What perfumes to bring on a holiday in Vietnam?
It is hot.
The first two days we were here were possibly cooler than Tokyo, which can get truly unbearable at the height of August with its shimmering heat islands, glass, and gleaming, roiling synthetic surfaces, but these last two hot and steaming days in Hanoi it has got to that searing, ant-under-a-magnifying-glass hotness that prevents you from walking too long in it directly, yearning for some airconditioning (something I hate intensely usually, when it is misused and overused), but which here seems really like a necessity, especially for short, grateful spells in museums and the entrance of the hotel.
D has been dousing his handkerchiefs, and mopping his brow with Agua De Colonia Concentrada by Alverez Gomez, a Spanish cologne (to which I have craftily, typically, added 30ml of extra lemon essential oil to get it how I want it turning it yellow), and a scent with a classical, geranium/lavender base and spicy dry down that comes in a huge 200ml bottle so you can splash it on and wipe yourself down with it as the afternoon temperature rises and your sweat-drenched body requires the evaporative alcohol coolness of a classic Iberian cologne. I borrowed some on the first full day, saturating a cloth with water and a good dose of the Colonia, wiping myself down with it when I needed to pleasing, refreshing effect.
NºI9, which I wear as my regular scented aura in any case and which was great for the flight and arrival, has been protecting me somewhat from the excesses of that strangely pleasurable fear that I always feel to some extent when coming to an unknown country, the niggling anxieties and pressure of the unknown, the not-quite-sure-what-it-is-going-to-be-like as the plane is preparing to land. It is aloof and removed, much like the French colonialists and their Indochine, and somewhat at odds, perhaps, with the olfactive surroundings I am finding myself in, but still a scent I have worn on several occasions while here even if it might not be quite feel like the absolute, fool-proof choice.
The second day saw me in Grey Flannel. I was feeling subdued, a touch overwhelmed, and as Duncan said in the taxi, that scent has a cool – as in removed – almost melancholy feeling to it, with its soaped, green violets, subtle woody back drop and nonchalantly blue air of ‘gentleman’.
Diorella though, that one is surely made for a saunter around the boulevards of Hanoi. Like Catherine Deneuve, all in white and wide-brimmed straw hat, fanning herself in the exotic heat of ‘The East’, this perfume is as quintessentially French as it is imaginable to be, combining that freshness and decay, the rot and supreme elegance, the sophisticated snobbery of about-to-wilt flowers and subtley mossed citrus that has the vas-te-faire-foutre of the finest French perfumery. Luca Turin even famously described Diorella as actually smelling like a Vietnamese salad, perhaps why I decided to bring it, the basil and mint in the top, fresh accord, with the lime, the lemon ceding into honeysuckle and indolic jasmine; a cologne, a fresh cologne, and yet with a certain incorrigible arrogance. I can see what he meant about the South East Asian element, or how it could be interpreted that way. The dense, lemon sherbet powder (particularly in the parfum); pressed, and crushed, with the summery briskness of the eau fraîche and herb salad up top, but then, also, that note of overripe melon that is quintessentially Roudnitska, alluring and alarming, an impolite touch of bodily intimacy that could remind one of the peculiarly erotic base notes of Vietnamese cuisine.
Yes, that je ne sais quoi, that European superiority, is what this perfume evokes: more than other chypric colognes of the seventies such as Eau De Rochas, O De Lancõme, or even the more famous Eau Sauvage, which preceded it and could be considered the masculine equivalent, Diorella is far more precise and condescending, quite absolutely, inwardly self-assured, aware of its artistry and its keen pretences to regality. Wearing the perfume as I strolled the grounds of The Temple Of Literature and its ponds of lotus, I could fully imagine how the conquering Europeans must have felt as they surveyed their stolen territories and basked in the scents and luxuriances of orientalisme: the presumptions of the exotic, the longeurs of the electric fan turning slowly as the perfumed drop of sweat descends unconsciously down the swan neck; the porcelain pleasures of the damned, narrow-eyed looks of mistrust, and resentment, invisible in the shadows outside.
Yes. You understand the hatred of the Vietnamese people back then, wanting these aliens out of their country, people with no connection to their culture, lording it over them with Caucasian assumption: you can feel the outrage. And this is something you feel vividly, constantly, when in this country. Not in any negative attitudes towards foreigners, as people I have encountered have been friendly, humorous, and natural, but rather in the ubiquitous, fiercely communist propaganda that pervades entire cities, both Hanoi and Haiphong, where last night we stumbled upon a 70th anniversary commemoration extravaganza that could rival not only Kim Jon Un’s most ludicrous Pyongyang performances but even the Stalinesque fervour of the Moscow National Men’s Chorus. I wasn’t expecting this. Not at all. From the little that I had read before coming, I had the impression that Vietnam was in reality a fully-fledged capitalist country now, with an only nominally communist government lurking behind and pulling the strings. Not so: while commerce is clearly at the forefront of everyone’s minds here (just so much as look at a person on the street in the eye and they will sense a business opportunity – Hey! Hey you!), the country strikes me as being at once socialist, in the best possible sense: extraordinarily family and communal oriented – you sense the social cohesion implicitly – while also, at least in the surface trappings, unequivocally ‘Red.’
Red banners, with exclamation marked proclamations in yellow, mark every boulevard, the red hammer and sickle fixed to every other lamp post, especially now, I suppose, because of the historical occasion of liberation from the French and the coming to power of the Communist Party. Above all, though, the smiling face of Ho Chi Minh, the Father Of Vietnam, adored it would seem, everywhere: not only were a large percentage of the rather sentimental paintings at the Musée Des Arts concerned with the great leader, but his bearded, mandarin-like face is on posters, street signs, memorabilia, postcards, and framed pictures in houses, everywhere, like the King and Queen of Thailand.
On our return from Laos we plan to visit the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, where snaking crowds of reverent Vietnamese apparently line up to pay homage to the embalmed corpse of Uncle Ho (the body is apparently sent to the Russia periodically for ‘maintenance’ so I am not sure if we will definitely be able to view it), but the macabre in me is very keen to do so. To see the preserved, wax-like flesh up close, to look at the people looking, as a culmination of all the limitless exposure to the great leader’s personality cult I have had here, which I must admit on the first couple of nights left me quite weirded out. Oppressed. The unrelenting aesthetic rigidness. The oneness of it. The idea that there is only this; that one government, only, that option ; only, that the government controls everything and cannot be selected, that residing above it all, in heaven, like a great god on high, is Mr Minh; intellectual; brave, and benevolent, a revolutionary who succeeding in uniting the country and is worshipped like a deity.
Looking at it all, at first, on our first two nights, I found it slightly hard to breathe.
Yesterday, though, as we traipsed the car-horn sweltering streets, having been to the most exquisite Buddhist temple in Haiphong, where there were no visitors, and butterflies alighted on flowers near the pomelo trees, and the singing voices of Buddhist women singing sutras in the Hu Hang Pagoda created a beautifully dream-like atmosphere, we walked back into town in search of the Opera House on main square, but no-one seems to speak a lick of English here, interestingly, and we kept losing our way, wandering down alley-ways and stopping off for street food (delicious, delicious), but I did find myself wondering, for a while, if it really is so bad not having ‘democracy’. I don’t, of course, know anything about the social problems of Vietnam, what ails it – every country has problems that permeate its heart – but the place does seem, at least from a cursory visit, to be functioning perfectly well and I did wonder: are our own societies’ systems so very immaculate? The horrendous gap between rich and poor in the UK, with its paedophile politicans; and America, all that baloney and the clamour, the struggle to be seen and to be ‘a somebody’ rather than a ‘nobody’ (are these the only two options?), and every two years all that noise, irritation, and fake smiles of the election build up, those white-teethed debates; the jabbering and the proselytizing and the opinionating and the ridiculous toupées, and are people’s lives actually all that different at the end of it? Are Americans really, truly ‘free’, when they are at the mercy of the commercial behemoths, where greedy drug companies and insurance companies milk the populace dry and leave half the country unable to afford to pay for basic health care and the police seem to shoot non-white people for the merest infraction I don’t know. Naturally, being a westerner, and thus receiving western ideas from birth (we are all brainwashed) I am more inclined to want to have the choice of who to vote for (although now, having been outside my country of birth so long I am unfortunately ineligible to vote – I have been excluded), but it is, I think, worth sometimes questioning your own idées fixes on occasion about this point, the idea that your way is ineluctably right, that the other is automatically wrong.
Having just passed though, on the train back to Hanoi, yet another star-spangled communist monument, judding out erectedly and domineeringly from the rice fields, I have to say that I do, from a purely personal point of view, as someone who despises all forms of coercion and enforced structures of thinking, find the propaganda and personality cult thing quite horrific. Ho Chi Minh’s achievements in bringing the people together and overthrowing the French were undoubtedly magnificent from the Vietnamese point of view, and I can feel how the cohesion of this country’s society might be strengthened by an unblemished father figure,but as I said, seeing the man’s image everywhere you look is quite disturbing. Last night’s show, on the square in central Haiphong, with the beautiful sand coloured opera house in the back drop that looked like something out of a magical realist novel by Gabriel Garcia Marquez, and children and families filling the squares with its towering water fountains, was quite spectacular. Almost exhilarating. Absurd. No other foreigners anywhere. White and red-ribboned chairs filled with the eager, enthusiastic bodies of young cadets and daughters of the fatherland, sat patiently for the show to begin as the stage filled with the uprousing chorus of white-uniformed,zealous men saluting and smiling, and young women in traditional dresses supporting their husbands in war as the voices boomed out through the city at ear-shrieking volumes and the heroes struck the poses you know from Soviet communist posters from the Second World War. As camp entertainment I couldn’t believe my eyes and ears and was delighted, thrilled actually, that we had finally managed to meander our way back into the centre and see something that I would never have imagined still happening outside of North Korea in the twenty first century, as motorbikes revved their engines excitedly, the people of the city gravitated towards the spectacle, and I found myself both transfixed and utterly alienated.
But if you are a country that has been fucked over by the French, the Chinese for centuries and centuries, and finally the Americans, who did everything they could to eradicate precisely what I witnessed last night, still going strong, still proud and jubilant, and still the government that won the Vietnam war and defeated the greatest power the world has ever known, then whatever personal misgivings you might have about the politics, there is something quite unmistakenly glorious about the massive, enemy-routing middle finger that the whole charade seems to me to represent. The message is impossible to miscomprehend. These people are on fire. And seeing myself in my mind’s eye, wandering lackadaisically around the gardens in Hanoi, fanning myself in my misguided Diorella – which doesn’t really suit me at all, too effeminate, too Dior – I realize in fact that the perfume, with its Parisian pretensions, its quintessence of starched and chic bon goût, is, like the French people who came here and tried to take over this fierce and nationalistic country, quite simply out of place.