The last “áo dài” – Steve Broering

It might have been my subconscious at work. I’m not sure. But during my most recent visit to Saigon, I noticed that I had yet to see a single áo dài. And in that moment of awareness I thought “Wow, The Last áo dài” as if I were writing the headline of a cultural obituary. I mean sure, I had seen áo dàis but not the real deal this time – the wild áo dàis out roaming and functioning in their environs and not some facsimile examples found only in the venues of a vast cultural zoo or museum.
National park mulls new logo to replace extinct Javan rhino read the headline of a report by the Thang Nien news in 2011. It’s believed that the last wild Javan rhino in Vietnam was killed for its horn; the unofficial mascot of Cat Tien National Park was now extinct. I hadn’t been conscious of that article when I thought about the demise of the áo dài though I’m pretty sure it was informative. I’m sure it was in there somewhere looking for a place to fit – a piece of some semantic puzzle that told the story of a modernizing Vietnam.
And I’m not sure what to make of it all now. As an outsider, an observer, a traveler, a tourist, I’m saddened and ready to report to any pilgrim interested in traveling here that there isn’t any here here anymore. I had had Cat Tien NP on my list of “to dos” this time around. I told my wife the other day that it wasn’t really that important anymore and we could do something else. Sa Pa was off the list too as I’d heard it was “just not the same” – and something else about another hydro-power project going in.  But a part of me, the sociological mediator perhaps, suggests that maybe the passing of Vietnam’s icons isn’t necessarily a bad thing and I should be fortunate to be witnessing the natural evolution of an entity that has long suffered, and been dominated by, and shaped, and controlled by outside forces and is now in the critical, and paradoxically necessary, phase of its development towards true independence and self sufficiency. Who am I to threaten to pocket my tourism dollars if I can’t see a Javan rhino in the wild? Who am I to criticize Vietnam for not doing more to protect the rhinos or the áo dàis? Maybe my ideas of what being a tourist means need to be re-evaluated. Have I been thinking like a Tourist Imperialist? What is the real Vietnam? Maybe the real Vietnam hasn’t arrived yet or the real Vietnam is happening now, sans rhinos, sans áo dàis.
I suppose the best thing to do is keep an open mind and look for the new tourist attractions which may be less physical and more ideological. If fewer waterfalls, or forests, or animals, or áo dàis result in what Vietnam has fought to become occurs then that should be a good thing, no?

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