Our Lea did this essay during her recent visit to Vietnam – an excerpt from her forthcoming book: Trip to Hanoi.
By Lea Marie Løppenthin
It’s just before noon. I am sitting on our balcony at Sunrise Resort. I have a view of the pool, palm trees and behind them, the sea. Emeli, my luminous friend, is lying in bed reading. We are the only guests, we’re here out of season. Emeli and I, we’re the funny queens of the lonely hotel.
We’re staying on Cat Ba, an island in Ha Long Bay in northern Vietnam. When I look at the sea and the boulders sticking out of the water, all I can think about is The Deer Hunter. The movie takes place in southern Vietnam towards the end of the war, but was shot in Thailand. It came out in 1978, only three years after the end of the war; Vietnam was not a good place to shoot American movies at the time. I prefer the first part of the movie, the one that takes place in Pennsylvia. The long wedding scene, where one of three friends is getting married before they’re all going to war. I didn’t think about the war during the wedding scene, only about Robert De Niro, who’s trying to touch the arm of his friend’s girlfriend but is too scared, about the dancing and the band, about the dirty and loving party that a wedding always is. And when the soldieres are all of sudden already there, when they’re lying in the jungle shooting guns in the Me Kong Delta, it is evident how impossible it is going to be for them to share any of their experiences with those who have stayed behind waiting.
It’s the wars between Vietnam and China that come first at the War Museum in Hanoi, busts of war lords in Ghengis Kahn-like uniforms from a thousand years ago. Of course war history must be told chronologically, one must begin with the beginning. The American war has not made a unique impression in Vietnamese war history, this for one thing because there is a great ambitions in Vietnam to keep up a friend relationship with the U.S. American freedom ideals were an important inspiration for the leader of the resistance movement Ho Chi Minh, who even during the war emphasized that Vietnam was not at war with the American people, but with the American government. The American invasion was the last of many, before it there were the French, the Japanese, the French again before that China, the oldest and most important enemy.
I met two Americans when I was out walking this morning, I couldn’t tell if they were a couple. They were staying at another beach resort identical to ours further down the beach. The man was very eager to talk to me and find out who I was, he found it creepy that there weren’t any tourists, he and the woman were alone at the hotel, the man said that it reminded him of The Shining. They had travelled to Hanoi to work at a clinic for people with physical deformities, as a result of Agent Orange! But then I remembered my tactlessness with the two Americans we met on the boat yesterday, two young men who had their college fees paid by the military. We talked about our work instead, and said good bye in a peaceful manner.
April 30th 2015 is the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam war. This is a short and long time. My father has told me that there are several American aid programs in Vietnam today, and even that there are Vietnam-veterans that have come back to live permanently in Vietnam, married to Vietnames women. But the American government will not take responsibilty for the children that are still born with deformities as a consequence of the remains of Agent Orange, a chemical that the American military dumped from airplanes into the jungle during the war. It was in order to document these consequences that my father first came to Vietnam i the 1980’s. He and his friend Johnny, a photographer, wrote features for Danish leftwing newspapers such as Land and People.
My father was in his late 20’s the first time he was in Vietnam. In his office at the factory in Hai Duong, where he is now the CEO, there are photos of him, this skinny blond man in jeans, drinking tea with various members of the Vietnamese government at the time. He was only a little older than I am now.
A couple of days ago, we had lunch with my father’s girlfriend Hien’s parents. Hien is my age and her parents are both about 70. Oanh and Hoà have experienced the American war in the 1960’s and 1970’s, the communist reforms after the war in the 1970’s and 1980’s, and then Doi Moi – the Vietnamese glasnost during the late 80’s, that resulted in the Western trade embargo against Vietnam was lifted. They have experienced a gradual economic flourishing in the 90’s, 00’s and 10’s.
I visited Hanoi for the first time in 2002, when my father had just been posted at the Danish embassy. The Vietnamese upper class and middle class are growing, and Hanoi is full of expensive cars, cell phones and motor bikes. Several new shopping centres have been built since I lived here in 2003-2004, and the street I lived on is now populated by elegant cafés and expensive clothing stores. If it weren’t for the piles of trash alongside the lake, the neighborhood would remind me of the nice part of Vesterbro, an area in Copenhagen that has gone through severe gentrification during the past 10 years. Is gentrification something peole talk about in Asia? They probably will soon, in Vietnam, Korea, Japan and China, those sorts of aggressive economies.
Hoà and Oanh are war veterans, the live in Hanoi, but are part-owners of a hydro plant in Central Vietnam. They don’t speak English, Hien was our interpreter. I started by apologizing that I do not speak Vietnamese, and then they apologized for not speaking English. The conversation was slowly and careful, I didn’t know whether to look at Hien or her parents when I spoke.
Hoà remarked that the Scandinavian welfare state is an ideal society. I explained that the Vietnamese fight for independence was an inspiration to the scandinavian left wing in the 1970’s. This surprised him, he didn’t know. He was wearing a nice jacket, and carried an Ipad in a sleeve, he opened it and showed us pictures from his youth. Every now and then he would dab his forehead with a handkerchief, what a charming dignity.
I brought I book with me on the this journey, an extra advisor: Susan Sontags essay Trip to Hanoi from 1968. She was invited on account of her role as American war protester, and was received as a guest of honor. She was not comfortable with the politeness with which she was greeted. It bothered her that no individual ever expressed private longings or preferences, but always spoke in official terms loyal to official political views. But then she changed her mind; she finishes her essay with a renewed theory of subjectivity: On the need for irony in Western society, and for an ongoing revelation of hidden feelings, egoism and vanity. She writes of this need as her own, but that she has been challenged by meeting Vietnamese society. She concludes that the relationship between inner life and norms is different in Vietnam. That feelings have less priority.
Susan Sontag wanted to feel solidarity with the people that she admired. It can be exoticising to want to define egoism as a specific Western phenomenon. However, I did recognize her portrait of the Vietnamese in Hien’s parents. They had no need for dram or sentimentality: Hoà tolds us that his curly hair was a significant problem in the early 80’s, at a time when any decoration was considered capitalist decadence. He was forced to shave his head in order to prove to authorities that his curls grew back naturally and therefore were not articifically created. That if a bottle fit in the bottom half of a pant leg, the pants were declared decadent bellbottoms and were cut open with scissors immediately.
I said with my usual cheekiness that I am a Marxist, that I wanted to find a way to run societies that did not include censorship or moralism as it does in Vietnamese politics, but that can introduce a definition of freedom different from that of neoliberalism. Or: Another ideal than that of freedom and individualism. Hien was surprised by this and asked Emeli if she was a Marxist as well. Emeli answered that she agreed with me in many ways, but that she was not entirely certain when it came to ideology. Afterwards, Hien translated, and her parents nodded. Hoà spoke, and she translated: He was a Marxist as well, but did not have the same interpretation of Marxism as the Vietnamese government.
I was worried that Oanh felt left out because she wasn’t participating in the conversation. I tried to think of what to ask her, and wonderd whether it was me talking too much, me, the cheeky one, controlling everything and missing it all. We left the restaurant at two, Hoà was going to join us at the war museum, but Oanh was going home. Is she going to rest, I asked, but no, she sang in a choir for elderly ladies. We were thrilled by this, and she looked happy that we were interested. We are going to see her sing tonight when we get back to Hanoi, there is a concert to celebrate International Women’s Day tomorrow.
At the war museum, Hoà wandered around in his nice jacket and a discreet smile, he pointed out mines and weapons for us, ones that he remembered, he explained how they worked. The smile stayed in his face, there was no evident grief or heroism. This was accessories from the past, objects from everyday life, like when my parents talk about their first camera.
Later that day I asked Hien if my with my father hadn’t told her about my poltical beliefs. Maybe I haven’t told him either. I have been uncertain. Now I am certain, on the verge of euphoria, because this is what certainty is like, an insane motor in the brain.
I have visited my father’s factory: All employees have safe and comfortable work conditions. There are two doctors stationed at the factory, and a free lunch cafeteria.
If employees are hurt in traffic accidents, which happens frequently, funds are raised amongst the staff to support the injured employee’s family, after which the board of directors double the collected amount. It is not a question of whether the employees get in accidents on their way to work, it is no matter when. It resembles a welfare state than a workplace, something I that worried me during my sad time spent with Slavoj Žižeks neo-marxist theory. As a 22-year old I read in his book Violence that Corporate Social Responsibility is a way of neutralizing capitalist exploitation, a mask to hide the ugly face with as Žižek with usual pathos puts it.
And I am certain that many companies use CSR to wash their hands, as any term can be used to wash your hands. But sometimes there are real consequences behind the term. Marxism can be so ridiculous, so caught up in a world of ideas. Marxism can be used to pull any joy, any consideration out of itself and turned into a mask covering an ugly face, the face of evil. In that sense, Marxism can resemble Freudianism, as it does for Žižek, the fool, the giant fool, I get upset just thinking about him, the fact that he seduces so many university squrriels like the squrriel I myself was with acaedemic writing of such poor quality. Most important of all, we must let go of Lacan, Freud and the idea of eternally unrequitable desire. Psychoanalysis has always been the philosophy of the bourgeois, and of course nobody today can break free of the bourgeois class: We are all neurotics, because our economic system is neurotic, individualistic and anxiety-provoking. We need a new communism everywhere, in Europe, in the U.S., in Africa and in Vietnam, where stars and hammer and sickle literally hang as decorations in the street, musealized and glittering like the embalmed body of Ho Chi Minh in the mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square.
Ho Chi Minh’s body was embalmed against his will, he had asked to be buried under a tree, can you imagine a cruder treatment of corpse? Vietnam is troubled by tough censorship, corruption and global market economy. It has nothing to do with communism.
We need a new communism in the world that does not neglect decoration, that does not neglect the individuals wishes for pretty things and recognition and love. We need a new communism that does not neglect the need for peace, the heritage that every human life is tangled into, that does not encourage children to turn against their parents and school teachers at any given occasion. We must protest against the inequality that exists, w must be angry with the structures that keep these inequalities in place. But it won’t work without patience. It won’t work without the care it takes to dab a forehead with a handkerchief on a hot day. If we give up our tenderness for a higher goal, this highness is already lost. Then there this is nothing left but dictatorship or worse, freedom to be left all alone.
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