Leaving Hue the train was the regulation 1 hour late and surprisingly comfortable. Soft reclining seats and not too crowded. The rain started again as we travelled south and the view changed. When it rains it rains. what you see out of the window is rain with a nice view hidden in it. I had not realised how narrow the navigable area in central Vietnam was. The distance between the sea on one side and the mountains on the other was, in places it looked smaller hat the straights of Gibraltar. It could be why the Forbidden City was moved there in the 1800”s. It certainly explains why DaNang was so important for the Americans and why the battle of Hue (although the Americans won it on points) sealed their fate.
I had been looking forward to this journey for a couple of reasons. The first was it was daylight. All the other train journeys had been in the dark, as in fact had most of my life been. The second is that the journey is through, so I have been told, the best coastal scenery in Vietnam. Unfortunately our carriage also it also has “train TV”. Train TV is exceptionally loud, exceptionally vulgar and sounds exceptionally tinny.
A short digression. When I was a teenager my friends and I were all saving up for the latest Hi Fi systems (a proper system you understand and not the radiograms our parents had) This was vinyl with vibrating bits that were then amplified to produce the sound. The choice of stylus was critical and you could loose friends over it. Personally I preferred the Shure M75E although more snobbish “heads” shunned it. The search in those days was for bass. Previous technology could do the high and mid tones but not the low ones. In the late 1960’s the key phrase was “ will reproduce 20 Hertz” and “ Just listen to that bass man”. The 1970’s brought portability with getto blasters carried on peoples shoulders close to the ear and turned up to 11. Now we have Ipods, MP3 Players, Smart Phones and in ear headphones. Young men no longer have to pay a fortune and suffer for their sounds. This digression has a point. I think the Vietnamese have have gone straight to the digital without discovering ‘Bass’.
The result is the tinny sound of the Train TV mentioned above.
What makes it worse is that the program we are being force fed is a children’s talent competition, a sort of Vietnam’s got talent for the under 8’s. Its frighteningly western and has young children strutting around trying to be fashion models. They should be out in the street playing with the traffic or climbing trees at that age. Its not good, the disappearance of childhood replaced by the competitiveness of their parents and an unhealthy desire for adulthood. Especially excruciating was the rendition of “ White Christmas” by a group of screeching primary school age girls. There are the inevitable tears and traumas when people don’t win. Its never good seeing young children trying to hold the tears back. The damage to individuals must be significant the damage to the culture is more frightening. Globalisation of aspiration.
I know people say to see the real Vietnam you should have gone a few years ago. Well they may be right and as I have traveled more in later life it does seem like I am witnessing (and helping hasten) the final decline and fall of the individuality of cultures. It will end in tears.
I don’t think I am falling into the trap of romanticising what the culture once was. Like most places it has its unbelievably bad bits as well as the more charming. Making value judgments about their cultures is both dangerous and natural. I am aware, for instance, that inhabitants of the land that is now Vietnam came from China and are even now making offerings in the street as some sort of recognition of those ( the Champa) that they forced out. I believe these migrants, the Annamese) did what many invaders did. They overran and absorbed the civilisation of Champa. The Champa were incredibly cultured and sophisticated. They were particually good at agriculture developing impressive irrigation schemes. They also promoted the arts and were, in many ways, a forgiving race. They are also reported to have sacrificed 6000 people in order to collect their gall and send it to the King to bath in. It is reported that they gave their children names like Dog, Rat, Cat in order to disguise them from evil spirits. It may be for this reason that several of the Cham Kings were called Excrement so that the evil spirits would not recognise them by name.
The point is that I don’t think that all culture should be maintained at any cost. I don’t think however, that it is a good move to replace aspects of culture that have been developed over centuries in favor of global brands and global bling. It reminds me of the UK in the 1970’s when the individual shops of differing towns started to disappear. As a result you can go from one town to another and find the same buildings laid out in the same way. Whilst it is nice to know where to find your favorite bread in Tesco’s, and know where the meal deals are in Marks and Spenser’s irrespective of what county or country you are in, that sort of cloning detracts from the richness and variety of life. It seems a huge hypocrisy in a world where we are being told that it is all about choice.
We arrived in DaNang and were met by the car to take us on to Hoi An. It had started to rain again. The rain got heavier as we made our way along the coast road. When we arrived at the hotel a wedding was in full swing under a makeshift tarpaulin cover across the river. The music was loud. It was very loud and in Hoi An they had discovered Bass.