Wednesday, 9 March 2016


Kim Long is a black slither running parallel to the Perfume River, stretching from White Tiger Bridge to Thiên Mụ Pagoda. There aren't so many street lights, and last night the moon had all but waned, so that the cluster of lanterns outside a non-descript building was visible from quite a distance.

It represented no great mystery. It is not uncommon for local people to set fires outside their property, especially towards the end of the lunar month, so I gave it no further thought until I was almost upon it. Witnessing the large awning at the front of the building to accommodate guests, it was apparent the lanterns had been placed in the street to commemorate a recent death. Suspicions were confirmed as a quick rubberneck caught me a glimpse of a fairly hefty sarcophagus.   

The huge coffin was not to be the most enduring image captured by my furtive, guilty glance. Upon the ground the glowing lanterns I had seen from such a distance revealed that they had been placed in a very deliberate formation: that of the chữ vạn. This is an ancient and powerful symbol, one with myriad associations in both eastern and western culture, but perhaps the one that resonates with westerners the most is in its misappropriation by the Nazi Party.  Chữ vạn is Vietnamese for swastika.

See, even with the knowledge of its provenance- its benign associations with Hinduism and Buddhism and its ubiquity here in traditional Vietnam- it is difficult to separate the sign from the horrors of Nazism. As I put greater distance between myself and that arrangement of lanterns upon the roadside, I felt a strong urge to capture that image, as if this might somehow facilitate a deeper understanding of what it meant.

I dropped my beloved home and said good night, began my return journey, knowing that I would be passing the roadside shrine. The closer I got the weaker my desire to photograph it became. Not because I was second guessing my intentions, although now I have begun to do so. Maybe it would be provocative to post a picture of a burning swastika all over available social media, or maybe it would be seen as an ATTEMPT to be provocative. Regardless, at that time it was a more human consideration that stayed my hand and kept my recently acquired smartphone and attached eight megapixel camera in my pocket.

Cruising slowly along Kim Long, I passed by the house once more. The lanterns still kept their vigil, the burning chữ vạn. On the opposite side of the street, a small column of similar lanterns kept a respectful distance, maybe a gentle beacon to passersby on the Perfume River. The real vigil, however, was held away from the roadside: beside the sarcophagus, three mourners in traditional white, dealing with whatever emotions their recent loss has engendered, waited patiently for any friends or family wanting to offer their condolences, at whatever hour they might wish to pass. 

They were not waiting for a curious tay to swing by an turn their wake into an instagram image.

If a picture speaks one thousand words, our curious little post-millennial epoch must be the most loquacious in all of human history. I wonder how much of this digital record will survive us, sometimes. So, no pictures here today, and at a little under six hundred words, this would barely comprise a snapshot. But let it be a record, nonetheless, to our continuing struggle to understand the inevitable.
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