the "c-word"

This is a topic that is probably positively quaint to anyone born after 1980 or so, but seems to be burned rather deeply in the consciousness of Americans my age and (especially) older. Many are amazed when I tell them that I only heard one reference made to the "c-word" my entire time in Vietnam, and even then it was pretty benign.

I have to say that I didn't give the "c-word" much thought myself until my passport arrived back in the mail from the Vietnamese embassy, with a page-sized visa pasted in, at the top emblazoned "The Socialist Republic of Vietnam".

The "c-word" in question, as I'm sure you've guessed by now, is "communism".

Vietnam is nominally a communist country. Actually, it's a Communist country, which means that you can belong to any political party you like as long as it's the Communist Party. To be sure, political dissent is not officially tolerated in Vietnam, and one way I could ensure myself a rapid expulsion from the country would have been to actively promote democratic reform (the other would have been proselytizing). Not a problem, as I am interested in neither.

The reality is that "Communist" in Vietnam today does not--at least as far as I could observe--have anything in particular to do with actual communism. (Sort of like "Republican" in the US today has nothing to do with actual republicanism.) Market-based reforms (Đổi Mới, "renovation") have been underway since the mid-1980's, and business has been booming ever since.

In fact, I would say that the typical small business owner in Vietnam has a damn sight more freedom (or at least, non-interference from the state) than their American counterparts. Just try setting up your Sterno burner, grill, and cooler full of meat and condiments on a sidewalk in an American city, selling food to passersby, and see how long you're there before you're shut down. Just try renting bicycles or motorcycles out to tourists without filling out any paperwork.

To be sure, there might be a lot going on behind the scenes there that I just didn't see. But it's pretty jarring to walk into restaurant now and see the profusion of officially sanctioning documents (food service license, liquor license, health inspection, etc.) so prominently displayed.

Beyond communism as economic system, there was really very little of the cultural trappings of what I associate (perhaps erroneously, perhaps not) with a single-party state. Ho Chi Minh's image is fairly ubiquitous (especially on the money; he's on every denomination) but not noticeably more so than, say, George Washington's is here (particularly in the city that bears his name.) If there were any big portraits of Vietnam's current political leaders, I didn't see them. In fact, I would have to look up the name of the current head of government, and I just spent three weeks there.

I didn't see any gratuitous displays of military might. In fact, I didn't see that many cops--certainly less per capita than in say, Durham. There are a lot of people in uniform, but if you look closely, many of them work for private security firms.

But perhaps the best example I can think of is this: there are stores that sell old propaganda posters. They have signs hanging over them advertising "Old Propaganda Posters!"


saigon (footnote)

Apparently, Anthony Bourdain was in Saigon the same time we were.

I take pride in being pretty unimpressed by celebrity, but I have to admit that if we'd seen him there in particular, I probably would have said/done something really goofy. So I guess it's just as well that we didn't.


day 1 (or, how i learned to stop worrying and love the traffic)

You wake up early your first morning in Saigon*, in no small part because your body despite light cues to the contrary and the fact that you have only slept about four hours is completely and utterly convinced that it is late in the afternoon, and you really shouldn't be in bed right now. As consciousness begins to take hold, you tell yourself that more sleep really is the sensible thing, but also realize that you're in freaking Saigon. Sleep is over, for now.

(If you were really as quick-witted as you fancy yourself to be, you would stare at the ceiling and say, "Saigon...shit; I'm still only in Saigon," but you are not really this clever, and besides your wife hates war movies and would probably just give you that pained look of confusion and sympathy she reserves for when you make a joke she doesn't appreciate. You know this look well.)

After a shower the two of you strike out into the neighborhood you saw only dimly through the windows of your cab the night before, when it was relatively quiet. You are famished and caffeine-deprived and it is only 6AM. Lucky for you, Saigon wakes up early.

First the back lane on which your hotel is situated--in most American cities, this would be an "alley", but you later realize this designation is reserved in Vietnam for the corridors between buildings only a pedestrian can pass. The motos (motorcycles) have easy passage here, and for that matter so do the smaller cars. Kids on bikes pass, presumably on their way to school. So does the occasional moto. Food preparation is well underway--chicken is frying, pork is grilling, vegetables are being chopped, sugarcane is being pressed, all out in the lane. Near these microkitchens you note the profusion of children's furniture--tiny plastic chairs around little tables--and begin to feel like Gulliver in Lilliput.

Then, the secondary street into which the back lane empties. For some odd reason the first thing you notice are the power lines. There are thousands of cables in loose bundles crisscrossing the street roughly between the ground and first floors of the buildings lining the street, coiled at regular intervals around what presumably are junctions, though you have no way of seeing what they are coiled around.

You attempt to walk on the sidewalk, and quickly realize that the sidewalk is more theoretical than actual. Motos are parked everywhere, and interspersed with more food carts, cigarette and beverage vendors, and groups of men squatting in circles, talking, drinking coffee, smoking. You have to walk in the street, which is already fairly busy, and in single file. But as the street is mostly occupied by motos, followed by bicycles, followed by pedestrians, followed by the occasional car, this isn't as bad as it sounds.

This is a trivial observation, really, but it's worth mentioning anyway. As a 5'11", 200-lb white guy, you stand out here. No amount of geographical competence, purposeful walking, nondescript clothing, or quiet conversation can disguise the fact that you are undeniably a tourist. This ain't Europe. Might as well keep that map in your hand, because you're going to need it.

The morning's destination is Ben Thanh Market. Between you and it is Nguyen Thai Hoc, a major boulevard. Nothing could prepare you for the river of motos filling it from curb to curb, elbow to elbow, tire to tire, for as far as you can see in either direction. Nor for the fact that like a river, it never stops moving.

It isn't that there aren't crosswalks or traffic signals in HCMC. It's that there are only about a dozen of each in this sprawling city of 10 million, as far as I can tell.

The first rule of crossing the street in Saigon is this: don't panic. You have to believe--really, truly believe--that no one actually wants to run you down with their moto. This will be hard to believe if you are American, but it seems to be true, based on data collected to date. You also have to understand that a honking horn in Vietnam does not mean what it means in America. It's a warning, not an act of aggression (even harder for us Americans to accept, I know). Whereas a horn in a America is generally best translated as "fuck you", in Vietnam, "pardon me" is a much closer approximation. Really.

The second rule is this: don't panic. Once you have stepped out into traffic (and at some point, you will have to do exactly that), you are committed. You have to keep going, at a steady pace, without sudden shift in velocity or direction. This is your end of the bargain--move predictably. Everyone else's end is to go around you. And they do. The only thing you can do that would be worse than running is stop--you see, where you are at any given moment is a place some driver is counting on you not being in a few seconds. There is some allowance for stopping in the middle to assess the traffic coming from the other direction, but even this is a bit touchy, because the center line (if there is one) is not the hard and fast no-man's land it is western traffic control (more on this later).

The first time you do this you will be completely convinced that you are about to die before you even get your first damn bowl of pho. But before you know it, you are stepping up on the other curb with an adrenalin rush you'd pretty much have to jump out of a plane to top. You feel giddy. Your wife and you look at each other, wide-eyed and goofy-grinned, and walk on, feeling like you can do anything now.

Which is a good thing, because in another block, you have to get across Le Lai...

*Yes, this place is officially called Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) and has been for quite a while. Nobody blinks if you use the old appellation, though, and in fact the locals use "Saigon" to refer to the central districts of the city specifically. I will use both, but will admit to preferring Saigon because it is frankly more romantic (nothing against Uncle Ho.)
So this blog is mostly going to be about Vietnam for a while. At least as long as I can sustain it--I have at least half a dozen posts rattling around in my head, maybe more, but I know better than to promise that which has not yet been written, especially since we have a lot of laundry, food shopping, and dog-rubbing to catch up on (not necessarily in that order.) That, and I apparently have something called a "job", a fact I have managed to nearly completely purge from my conscious mind for the last three weeks.

At the risk of spoiling the suspense, I'll give you the ending first: I left Vietnam wanting more. I can't wait to go back.



12-hour jet lag.
Barely lucid.
Dog happily splayed for belly rubs.
All is well.

More later.


See you in a few weeks...


happy repeal day!

Today is the 75th Anniversary of Repeal Day. You can guess how I'll be celebrating.

Radley Balko marks the occasion (and also generates some good hate mail). I've written about this once or twice myself.

Elsewhere in prohibition news, we have Jacob Sullum, who notes:

"The good news in drug policy," [Drug Czar John] Walters writes, "is that we know what works, and that is moral seriousness." Moral seriousness on this subject would require taking into account half a million nonviolent drug offenders behind bars, the victims of black market violence, avoidable deaths caused by the unreliable quality and unsanitary practices that prohibition fosters, the risk-premium subsidy to thugs and terrorists, the corruption of law enforcement officials, and the loss of civil liberties resulting from the drug war's perversion of the Constitution. Walters' claim to moral seriousness is therefore hard to take seriously. I'd settle for a little bit of intellectual seriousness from whomever Barack Obama chooses to succeed Walters, but it seems to be incompatible with the job.

In a perfect world, Mr. Obama would replace Mr. Walters with...no one.

(I'm not holding my breath.)



A man who arguably contributed more to modern neuroscience--and certainly to the neurobiology of memory--than any other single person died this week.

He did not have tenure, a lab, a grant, or even a PhD. But his students number in the thousands.

You can read more about him here.