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«'What the Fuck is a Vietnam?': Touristic Phantasms and the Popcolonization of (the) Vietnam (War) Victor Alneng Critique of Anthropology 2002; 22; ...»

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Another war-tourist stereotyped all Vietnamese as ‘rude, miserable and with no service-mindedness whatsoever’. In his mind the war had dehumanized all Vietnamese, but, seduced by a phantasmic war, he paradoxically wanted to gaze at but not experience what he considered to be the consequences of the real war. When asked what they knew about Vietnam before they came there, few tourists talked about anything other than the war, and few listed any other source of information than movies. When discussing the war per se some made comments such as ‘Platoon was a great movie!’ The second major source of information was the Lonely Planet guidebook.

On a lonely planet Backpackers’ experiences of places are heavily influenced by guidebook material, and travellers’ tales mainly serve to reinforce images provided by guidebooks (McGregor, 2000). As shown by Laderman (2002), the major guidebooks for Vietnam adhere to a Cold War worldview that presumes Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

470 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) American benevolence as a protector against communist evils while omitting the imperialistic dispositions of American foreign politics. Apart from site information, guidebooks provide ‘a language through which the mismatch of expectations and experiences can be resolved’ (Hutnyk, 1996: 6). In this sense, guidebooks nurture phantasms. The guidebook of choice among backpackers is Lonely Planet, sometimes nicknamed ‘The Bible’. The significance invested in the different themes in Lonely Planet is implied by the number of pages devoted to them. In first place, with 48 pages (not including the history sections of each site), comes not surprisingly ‘The American War’. With 29 pages ‘Shopping’ is second, and third comes ‘French in Vietnam’. Of 21 pages of history in Lonely Planet, a third are dedicated to the war and written with the trenchant, at times ironic, American jargon standardized by Hollywood. A mere two and a half pages deal with the history of Vietnam since 1975, even though this period – with liberation, the wars with Cambodia and China, the famine and the isolation and the introduction of doi moi – has been just as significant for most Vietnamese. (Around 60 percent of the Vietnamese population were born after that last Huey lifted off from the roof of the American Embassy back in 1975.) Furthermore, the history sections of most site descriptions are predominantly dedicated to the war-era. Even when representing the history of Dalat, a town not significantly involved in the war, more than half of the section is devoted to the ‘sensational’ fact of it not having been a battlefield.

In a passage dedicated to Vietnam-related movies, Lonely Planet informs

us that:

... [P]erhaps the most memorable line about Vietnam was spoken by a captain in the movie Apocalypse Now: ‘I love the smell of napalm in the morning.’ (Storey and Robinson, 1997: 96) Given the authors’ continuous equation of Vietnam and the war, it seems they actually consider the brutal statement of Coppola’s cinematic captain to be about Vietnam. This further suggests how the Vietnam of backpackers is a war-movie with surplus physical appearance. The same goes for

the following passage:

The beer is expensive, the music is cool and the atmosphere is intense with some minor arguments here and there. At a big pool table some extremely scantily clad girls are showing off their bodies while playing. On the dance floor the dancing is wild and licentious. I start thinking about Saigon during the Vietnam War. (Sundgren, 1999: 46; my translation) This quote, from a Swedish travel magazine, describes a scene at a bar called Apocalypse Now, which the author dubs ‘the hottest bar in Hanoi’. Curiously, there are also bars in Hue and Ho Chi Minh City with the same name, all featuring movie posters from Apocalypse Now and Platoon and ceiling fans simulating Huey helicopter blades. This travel writer’s phantasm functions as a mediator between reality and recollection. He thus speaks about his

–  –  –

phantasm as if of the real and simultaneously as if he is remembering.

Gazing at the ‘extremely scantily dressed girls showing off their bodies’, he manages to merge contemporary Hanoi with the cinematic wartime Saigon. With no real memory, he still ‘remembers’ the war. In movies and phantasms, the war is, among other things, about Vietnamese girls who will ‘boom-boom’ Western males for a few dollars. Back then the foreigners were American GIs but nowadays the FNGs6 are tourists sipping B-52 cocktails at Apocalypse Now. Sometimes those two categories merge – an ex-GI with his dogtag gold-mounted, a Vietnamese ‘girlfriend-for-rent’ in his lap, wearing a fatigue hat sporting the slogan ‘My business is death, and business has been good’, once honoured Pham Ngu Lao Street with his presence.

Supreme souvenirs and surplus representations On Pham Ngu Lao Street tourists can buy cigarette lighters in the shapes of guns and tanks. More appreciated are Zippo lighters of the style the American GIs used. Apart from ordinary Zippos there are fake antiques with inscriptions like ‘If you want to boom-boom, give back this lighter with a smile’, ‘Let me win your heart and mind, or I’ll burn your fucking hut down’ and ‘Peace is today and tomorrow is yesterday’. More expensive are Zippos allegedly left behind by the Americans. For true GI-wannabes, the nearby War Market supplies combat fatigues complete with flak jackets, helmets, boots, dogtags, canteens, bags, ponchos and bullet trinkets.





Lonely Planet instructs: ‘to pass the time and preserve your sanity, you need... at least a few books’ (Florence and Storey, 2001: 89). One night I was having dinner in the Pham Ngu Lao area when Hoan came up to my table trying to sell books. I asked her to pick one for me. ‘This one is the most popular now.’ It was Alex Garland’s The Beach, and as I read it I could easily understand its popularity. When tourists read The Beach, they read about themselves; when they buy The Beach, they buy themselves. The supreme souvenir in the Pham Ngu Lao area is the souvenir of Self. Most Western books about Vietnam are about the war, many of which are available on Pham Ngu Lao Street. The book in the main genre – American veterans’ stories – that has set the scene for all others, even including Garland’s veteranwannabe novel, is Michael Herr’s Dispatches. Herr asks his readers to view his book, and thus the war, as a movie. Since the war ultimately is a movie, Herr’s book is reviewed as the real Vietnam (War): ‘Although Herr admits to his book being partially fictional, [Dispatches] is meaty, essential reading for anyone who wants to understand Vietnam’ (www.amazon.co.uk). Converting his colleague Sean Flynn, ex-actor and son of Errol, into a phantasm of

himself, Flynn becomes a star in, and an icon of, Herr’s ‘movie’:

Flynn was special. We all had our movie-fed war fantasies, the Marines too, and it could be totally disorienting to have this outrageously glamorous figure intrude on them, really unhinging, like looking up to see that you’ve been sharing a slit trench with John Wayne. (Herr, 1978: 207) Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

472 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) Photojournalist Flynn shoots with his camera as he cruises on his Honda – Easy Rider-style – through a war-torn Southeast Asia to finally vanish in tragic MIA obscurity. In the context of tourism, it seems Herr’s intended critique also vanishes. For war-tourists, Flynn becomes the ultimate backpacker, the Big Man to follow in search of the bona fide Vietnam (War).

Like the movies, the veterans’ version leaves the Vietnamese, except as gooks and whores, conspicuously absent. As a counterpoint presenting a Vietnamese perspective, Le Ly Hayslip’s When Heaven and Earth Changed Places (1990) is often mentioned. On the cover of Hayslip’s book we are informed that Oliver Stone’s Heaven and Earth, the last of his Vietnam War movie trilogy, is based on it. Lonely Planet also provides us with this fact: ‘[the book] by Le Ly Hayslip [has] been made into a fascinating movie’ (Storey and Robinson, 1997: 96). One war-tourist, who said he used to be obsessed by the war, highly recommended Hayslip’s book to some fellow travellers. When describing it he claimed Hayslip’s autobiographical story was fictitious: ‘[Hayslip] is educated, not some farm girl’. As it turned out he had not read the book but he had seen the movie. In the movie Stone has, through ethnocentric selection and rewriting, deprived the story of much of its original Vietnamese perspective. Through the emphasis in Lonely Planet on the fascinating movie, the reference to the cinematic war rather than the real war on the cover of Hayslip’s book, and the sheer persuasiveness of Hollywood realities, Stone’s American cinematic war becomes the original, the Vietnamese book becomes the copy while the realities of the war and its aftermath are dropped off on the border to oblivion. These kinds of reversed chains of representations suggest how phantasms are primary. With them we travel all the way to Vietnam to buy T-shirts saying ‘Good Morning, Vietnam!’ Even when the ‘(t)here’ is identified as phantasmic, it can be difficult to eschew it. Journalist Justin Wintle set out to find the Vietnam that ‘has become, culturally, off limits [and] is never even given a chance [in Hollywood movies]’. But as his biased imagination turned a fan into helicopter blades, he reluctantly confessed: ‘[g]etting away from the war was not...

as easy as I had imagined’ (1991: xiii, xiv). All examples above show how Vietnam is not the site itself but a sign of itself. But this view will, at some point, be contested. Below we will look at local representations of the War, which might contest globalized phantasms.

–  –  –

‘Uh-huh. You want to see?’...

The girl was indeed naked, and aged somewhere between ten and twelve.

She was running down a country road.

Mister Duck leant over and put his mouth to my ear. ‘You can see everything!’ he whispered excitedly.

‘You certainly can,’ I agreed.

‘Everything! All her bits!’ He started giggling and rolled forwards with his hand over his mouth. ‘Everything!’ ‘Yes,’ I said, but I was suddenly feeling uncertain. There was something puzzling about the photo.

I noticed the fields that surrounded the country road; they were strangely flat and alien. Then I noticed the collection of indistinct buildings behind the girl, either out of focus or made fuzzy through clouds of smoke. And the girl was upset, holding her arms away from her sides. Other kids ran beside her. A few soldiers, apparently indifferent, watched them as they passed. (Garland, 1996: 226–7) ‘Certain horrific images – a Vietnamese child drenched with napalm running down a road in pain and fear – have perhaps been indelibly etched into contemporary memory’ (McQuire, 1998: 151). Now this image is being efficiently muddled in a phantasmic kaleidoscope. At the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, visitors are confronted with Huynh Cong Ut’s photo of napalmed Kim Phuc and numerous other brutal pictures and statistics. Here I will examine the museum as an ideological presentation and investigate how visitors consume it. But first we will take a detour to the Cu Chi tunnels.

The Cu Chi tunnels detours The Cu Chi tunnels – a 250 km underground network stretching from the gates of Saigon to the border of Cambodia – was an NLF (National Liberation Front, the Southern insurgent) stronghold in the heart of enemy territory. The three-storey tunnels held sleeping quarters, storerooms, hospitals, ordnance factories, kitchens and headquarters. Unknowingly the American base camp of the 25th Division was built on top of the tunnels.

Realizing this blunder Cu Chi, a.k.a. the Iron Triangle, was declared a ‘free strike zone’. Some 10,000 of the 16,000 Vietnamese living in the tunnels were killed. A small section of the remaining tunnels in this bombed out, bulldozed, herbicide-sprayed area has been turned into a tourist site.

As the tour bus makes its early morning departure from Pham Ngu Lao, Anh, the guide, opens with a plea: ‘Don’t believe anything you see or hear in Vietnam, because 90 percent of everything is government propaganda.’ According to Anh, the communists would never tolerate his account of Vietnam. As an ex-soldier of the ARVN (South Vietnamese army), he spent two years in a re-education camp and didn’t speak English for 18 years.7 His sister fled to America while he stayed behind working as a farmer and taking Downloaded from http://coa.sagepub.com at Stockholms Universitet on October 10, 2007 © 2002 SAGE Publications. All rights reserved. Not for commercial use or unauthorized distribution.

474 Critique of Anthropology 22(4) care of their father. He views the USA as a place where anyone can be successful. The Vietnamese people are described in positive terms while the government is portrayed less favourably. The narrative is mixed with jokes.

On most tours Anh follows a rehearsed procedure, but occasionally he would tell more about his personal experiences, among other things how he flew over Hamburger Hill one day after the notorious battle there ended.

After a few hours, the bus arrives at the Cu Chi tunnels. The tour starts with a history lecture and a movie. The latter is viewed as pathetic communist propaganda – ‘Its effect on me was to kill the desire to see any more official history exhibits’ remarks travel writer Harold Truman (1999: 40).

Other judgements include ‘insulting’, ‘funny’ and ‘weird’. Moving on to the tunnels a variety of Viet Cong handmade weapons are demonstrated in jest by a soldier guide. Next stop is a tunnel entrance hidden under the leaf carpet, which tourists are challenged to find. The soldier uncovers the entrance and, going down, Anh calls him a hero. Some tourists try to squeeze themselves down into the tunnel and, although the entrance proves to be too small, they are also declared heroes. The highlight of the tour is a 100 metre crawl through an enlarged tunnel equipped with lights.



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