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Flash Dispatch, 2-16: Cultural Comprehensive
Searching for Heritage in Hoi An

By Maura Nguyen Donohue
Copyright 2001 Maura Nguyen Donohue

HOI AN, Vietnam -- Dalat, city of the eternal spring. I kept referring to it as VN's San Francisco, with its avant garde haunts, generally mellow pace and hills hills hills. However, I was just told that the rainy season can last six months up in the Highlands. So I'm changing my comparison to Seattle. And, after the past few days that comparison might well be shared with the sweet and soaked town of Hoi An.

I 'honeymooned' in Dalat for one night during the early phase of last year's wedding odyssey at The Crazy House. This is a cafe, art gallery and guest house right out of your wildest acid flashback. Hang Nga, the mastermind behind rooms built into fake tree trunks and caves (we enjoyed the Gourd Room in the Tower) looks like she'd have been more comfortable in the Haight-Ashbury a couple of decades ago rather than suffering the regular disapproval of Dalat's People's Committee (a.k.a. The Thought Police). Her compatriot in the pursuit of individual expression is the goateed, chain-smoking poet Duy Viet. You can find him, with beret permanently attached to his head, tending to his overwhelming flower gardens, teaching kung fu, painting, writing calligraphy in French, Vietnamese or English, or serving up croissants and 'ca phe sua' (Vietnam's most delicious milk coffee) at his tranquil StopNGo Cafe. Though he won't speak much about it, he is part of what has been called VN's Lost Generation. 80% of VN's population is under 40 years old and most of that group is under 30. I wonder often as I gaze out into this country how long social memory lasts against numbers like this. Viet and his peers enjoyed trips to camp after the South's 'Liberation' in 1975. That's re-education camp. His great crime was serving as a correspondent to a Saigon newspaper. Until VN's 'doi moi' policy in the mid/late 1980s was initiated many of Viet's generation couldn't work and were cut off from all social activities. Art was developed in a vacuum with artistic projects dictated by the government. Even now, people like Hang Nga and Duy Viet exist at the fringes of society, developing their ideas in private and attaining merely a novelty status among foreign travelers.

In Nha Trang, VN's nicest municipal beach town, and Hoi An, a UNESCO World Heritage site since 1999, I re-evaluate my take on cultural tourism. The Visiting Arts Project and the Ford Foundation are working with the Ministry of Culture and Information to coordinate a program to develop arts and culture management in a market economy. In a substantial report about findings and suggestions, they site various problems for developing cultural tourism. Among these include the requirement of the MCI for companies to stage specific (often large-scale) performances of political or historical importance, without additional funding to subsidize these. Many companies feel that change is something that happens to them rather than something they themselves can initiate. And they perceive that the language problems within the work will not develop interest among tourists.

Some effort towards creating venues for tourists to witness aspects of Vietnamese culture in performance, other than say those of your ever-available cafe-om, karaoke-om, or beer-om girls, are developing. Unfortunately some are like the depressing dinner show of ethnic minority song and dance performances at Nha Trang's Vien Dong Hotel. Here I face the deadly poison that this form of cultural consumption can create. The performers seem understandably bored with only 10 people scattered about the large hotel's courtyard on a Tuesday night. The musicians look entirely distracted and the women performing the traditional dances remind me of a school recital for Miss Janes, or Miss Nguyen's rather, School of Dance. Two male performers offer some lively versions of minority dance but in the end its difficult to gauge how authentic and true to origin these dances are since they look something like a Comp 1 exercise. So, I go in search of a couple of the three provincial dance companies. When I finally find the base for Hai Dang Song, Dance & Music Company and Khanh Hoa Provincial Ethnic Song, Dance & Music Company I discover, via my pathetic Vietnamese but outstanding charades, that the hotel show is the only regular gig in town. And after perusing a few photos of the groups in action I realize the best I'd get from these guys is more of the same with maybe a little more zeal. Or as they like to say around these parts "Same, Same but different."

Thankfully, Hoi An's presentation at the Traditional Performance House, a room above the Champa Bar & CafÚ, restores my faith in what this kind of venue can offer. Hoi An is a quaint town virtually untouched by the various wars and was declared as a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1999. As part of this they offer nightly performances of, you got it, song, dance and music. At my count there were only five, including myself, foreign tourists among the 40+ audience members who crowded into the 18'x18' room. But the enthusiastic Vietnamese audience, who all arrived together at the last moment, helped develop an attentive crowd. Plus the dancers were practically in my lap many times. The MC apologized prior to the performance, explaining that they are not professionals, and asked for our forgiveness should anything displease us. And then the not-so-professional musicians proceeded to Rock OUT! Pieces featuring the dan Tranh, 16 string zither, the dan Nhi, a 2 string fiddle (like the Chinese Erhu), and Vietnam's unique dan Bau, a monochord, are exciting, compelling, vibrant and at moments very contemporary. The dancers have much more energy but the choreography is still a pretty weak mix of folk dance movement and a little show biz butt shaking in between. I've still yet to find a traditional dance performance that can rival the richness of those easily seen on the streets in Thailand or in the young dancers and their few remaining masters in Cambodia.

And it is here that I am reminded that though dance does exist at some level here it is truly through song that Vietnam expresses itself. The unfortunate blandness of Viet Pop, a form without harmony or variation from the standard synth drum beat, might scare you away. And, I too have spent many a night cursing the Japanese for sharing karaoke with the Vietnamese. Struggling into sleep against the painful howls of some Vietnamese hopeful blasting their way through Celine Dion. But, folk songs are everywhere and song is the integral part of many of the traditional and modern theatrical forms here. Even without too careful attention, any visitor here should notice that this is a country that grows up singing. And it is there in it's many forms that almost everyone here dances.

 

(Editor's Note: To read Maura Nguyen Donohue's Saigon Dispatch, click here. To read her Hanoi Dispatch, click here.)

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