Cool air rushes to greet us like a friend a little too exuberant backed by passive ambient music in this embrace that welcomes us in so eagerly from the humid heat of a Vietnam day. In the tourist mecca that is Nha Trang the window to everyday Vietnamese life that was yesterday is easy enough to grasp in clutches but impossible to hold onto for long. Nha Trang is loaded with cliche tourists from the old Communist ally turning Nha Trang into a little Russia; but little Russia lies outside now, oddly the cool rush of tourist friendly air takes us to the life of everyday Vietnam and the many faces that stare at us in turn. From little Russia we have crossed a threshold and into the world of Mr Do Dien Khanh and his photographic vision of his native Vietnam. The search for comfort over experience seems such a contrary Russian ideal misplaced in Vietnam; see the world, open your eyes then let it open them further we say with righteous ease.
We walked the famous beach of Nha Trang to see a true Vietnamese coastline fashioned into Russian style. Is the Russian influence contrary to the identity of Vietnam that we have come to see or made authentic by its undeniable place in recent history? Are we just escaping the real Vietnam in favour of the dreamy vision of a romantic that conveniently suits our own? It’s so easy to scoff at the plump lushes that drape over deck chairs on the beach and live in a sanitised world as we escape into sanitised air conditioning to see the gritty identity we romanticise in sanitised pictures. A simple walk into a little white room now a complex swirl of challenged ideals, a simple little white room becomes a babushka doll on the click of a door closing behind us, more than it first seems.We’re in a tourist town crawling with the definition of tourists cuddled in the embrace of tourist comfort in our endeavour to see real Vietnam, or at least what we think real Vietnam should be. The faces of our visions look down upon us in black and white, old and young alike stare accusingly at our placement in this absurd situation, embracing so tightly what we are so distant from. In this cool room of too much white and not enough colour, beautiful images stir the heart and prod the mind; we are after all everything we decry. Our middle-class privilege is all at once the precursor to our righteousness, our accusation, our ideal and our hypocrisy as we strive not to put the cart before the horse in our vision of Vietnam.
Alain De Botton, famous philosopher and my secret man crush, poses that we place our conclusions first when it comes to consuming media, that we seek what we want to see rather than allowing ourselves to see what indeed is there to be seen. We all do this to some degree, I wonder now how much I do this myself. Alain rallies against the trickery of the media and the heartstrings they pull, posing they they are social managers, artists of a form, skilled at manipulating us under the guise of a factual reporting service; the news is the art of social engineering, not the science of delivering facts. He so elegantly says:
The dream of the news is that it makes us care about other people and situations. But we cannot identify with people to whom we haven’t been introduced. Humans will only respond to art, to people who are skilled in making you care.
I stare again at the faces I feel such empathy for and question for the first time: is this true Vietnam, an artistic vision or both?In this cool room these words drum at my consciousness as if spoken by the mouths of the ‘real Vietnamese’ I see looking down upon me. I attempt to look objectively, to take the facts the world has given me rather than arranging the ones I choose to grant validity. Possibly, surely Russia is a crucial and permeating part of Vietnamese recent history, does little Russia not deserve a place in an authentic view of modern Vietnam? Alain is indeed an artist, and so is Mr Khanh; in this world surrounded by art, my mind filled with the words of an artist inspiring me to critique myself: am I seeing facts or being manipulated by artists? Another artist of notable influence contradicts the almost linear inner dialogue, Oscar Wilde said:
All art is at once surface and symbol.
Those who go beneath the surface do so at their peril.
Those who read the symbol do so at their peril.
It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.
Diversity of opinion about a work of art shows that the work is new, complex, and vital.
When critics disagree the artist is in accord with himself.
We can forgive a man for making a useful thing as long as he does not admire it. The only excuse for making a useless thing is that one admires it intensely.
All art is quite useless.
In this little room in contrary tourist mecca little Russia Nha Trang we venture onto an artistic flight that this somewhat superficial town should not allow; but this little white room does. In less than half an hour, a little room in Vietnam has taken me from looking at one artist, hearing another and seeing the wisdom of a third yet I struggle to pin down which is which. With apologies to all three I take the advice of all three. Mr Khanh your vision is true and beautiful, Alain your cynicism is a life vest for a drowning world and Oscar you are possibly the most correct. As always, little in this world is simple, least of all a dance with artists and philosophers. The heat rushes to join us like a friend a little too exuberant and the search for exact answers left behind in the air-conditioning where it belongs. We welcome new eyes to an authentic Vietnam, a culture freed from a place in the past and allowed to exist in the now without degradation as it is rather than how we’d like it to be. The unsolvable artistic conundrum just got simpler because of a fat tourist on a deck chair; a gift, from Russia, with love.