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God and Cash in Saigon

By Jason Hart

Unlike the skyscraper ridden world city of Hong Kong, Ho Chi Minh City is very much a third world city. There are few tall buildings, but the city is not lacking capitalist enterprise in a third world nation. If capitalism is based on free trade, Saigon is very much a capitalist city. For example, I don’t recall seeing a single beggar in the city. Instead, everyone seems to be selling something, from coconuts to sunglasses, from designer clothing to marijuana. Prices are not fixed, instead bartering is mainstream, and one can argue the price of any commodity.

            Just as could be seen in a global city, Saigon has a mixture of vernacular and transnational. Obviously, most commodities are culturally transnational. One can purchase DVDs of just about any American film ever released. The most recent releases are all bootlegged. There are Gucci wallets, Playstation video games, Marlboro cigarettes and Heineken beer all for sale. However, part of Vietnam’s vernacular is that many of these transnational commodities are, in actuality, knockoffs. I purchased an authentic Zippo lighter. The Zippo engraving on its underside was deeper and it weighed more than the knockoffs that were also for sale at the same stand. I would probably not have been able to tell the difference had I not read Elizabeth Van’s article, “The Limits in Authentication in Vietnamese Consumer Markets”, which discussed these particularities.

            Much of the commerce is also vernacular. For example, I purchased two handcrafted suits, fit to size, from a local boutique. The fabrics were definitely imported, but the handiwork was a product of my good friend, the seamstress, Yun.

            The most transnational experience I had in Ho Chi Minh City was on the Jewish holiday of Yom Kippur. The night before I had met two Israelis at the “Go to Bar” (an interesting marketing gimmick) and they told me to meet them the next day and to go to the local Chabad house to celebrate the holiday. Chabad is the name of a Chasidic Jewish sect that has been mechanized by their late head rabbi into an international religious outreach organization.

            The “Chabadniks” have opened up houses where Jewish people come to pray and enact religious ritual, free of charge, all over the world. This movement is present on nearly every major college campus in the United States, and apparently in many cities all over the world. inside I prayed alongside Chabadniks who were from Connecticut and Israel as well as vacationers from the United States, international businessmen from Britain and South Africa, and former Israeli soldiers on vacation, about 30 people altogether. It is incredible that in a city that is a permanent home of less than one hundred Jews, that such a transnational organization had been established and, from what I saw, seemed to be thriving, at least, on the holiest day of the year.

            Commerce is obviously a major aspect of Vietnamese culture, and transnational culture as well. As stated earlier the biggest aspect of the transnational I witnessed in Vietnam was the western commodities sold in every shop and on the streets. But what I learned is that in this Global atmosphere aspects of the transnational do not need to be based solely in commerce. In Saigon, the presence of the non profit transnational organization Chabad proves that there are some aspects of culture and globalization that defy economic gain, and instead bring people together as a community, without a fleeting thought about profit margins.

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