The scent of green papaya, tropical jungles with meandering rivers through them, fading French architecture decaying in the heat, women in traditional garb – ao dai and conical hats, boys on bikes, serenity, humidity, chaos and tranquility all rolled into one.
Americans traveling to what was Indochina (roughly Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam) can sometimes fall prey to what the late Edward Said called “Orientalism”; bestowing traits and characteristics (call them stereotypes) on people other than our own. Such notions get reflected in movies, books and other forms of culture but more importantly frame our own thinking and prejudice.
Sometimes the prejudices are innocent.
“Do they have air conditioning?” a well- traveled friend asked. Answer: in the cities yes and too much of it.
“What do you eat?” others question. Answer: everything and too much of it, from traditional to French to pizza delivery along with cornflakes and popcorn (although typically at different mealtimes)
“Do they hate us because of the war?” Answer: Not to the best of my knowledge.
What I have learned in my decade of visiting and now living here is that the past, present, and future all seem to live in an (occasionally uneasy) co-existence.
Remnants of French colonialism can still be found in churches, old post offices, and regal mansions now falling into disrepair or being refurbished.
Women still wear the ao dai on special occasion and the conical hat is still the fashion (it protects against the sun) in countryside. Rice paddies, thatched roof homes and water buffaloes still dot the rural landscape.
The images sights, sounds and smells of the “past” are present, though often nuanced against an emerging modern region.
From the 26th floor at the Saigon Pearl I see the Dubai-lite Bitexco Tower; modern, yet according to the architect, symbolic of the lotus blossom rising from District 1.
Closer to home, the Thu Thiem area of District 2, narrow canals, sheet metal homes, street corner barbers, Buddhist temples and the slow pace of “traditional” life exists tenuously.
Billboards replete with smiling faces announce plans for the areas “rebirth” as an appendage to modern Saigon. Already my atmospheric five cent ferry across the river has been terminated and the new tunnel (the biggest news in Saigon since Bob Dylan came last April) has opened.
To many this is progress.
Rudyard Kipling had it wrong when he wrote “East is East and West is West and never the twain shall meet”.
They are meeting, every day, here in what was Indochina.