Sleepless in Saigon

A weekend trip to Saigon, for me, was something inconceivable, given my distaste for plane rides and filthy hotel bed sheets.

But in February, after battling thoughts of  tragic airplane food and carefully picking out a decent-looking hotel, I flew to Vietnam with my boyfriend, armed with aspirins and a borrowed backpack.

Upon arrival at the Tan Son Nhat airport, we were greeted by a grinning man who, from a few of his hand gestures, we made out as a cabbie. We threw our backpacks in the backseat of his sedan and hopped in, only to discover another Vietnamese in the driver’s seat– a chain-smoking businessman with an old suitcase crammed on his lap. The cabbie sped off and from outside the car windows, our first glimpse of Saigon was a blurry haze muddled with thick Vietnamese vowels and cigarette smoke.

Of course the cabbie ripped us off (who also turned out to be driving barefoot) and my boyfriend’s unmistakable Vietnamese features didn’t help at all. At the hotel lobby, we found the bellboys, with their shoes strewn across the carpet, snoring on the stained Victorian couches. The unsmiling receptionist took our passports and pointed us to a rickety elevator with a waiting bellhop. A fat Caucasian was slumped on a bar chair, bored. A faint, blue light radiated from a muted television.

Hungry, we went out for noodles only every single shop was closed. It was a Friday night but Saigon was dead to the world. Wolfing instant ramen at the hotel steps, we watched a pimp in a motorcycle pick up his girl, a blonde Oriental in a tiny blouse worn as an even tinier dress. She had dirty feet, visible underneath her glass slippers. Then Cinderella sped off in her coach, the small of her white back, sort-of beautiful.

With empty cups, there was no choice but to jump into the sheets and sleep. My disappointment was mounting. And I could not be bothered to wake up early the next morning.

Fast track to the day after, and the chambermaids’ loud pig-latin babbling outside the door prompted us to hop in the shower and hop out of the hotel, fast. A black cloud of disappointment was still hanging above my head but with a faint sense of excitement throbbing underneath my skin, I was hopeful.

And. Saigon. Is. A. Dream. This realization hit me straight smack in the teeth as soon as I step out of the four walls of the hotel (the bellboys, this time, were aligned by the doors like bright nutcrackers). Vespas speeding off left and right, leaving behind a trail of smoke, colors, fruit smells. Banh Mi and Pho vendors with their tiny stalls peopled the sidewalks and locals on their lunch break stooped low on steaming noodle bowls, the smell of food communing with words and laughters and more words. Fruit and flower farmers with their conical hats, riding their bikes for a day at the market. And of course, white tourists everywhere. In Saigon, 11 out 10 people are white.


Saigon is a street food haven; every corner presents a surprise: Baguettes warming on improvised coal-heated grills; fruits pickling in brine, flavored with red salt; buckets of clam thrown in bubbling pots, rice cakes spooned generously on banana leaves.

I had about three bags of Vietnamese Coc fruit, sold pickling in clear square jars. The lady-vendor would pepper the fruits with chili-salt, which she would happily pack an extra if you really want it hot-salty.

And, of course, Pho. The vegetables thrown in the white-hot broth are so fresh, the delicious crunch between your teeth is unmistakable. Sold everywhere in Saigon, from humble corner-shops to commercialized Pho chains, the warm weather is never an excuse to not savour a hot bowl (I can have two in one sitting. Three, if I really want to).

Pho makes everything all right

In the middle of the all the dust and the sweat and the chaos of a Saigon Saturday, we chanced upon a group of old girls chowing chicken in the middle of traffic. This is this. You don’t see it everyday, in your capitalism-driven, democratic skyscraper-jungle of a country.

 I wish to return. One happy day.


Recommended Film:

Canh Ba Ba (Turtle Soup) (2011)


April 8, 2012 at 5:05 pm 2 comments

I told you I’d be back

Damn my memory I have completely forgotten about my WordPress password. That, coupled with undeniable laziness, and this blog went kaput for eight months.


James Cameron’s Titanic (1997) in 3D is debuting in theaters worldwide, to commemorate the tragic sinking of the mega-liner a century ago, in 1912.

Below is an essay on Cameron’s opus I wrote for the college paper in 2006. Pardon the obvious angst. I was young and bleeding pretentious.

(published in the 2006 June issue of The Benildean)

Sampling overpriced latté one dog day afternoon triggered momentary annoyance over everything for me. My unfortunate item of ridicule: The Da Vinci Code movie poster nailed atop a waiting shed peopled with coeds in dirty white. I resolved that The Da Vinci Code is an oversell which brought me to another painfully overrated film—James Cameron’s 1997 shipboard romance blockbuster, Titanic.

If you ponder on it, Titanic and The Da Vinci Code practically bear no difference from one another. Both films are overrated. Dan Brown’s The Da Vinci Code, translated in 40 languages, primarily in hardcover, and was released in the United States under Doubleday Publications in the year 2003, is a worldwide bestseller with over 60.5 million copies. Three years later, Anchor Books released 5 million paperback copies of the book, and Broadway Books released 200,000 paperback copies of The Da Vinci Code Special Illustrated Edition. I was already seriously considering putting a barf bag over my head when I learned that a computer game version of the book published by 2k Games was premiered May 13th of 2006, which is playable on both the Playstation 2 and Xbox.

Titanic’s popularity had also escalated to the point of hopeless stupidity. Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On invaded the airways for months on end that by its sixth week of non-stop airplay, the neighborhood dogs began to yowl in apparent misery. I, myself, nearly succumbed to the idea of romancing a ledge when radio stations came up with a re-mixed version of the song. Some genius probably thought that inserting the cheesy dialogues of the about-to-drown Jack and Rose in between chorus lines was pretty. It wouldn’t surprise me the least if Celine Dion socks that genius with a microphone head if she learned of his odious opus. Now, I am eagerly awaiting Hans Zimmer’s Kyrie for the Magdalene with inserted Robert Langdon and Sophie Neveu dialogues: This is the Bois de Boulogne?; We must find anozzer way!; I’ve never met a girl who knew that much about a cryptex…

Please, someone, gag me with a spoon.

Both Titanic and The Da Vinci Code also drew a multitude of film aficionados on its first screening day. Never mind the sorry fact that movie theaters hiked up the ticket price (minus the fresh theater floors and all). I know somebody who had seen Titanic sixteen times; the same person resolved to see The Da Vinci Code more than the flashlight-bearing movie theater attendant.

Another similarity both movies share is the purported legitimacy of facts presented in the storylines. In fairness to Cameron, Titanic is based on an actual luxury super liner, the RMS Titanic which sank April 12th of the year 1912. Although Rose Bukater and Jack Dawson were fictional characters, the movie features the real ship chief, Captain Edward John Smith, and one of Titanic’s most prominent passengers, the Countess of Rothes. The definite number of people who perished in the Titanic mishap disclosed in the movie (1,523, according to an investigation by the U.S. Senate) is also accurate and so is the cause of the majority of deaths which is hypothermia.

However, the movie presents a scene or two that is later to be discovered nonexistent in the real Titanic catastrophe. In the film, Nearer My God to Thee is the last song played by the Titanic band led by Wallace Hartley. However Harold Bride, the wireless operator who survived the sinking claimed that it was actually Songe d’Automne, a popular ragtime song at the time. Another thing, the movie featured a three-man band; the actual Titanic band was composed of eight musicians.

Now, as I contemplate whether or not to discuss the legitimacy of facts ofThe Da Vinci Code and my personal opinions on this Ron Howard movie masterpiece, I could almost hear the conservative fuddy-duddies in my head chanting “Sacrilege!”.

Mind you, I have been accused of being a bleeding heretic because of one published opinion article. And because my parents acknowledge this accusation as somewhat true and people now see me as an atheist in baby pink, I resolved to shut my trap and fix a halo above my head. 

However, I guess it won’t hurt to spout a sentiment or two about this popularly supposed scandalous film. One, believe those who are seeking the truth; doubt those who find it. Two, respect for religion is the duty of all civilized human beings.

With the creators of Titanic and The Da Vinci Code leering in joy over the incredible success of their blockbusters, I can’t help but be disgusted with the idea that with these two films, we are sinking Titanic and selling Jesus’ head over and over again. An overkill, if you may.

“Like throwing up. No, actually I shouldn’t say that. No, actually I do feel like throwing up.” – Kate Winslet’s when asked about her take on Celine Dion’s My Heart Will Go On

April 4, 2012 at 12:02 am Leave a comment

I want to go home

Pretensions, pretensions, pretensions.


Recommended Film:

 Number Five, Yoko Ono (1967)

May 27, 2011 at 6:58 pm Leave a comment

This blog is back in business

[ Source ]

Because silent narcissism is a survival mechanism.

May 20, 2011 at 10:45 pm Leave a comment

Before e-readers, when pages were turned, we did get by just the same…

“Before leggings, when there were letters, before texts and tweets, when there was time, before speed cameras, when you could speed, before graffiti management companies, when cities had souls, we managed just the same.

Before celebrities, when there were stars, before Google maps, when compasses were internal, before umbilical online-ism, when we off-lined our lives, before virtual flirtation, when legs touched, we felt we managed all the same.”

Change or Perish by Roger Cohen via The New York Times

May 20, 2011 at 9:19 pm Leave a comment

Escolta Film Journal

It’s about time.

We go back to the history of Philippine Cinema – breaking down the walls, ploughing through the forest of happenings from the decades that were once unknown to us. We discover the forgotten details of the past, we remember the revolutions and its sentiments, and we reestablish the dreams of before.

We look at today, and we see the glimmer of the prayers and dreams for cinema that have attempted to materialize, we feel the play of emotion between sorrow and love of the believers of film. And with that, we decide at once. We put together the best works, words of inspiration, all of which we intend to fulfill the hopes of the wishful.

With the love for Philippine Cinema and all it entails, after more than three months of what seemed like forever, of unending passionate labor, with moments of slight disappointment and even doubt in between, we have finally come to the end of it, or rather, the beginning – our labor of love, the ESCOLTA Film Journal.


Recommended Film:Batang West Side, Lav Diaz (2001)

August 16, 2010 at 2:19 pm 1 comment

The F-word: Lualhati Bautista and Feminist Cinema

Lualhati Bautista never bats an eyelash at conversations concerning feminism and its shadowed existence in a so-called modern day society still eclipsed, ironically so, by observable patriarchy.

In third grade, while her equivalents cared for nothing but church on Sundays and after-school household obligations, the then nine-year-old had something else brewing in her head: Why her participation in brusque games in a school skirt was frowned upon and why verbalizing romantic feelings for a boy in class was dismissed as an anomaly simply because society dictates that a girl of culture must never do so. “Maliit pa lang ako, marami na akong tanong sa isip ko,” Bautista said between nips on a glass of cola, “Na-realize ko na bakit hindi ko kayang gawin ang mga ginagawa ng mga kaklase kong lalaki dahil babae ako.”

Reared in a world which history is defined by men’s actions and where women are discerned as objects of carnal desire and as mere domestic accessory, Bautista grew up harboring questions which answers never sprung up in school books. Unanswered questions fueled curiosity. Curiosity bred creativity.

With her hands folded next to an untouched plate of cassava cake, Bautista proceeded to explain her motivation for writing feminism-fueled fiction. “Katulad na lang nito,” she said, extending a hand as if to grasp the proper thought. “Behind every successful man is a woman…pero bakit ako ‘behind?’ Dati, kailangan mag-asawa ka, mag-kaanak pa para maging complete ka as a woman.  Bakit choice ng babae ang [pumili] between family and career, pero hindi yan choice ng lalake? Ang mga questions na ito ang mga tanong, ang mga seeds, mga binhi na nag-lead sakin na magsulat.”

Bautista, lauded not only for her work’s upfront realism but also for her prolific contribution in feminist literature and screenplay writing, gave birth to hard-nosed female protagonists–a far-cry from Philippine melodrama stereotypes of as far as fifty years back which depicted women as the eternal doormat.  Bulaklak Sa City Jail (1984) for instance, a story of a pub singer imprisoned for the frustrated murder of her lover’s wife and her stint in an infernal city jail amongst female reprobates, illustrated women as condemned characters—victims of a judgmental society and pawns of a corrupt system ran largely by men—but who, in the image of its main character, the iron-willed Angela, triumphed with the spirit of willpower fired chiefly by maternal drive.  “[Ang melodarama ay] nagsusulong pa din ng kaisipan na ang babae is either a virgin or a vampire. Napaka-stereotype. Naka-graduate na ba tayo don?” Bautista quipped whilst raising an eyebrow to perhaps emphasize the idea. “Hindi melodarama ang question kundi ang stereotyping. Pwede mo gawing strong ang babae without making her weak in the start.”

[ Source ]

Bulaklak Sa City Jail was arduous and challenging to produce.  Bulaklak was an off shoot of a series of articles on the correctional institution that Bautista had written along with fellow writer and friend Josefina Corpus in late 1960s. The research process involved spending a few evenings in the penitentiary, with a bogus letter from the editor serving as their passport. “Siyempre adventurista ka, lahat gusto mo mapasok. Una naming pinasok ang National Penitentiary, nag-fake kami ng letter na kunwari galing sa editor ng Liwayway,” Bautista recalled, throwing laughters in between. “Nabuko kami pero [tinulungan kami ng] dating Director Alejo Santos ng National Penitentiary at siya na mismo ang gumawa ng sulat para makapasok kami sa Correctional.” Later, they progressed to doing studies and researches at the women’s section of the notoriously perilous Manila City Jail. “Nagpunta kami ng Manila City Jail at miserable ang sitwasyon. May isa don, nakulong lang sa pagnanakaw ng halagang 30 pesos. Mula don may mga nabuong istorya.” Bulaklak was first serialized in Liwayway in the early 80s and later, adapted into reel by Mario O’ Hara (who is painfully underrated, according to Bautista) in 1984.

Bulaklak Sa City Jail, which garnered 5 wins in the 1985 FAMAS Awards including Best Picture and Best Screenplay, shows sheer and naked realism reminiscent of Lino Brocka’s Bona or Insiang or Ishmael Bernal’s Manila By Night wherein urban poverty was outright illustrated minus the lies of a fabricated film set faithful to Hollywood dictates. In the case of Bulaklak, the audience was transported to witness the honest conditions of city jails: the dregs of society breathing amidst putrid and claustrophobic conditions worsened by corruption within the system and the stigma of being incarcerated.

The principal character of the film, Angela Aguilar (Nora Aunor), imprisoned for nearly murdering the wife of her lover (Ricky Davao), was subjected to a tormenting initiation ritual carried out by fellow inmates: a harrowing prelude to a string of other miseries. The only clothes she had are violently stripped off her back leaving her bare naked, a fitting metaphor for the humiliation caused by the disgrace of being a woman in prison.

Bautista proceeded to pick up other prison characters, all case-hardened criminals who shared a common denominator: they were all devoted mothers. Perla Bautista played Viring, detained for murdering her abusive husband; a mother who later succumbed to insanity for the death of the daughter—fathered by a former jail officer—she delivered and nurtured behind bars. Plain-spoken Juliet (Gina Alajar), jailed for estafa, avenged the maltreatment of her child in the hands of her husband’s mistress by murdering the latter. Then there was the veteran resident whore played by Celia Rodriguez who prostituted herself for a few pesos in exchange for her son’s comfort in the four walls of the same prison she was confined in.

Bautista, a dedicated mother herself, favored stories of women as committed mothers and wives, and portrayed them contradictory to a typecasted image of a mother/wife as mere domestic accessories in Philippine melodramas. This was very much reflected in her novels Bata, Bata, Paano ka Ginawa and Dekada ’70, which were both adapted to reel. “From the beginning, when I write, I just write,” Bautista explained. “I am basically a story teller. Nang lumabas ang Bata, Bata, Paano ka Ginawa [the movie], nagugustuhan ko kapag nakakarinig ako ng mga babae na sinasabi na, “Ay, istorya ko yata yan”. Definitely ‘pag nagsusulat ako, I like stories of women, doon ako mas nakaka-relate.”

Bulaklak Sa City Jail, apart from being a social statement on the ill-conditions of Manila prisons, was a metaphor of sorts in itself, aimed at critical arguments pertaining to Filipino women. Even in mixed-gender prisons where equal provisions were supposedly accorded for both men and women, the men still assumed the upper hand as reflected in prison world’s manufactured hierarchy: the male jail warden and the prisoners in the men’s section picked female detainees like cheap commodities for sex. The women, having little to no choice, were forced to fulfil the men’s wishes for practically the price of nothing.

Angela, in the beginning of her stint in prison, discovered that she was with a child and, initially arranged to undergo an abortion. Having later accepted her situation as a would-be-mother, she was plagued by threats of having her child taken away by the prison authorities for adoption, and resolved to fight against it. Later, she gave birth in a filthy animal pen in Manila Zoo, an allegory to the pathetic vulnerability of women to abuse and degradation.

Bautista, moreover, compared the prison cell enfolding her characters in Bulaklak to the backward notions about women’s position in the society, even among women themselves. “Sa iba’t ibang paraan nakakulong ang babae,” Bautista said, her eyes sparkling. “Nakakulong tayo sa mga mali at lumang paniniwala natin sa sarili natin.”



Recommended Film:









Sedmikrasky (Daisies), Vera Chytilova (1966)

August 2, 2010 at 3:40 pm 3 comments

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