a fugue on the current crisis
The traffic in Saigon is a marvel of balletic brinksmanship as 8 million motor bikes behave like schools of fish, swarming over its streets and traffic circles. This is a common place in ‘developing’ countries. I put that in quotes because I no longer know the proper term and also because cities like Saigon suffer most from over, not under, development. But I have never been in a place with such chaotic traffic, it is a moving Mandelbrot set of vehicles with few if any stoplights or walk signs, and people riding motorcycles in the opposite direction of traffic and on the sidewalks, if there is a functioning sidewalk.
But there is nothing menacing in all of this. There is a cheerfulness in this city that is notable. It is prosperous, and while only an idiot could call it clean, the air, and the streets are cleaner than in Manila or Bangkok. Saigon lies on low ground and polluted air doesn’t form into a smog bubble as it does in Athens, Denver or LA but dissipates.
It is an extremely hot city. Online it said the average high temperature in March is 88. It has been 93-100 degrees every day this week. And this is the most benign effect of climate change. Several people from the Mekong Delta have told me that the water there is drying up, because of dams built upriver by China and Cambodia, and this in turn has caused the Delta water to become salty, which is not only killing fish but rice. Vietnam is the second largest rice producer in the world, and most of that is grown in the Delta. When the Himalayan glaciers that feed the worlds largest and most important river systems melt, the situation will get much worse.
Rice came to places like the Mekong Delta late. It was not until the 18th and 19th century that people were able to control deltaic water. Traditional rice economies were based on controlling water above deltas, where the task was diversion, not raising ground above sea level. Before the 18th Century the delta itself was sparsely populated and its economy was based on trade, fishing and piracy. As the Vietnamese marched south they displaced the Cham and Khmer people. This took many hundreds of years. The Vietnamese in the north have been there for many thousands of years. Saigon was founded in 1700.
The southern culture of Vietnam is quite different from the north. It is more Buddhist, less centralized, and its economy has always been based on trading and markets. Buying and selling and consuming are passions of the city. This is true of every port town in Asia, and it goes right back over two thousand years to ancient trade networks that linked the Indian Ocean to the seas of South East Asia and China. Roman coins have been found in Oc Eo, a 2nd century port in the Mekong Delta. Northern Vietnam, and therefore the Vietnamese historically, were not a trading people, the Cham, their rivals and neighbors the south, were. This dialectic of rice farming villages and coastal trading plays out across the region and history; it supplies the pulse and current of change and conflict. To see it up close and hear people express opinions and sentiments that still reflect it is to a bookish autodidact like me like adding water to powder. My brain is suddenly swelling with images and tastes and smells where once pages of footnotes, prefaces and introductions flapped.
I come at a time in history when the globalism that began in places like the Mekong Delta and has become the defining fact of our time is highlighted over and over again by events that overwhelm us, in this case the Covid19 pandemic, a phenomenon that is both flesh and simulacra, a media frenzy and a tragic reality, science fiction materialized in the present as a proto-life form spreads through the global network of airports and cities, borne by droplets of spit, dramatizing profound social dysfunctions, ripping the orderly face off governments and countries to reveal that the lies and corruption of late capitalism aren’t abstractions but deadly, and that its ideology, which thrives on disaster, is incompetent to deal with it. Our leaders, capitalism, have lost the mandate of heaven and many of us stand hoping it and they will collapse, yet terrified of what that collapse actually entails. It is better to reform than unleash the chaos of uncontrolled historical, epical change, but in the heat of its detonation it seems to be too late for that.
Vietnam has very few cases of Covid19, but its economy is dependent on tourism and its service industry is in freefall. The very forces that are spreading this disease are the ones driving many of the world’s economies, including that of the the US. Vietnam is home to our outsourced industries, but like the US it thrives on tourism and consumerism, and if the world doesn’t buy clothes and sneakers and electronics, and people no longer can get on planes and eat in foreign restaurants, posting selfies and pictures of exotic food on Facebook, then we are fucked. I was talking to Tam, a 23 year old man working at my small ‘eco’ hotel. I can’t confirm it but he seems gay, he is well educated, speaks excellent English from talking to thousands of tourists, all of whom must speak English to communicate internationally, and has traveled extensively. We talked about Thailand, the Philippines, Cambodia and he showed me on his iPhone (a much better one than mine!) all of the places in Vietnam he has gone. There are as many dots as there are places we bombed during the war. There are 4 of these hotels in the country. They started in rural areas with an eco-friendly ethos and a socially progressive agenda, as stated in their materials. Tam told me that they are firing all of the staff and closing the hotel permanently in April. He has no idea of what to do with his life. He is nevertheless optimistic, because Vietnam, and Saigon, are young places, at the forefront of the world, not its backwater. But the situation is not good here or at home for service workers.
This crisis will pass, at least temporarily when the scorching temperatures of summer arrive, but it will return in the fall (in the northern hemisphere) and until there is a vaccine it will be a fact of life. Can the world economy survive until summer? Undoubtedly. But my little town in Upstate New York relies totally on university students and tourism. It is a service economy with a very high cost of living. It is estimated that the county will lose 4 million dollars a week. How long will it take to recover that? Restaurants are afraid of closing but can’t stay open, and restaurant workers have no benefits and nothing to live on if laid off. The right thing to do is to shut it all down and prevent the spread. But to do so the government would have to pay people not to work. In Communist Vietnam the government is not going to do this. It is sink or swim. Places like Vietnam are in a better condition to weather this out than poorer countries without resources or the US, which is on the brink of civil war anyway. The global pandemic is ripping the illusions apart and what it reveals is something as ugly and nihilistic as many of us have imagined, and yet we go on fighting about the one thing we could do easily: pay people to stay home, provide free health care, and thereby avert becoming like Wuhan. But if we successfully stop this thing I know what will happen. A significant number of people on every facet of our crystalline conflict will claim that it was all a hoax, media hype and we will go on with our march into a future where climate disaster, economic collapse, refugee crises and epidemic disease plunge us into a hell of internecine conflict for which this is a dress rehearsal.