Saigon snapshots

DSC_4994I did not have too much time to explore Saigon and even less Vietnam in the 62 hours I spent there, especially with the course and the conference, but I very much enjoyed the feeling. From riding on the back of  a motorbike in the traffic (thanks to a guest student!) to having pho in a simple restaurant by the side of the street, from watching improbable loads going by on the same motorbikes to wandering in the shops around, to talking with students around the course, my snapshots all came back in the best possible light and I found my stress about food safety, street security, pollution, &tc., very quickly fading away and I wish my suitcase would have arrived in time so that I could have gone jogging in the vicinity of my hotel (rather than using the treadmill in the hotel). DSC_4968I have obviously seen nothing of the countryside and wish I can go back there in the future.

This most kind student also took me to the War Remnants Museum, which is a highly sobering place about the destruction and long-term health consequences of the Vietnam War, in particular the generations of victims of the Agent Orange sprays… Even when accounting for the (mild) propaganda bias. Actually, a few days prior to flying to Vietnam, I had read Bao Ninh’ Sorrow of War, a moving and very grim account of the war and of the after-war from a disillusioned soldier.  (The book was banned in Vietnam for a while. And thus I was unsure I could travel with it…)

A last point is that I was expecting a stronger connection with the French era, which ended up in 1954. Apart from a few buildings, like the cathedral, and a few street names (like rue Pasteur and place de Paris), I did not see much remnants of those colonial times and met very few people speaking French (except for a former and delightful ambassador who had studied classics at Ecole Normale de Fontenay, just a few blocks from home). This is not surprising in the least given that, over those 50 years, Saigon had faced two wars and several changes of regime. (I should have re-read The Quiet American before flying there as it takes place in the final days of the French presence in Indochina.) Rue Pasteur reminds me of Patrick Deville’s Peste & Choléra, which describes in a slightly romanticized  way the life of Alexandre Yersin, a disciple of Pasteur who discovered the plague bacillus and the first vaccine against it, but also set a sort of peaceful agriculturalist empire in the vicinity of Nah Trang, where he died in 1943. Michael Jordan gave me this book two weeks ago and I read it through on my second night in Saigon (once again thanks to too much iced coffee!). The book works very well in creating a complex character out of this polymath and touche-à-tout, who would have deserved a Nobel Prize in Medicine but chose instead to move to other things,  a bit à la Rimbaud (as suggested by Deville)… And remains mostly unknown in France, if not in Vietnam, where there are more Yersin Steets than in France!

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