From time to time I get to travel for free by doing a kind of babysitting (actually helping to supervise students and keeping track of money). It's a great job, as you might imagine. Right now I'm in Vietnam, and I plan to blog about each place I visit. First stop: Hanoi,including a side-trip to Halong Bay. Search for images of Vietnam online and you will primarily see pictures of Halong Bay. I've gone with a street scene from Hanoi instead because it's less common and you can see something here of how busy, how crowded, and how mixed life here is (or rather seems to be to someone who just got here). By 'mixed' I mean, for instance, that you have shops named in both Vietnamese and English; you have a communist red flag among lots of independent businesses; you have motorbikes and minivans alongside cyclos (which I think still exist only because of their retro appeal to tourists); there is traditional dress as well as modern, Western (or just everywhere) dress; and old school agriculture alongside modern commerce. The other picture I considered showed Buddhist nuns outside what is in effect a shrine to Ho Chi Minh. So there's that too. I won't stoop to calling Vietnam a land of contrasts, but there is a lot going on.
I don't have a thesis to defend here, but there are a lot of questions to be asked: is it OK to fly halfway around the world given the damage flying does to the environment?; is it OK to be a tourist in a country where we killed so many people so recently?; is it OK for so many French people to come here as tourists (i.e., why do they come here if not to relive colonialism in some way, and can that be all right?)?; is it OK to visit Ho Chi Minh's body given a) the bad things Ho Chi Minh did (I'm not saying he did no good things, and I am very hazy about what he did that was bad, but I have at least heard the objection made, and by at least one Vietnamese person) and b) the fact that his body is displayed in order for it to be revered--the dress code is exactly the same as for a Buddhist temple (shoulders and knees are to be covered, for instance) and no photography is allowed; is it OK to go as a photographing tourist to the Confucian "Temple of Literature" (short answer: yes, but perhaps that's too short)?; is it OK to take pictures of other people?: etc.
By this last one, about the ethics of photographing strangers, I don't simply mean is it OK to photograph people without their permission? There are lots of store fronts here, which provide a natural frame for a photograph. Near my hotel are several places where meat and fish are prepared and sold. At the nearest is a blind woman, who would make a picturesque addition to a photograph like this. As I see it, it would be unethical to take a picture of her, or to ask to take her picture, or to seriously consider doing so. I'm not sure about my picture above, even, since it shows a picturesquely traditional hat. In my defence, all the women who do this sort of work seem to wear those hats. But I think some defence is called for. I am here to gawk, you might say, and that's not necessarily all right. So I try to confine my gawking to inanimate objects.
Once in Hanoi I decided I wanted to take a picture of a woman and the fruit (some kind of melons, I think) she was selling. They just looked good, dripping with either juiciness or fresh condensation, so it didn't seem too gawky. She agreed to let me take a picture if I bought some fruit, so I did. Then she made a point of stepping aside so I only got the fruit in the picture. I'm sure she overcharged hugely for the fruit, and the picture I took was nothing special. Serves me right.
By which I suppose I mean that I feel somewhat guilty just being here. Partly because of the war, partly because of the gawking. I wonder about this hand-wringing though. If I really felt that guilty I wouldn't be here. So maybe I should just shut up.