Letters From Vietnam : Lessons and Perspectives

September 13, 2009 § 4 Comments

What I had previously known about Vietnam, I knew vicariously through film, books, and TV. In my mind, images of women in traditional ao-dai costume and conical hats are contrasted with moving pictures of American soldiers and tanks advancing towards a smoke filled Hue city citadel, against the backdrop tune of Martha and the Vandella’s Nowhere to Run.

I spent four weeks in Vietnam, three weeks volunteering as an English teacher, and one week of solo travel around the central cities. The time spent there was truly a meaningful one. I’ve had conversations and close quartered living with locals, European and American volunteers, and they have left deep impressions on me. Here are some of them:

1. Vietnam is a country with a strong sense of cultural identiy

The Vietnamese people speak of their nation with a sense of pride. And very deservedly they should. As a country littered with battle scars they have succeeded in repelling so many of the world’s mightiest powers in numerous skirmishes. (Against the French, Americans and Chinese, and even the Mongols.)

Vietnamese schoolchildren speak of their hometowns with pride. Many would love to have the opportunity to travel overseas to study, but it is Vietnam (or Hanoi to be more exact) they would call home. Nationalism of this kind would be rare in Singapore. I guess it is true that what you’ve fought hard for, you cherish even more.

2. Economics in Vietnam

In many of my travel blog posts, I’ve mentioned how Vietnam is a country that attempts to modernize, while still desperately clinging on to its traditions. This same struggle is evident in the Communist party’s coming to grips with globalization and the global economy. Communism in its purest form cannot be found in Vietnam, instead it would seem more like a capitalist economy headed by a one-party dictatorship. Even the Party would have to admit: cash is king. By adopting Deng Xiaoping-styled economic reforms, the Vietnamese people have been able to pursue wealth, while politics are kept firmly at the back of their minds. People are too busy trying to make money to care about who’s in power. Singaporeans in this way aren’t too different, no?

Call it “economic liberalization without political liberalization” if you will, there is no denying Vietnam’s economic boom in the recent years. With tourists flocking in by the hordes into this exotic land, its boomtime should be no surprise.

3. Ho Chih Minh, and the Communist Party

Let there be no doubt, Uncle Ho (or as the locals say, Bac Ho) is equally loved by the young and old. On the streets and in every city, supersized images of Uncle Ho can be found on posters, statues, and daily papers. The younger generation however, have no interest in the happenings of the Communist party, they are far too engrossed in online role playing games or the latest Korean TV series to be bothered.

For a collectivist culture such as Vietnam’s, the Western concept of personal space is unheard of. My personal experience with a lack of personal space was on the public buses (or any public space), your face would be literally pinned to the next person’s.

Another thought: Being alone is shied upon for the Vietnamese. You’d almost never see Vietnamese people dining alone unless absolutely forced to.

4. Social System: Top Down Bureaucracy

Hierarchy is an important concept in Vietnamese life. Order in society and life revolves around hierarchy. The smallest unit of hierarchy in society is the family. In Vietnam, children are the entire of the family, but they are very much subject to the decisions made by elders in the family, often the grandparents. This is a culture where respect to elders is expected and understood by all.

While the Singaporean government attempts to drill into our thick skulls about how we should give up our seats on trains and buses to the elderly, this comes nearly automatic and and naturally for the Vietnamese people. On buses, (no matter how cramped) I have seen seats being given up to the elder person. There weren’t any signs or posters above their head telling them to do so.

This same sense of hierarchy is also present in the workplace. One is expected to do as the superiors say so. While this gives the workplace a sense of order, it is a potential cause for alot of frustration sometimes. Former volunteer coordinator Matt from the UK tells the story of how he struggled to understand this concept of “hierarchy”.

One of the volunteers had asked for an additional blanket, as winter was approaching in Hanoi, it gets really cold at night. Matt told the volunteer he would look into it, by asking dorm housekeeper Mr Trung.

“No. One volunteer one blanket.” was Mr Trung’s simple reply. He said it was part of the rules written on paper.

Matt: “Mr Trung, I think you don’t understand. Our volunteer needs another blanket. It gets COLD here, ok?”

Mr Trung: “Sorry,one volunteer, one blanket.”

At this point, Matt was on the verge of screaming at Mr Trung. Thank goodness he didn’t. So Matt went to Mr Hieu, the volunteer programme coordinator, and also Mr Trung’s superior. Mr Hieu understood the situation easily, instructed Mr Trung to provide an additional blanket, case closed. Simple as that.

It was only then that Matt understood how things worked around here. Because this culture works top-down, anyone that tries to go against pre-ordained rules and regulations would be disruptive to order. Not to mention making everyone lose face in the process too.

Red tape may be frustrating, and sometimes volunteers begin to doubt their ability to actually make a difference in the few weeks they’re here, much less “change the world!” For me, I’d like to think that I’ve helped to open up closed minds, help the kids understand that its possible to have fun while learning English. I hope that I’ve brought some excitement into their usual dreary, read-from-textbook English lessons. Learning should be fun. These children are carefully selected from the many schools around the country, considered to be “gifted”. If there is any one group of youths that could bring positive changes and progress to Vietnam, I believe they are the ones to do so.

5. Educational Aspirations of the Vietnamese, and the true meaning of a University Degree

Conversations in the classrooms has revealed many of the children’s aspirations to study in universities abroad, especially in Singapore. Singapore’s spankingly clean streets, modernized society and fresh air is what comes to mind immediately for these children when they hear of the word “Singapore”.

Because of strict government policies, about 90% of Vietnamese people will probably never get to travel abroad in their lifetimes. Only a select privileged few will have the chance to do so. A scholarship to study abroad is a dream come true for these hardworking kids.

Every country approaches the provision of tertiary education differently. In Scandinavian countries, the government pays for university education. Here in Singapore, mostly we have to pay for ourselves. As a Singaporean, my conversations with the Vietnamese schoolchildren has made me radically rethink what a university degree means. University degrees aren’t given to people simply because they are special, they are given to people who an afford to pay for them. Having a university degree does not mean I deserve privileges, nor preferential treatment.

6. What does it mean to volunteer? What are the stereotypes?

I found it hard to reason why I was teaching at a “gifted school” initially. Aren’t there more underprivileged kids that need my help? Its a stereotype that an aspiring volunteer coming from a modernized developed country to a third world country would be able to “change the world”. We see it all the time in pictures: teaching poverished children, helping out at orphanages. Jane, a good friend and volunteer from the UK, says that everyone wants to “do the Princess Diana: taking photographs with AIDS children, kids with leprosy.” Sometimes its become a fad and hip-ness in volunteering just for the sake of volunteering. Frankly speaking, volunteers are needed at every social strata, even in less glamorous roles, and even in places where we least expected.

7. Youth culture in Vietnam

The young people of Vietnam are going through a “counterculture 60s” of their own. They want a different lifestyle from their parents. Everywhere in the cities of Hanoi and Hue, I saw couples on dates holding hands, even dress in ways that would incur the wrath of their parents. But at the end of the day, young people don’t live away from parents, everyone lives under the same roof. Much like Singapore.

Sex is very much a taboo subject, it is never mentioned in print nor word. Bringing a girl/boy back home for the night would be unthinkable. Lots of sexiness in the media, yes, “but no sex please, we’re Vietnamese”. My conversations and questions to the local youth about dating is almost always re-routed or returned with puzzled faces.

8. Work culture in Vietnam

In many parts of Northern Vietnam, especially in the countryside, work is a conscious part of life. Our modernized and city lifestyle, we often speak about attempts at the “work-life balance” or “work-life separation”. The best example of Vietnamese work-life integraton is how many brick and mortar home businesses of the people are effectively part of their living space as well. During my stint as a volunteer ESL teacher, I print my teaching materials everyday at a print shop near the volunteer house. The owner’s bedroom and toilet was always in view in his shop. I had to take off my shoes before entering his shop/home. I haven’t been to Saigon (HCMC), I can only assume work life pace is pretty darn hectic there.

9. Vietnamese Hospitality

People who have traveled around Southeast Asia may find that the Vietnamese people are considerably less warm than their other Indochina counterparts. Strangely I found that this wasn’t the case. When you move beyond tourist hotspots, and show genuine appreciation for the people and their culture, you get Vietnamese hospitality in spades.

During my numerous conversations with Jane from the UK, she mentioned that the Vietnamese would always preempt with what you would need before you even think of it. At the school staff dining area, Jane was personally handed a fork and spoon by serving ladies, even before she picked up her pair of chopsticks (which she really isn’t any good at…).

I experienced lots of Vietnamese hospitality too, from vodka drinking sessions, invitations for lunch on Independence day, and was offered food and Vietnamese language lessons on my train ride down south to Danang.

10. The Asian Identity and The Singaporean Identity Crisis

Jane’s first reaction to the word Singapore was “Asia for beginners”. Its a country where westerners will find it all too easy: English speakers everywhere, signs in English, ridiculously clean streets, shops that stock food from Western countries (mostly), all too easy transport options. I ask myself if I’m really confused about my identity…

Contrast this with Hanoi: “The Asia that everyone wants to see” Narrow streeets, strange smells, Vespas scooting around every lane, this strange concoction of the modern and medieval can be at once exciting and confusing. At the cost of fitting in with the rest of the modern world, I can’t help but think Singapore is missing some form of national identity. Not to say that we had a really strong one in the first place. In an effort to be hip and live the Californian lifestyle espoused on TV and music, our cultural past forgotten.

My Flickr photostream

My Vietnam travelblog


Here are some resources I used in my attempt to understand Vietnam better:

Independent traveler resource for Vietnam: Travelfish

Vietnamese history: Asian Nation

My weather beaten, trusty Lonely Planet Vietnam 10th Edition was co-written by local writer Yu-Mei Balasingamchow. For more Vietnam adventure tales, her blog can be found here.

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