What a week! My second week in Hanoi went quickly. I suppose when you are having fun… Besides the general stuff we had to do such as three hours of Vietnamese language lessons per day there were some other bits to keep us entertained and focused.
We had our first heavy thunderstorms. Boy does it come down in buckets. But mostly the weather has been hot and humid. One of the locals told me that the autumn was the best part of the year because it was lovely and cool. Huuh? Between 30 and 35 degrees. Cool? It just goes to show. It’s all relative, isn’t it.
Our VSO office helped us with our bank accounts, took us to clinic visits for further vaccinations (I’m now all rabied out) and visits to museums that weren’t actually open. Lots of meetings with support folk and further info on customs and procedures.
We had a fabulous talk by Professor Huu Ngoc, author of a fair sized book called ‘Wandering through Vietnam’s Culture’. Covered a few thousand years of history in under an hour. I think he’s done it before…
What he did point out, which was something that I had kind of thought of before during a language lesson,was that community is a big thing. The principle is what can I do for the community, i.e. duty, rather than what can the world do for me, or the individualism of the West. Shades of J F Kennedy’s speech of ‘Ask not what your country can do for you, but what you can do for your country’. Or words to that effect.
I do think that the Prof’s little world of Vietnam and community is not as golden and wonderful as he paints it. But nevertheless, I agree with him that the loss of community is a big one for the West. Let’s hope Vietnam hangs on to theirs, although it sounds like the young and up and coming entrepreneurs are abandoning their roots as quickly as we did in the West.
The Vietnamese language still follows this sense of community. There are so many pronouns to describe somebody and their relationship to you and others. Which is also why Ho Chi Minh, the hero of the liberation struggle, is called Uncle. It’s a kind of honorary title in a way. We in the West would consider the title uncle not to be that polite. In Vietnam it means we are part of the family because he is our Uncle!
On Saturday we had an all day outing to a Vietnamese family. This was an opportunity for us to see how the people live and to get a feel for this sense of community. I had my day in a home where three generations of people live under one roof.
What was fun was to see the 5 year old grand daughter speaking her first English words. They introduce the language at kindergarden where they also follow a fairly strict syllabus of numbers and introduction to science and history. No playing around in play school here. And the little one is terrified of her teacher!
Hospitality is huge here and the dining table groaned with food. It’s not polite to nibble. To show your appreciation as visitor you have to tuck in, and lots of it. Phew. Talk about taking strain. Lovely food. Not that much fresh, except for a herb salad which was nice. Let’s put it this way, a vegetarian would have starved.
A walk to the local Pagoda, praying temples made me reflect on religion. As with Western churches, the women folk were out in droves praying to their ancestors. And I suppose as with the West the men folk are probably the ones behind the statues and religious symbols calling the shots and raking in the gifts.
At the advice of my young guide, I donated some dong, lit some incense and had a chat to my ancestors to ask them to help me through two years of work in Hanoi and to make sure that I can do more good than harm!
It seems there are a fair number of clairvoyants in Vietnam and that it is quite common for people to ask for help and check out what the future could hold for them. And this is done via the clairvoyant’s chats to the ancestors.
Nowadays one buys fake money to leave on the plate in front of your particular favourite statue. I suppose it makes sense with theft on the rise. But then who grabs the money for the fake money, one wonders.
My young guide told me of people who spend millions of dong, which is not that hard if one considers that 30 000 vd (Vietnamese dong) is about Â£1, buying fake money in the hope that the ancestors will shower them with much wealth. Wealth seems to be the number one goal.
I told him that it was no different in the West. One just had to see what Madoff managed to rake in. Talk about selling fake money and empty promises. You can’t teach the West any new tricks on that score. Vietnam certainly doesn’t need to feel embarrassed about a few people taken for a ride with fake money for ancestors.
One last week of orientation ahead of us. And then the real business of work will finally need to be faced. Out of the eleven of us only 4 volunteers will be staying in Hanoi. The others will wend their way to Saigon and some to some pretty remote spots. We will be sorry to see the group disband.