A beer in Ngo Dinh Diem's ballroom

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Calvin despairs of the Vietnamese predilection for western brands while having a beer in the Reunification Palace

With a beer in your hand, on a clear day, you can sit on Diem's old rooftop and get the best picture of what Vietnam is and where it is going

In the last three years, a single beer closet on Bui Vien has metastasized into four, creating a strange amphitheater for the children who chew razor blades and spit flaming mouthfuls of gasoline for an audience of half bright travelers with smart telephones.

Many in this crowd make their beer money as teachers of the young and wealthy, though the fire-spitters seem to have learned a few things from them as well.

They know that this audience has lots of money and time; that they didn't work very hard for either of them and that they will (as the night wears on) grow drunker and more generous.

The site of children playing with fire seems exceptional when you first see it. But after a few minutes of fireballs, attention drifts. Somehow, it feels like a parade in honor of a larger national derangement.

Last year, The American Chamber of Commerce held up a Euromonitor report that giddily championed Vietnamese consumers as more "aspirational" than other peoples with similarly little money, without explaining what that means.

"The country's 90 million people increasingly are eager to buy Western brands they deem superior to many local and regional products," AmCham's site noted.

This misplaced faith seems to extend to nearly everything. Many of the nation's elderly can be found, degenerating in front of televisions broadcasting an endless loop of white models swinging across Italian runways like a hypnotist's watch.

Instead of singing nursery rhymes, toddlers now mutter a word salad inspired by "Gangnam Style."

Hoooraaay, sexy Grady.

Bop"¦bop, bop bop. Ugh, my landlord's liar!  

Sometimes it seems as if the whole country is drunk on a cocktail of Euro trash, Korean pap and Hollywood garbage. If not, they are drinking a homegrown Kool Aid designed to imitate all three.

Marketing has effectively eroded any distinction between things that were created to enrich people's lives and things that were created to get people to buy them.

Most recently, Starbucks' promise to "honor Vietnam's coffee culture" in their offerings manifested as the "Asian Spice Latte," a cloying cupof whipped cream, cinnamon and caramel that might as well have been purchased at a rest stop in Pennsylvania.

This faith in the foreign has literally gotten under people's skin.

 

Cosmetic surgeons are somehow getting rich tradingVietnamese button noses for discarded Beverly Hillsbeaks"”no Vietnamese model or singerseems ready for prime time until she's been outfitted with a massive Streisand.

A national meditation on the direction of the culture seems somehow impossible, so in lieu of a conversation, perhaps it's time for Vietnam to have a beer.

I know just the place.

High on the roof of the Reunification Palace sits a little refrigerator concession in what once served as the regime's private ballroom.

Glass panel windows surround the wooden dance floor on all sides, offering a view of the brilliant green tree line that surrounds the place. On the balcony overlooking the front law, there is a mysterious ceramic stool where you can perch like a gargoyle while the room fills and empties with uniformed school children and sweaty tourists.

During its best moments, the whole space is empty and still.

The ballroom was completed in 1966, four years after one of Ngo Dinh Diem's most well-trained pilots dropped a 500-pound bomb through the palace roof while he was reading a biography of George Washington.

The bomb didn't go off and Diem survived the subsequent napalming and strafing by hiding in his basement.

When he emerged, the Magic Man of Asia (also affectionately known as "an Asian we can live with" by his American supporters) proclaimed himself protected by divine powers.

The palace was flattened.

A year later, he and his brother were shot and stabbed to death in the back of a truck by a handful of their subordinates.

Between two and four million Vietnamese people died as a result of his insane project, which was built on an incoherent foundation of Cold War Catholicism, French "Personalism" and Confucian bureaucracy.

He and his despised sister-in-law banned everything from dancing to fish fighting, leaving their American financiers to wonder what Diem actually believed Vietnam should become.

He never could really explain. And no one bothered to ask the patently corrupt string of dictators and juntas that followed.

The palace is a brilliant testament to that investment"”one Ohio Senator claimed more than $2 million in aid money had gone into teak floors and fountains"”and the rooftop "meditation" space offers the pinnacle of that folly.

Nguyen Van Thieu, Diem's penultimate successor turned it into a disco.

Now, on a clear day, you can sit up on his roof, far from the parade, surrounded by the next generation and get an idea.

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