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From 10AM to 11PM, Hoi An’s old town is choked with tourists, so just get there just after sunrise if you want to admire its architecture, and it is magnificent. How did this slice of old Vietnam survive?

During the Vietnam War, Hoi An was the administrative center for the entire province, so it was well-protected by the South Vietnamese. After 1975, Le Duan ordered many shrines and temples destroyed, to eradicate superstition. For two decades, he was the head honcho of the Vietnamese Communist Party. A true progressive, Duan relentlessly lunged towards an ever-elusive utopia as he copiously farted at the stinking and reactionary past, but at least he was anti-Chinese, many Vietnamese will add in his defense. It was left to a Pole, interestingly, to save much of Hoi An.

The architect and preservationist Kazimierz Kwiatkowski spent nearly 16 years in Vietnam. Working with Vietnamese archeologists, he documented the astonishing Cham site of My Son, then turned his attention to Hoi An, then atrociously neglected. Primarily through his efforts, both My Son and Hoi An have become recognized as World Heritage Sites. On Tran Phu Street in the heart of Hoi An’s old town, there’s a Kazimierz Kwiatkowski Park, with an eight-foot-tall stone portrait of this noble man, as executed by sculptor Pham Hong.

Documenting My Son, eight members of Kwiatkowski’s team died, either through illnesses or by stepping on unexploded mines, left over from the Vietnam War. Kwiatkowski could have easily been one of them, but it was all worth it, “I can put up with anything, as long as I can live for these [Cham] towers.”

Wandering around Hoi An, I can’t help but notice how hideous are many of the tourists. As one with an extensive catalog of congenital defects, generic and likely even unique, I should be the last one to judge. Still, I think their ugliness can be partly attributed to the fact that they’re hectically being herded on tour, with the imperative to constantly admire everything in front of them. They’re denied travel’s chief pleasure of freedom. Surrounded by beauty, they look like constipated grief.

The point isn’t to enjoy yourself anywhere, but to take enough photos to prove that you have had a great time in some place your neighbors haven’t been. Just as nearly all of life now comes to us via photos, we can only convince others, and ourselves also, of having lived, through photos. The world’s infinite richness has been reduced to a monotony of duckfaced selfies.

In Hoi An, I often felt like I was plowing through a biblical-sized daytrip from some mental hospital, for I certainly bumped into Nurse Ratched at least half a dozen times, as well as (mostly Chinese) versions of Chief Bromden, Billy Bibbit, Martini and Candy, etc.

Looking uncomfortable, they sit exposed on pedicabs to be steered, most recklessly, through the packed-sardine streets. It’s Vietnam’s version of the Running of the Bulls. For variety, maybe Spanish Toro Bravos can be imported here, and demented pedicab drivers can be dispatched to Pamplona.

Sitting on a low stool, an eyeless man suggests to passersby, “You buy Tiger bomb?” He means “balm.”

Flabby, mouth-breathing dude, “INSTALLING MUSCLES / PLEASE WAIT.”

Scowling broad, “THAT’S GLITTER / NOT SWEAT.”

Strutting primate, “BATHING APE,” with a tricorn wearing monkey, on top of a cartoony skull and bones.

There is a tiny, tucked away oasis from all this at Tadioto, a bar owned by Nguyen Qui Duc. One afternoon, I looked up my old friend to find the mofo as suave as ever. With Vietnam’s turbulent history, few can claim to be from a pedigreed family, but Duc comes close. His great grandfather is Nguyen Van Tuong, a Machiavelli, Cromwell type who had a hand in the liquidation of three Vietnamese kings. He screwed a queen. Deported by the French to Tahiti, Tuong died there in 1885. Duc’s father was the highest South Vietnamese civilian official arrested by the Communists in 1968, and he wasn’t released until 1980.

“This guy is a great poet,” Duc introduced me to his manager, a young South African.

“Yeah, right, you’re so full of shit,” I wearily replied, then to the South African, “How long have you been here, dude?”

“Just five weeks.”

“Five weeks?! What brought you here?”

“My girlfriend.”

“Is she Vietnamese?”

“No, Australian, but she was born in Hoi An. She speaks Vietnamese perfectly.”

“Amazing!”

Duc told me he was finishing his Morocco novel, and starting a screenplay about Madame Nhu. What a mess of a family. Her brother killed their parents in Washington D.C.

Duc is infatuated with Morocco. He stays there for a month each year. Since the 62-year-old had only published one book, I urged, “You better get your ass moving, man. Soon, it will be over. I already feel exhausted.”

To rejuvenate myself, I finally got a shave, by the way. This cost me but $1.30, so now I only look five years older, and not 15 or 25!

One day, poet, journalist and documentary filmmaker Lieu Thai rescued me from this mass tourism madness. In their beat-up Corona, he and his wife whisked me to their home in rural Dien Minh. Thank God I’m a country boy, at least for a day.

Suddenly, I was no longer among sad cases in retarded T-shirts, but salt of the bombed earth desperados, standing in fragrant and pristine mud. With its rows of areca palms, the landscape was a softly lit, balming retreat into a more eternal existence. Lieu Thai’s wife quickly dished up goat, pork then chicken with bamboo shoots, but she didn’t care to get sloppy with us, so Lieu Thai and I steadily clanked glasses of three Vietnamese wines, one from as far north as Sapa.

Though this was our first meeting, Lieu Thai didn’t hesitate to offer me an indefinite stay at a house he owned, “It has all amenities, and you can even use of a motorbike!”

ORDER IT NOW

There is definitely a brotherhood among Vietnamese writers. We have many friends in common. We talked about much, including Jack London’s Call of the Wild, how to quickly get access to an alien place (by befriending and overpaying a motorbike taxi guy, who knows the locality inside out), why Quang Nam’s proverbs and folk poems are more bawdy than elsewhere (because of Cham influences, with their yonis and lingas), the virtues and drawbacks of Singapore and why many older Vietnamese women are so angry and deranged. Halfway through, we were joined by poet Pham Tan Dung, who gave me his new book.

Lieu Thai lives with his wife, two kids and mother. Next to their house is his grandpa’s, now a ruin and unoccupied. It has an ornate yet very dignified façade. Though showing clear European influences, it’s definitely Vietnamese. Fifty years ago, there were still thousands of sublimely beautiful homes like this all over Quang Nam. Now, there are almost none.

Commandeering this house during Tet of 1968, the Viet Cong fought from inside it. After the Americans managed to flush them out, they shot into the floor to make sure there was no hidden basement or tunnel. With a flashlight, Lieu Thai showed me the bullet holes.

He also showed me black and white and sepia photos of his forebears, still there on the shelf altar. In the dark, they sit, day and night, with no food offerings or incenses.

Every Vietnamese house is a shrine, for as soon as you enter the living room, you see a large altar, though this is shrinking with each passing year. What they’re worshipping, above all, are their ancestors. Vietnamese revere their own past. What irony, then, that many Vietnamese were momentarily tricked into fighting for a Party that was militant in eradicating the past, with the promise of a utopian future.

During the Vietnam War, most Vietnamese on both sides simply fought for Vietnam. The nationalistic propaganda from both the Hanoi and Saigon governments reflects this reality.

America, too, offered utopia. Professing an unprecedented mission, it bombed away, but now it is nakedly bankrupt, miserable and insane.

Speaking to Lieu Thai, I blathered, “You know, the lesson of Jack London’s People of the Abyss is that, here, in the heart of the greatest empire on earth, there were so many people, English natives, who were living like animals. People can claim that Call of the Wild is only about the most unusual of situations, that these gold seekers were freaks, but what about these ordinary people in London?! If you go to any American city, you’ll see the same. In San Francisco or Los Angeles, for example, you’ll see thousands camped out on the sidewalks, right downtown even, by City Hall! They’re living like animals, man. America is in crisis. It hardly makes anything.”

With nothing to sell, you can’t participate in a “market economy.” Pitching its increasingly threadbare sexy image, America threatens at gunpoint the entire world, including its own citizens. What a joke, albeit a very dangerous one.

Our entire orientation is wrong. We need to reorganize our cities, lives and minds along saner coordinates. Sānus means healthy and sane. We’re much sicker than we know.

Once a month in Hoi An, all the electrical lights are turned off for about four hours in old town, so that you’re only lit by candles and lanterns. Kwiatkowski initiated this reactionary yet magical tradition. All those darkened centuries should be reexamined. Again, the man knew what he was doing.

Linh Dinh’s latest book is Postcards from the End of America. He maintains a regularly updated photo blog.

 
• Category: Culture/Society • Tags: Vietnam 
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  1. Great piece Linh, looking forward to your piece on Vientiane. Try to stop in Nong Khai (across the Mekong from Vientiane) if you have time as well…great Vietnamese food there (for Thailand).

    • Replies: @Vetran
    , @silviosilver
  2. Back1 says:

    Hi. No top down fix is coming. US is being busted out for profit and power. Fix from bottom up, Individual and family first. Best fastest gain with least cost and hassle. US power structure unfixable.

    • Agree: obvious
  3. Linh, I found your namesake:
    https://nyulangone.org/doctors/1225043029/linh-t-dinh

    Boy, Andrew Yang is right, if you’re Asian you know a lot of doctors.

    • Replies: @Anonymous
  4. Biff says:

    During the Vietnam War,

    When in Vietnam shouldn’t you refer to it as the American war?

  5. artichoke says:

    I toured Europe once with a tour group, back in the 80’s. Never again.

    When I went back with my wife in the 90’s, we just got a Eurailpass and did it ourselves. Much more fun. Especially adventurous because our credit cards weren’t accepted (we had Cirrus network and they took Star, or vice versa) hardly anywhere, so we had the adventure of doing it like students. Every night I had to negotiate hard for hotel rates, usually in a new language. It was fun.

    When I went to Burma I didn’t get a tourguide either, except for specific sites hired on the spot. Never been to Vietnam but that too would be without a tourguide if I ever get to go there.

  6. Dumbo says:

    Once a month in Hoi An, all the electrical lights are turned off for about four hours in old town, so that you’re only lit by candles and lanterns. Kwiatkowski initiated this reactionary yet magical tradition. All those darkened centuries should be reexamined. Again, the man knew what he was doing.

    I met a man in Italy who lived in the countryside (in a house he built himself) who basically used no electric light (although he used some electrical appliances). Only natural light and occasionally candles/fire. He lived by the rhythms dictated by the seasons and by natural daylight. Maybe he was onto something.

  7. swamped says:

    Ah, what a relief! Only one fleeting reference to eating, thankfully; something unpalatable about “goat, pork then chicken with bamboo shoots” – just enough to take your appetite away & then on to more important matters.
    “During the Vietnam War, most Vietnamese on both sides simply fought for Vietnam. The nationalistic propaganda from both the Hanoi and Saigon governments reflects this reality”…but American policy didn’t, tragically. American policymakers insisted right up until the bitter end in representing it as a titanic struggle between the ‘free world’ & international communism, rather than what it was: a national liberation movement. This was the “unprecedented mission” that was used to somehow justify “bomb[ing] away” much of Southeast Asia, ’til there was almost nothing left.
    There is quite a bit of irony, then, “that many Vietnamese were momentarily tricked into fighting for a Party that was militant in eradicating the past, with the promise of a utopian future.” A future that they , no doubt, could never imagine would include a Phạm Nhật Vượng, a Nguyễn Phương Thảo, a Trần Bá Dương, a Hồ Hùng Anh and a Nguyễn Đăng Quang: all billionaires in the new Vietnam. Or probably none of the other 12,000 or so Vietnamese millionaires plus. Le Duan should have lived to see the day. He might even feel more at home in America these days with socialism on the rise here & Communism on the wane at home. Even though GDP per capita in the U.S. at around $60,000 is 30 times greater than Vietnam’s GDP per capita of $2,000. Go figure.

  8. Ben Gunn says:

    This one needs more photos. The descriptive adjectives leave me wanting more photos.

    • Replies: @eah
  9. Stump says:

    Another fine piece of work here.

    OT: Still hoping you’ll wander up to Phu-Bai in your travels. (I was stationed there in the yankee Army, 69′-’70.

    I’ve spent 50 years putting that war behind me. You have the amazing ability to make me want to go back and see what it is like now.

    Best regards – M.J. Bates

  10. eah says:
    @Ben Gunn

    This one needs more photos.

    There are lots of fotos on his website, including no doubt many more of Hoi An:

    Postcards from the End of [the] America[n Empire]

  11. vhrm says:

    i am in contact with some high school and community college Chinese Americans (mostly ABC but some international students) in SF Bay Area. Some of the guys are fashion conscious and some totally oblivious.

    First time i saw a “A Bathing Ape” sweatshirt i thought it was one of those random saying Asian markets things, but i was wrong!

    It’s a mid to high-end brand that had significant cachet with the high style guys in the group a year or two ago.

    It looks like the shirt you snapped is from their pirate collection , though not exactly this one.

    https://bapepirate.com/collections/men/products/4f70110003

    On their US bape site t-shirts list for $99 and up.

  12. Anonymous[132] • Disclaimer says:
    @RadicalCenter

    🤣


    Linh T. Dinh, M.D.

    Now, if only she thought like real Linh Dinh (the writer) she’d be the perfect woman.

  13. @Dumbo

    If there’s one thing I’m beginning to realize was a treasure, it was living dirt poor in Hawaii as a kid. Even before we became poor and were middle-class, I remember the electricity going out (which it did a lot in the late 60s and early 70s) and if it was during the day, not noticing until I looked at the clock on the wall in the kitchen and seeing that it was hours behind.

    But when we became really poor … I think back to one place we lived, with no key to the house, which was not needed because not only was there always someone there (at least the dogs) but there was nothing worth stealing anyway. We lived there for a few years and I don’t ever remember trash day, because we didn’t create enough waste to worry about it. Rags were used instead of paper products, things like chip bags were thrown out in the trash can in front of the place we’d bought the chips, cans and bottles were recycled, and absolutely no scrap of food was wasted. We managed to keep the electricity on, but if it went out, we had our kerosene lamps.

    Life was lived outdoors or at least by daylight, most of the time. TV was 3 channels that most often didn’t come in well, and Happy Days and The Bobby Vinton Show could not compete with surfing, fishing, or beachcombing.

    Then there was the time Mother decided it would be a good idea for us to live on a beached ex-Navy launch in Ke’ehi Lagoon. We cooked using driftwood gathered from the sand bar and thought no more of getting a fire going than a modern kid thinks of turning on the stove. It became about as easy. That period was probably the most utterly shit-poor we lived, and we kids reminisced about it for years afterward. “That time on the boat….”

    • Agree: obvious
    • Replies: @Sasha
    , @Biff
  14. @vhrm

    Wow it makes me wonder what my Goodwill find, my “lucky bunny” sweatshirt with an outline of a rabbit embroidered on it, is actually worth.

  15. Vetran says:

    Recollections of Hoi An, early 2001 when the place was nearly devoid of tourists except for a film crew finishing the shooting of the “Quiet American” … It was quite a coincidence then at that time I was also reading the Graham Green’s novel which the movie is based upon.
    The story details the origin of the US entry into the Vietnam conflict as the French colonial hold weakened, and of course the plot revolved around a false flag bombing incident designed to facilitate American intervention…
    Few months later, 9/11 happened… and understood suddenly it might be a false flag, as if my week vacation in Hoi An was a “red pill” experience that somehow changed my perception. Instead to be transfixed by the 9/11 attacks, I could not help thinking about this startling novel and Michael Caine walking Hoi An’s old city playing a journalist.
    It is worth to note that Graham Greene was never attacked as a “conspiracy theorist” or a lunatic for writing about a false flag attack as he was a respected and admired figure in British culture and society.

  16. supertjx says:

    Linh,
    Just want to say how much I appreciate your writing.
    Insight, wordmanship and most importantly… HUMOR!
    You have it all!
    Happy new year to you and your family!

    • Agree: Sick of Orcs
    • Replies: @Fred C Dobbs
  17. Vetran says:
    @Loremipsum

    Nong Khai is not the best entry/exit point for the Thai-Laos border… though Isan small cross country roads is maybe the best way to see the real and unadulterated Thailand, far away from the mass tourism trails.
    I recommend the Luang Prabang, Pakben, Huay Xai slow boat trip on the Mekong to exit Laos into Thailand (or the reverse coming from Thailand).

  18. @supertjx

    Certainly…..though I bet the humor gets even better after several or more of whatever the local drink might be. =). Someone asked how my New Year’s Eve was. “I drank more than I should, but not as much as I could.”

    Personally, I think LD’s gift is that he can weave seamlessly between pointing out how very different/not so different at all his subjects are…….from the dive bars of Philly to Ea Kly. They live different lives than you and me, to be sure. But then again, maybe not THAT different if you stop and think about it.

    And how IS it he finds himself in a provincial backwater like Ea Kly? I’ve often speculated why he moved there. Did he abscond with the church funds? Run off with a senator’s wife? I like to think he killed a man. It’s the Romantic in me. (That “mostly-lifted” passage from a nearly 80-year-old movie should be familiar to at least some of you…….Bonus points for who said it……LOL)

    • Replies: @Jeff Stryker
  19. @Loremipsum

    Hah, I passed that way on a border run back in 2008. (Word on the street had it the Thai consulate there would do a double tourist visa.) It never occurred to me that was the Mekong.

    I stayed overnight in Vientiane. Took a long walking tour, as I usually do. It seemed tidy enough for such an impoverished country, but all the same I was not very impressed by what I saw. I imagine a decade of high growth would have improved things some.

  20. “The point isn’t to enjoy yourself anywhere, but to take enough photos to prove that you have had a great time in some place your neighbors haven’t been. ”
    That exact observation was made in the 50ies by one of the most sober observers of humanity,in my opinion,one Günther Anders.His Essay about what television is,from 1956 “The World as Phantom and as Matrix”(originally written in german) is still relevant today,and I cannot recommend it enough.

  21. Charles says:

    All my knowledge of Vietnam and its many wars and conflicts comes from Neil Sheehan’s “A Bright Shining Lie”. I don’t know what a Vietnamese would say about it – probably their response would depend on their age.

  22. @Fred C Dobbs

    Mr. Linh found himself there for the same reason I found myself overseas and never returned to the United States.

    We are both working middle class urban rust-belt American males who would be living in far worse squalor and danger in American cities.

    The citizens of Vietnam might be poorer but they are not as dangerous or criminal as those on American streets. The roads of Vietnam are not cluttered with Opoid and Meth addicts whose panhandling will sometimes turn aggressively violent. In Vietnam you won’t find yourself in grave danger of Mexican gang members, which can happen in Southwest cities frequently. There is none of the spur-of-the-moment racial animosity of American communities or crack houses or sudden bursts of violence. In Asia, these are very rare. Especially to Mr. Linh, himself Vietnamese-born.

    Mr. Linh may be living in sparse bungalows but these are quieter and safer than the low-income apartments of Philadelphia with their drug-dealing neighbors and loitering junkies, their terrible neglectful landlords, their cacophony of screams from domestic violence, their visits by police officers, their badly-behaved near feral children of the underclass.

    It is easy for a middle-class white from a cozy suburb to be unable to relate to this. He has grown up in a comfortable community where the police are well-paid by local taxpayers to keep the streets safe and well-patrolled. His neighbors are the college professor, the dentist, the doctor.

    But Mr. Linh was a refugee who grew up in the city. He has no relatives in any suburb in America who will put him up. He cannot move to a rural area of America to be a gentleman farmer because he lacks the money and has no roots in any rural community either and even if he did there is no work there and any young person from a rural community with any ambition leaves at age 18. It is difficult to find employment in rural areas of the United States.

    Mr. Linh has already noted that he and his wife moved to Vietnam as economic immigrants because the US is now sliding into such a state of poverty that many working middle class people are becoming homeless even if still employed. Unlike Vietnam where there are beaches to sleep on and you won’t freeze to death, to be homeless in rustbelt cities like Philadelphia is a slow death.

    Homeless shelters are commonly the scene of black rape and more dangerous than a small town jail. Stabbings and assaults in city homeless shelters is common. On the street, sadistic murderers often roam with weapons to bludgeon and kill homeless.

    All this might be acceptable to a single male, but Mr. Linh is married. Bad enough to be sleeping in the park when feral vicious teen punks stumble upon you like Alex’s gang in CLOCKWORK ORANGe but do you really want your WIFE to be with you under those circumstances?

    To some extent, because Mr. Linh is married, he moved to Vietnam for the sake of his wife.

    There is nothing romantic about the slow slide of America into the Third World. Less people are gainfully employed and wages have been stagnate for decades. Armies of homeless gather in cities. Young people are expressing their dismay at a dismal future by overdosing on Opoids in public. Drugs flood the street because America shares a border with a failed country run by drug cartels. Grown adults now live at home their entire lives.

    This is what Mr. Linh escaped. Nothing as romantic as sleeping with a senator’s wife. Her husband won’t do anything about that. He is escaping from the US underclass.

  23. @Jeff Stryker

    Thanks for the lengthy commentary. I get the sense you feel I am somehow disparaging Linh’s move. Nothing could be further from the truth.

    Just about everything you say about the good ole USA is true, sadly. A downshift, either to less expensive parts of the US, or overseas altogether, seems the wiser move with each passing day.

    If I may ask……where did you move to? When? What were the alternatives that you winnowed down?

    I’ll tell you where I’m at….I’m about 5 years older than our Uncle Linh. Sharing a 2-BR apartment in Orange County, CA. Divorced a few years ago, no kids, no debt, no health issues. Plan A is to get a pick-up and a small travel trailer (19 foot or so) and hit the highway. A 19 foot travel trailer is plenty of room for a single man to live in. It helps if you are not a collector of stuff, and I have not been. Thousands are doing it, many very happily, but usually if done by choice, and not necessity.

    Ohh BTW……that dialogue was from Casablanca, early in the movie, where Captain Renault tries to get a fix on this strange American cafe-owner who for some reason has chosen to live in a North African city well out in to-hell-and-gone. Perhaps that added to the confusion.

  24. Sasha says:
    @alex in San Jose AKA Digital Detroit

    Wish there was a “love this” button. That was a pleasure to read. Wonderful anecdote!

  25. Biff says:
    @alex in San Jose AKA Digital Detroit

    We cooked using driftwood gathered from the sand bar and thought no more of getting a fire going than a modern kid thinks of turning on the stove.

    Oddly enough, when kids these days are seen living like that, we have religious crusaders, SJW’s, and charities all trying to “save them” from whatever predicament that these guardians think they can rectify by using other people’s money. Meanwhile, their usual tactics wreck the kid’s lives, by removing them from their natural habitat, and indoctrinating them – so you MUST SEND MORE MONEY! to help the poor little fucks.

  26. I was captivated by the article which brought attention to Hoi An. I was a radio man for an advisory team there at our base camp Hoi An and it was refered to as rocket alley by the GI’s in Quang Nam province and Da Nang I Corp operations. Your article doesn’t mention anything about the american and South Korean Marine Tiger brigade camps that existed there.I just wondered if you knew about those camps?

  27. obvious says:
    @Jeff Stryker

    There really is no need to be homeless in America, but it does take good sense and careful planning to stay afloat. In Philly you pioneer the edge of ghettos or move to cheaper areas of suburbs… outside of the very largest metro areas housing is much much cheaper. Try Columbus Ohio, Pittsburgh Pa, North Carolina… There are hundreds of locales just waiting for new blood.

    The system shifted to credit money away from earned money in the last 40 years, so that has to be recognized. Careful planning will result in access to credit and therefore housing. Latino and Oriental families are able to pool resources and claw their way up the ladder.

    White people in America have forgotten how to own property or manage their affairs in any way proportionate to reality. They literally don’t understand the system around them and have been trained to expect entitlement in form of “good jerbs”. 10 years of careful planning will boost any family exponentially.

    Bankruptcy and estate planning is the key. Be like Donald Trump and milk it!!

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