A few observations on VN, in no particular order (part 3)


(last part. Apologies, this is the one where I complain a lot)

6. Guidebooks: I will not repeat the numerous curses I aimed at guidebooks over the course of the stay. We had two, the Lonely Planet and the Guide du Routard, and we mostly used them as bare indications of what to see (Grandma, in the fashion of long-time dwellers of cities, mostly directed us towards shops and restaurants rather than museums; plus Vietnamese can have very different ideas of tourism than Westerners). For all the rest, they sucked. I have never yet opened up a guidebook while knowing something about the country they described, and having now done it, I think I will never ever trust those %%%%ers again. The Lonely Planet thought it was smart to transcribe everything in the English UTF-8 alphabet (ie, no tonal marks, no accents, no additional letters such as “đ”). OK, here’s a hint: with that system, “dao” can mean anything from peach (đào) to religion (đạo) to knife (dao). And when you’re in a taxi trying to convince the guy that you want to go to the Museum of Vietnamese History (a destination, alas, not often used by tourists, which meant the taxi didn’t recognise it), that you don’t know how to say museum or history from memory and you’re pointing to a name and an address, neither of them properly written down, and the driver looks blank… %%%% is all I’m going to say. Also: next time, I will write down the name of the place in proper Vietnamese.
Le Guide du Routard, meanwhile, was a monument of colonialist fail. And I don’t use the word lightly. It repeatedly insisted on using the “old” names of bridges and streets over their new names (all the bridges and streets were named after French luminaries, a naming system which, as you can imagine, didn’t last long past independence) [1]. It warned people away from places like the Museum of War Remnants on the pretext that the coverage was spurious and fake, and that it would “make you hate the war”. Well, duh. The war isn’t fun, isn’t nice, isn’t something you can be thrilled around and buy souvenir T-shirts of, for God’s sake. People died. People starved. People did horrible things on both sides. And yes, the coverage of the Museum is a bit one-sided, focusing on the war crimes of the US and the French rather than on the other side. But if you think it’s not an important thing to see in the context of the war [2], then there is something seriously wrong with you.
(and I won’t even get into all the odd stuff they both said about Vietnamese culture–I’m not an expert, but even I could see that some things were completely off, and other things were hopeless generalisations of something specific to a particular region)

7. Dubious standards of beauty: the H and I remain deeply horrified by the ads we saw, which all featured varieties of Western models, or Vietnamese models touched up to have clearer skin. It was like some kind of freak show: it’s obvious that no one there is ever going to have that complexion, but it’s still the norm of beauty. I don’t know to what extent it’s White domination playing out, and to what extent it’s something that was already there and accentuated by the West (Mom and Grandma have always told me that clearer skin has been valued in Vietnam since ancient times, because having white skin showed that you weren’t a sun-tanned peasant), but the way it plays out today is… scary. Equally scary is leafing through beauty magazines, which advertise whitening cream with the same fervour we advertise anti-wrinkle cream in France. It reminds me of a picture on Requires_hate‘s blog. You’re shown a mall in Thailand, but it’s so generic it could be anywhere in the West: the brands and the models are all European and/or White (and/or blonde or brunette), and everything is labelled in English. And, in the midst of this, a crowd of Thai shoppers. They’re petite and swarthy, and nothing like those pallid, vapid stretched-out stick insects, and they will never ever be beautiful on those terms. Yup. Scary scary.
That’s all I had. Next: pictures, and I’ll stop complaining, promise.

[1] I’ll grant them one charitable intent, which is that they might be aiming this at French people who were in Indochina while it was still a colony. However, you have to realise that Vietnam became nominally independent from France in 1954, and that I don’t know when the renaming of stuff took place (offhand, juding from my bare-bones knowledge of history, I’d say post-1954 in the North, post-1975 in the South). Either way, we’re talking about names that have been unused for more than 30 years, if not more–and it’s the least of courtesies to call things by the name the country has given them.
[2] I am personally deeply uninterested in visiting places like these, but that’s another problem.


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