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Trip to Saigon

By
November 29, 2005

How has Carolyn managed to survive here—teaching English, filtering her water, living in her square box of a room? It may not be dangerous for young women like us, but danger isn’t the only impediment to comfort

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—white Wilson tennis skirts and pink t-shirts on the girls at the foot massage place

—older men (white and Vietnamese) who disappear with the tennis-skirted girls into back rooms

—hazardous street crossing: onslaught of taxis, motorbikes, SUVs, cyclos (like rickshaws but pedaled from behind by Vietnamese men wearing plastic sandals, fraying shorts, and open shirts, their brown skin stretched so tight over their ribs you can see every bone, every cyst and scar)

—standing under an umbrella with Carolyn in a monsoon as a cyclo driver got soaked following us for blocks, soliciting in his staccato accent, pointing to one of the ubiquitous laminated lists of Saigon’s attractions and his photo book of previous satisfied customers: heavy white westerners transported miles in the beating S.E. Asian sun

—how has Carolyn managed to survive here—teaching English, filtering her water, living in her square box of a room? It may not be dangerous for young women like us, but danger isn’t the only impediment to comfort

Most younger backpacking men aren’t much better—they’re honest about their missions. Such unfortunately handsome white men don’t give Carolyn and me the time of day; we do not get laid

—fine-featured Vietnamese women (my age: late twenties, but smaller than my “petite” Western frame by 2-3 inches and 15-20 pounds, with the silky skin and shiny hair of 40’s film stars, only darker) and their overweight, unshaven, holey-t-shirt-wearing western boyfriends my father’s age, many of whom fought here 35 years ago. Everywhere, these couples. Most younger backpacking men aren’t much better—they’re honest about their missions. Such unfortunately handsome white men don’t give Carolyn and me the time of day; we do not get laid

—like the women, even wealthier Vietnamese men are smaller than me in inches and pounds, and when they smile there’s almost always a gold tooth among the nicotine-stained and mercury-filled others. For the native beauties, the aesthetic faults of the men must be stronger than the pull of culture, tradition. Let the hags—the unlucky girls with acne and irregular features and chubby legs—marry them

—heckling, begging children (imported Cambodian, not native Vietnamese) and (native) guys who sell, sell, sell the stuff you don’t want

—you want: fantastic quality cheap goods. Purses, pottery and puppets. Everything else you can imagine

—backpackers’ quarter (De Tham) crawling with white tourists and expats afflicted with conspicuous consumption. Seems okay to indulge during vacation, even if vacation lasts years

—everyone’s in business for himself (Carolyn’s friend calls it “Capucom” = capitalism + communism. ha!)

—especially captivated by the art stores where rows of Vietnamese men sit at easels painting copies of mainly French Impressionists. Stores are plastered with framed and unframed canvases. Favorites: Monet, Cezanne, Vermeer, Picasso, Pisarro, Gauguin (!), Van Gogh. Rembrandt, Velasquez, and Caravaggio must elude the Vietnamese artists—the light in those Old Masters is infused with the flickering heat from fires in winter, so unlike any light in this tropical land

—Can’t really call copies fakes…they don’t pass for the real thing. They’re hung alongside original works by the stores’ artists. Originals are generally stronger than the copies because they are straightforward, about the streets here (meticulous, unafraid renderings of feral cats, battered bicycles and the gnarled knees of their riders). Despite the pupil-contracting light Vietnam shares with the south of France, Impressionist gamesmanship with line and color isn’t native here, isn’t earned from the same break with tradition, so the copies are flatter, lacking the energy and perspective of the originals

—on street: merchants with pomaded hair and knuckly hands, beggar with one eye, partial person lying on a piece of wood with wheels

—blackest fingernails you can imagine

—piles of human shit behind bus stops

—finding that Carolyn is right: the best time of every day, the thing you can always count on to look forward to (other than the amazing and cheap food) is the moment after you shower (at least 3 times a day) when you can stand naked under the ceiling fan and feel chilly for 30 seconds before the heat/humidity/sunscreen/filth of the city hits you again

—copies of everything here: paintings, photocopied books, burned CDs

—the original Bodhi Tree restaurant vs. “The Original” Bodhi Tree next door

—impossible to tell what’s authentically Vietnamese. Even the gorgeous boxes of chopsticks aren’t real

—Carolyn’s rather wealthy students tell her that even on special occasions they eat with plastic chopsticks. And yet the beautiful chopstick sets are Vietnamese insofar as they are made by Vietnamese people in a Vietnamese craft style.

Her name is Amy to her 50-year-old American boyfriend, Bill. What is her real name, I wondered.

—“folk” art much more arresting, simple as it is, than aforementioned painting copies: the little graceful watercolors of teapots, flowers, and women wearing their ao dai, the flowing long silk tunic slit to the waist over equally flowing silk trousers. But the copied paintings . . . most of them are so bad, who would buy them? This area is crammed full of young westerners, jaded about the west so sentimentally portrayed on these canvases—slavishly copied French landscapes the Vietnamese painters have never seen, landscapes that are the virtual definition of France to other western countries, particularly to the US, and everyone here is very fond of reviling what we did here.

—Today I watched one beautiful young Vietnamese woman in particular. Her name is Amy to her 50-year-old American boyfriend, Bill. What is her real name, I wondered. In her lovely pink ao dai, she waits on Bill in the pizza place in De Tham like she’s his own personal waitress. And he tries to talk to me, a Gap-clad interloper, about “the States” in his Midwestern accent, wearing his Budweiser t-shirt. I bet he still votes absentee in his home state of Kentucky. He’s been here for fifteen years—after some miserable years “home” post-war doing odd jobs with no luck—and now he’s a success in the black-market goods trade. (I wonder what he traffics? Could be heroin, monkeys, bears, bones of US soldiers—just a femur will buy someone a ticket outta here. But it seems rude to ask.) He’s also fathered three children by a different marriage to a Vietnamese Catholic who lives very well on the un-required child-support he so generously pays, in the luxurious house he bought for them, getting fat on the western food his hard work provides. He explains all this to me as Amy brings him another Tiger beer then goes back to giggle with the Vietnamese girls who actually work in the restaurant and are dressed more like I dress at home (jeans, t-shirts), and yet I still do not feel “like” them.

—Bill also claims that it took him a long while to adjust to the different values of this country: “When in Rome . . .” Now, he says, he understands that bribing cops to get what you want, paying off the government to purchase property in decent neighborhoods, and letting, not encouraging, the girls upstairs to use his extra bedrooms for their business is all par for the course. Who is he to judge, he wants to know. Live and let live, he finally figured out. The girls need to earn a living as much as the next person, and he can’t personally help out every nice Vietnamese that comes knocking on his door—he needs to save enough to put his mixed kids through college in the States and that takes a lot of dough these days, you know?

—Bill speaks excellent Vietnamese to the other waitresses and the street kids who try to sell him things (it’s a faster way to get rid of them, he says, to let them know he’s one of them, not a tourist), but he only speaks English to Amy.

—She eludes me—I haven’t actually spoken to her, only watched her, which is all I’ll allow myself. I need my mid-day shower.

After shower

—beer that stays icy cold for a glorious five minutes

—Vietnamese iced milky coffee: cà phê suá dâ (really thick espresso-like coffee over ice with condensed milk) Sweet. Bitter. Superb.

—CHEAP LUXURY (if you can afford it) Like having my clothes appear magically, washed and dried, the day after putting them in the laundry bucket

—never being leered at by strange men. Depressing to realize that this is actually something female travelers note and discuss over dinner.

—white, white, white rice and noodles glowing on the sidewalk food carts

—the smell! I can barely describe it. It’s insidious, like an overboiled version of the late-August NYC Chinatown banana peel/shrimp casing/urine stench

—a city that’s been put up in a hurry. Shitty crumbling buildings next to equally shitty—though shiny and new—buildings that look like they could blow over in the next monsoon

—immaculate tile floors in the pagodas, cool and smooth on hot feet

—examined a few more painting shops. Discovered amidst all the Cezanne and Gauguin clutter an astonishing original picture—a portrait of a Vietnamese girl against what could be any of the cafes in the De Tham area. The girl’s about ten or eleven, skinny as they are here, her black hair bobbed and banged, and she’s hunched over on the seat of a motorbike, looking wide-eyed out of the canvas. Very eerie. The colors are matte and smooth, but the brushstrokes aren’t tight—it has the effect of a Manet in this way, though it’s doing something slightly different than Manet, who is not often copied here (when he is, the results are the worst of the copies, maybe because his technique is not so obvious as the billowy strokes of Van Gogh who’s copied well or the geometry of Cezanne who’s decently copied). But the Manet-ness of the painting isn’t the strange part, nor even are the hungry brown eyes of the girl (there are other portraits of girls and young women, as these male painters are adept at exposing the fear/wonder/happiness/boredom/helplessness in the eyes of their women who reveal these emotions to no one in person). No, the strange thing about this painting is the orange and orange peel on the lower right corner by the front wheel of the motorbike.

It would seem a minor detail, a little piece of bright color to anchor an otherwise earth-toned painting. The point is that the orange and it’s peel are exactly in the style of Fantin-Latour. They’ve got the controlled quality of his lines and the paradoxically dappled quality of his deep, luxurious colors. My beloved Latour, the most incredible painter of the still life ever, who worked in France during the last part of the 19th century like most of the other painters these Saigonese artists copy—except for the fact that there are no other Fantin-Latours anywhere in Saigon.

Is the orange, indeed the whole picture, only appealing to me because it’s here, and so out of place?

I recognize the orange because I adore Latour, and his most powerful images are forever engrained in my mind, the orange especially, which I saw in a still life at the National Gallery in D.C. The painted orange was more real than a real orange. The Saigon orange is not in the same position as the one in the National Gallery, which makes it less likely to be a copy. It’s the style of the orange—so different from the Manetness of the rest of the picture—that makes it uncanny. The outside of the peel is bright orange with the smooth, dimpled skin that makes the fruit a pleasure to touch. The inside membrane is rough and lighter orange, gently cupping the left-over sections that had once been part of the juicy, pliable sphere. Bits of peel lie near the partly- eaten orange. It looks like someone (the girl pictured?) had tried, and failed, to unpeel it in a long, unbroken ribbon. The sections are plump and deeply colored with creamy veins and a few gray seeds embedded in their pulpy layers. I sit for an hour in the café across from the painting shop and get up periodically to re-inspect the painting.

—Am I exoticising this description superfluously? Is the orange, indeed the whole picture, only appealing to me because it’s here, and so out of place?

—Here’s a surprise: Amy just went into the painting shop while I was writing that last sentence and bought a smallish and particularly awful copy of Manet’s infamous whore, Olympia. There was no haggling in the exchange—she seemed to just be picking up something that was already purchased (by Bill, I assume). I wonder where it will hang in their house, or if it is a gift for the girls upstairs. But she’s gone now, the painting tucked under her arm, the brocaded blue silk of her ao dai tunic billowing behind her as she goes.

—I hate Bill, I realize, because he surely knows Amy’s real name and I do not. And still, dammit, despite that and our gender difference, he and I are more alike than I am like Amy.

There’s just never enough time in one place.

After my last cà phê suá dâ at the Bodhi Tree, I had to revisit the painting shop.

The portrait with the Latour orange is still there, and the proprietor of the shop, who has noticed me before, approaches and says, “Nice painting.” The man is of indeterminate age (maybe 40?), is (typically) thinner than I am, and he wears the usual shopkeeper’s white button-down shirt and polyester flat-front trousers with black plastic sandals. I can’t believe how cool he looks; I’m melting in my linen skirt.

When he smiles, I see he has only six teeth in the front of his mouth.

“It is nice,” I agree.

“You buy?” he asks.

I refrain from asking the price because that would only encourage him to foist it on me. Instead, I point to the line of four painters, all men in paint-stained white shirts and black pants sitting on short stools, working on canvases, and ask him, “Who painted it?”

He claps his hands, grins widely, and says, “You want meet artiste!”

I laugh and say I do.

He rushes over to the man who is third from the last in the line, then ushers him over to where I’m standing. The artiste says hello and evades my eyes bashfully.

I point at the painting and say, “Very nice. Tres jolie.”

The artist smiles and the shopkeeper hovers. “She like, she like,” he says to his employee. “Ask how much she want to buy.”

“I don’t want to buy,” I say as firmly as I can. “I want to know,” I continue, moving my pointing finger to the orange in the lower right corner, suddenly unsure how to ask my question. “How did you paint this orange?” I try.

“Trái cam!” says the shopkeeper.

“Trái cam?” I ask.

The shopkeeper points at the orange, “Trái cam, trái cam,” he repeats.

“Orange?” I ask.

“Yes, yes. Oui, oui. Orange is trái cam,” he says.

The painter starts to look bored, so I address my next question directly to him. “Who paint trái cam?”

He thumbs his own chest.

“No copy?” I ask, gesturing to the other walls crowded with Impressionists.

The painter shakes his head and the shopkeeper puts his arm around him and says to me, “Truong is best painter in Saigon. Very original. You buy his painting today, it worth many dollars later!”

This conversation is slipping rapidly out of my hands. “Yes,” I concur. “He . . . I mean you, Truong, are very talented. Very good painter. Do you know another very good painter named Fantin-Latour?”

“Fountain?” asks the shopkeeper. He raises his arms in the air and waves his hands, mimicking a fountain.

“No, no, no. No fountain,” I say, copying his arm movements, then shaking my head. “An artist named Fantin-Latour.”

The shopkeeper knits his brow while the painter slumps over further.

“Wait,” I say. From my purse I produce my pen and a ripped-out page from this journal, then write “Fantin-Latour” on the paper and show it to the two men.

They shake their heads in unison.

I write “Cezanne.”

This time they both perk up and point toward the several Cézannes on the wall. “You buy Cezanne?” asks the shopkeeper. “Many more Cezanne in back. You like to see?”

“No Cezanne,” I say, irritated.

I try again: “You have books? For copies?” I use my hands to imitate the opening and closing of a book then point at the copies.

La livre!” Exclaims the shopkeeper, taking my hand and leading me toward where the painters sit working. Each of them has a book on the floor which they check every few brushstrokes.

I point hesitantly to the first painter’s book and say, “I look?”

The shopkeeper picks up the book and hands it to me. The painter from whom he took it does not look away from his canvas, and Truong returns to his stool.

I flip through the books. They’re all monographs: Cezanne, Pisarro, Vermeer, and Norman Vincent Peale, of all people. “You have more books?” I ask the shopkeeper.

He nods energetically and opens the door to the back room which is full of canvases in various states of readiness, some of which are exactly the same as the ones outside. They must do a good business, I reflect, picturing Olympia in a house where Amy lives and shaking my head. On a table in the back are the books. The shopkeeper pounds the stack of them and says, “You look. Choose picture and Truong paints.”

“Thank you,” I say.

He leaves me alone with the books and paintings—the trust of the Vietnamese never ceases to amaze me. There are a few Latours, but none of the books has a reproduction of one of his oranges. Just his flowers, and one still life with a bowl of fruit (peaches, no oranges). Nevertheless, I take one of the books onto the main floor of the store and go straight to Truong.

“Excuse me,” I say. He turns to face me with that blank expression again. “I’m sorry to bother you.” I point at the Latour still life and his name beside it. “Fantin-Latour.” Then I point at the portrait with the orange. “Trái cam? Fantin-Latour?” I have no idea if I’m making an understandable connection between the orange and Latour, and Truong’s impermeable black eyes do not help. I wonder how eyes that opaque take in enough of the world to produce what he does. “Trái cam, Fantin-Latour?”

“Ah,” Truong says, a glimmer of understanding making him smile and wave a hand. He rises from his stool and moves over to the painting. I notice the shopkeeper watching us intently.

Truong and I stand in front of the eerie-eyed Vietnamese girl, and he points at the orange and says, “Trái cam no la-ter.” He points at the name in the book. “Trái cam, me.” He jabs his thumb into his chest. “No copy,” he adds, tilting his chin up.

I look from Truong to the painting and back again several times. He is proud of this painting, his unwavering smile tells me.

“Thank you for your help.” I point at the orange again and say, “Very pretty. Tres jolie.”

Truong nods so deeply he almost bows, then turns on his heels and returns to his stool.

I tell myself I bought the painting as a souvenir, a memory in the French sense. But really it is my consolation for not finding out Amy’s name. It’s my failure of nerve that really bothers me. I might have simply asked her—probably she would have been flattered. Or not. Worse, she might have told me that Amy is her real name.

At dinner last night over gin and tonics and a feast that began with my new favorite dish, jackfruit salad, Carolyn agreed that the orange is “totally Latour.” I was not out of my mind. When I asked her how she thought a Vietnamese guy separated from Latour by thousands of miles and more than a century could have conceived of the same orange, she said she didn’t know. Then she asked me why I cared so much and I said I didn’t know.

But that’s not totally true. Here’s what I do know:

—People like me buy the paintings in those shops.

—If you look, they know you want to buy.

Kerri Smith has an MFA from Columbia University. She has been the recipient of the Caroyln Doty Memorial Scholarship for the Squaw Valley Writers Community, and her latest essay is forthcoming in English Journal. She is working on a novel. More of Kerri Smith’s work can be found on her website, www.kerrismithmajors.com.

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