Trinh Cong Son, the great song writer, poet and soul of Saigon, said that he got his heart and mind revving each morning by watching frantic life unfurling all around him, while sitting in a sidewalk cafe. Lesser Vietnamese do exactly the same, however, for to be among one’s own kind is practically an hourly necessity here. The second they’re free to do so, most head straight for the nearest café, eatery or beer joint, which is, still, most likely on the sidewalk, or open to it.
At the next table, there is a man, woman and a baby girl nursing from a bottle. Sunlight floods in, ceiling fans barely cool, while just outside, motorcycles swarm past, beeping too often. Up and down the street are scores of similar joints, with most specializing in just one or two noodle or rice dishes.
There is also a McDonald’s, overpriced by local standards, yet still filled, for it’s a destination for the nouveau riche, and for regular people to sometimes treat their kids, to expose them to how white people eat. Just out of sight is a billboard showing Denzel Washington, looking super cool with some sort of mean-assed rifle.
A dark, wiry dude rides by on a bicycle, with a speaker that repeats, “I buy air conditioners, refrigerators and sewing machines.” Now and then, a lottery ticket seller strays in, but none are children, as in the 90s, and there are almost no beggars left, and gone, absolutely, is the appalling spectacle of kids in rags, waiting for a diner to finish his meal, so that they can eat whatever’s leftover, even if it’s just a bit of broth.
This eatery is known for its braised pork offal, served with French bread, and for its cubed beef, presented on a cow-shaped skillet. I like to write here because it’s free from distracting music, and because a can of Tiger beer is a reasonable 73 cents. Seeing me typing, the owner asks, “Do you need me to turn on the light, brother?”
“No, I’m fine, sister. Thank you!”
It’s this comfort with being on top of each other, all the time, that has helped the Vietnamese to survive, I think, for their togetherness is constant and literal. To the Vietnamese, the masses are not an abstraction, but a relentless experience they actually enjoy. By contrast, most Americans would not put up with this nonstop proximity of other bodies. Americans only get a chance to belong to a crowd at a rare football game, NASCAR rally, Insane Clown Posse concert, Burning Man or George Soros-sponsored protest, etc.
The Vietnamese’s eagerness to always merge doesn’t make them natural Communists, however, for outside of any collective crisis, they’re individualistic enough, as evidenced by the maddening proliferation of small businesses everywhere, from pushcarts to neighborhood factories. To be his own boss, a Vietnamese would sell ten old pairs of shoes and assorted junk, displayed on a tarp, as he sits in the sun on the sidewalk.
In the Christian West, the first person was one lonely man, Adam, while in the Vietnamese creation myth, a woman gave birth to a hundred eggs, which hatched into the very first mob of Vietnamese.
Noticing the Vietnamese’s compulsion to cluster, foreigners have repeatedly compared them to ants or other insects. “The ants are a people not strong, yet they prepare their meat in the summer,” goes the biblical proverb, but it’s always summer here, so the Vietnamese are prepared year-round, year in and year out, for whatever calamities await them. Stoic and always stocked up on the basics, they are perennial preppers.
Many Vietnamese towns have “an,” “yên” or “bình” in their name, with each meaning “peaceful,” but all these Peacevilles have been sacked, looted, burnt or bombed through the centuries, as is typical of all settlements worldwide, except, of course, for those in the USA.
My two years in Certaldo, Italy, I lived a block away from the rebuilt house of Boccaccio, destroyed by American bombs. The town itself had been erected on a hill, with a defensive wall, for war was always nearby, and not something overseas or on television.
The most typical Vietnamese male name is Hùng, meaning heroic, for it’s not just a masculine ideal, but a societal necessity. Without enough heroic men, your nation will be snuffed out, as countless have been. Wherever you are, you’re living on a graveyard of obliterated societies.
This week came news that Nguyễn Văn Thương, a Vietcong spy during the Vietnam War, had died at age 80. In 1969, Thương was trying to smuggle documents from Saigon when he was spotted by American helicopters. With his AK-47, Thương shot one down, killing three Americans, but finally he was captured by a swarming posse of 72 helicopters, an ARVN division and a US Army regiment, it is said.
Trying to win over this invaluable intelligence asset, the Americans offered Thương $100,000, a car, a villa and the rank of an ARVN colonel, but he would not switch sides, so they locked him up for four years while subjecting him to all sorts of torture, including, get this, the sawing off of his legs six times, one chunk at a time, until all Thương had left were two pitiful stumps.
I’m not going to conjecture how embellished all this is, but it can’t be more preposterous than any Rambo movie. The key takeaway is that both characters are meant to inspire, but there is a key difference between them. Whereas Rambo’s role is to reassure Americans they are still invincible, that they’ll always kick ass if not for a backstabbing bureaucracy, Thương reminds Vietnamese that an individual or nation may have to endure unspeakable pain and sacrifice to possibly survive another day.
It’s more than curious that many Americans are still willing to be sent anywhere to fight anybody, for any reason, no matter how bogus, but this can be partially explained by the myth of American invincibility. Young American males will sign up tomorrow to be dispatched to Timbuktu, North or South Korea, Saskatchewan, Mars, Atlantis, wherever, because they’ve been brainwashed into thinking they will quickly kick ass then go home, to a hero’s welcome. Bring it on!
A concomitant factor is sadism. Conditioned from infancy to enjoy seeing bodies maimed in every which way imaginable, many Americans welcome the chance to blow up, shred or chop up a few, and though this mindset is certainly pathological, it’s a prerequisite of any empire.
Everybody else on earth will only fight to defend their nation, however, but this is exactly what gung-ho Americans have failed to do, paradoxically, for as they bomb away everywhere, their homeland is raped and disfigured beyond recognition, but I’m no longer appalled by this. A population so meekly clueless deserves its doom.