, 67 Hàng Điếu – my heart says,”Yummy tum-tum, this is delicious”

“The truth is an elusive beast, and one that ultimately Rousseau does not think is worth pursuing…As he writes in his Confessions:”I have only one faithful guide on which I can count: the succession of feelings that have marked the development of my being…I may omit or transpose facts, but I cannot go wrong about what I have felt or about what my feelings have led me to do.”

“He takes the Cartesian search for certainty and completely upends it, so where Descartes concluded that the search for truth could only begin with an indubitable fact (“I am, I exist”), Rousseau says…truth begins with the indubitability of emotions, and only once you know how you feel can you make any progress.”

rattan goods seller, Hanoi, Vietnam
rickshaw riders, Hanoi, Vietnam
overladen vehicle stuck in traffic, Hanoi, Vietnam“Authenticity becomes redefined as the ongoing process of filtering our experiences through our most deeply felt emotions and constantly interpreting and reinterpreting our lives until we find a story that is uniquely our own.”
Huu Tiep Lake and the downed B-52. Hanoi, Vietnam
business tourists and a train track. Hanoi, Vietnam“…it firmly establishes the quest for the authentic as an artistic enterprise. Being true to yourself, in the sense that Polonius intended it, is now a lifelong creative project from which no one is exempt, and it plants the solitary artist at the center of our moral understanding.”

colourful laquered coconut shell bowls, Hanoi, Vietnam
pop-up greeting cards, Hanoi, Vietnam
iPho, Hanoi, Vietnam“This is the Romantic turn in the modern worldview, heralding the start of a backlash against science, rationalism, and commerce. The authentic individual is one who disengages from the deforming forces of society and looks inward, drawing inspiration from the murky depths of the creative self.”

“…it was Rousseau who launched the first serious volley in the culture wars…the dispute between passion and reason, art and commerce, the individual and society, the bohemian and the bourgeois. To be bourgeois is to be alienated from your authentic self, which is just another way of saying that you’ve allowed your creativity to atrophy in the name of comfort and security. You’ve sold out, in other words, and the only way to get your edge back is to become a bohemian, a non-conformist, a solitary rebel at odds and out of step with the main-stream.”

shopkeepers, Hanoi, Vietnam
bamboo sellers, Hanoi, Vietnam
men drinking coffee, Hanoi, Vietnam“An authentic person is one who, almost by definition, rejects popular tastes, thoughts, opinions, styles, and morals.”

Thereby tripping themselves (their real selves?) over.
*part of a read-through of Andrew Potter’s The Authenticity Hoax

**also part of a photo-journal of my journey overland from London to Singapore