Sunday, September 28, 2014

Artistic Expression in Hanoi

It's been a while since I've done a blog post. We were in Sa Pa, Ha Long Bay, and Hanoi for about ten days. Then after that my classes started for my American Culture class that I'm teaching. Needless to say I've been really busy. So, a little bit of info about my time up north. We started our journey by flying to Hanoi. We spent just half a day in Hanoi before taking an overnight train to Sa Pa. The train was really cool, because it was an old style steam engine. It pretty much looked like the Hogwarts express from the inside. The only bad part was that a few mosquitoes had gotten onto our train and bit us in the middle of the night. We arrived in Sa Pa early in the morning for a few days of trekking with Hmong women as our guides. The Hmong are a group of indigenous people who live in the highlands of Vietnam. They grow a lot of rice and are known for their intricate handmade clothing. The hiking itself was fairly easy, especially after the three day backpacking trip I had taken with my partner at the beginning of summer. The Hmong women were very helpful for the less experienced hikers and the scenery was gorgeous. I got to see my first water buffalo! We spent the night at a farmhouse in one of the villages. Our hosts were happy to share some of their homemade rice wine with us. Man oh man does that stuff burn. The second day we trekked to a new village and met some local Hmong children. I think most of the villages make money off of tourists, so all the children were very persistent in having us buy stuff. Later that evening we hiked out of Sa Pa and took the train back to Hanoi.

From Hanoi we went straight to Ha Long Bay where we stayed on a boat for one night. We went spelunking (kind of), kayaking, and swimming before the sun went down. My bed on the boat was so comfortable that I ended up reading and falling asleep early, while everyone else watching this very drunk Scottish man sing Karaoke. The morning before leaving Ha Long Bay we went to a pearl farm. Apparently Phu Quoc and Ha Long Bay are the only two places in Vietnam that grow pearls, and I've been to those two places! Although I've had plenty of opportunities to buy pearls, I haven't had the interest to. Once we returned from Ha Long Bay we had five days in Hanoi to run around. Our time in the capital was very unscheduled. Every place I travel to I am most interested at visiting places of worship. When I went to Italy and France with my family I loved seeing all of the churches. So when we got to the capital I knew I wanted to see as many pagodas and temples as possible. Other than temple hopping we walked around the old quarter, went to bars, bought a bunch of souvenirs, and visited museums .

 One of my favorite things we did was meeting Hanoian photographer Jamie Maxtone-Graham. Jamie used to shoot in LA, but moved to Hanoi to start a life with his Vietnamese wife and daughter, Jamie's work is very different than your typical Vietnamese photography. What I mean by that is that it is very interpretive and is something that can be analysed and looked at in different ways. Typical Vietnamese photography is very safe and the photographer is clear with his/her intentions of what the photo is. For anyone interested in Jamie's work here is a link to his website, After meeting Jamie we were invited to go to an art gallery exhibit that Jamie's friend had arranged. The exhibit was a live, movie, and photograph show of one of Hanoi's first drag shows in 1999. There were photos taken of the night hanging downstairs, a movie of the night playing upstairs, and a topless man who was covered in sparkles and a headdress. I think he was meant to be a walking piece of art. I actually felt very at home at the art show. There were a lot of westerners and the people who were there all looked like they could be from Berkeley. Later on in the week we read an article in class that talked about how some performance artists in Vietnam are viewed as anti-art by the government and artistic elites. There was an example of a father laying on top of his son while his son read a poem aloud. This was supposed to represent a father's repression of his son. Performance art like this is viewed as anti-art by many traditional Vietnamese artists, because performance art doesn't necessarily need to be defined. Interpretive art frustrates traditional thinkers. The gallery exhibit that I saw in Hanoi is a perfect example of a new type of artistic expression that is popping up in Vietnam. The exhibit used many forms to present the drag show. The meaning behind the show was not clear and the viewer had to create his or her own interpretation. I think this style of art will become more popular in Vietnam as the government allows for more forms of art and expression to be showed. 


Sunday, September 7, 2014

Sexuality and Gender Roles in Modern Vietnam

This week in class we talked about family and the individual. Our two readings focused on an abusive mother-daughter relationship and men who have sex with men (MSM) relationships. Both readings talked about the commodification of sex. In the first reading the mother would exploit her daughter by forcing her to sleep with various men for money and items while the second article talked of men having sex with other men for money. Later in the week we met with a man from the gay community, Quang, who spoke to us of the commodification of sex. He said that the use of sex for money did happen in Vietnam and that it was a pretty well known fact for both the homosexual and heterosexual communities. Homosexuality is becoming more accepted in Vietnam, especially in Saigon. However, homosexual couples are rarely open in public, they cannot get married, and they cannot adopt as a couple. Vietnam in general is a country with little PDA. For the three weeks I have lived here I have never seen a couple kiss. So I can understand why it would be scandalous for two men to be holding hands in public. Apparently lesbian couples are more accepted. I think this is because of the extreme differences in gender roles here. Men are expected to be manly and marry in order to continue the family line. Females can be more physical with their female friends, although they are expected to marry as well. The secrecy of MSM relationships has caused a spike in HIV/AIDS due to lack of safe sex information and loose lifestyle. Some men seek sexual pleasure from other men outside of marriage, because they have been pressured to marry by their parents. The multiple sexual partners, limited information on safe sex, current culture of the gay community, and recent spike in Methamphetamine use have all contributed to the 33% statistic of men with HIV/AIDS in the gay community.

The same day we met Quang we also met a fortune teller. Vietnamese people, especially the older generation, meet with fortune tellers about twice a year. Couples go to fortune tellers to learn when it is a good time for them to get married in case there is a conflicting period during the Lunar calendar. Our friend Quang had never been to a fortune teller and did not have the intention of ever going to one. As a thirty year old man, he has extreme pressure from his parents to get married and start a family. I think family is the biggest factor that shapes gender in Vietnamese society. From birth, boys and girls are put into categories. I know this is also true for the United States, but there seems to be more acceptance in the US when a child deviates from the norm compared to Vietnam. Boys are given much more freedom to go out and date than girls. Girls must be delicate and boys must be manly. I have been told over and over that the most important thing in Vietnamese culture is the family and the continuation of the family line. Because of this, it is very hard for Vietnamese to adapt to the idea of homosexual relationships. For traditional thinkers, accepting homosexuality would mean changing their view of relationships, family, and sexuality. I see this same struggle in the United States. Being from California, almost all of my friends believe in gay rights and equality. It seems to be my parent's generation that still has difficulty accepting that gay rights are human rights and that gay people are human people. From talking with Quang and hearing about what it is like to be gay in Vietnam I was reminded of what it was like to be gay in the US in the 1980s. I took a LGBT studies class in San Francisco where we learned about the beginning of the gay rights movement and the HIV/AIDS epidemic. By comparing the two, I would say that Vietnam is at the beginning of its gay rights movement. And I'm really happy about it.

“Be careful, you are not in Wonderland. I’ve heard the strange madness long growing in your soul. But you are fortunate in your ignorance, in your isolation. You who have suffered, find where love hides. Give, share, lose—lest we die, unbloomed.”-From the film Kill Your Darlings

Saturday, September 6, 2014

Phu Quoc Island: Lord of the Dogs

We spent out National Day vacation on Phu Quoc Island. Phu Quoc is Vietnam's largest island and is known for its own breed of dog, beautiful beaches, pearl farms, natural exports, and jungle. Jihoon and I booked three hotel rooms on the north side of the island for the eleven of us which ended up being the perfect amount of space. Our bungalows were literally on the beach. We took a bus to a port city where we connected to a ferry to get to the island. Both forms of transportation had Vietnamese pop music and comedy shows playing so loudly that not even my headphones could fully block out the sound. Pop music is extremely popular here. I've had a hard time finding anyone my age who is into rock and roll. When we boarded our ferry we found out that our seats had been double booked and we were given seats on the bottom part of the boat. It was a very bumpy ride, but we arrived intact! It was dumping rain when we arrived, so we spent the first night getting settled and eating our first pizza in Vietnam. I quickly noticed how deserted the island was and I later realized that we were there during the off season. Much of the island is at the beginning stages of construction and most of the roads are dirt paths. I think Phu Quoc has ten or so years before being finished as a tourist destination, because most of the construction is hand and shovel rather than large construction companies.
We took a beach day our first day, because the weather was so nice. I spent most of the day reading my new Steven King novel, swimming, and walking on the beach. The group reconvened for sunset which was something out of this world. We spent a good hour down at the beach just watching the sun go down and listening to music. The water was so warm that we went swimming at dusk. We went to the Buddha Lounge for a bit of dancing. The bar was German owned and I liked hearing a different version of club music compared to the same old beat of Can Tho. The next day we woke up early to be tourists and explore the island. We got a private bus and toured five sites for the price of 5usd. Our first stop was a Buddhist pagoda in the jungle. It was absolutely beautiful. The various religious statues and graves were scattered on the hillside. I explored and came upon a bunch of hidden idols in the forest. At the top of the hillside there was a small garden where a monk was praying in a gazebo. I sat there for a while and lit some incense for my Mom and uncle. I'm not sure what insect was making the noise, but there was a buzzing sound at the top of the hillside. 
Our second location was a waterfall in the jungle. It was about a fifteen minute walk to the waterfall, which was packed with tourists so I climbed over the side of the fall to explore. I got stuck at a river crossing which was too difficult to cross on my own so I got Jihoon to hike with me. Together we were able to hike another fifteen minutes past the fall until the brush became too thick to go any further. The forests here are very different. The ground is springy from all the moisture and there are vines everywhere, 
where we got stuck
After the waterfall we stopped of at a store that sold wine and other goods made of honey myrtle. We had a little wine tasting and it tasted very similar to port (extremely sweet!). We had lunch on the south side of the island. The south side has white sand beaches and you can walk out fifty yards without the water going above your head. I had never been to such a soft sand beach and the water was crystal clear. The sand felt like flour under my feet. We played with starfish and hermit crabs and snapped a few photos before having to leave. We would have loved to stay there the whole day, but the day was quickly coming to an end.
Our land destination was a pearl farm that was owned by a very eccentric Australian man. We learned how the farm speeds up the process of pearl production by inserting a small plastic ball into the oyster and repeating the process up to three times depending on the oyster. I spent our last day on the island reading my book and hanging out with one of the local dogs. I named him Sandy while the boys named him Ballzack. I think Sandy fits him better. We went to the night market for dinner and splurged for crab, fish, octopus, prawns, veggies, and a bottle of wine. We headed back home to Can Tho the next day by plane this time. It was only a thirty minute plane ride, rather than a six hour bus/boat ride. Our vacation within a vacation was so relaxing and beautiful. I can't believe we travel to Hanoi, Sa Pa, and Halong Bay on Thursday! Next Sunday marks my first month in Vietnam and a quarter of the trip over. Crazy! 
He would guard our door at night

Love to you all,