We landed at Noibai Airport, outside of Hanoi, on a steamy morning in October 2006. As we waited with the other passengers to get through customs, I felt a pair of hands grab either side of my waist and move me over a couple of inches. This was the first of many times I would feel complete strangers decide I was in their way and so, move me. Vietnam is one of the densest populations in the world, and moving each other around is, while not commonplace, not unusual either. However, I didn’t know this at the time, and felt a vague sense of violation together with surprised amusement. I looked down, and a tiny elderly woman with hands like steel clamps turned out to be the culprit. We had bigger fish to fry that morning, though, and getting our Visas stamped and through customs was one of them. We had no idea what to expect, and were a little scared, having had no experience with a Communist Party-led country.
As it turned out, getting through was pretty boilerplate, despite the slightly unnerving deadpan stare of the green uniformed customs officer, and we found ourselves on the other side quickly, looking for our luggage. It had all arrived safely, and the next task was to find transportation to downtown. It turned out transportation found us; a diminutive man asked if we needed a taxi, and we were quickly ushered into a waiting car, with a driver who knew no English. We had our address written down, and showed it to him, and off we went.
We had made a common foreigner’s mistake of not getting to the official taxi line, so were a little at the mercy of the driver. (The residency program had given us no guidance on how to get to them, just the address.) The Noibai Taxi company is great at providing drivers who have at least a rudimentary grasp of English, but our guy (who, it turned out, probably wasn’t even a legal driver) didn’t work for Noibai. He was clueless in the English department, and it turned out he was clueless about where we were going as well. He got us to downtown Hanoi, and after that, it was a comedy of shouting out the window at equally unknowledgeable Hanoi denizens. (Vietnamese have the very Italian quality of feeling certain they have possession of knowledge that they obviously do not have. Therefore, whenever asking for directions, any group of four Vietnamese will start pointing in four completely contrary compass points, and this was the standup act we were now witness to.) Larry and I began to feel dismay at our own lack of savvy, as well as the frustration of no language tools, but at the same time we were highly entertained.
Part of the reason a situation like this one with the taxi exists in Vietnam is that thousands of people pour into Hanoi from the countryside every day looking for work. These country folk are seeking to find their fortune in a thriving city; they want to cash in on the phenomenal growth that characterizes Hanoi in the early 21st Century. Life outside the city is incredibly challenging, and they hear stories about the wealth that is swirling around inside the city. So, people who don’t really know the layout end up driving taxis for bogus taxi companies. Of course, we didn’t know that back in 2006. (We also were unaware that Vietnamese don’t get any training in reading maps, so a visual GPS would be a complete waste of time for them.)
With all this driving around, however, we did get to witness firsthand what would become our new home for the next three months. Jet lagged as we were, it seemed even more fantastical than we could have imagined: narrow homes lined the highway to Hanoi, homes that might have been ten feet wide, but forty or more feet deep, usually several stories tall. Water buffalo, impossibly huge bodies supported by toothpick legs, lounged along or in the road, or helped pull primitive carts at the side of the road. People on motor bikes dwarfed by their loads of produce or retail items, or families of four or five all accommodated on one motor bike, were everywhere. Tiny and vast farm fields, mixed in with the buildings and roads and walkways, were wherever they could be squeezed in. Farm workers rode bicycles in the midday heat, pedaling lazily to get to wherever they were headed. And women with conical hats worked whatever fields we were passing that required tending. How could the United States have ever thought of this country as a threat, I wondered. And, more to the point, how did this agrarian country toss us out on our ear back in the 1970s? I remember thinking that there must be way more to this population than meets the eye,
A few words about the language, “Tiếng Việt”. We were so happy and excited when we discovered that Vietnam uses the Roman alphabet; understanding it should then be easy, right? Way easier than Chinese or Japanese script, known as kanji. Not even close to the truth. Vietnamese, a tonal language, uses diacritics on its letters to alert the user to pronunciation. Words are typically 2-4 letters long, and are strung together to describe things. For instance, there are no words for actual months, like September. Instead, it is referred to as “month 9”. Same for days of the week: Wednesday is “day 3”. There is a preponderance of numbers in the Vietnamese language, which once you get the hang of it, you can start to pick out in everyday conversation.
So we arrived in Vietnam semi-confident of our ability to decipher the most difficult words, and all the signs still looked Greek to us. As we became more familiar with how the language worked, there were more challenges revealed: consonants weren’t pronounced the way we were used to saying them. So, our male friend Duong is “Zuom” and áo dài (the traditional Vietnamese dress) is “ow zeye”. The tonality can have a really confusing effect on the natives, if you’re sloppy. Take the little word ‘tim’ (“teem”). The word for purple is tim, a tonality going up. But then there’s tìm, going down, meaning to seek. And good old level tim, which is the word for heart. We were flummoxed, to say the least.
Another example of language challenges are the two words like sữa chua, which means yogurt. But, sua chua signs were everywhere in Hà Nội, and they obviously, by the look of the establishment, weren’t selling yogurt. I later learned that sửa chữa, with different markings, meant repair shop, usually for vehicles. Confusing, frustrating, and quite a letdown for two Americans interested in talking to the natives, and opening a door to understanding.
There is a push in Vietnam right now for its citizens to learn English, and many school children try it out on us. If you hang around Hoàn Kiếm Lake in Hà Nội, sooner or later a teenager will approach you tentatively and shyly to try out their English as an assignment by their teacher. Every time we return to the country, more people seem to speak it and more signs are in English; it’s only a matter of time before it becomes the second most-spoken language. Many elderly citizens still speak French, but that generation is almost gone.
Then there is the whole age hierarchy dilemma that is a vital part of communication. When meeting Vietnamese for the first time, if it isn’t the first thing out of their mouths, it won’t be long before they ask how old you are. This is not to insult you, it’s to put you into a category of address. If, for instance, I am talking to a woman in her fifties and I am in my sixties, she needs to know how to address me, but she’s not positive that I’m older than she. So, after establishing my age, she can relax and refer to me as “Ba” or older woman, and I can call her “Chi”, younger woman, also a word, used vaguely, for sister.
This sounds straightforward, but it’s anything but. We have had conversations where two Vietnamese disagree on what to call someone, and they will tell you, somewhat exasperatedly, that half the time they don’t know what to use! So, I tried to call our thirty-year-old friend “chi”, and she said no, I must call her “chau”, which is sort of equivalent to “kid”, but literally means “child”, in a familial kind of way. If there are more than twenty years between us, chau is appropriate, she said. So, if I’m eighty and you’re fifty-nine, you’re still “kid”? Well, at least in her particular rule book.
But this lack of knowing how to address each other puts tremendous stress on the citizens, and in particular the young people. They have told us that they sweat it out every day, trying to figure out what to call people and still getting it wrong, becoming an embarrassment for their family. One of our young friends said she dreams of a day when, like an American, you can just say “Hey bro” or some similar slangy expression to address someone, and it won’t get you in a mountain of trouble. That day may be coming.
There is also no real word for “you”, which is so amazingly revealing about how Vietnamese operate. As a culture, they grow up not putting themselves first, but realizing they are part of a whole; very much a hive-like concept. It’s not the individual who is important in this country, it’s the population working together. If you want someone’s attention, you shout out their age status along with the little word “oi”. All over Vietnam can be heard “em oi” or “anh oi” (the equivalent of “hey you girl/lady” or “hey you boy/man”), with the constant implication, from the time you’re a baby, that you’re just one of millions of girls or boys. You’re not unique or special, in sharp contrast to a method of child raising that many Western parents subscribe to.
We knew none of this on our first trip; we had not done our homework on how the culture functioned, and the Vietnamese were kind enough to not take umbrage at this lack of preparation. We got a pass on the first visit.
As a matter of fact, we were to learn that Vietnamese adore Americans! All our fears were completely and utterly unfounded; they are crazy in love with us and a lot of our culture. When we were finally able to delve into this conundrum a little more, we realized it was a complex set of ideas that drove them to this passion. One is, Vietnamese are very modest, and don’t believe their country is that important in the global scheme of things. So therefore, they reason, everyone is better and more deserving than they are (except China, and more on that later), and chief among those are Americans, the people of hope. Another is that they’re very curious as a population, so once they decide they like something, they go out of their way to research and copy it. They also seem to understand that their country is backward in some ways, and that is a source of embarrassment for them. They look at us as confident, happy, kind, secure and cool. But they didn’t, in 2006, in their wildest dreams believe they could ever be like us.
We were also to learn that the so-called “American War” was to them, a mere blip in their history. As we learned the Vietnamese way of thinking, the Chinese and French came out the way bigger baddies in the national consciousness. Americans were, in Vietnamese minds, like small children having a tantrum, and they were and are willing to forgive for this lack of maturity and common sense, even though it cost their country around three million lives, and the horrific lingering effects of Monsanto’s and Dow Chemical’s Agent Orange. (More on this later, when we visit one of Vietnam’s Friendship Villages for the children affected by the chemical’s presence in Vietnamese DNA, causing severe birth defects and mental retardation.) Not to mention the “Americasians”, a blending of American men and Vietnamese women, born and left behind by our male soldiers. At first reviled after the war, they became symbols of high esteem in Vietnam when the United States government finally recognized them as citizens, which was the equivalent of getting a free pass to our country.
Our driver had finally nailed down our tiny street, Nguyễn Khắc Nhu (“n-win cahk new”), which turned out to be North of the old quarter, and just South of the long dyke road. It was one block long, a dead end, so we had to give him some credit for actually finding it. At its end was a car wash (consisting of lots of young skinny guys hosing down cars in flip flops) and a gaggle of hens and chickens and roosters, common to any street in Hanoi. They would become the orchestral score of our lives for the next three months, keeping us awake for the first few nights, but eventually fading into the backdrop of everyday city sounds. Across the street was Campus Hanoi, our home.
Campus, as we called it, no longer exists today. Back then, it was one of the old French architecture-type buildings, somewhat rundown, and rented by two fresh-out-of-Princeton business types who wanted to see how the concept of an arts incubator worked in Vietnam. They had been traveling through Asia after graduating, and noticed that Hanoi was a hotbed of young artists who had nowhere to go to do their work. One of them, Eric, was the one at Larry’s show in Milwaukee.
We entered the front gate, then the front entrance, and were immediately greeted by about ten of these artists, and the American manager, Marcus Mitchell, who had been hired by the funders, Eric and Bernard. We were in the fold from that moment on, and were sucked immediately into Campus’ everyday life. There was a reception that night, we were told, and we were needed to record it, consisting of making photographs and being interviewed by the local media. Our translators, Huong and Linh (“Huom” and “Ling”), both in their late teens, were introduced, and we became fast friends, practically inseparable for the next several weeks. They remain our close friends to this day.
Campus was a typically designed Vietnamese building, with four floors above the main one. The bottom floor housed a tiny kitchen that the artists used to brew their god-awful tea made from tree leaves, which they would always mention was great for the health. It was the most bitter concoction we had ever tasted, and we did not even make an effort to acquire a taste for it. Plus, the detritus left from making it was a large gummy mass of leaves that we were often obliged to clean up in the morning while trying to make our own breakfast. That floor, in addition to hanging out, drinking tea and smoking, was also used for things like print-making and assembling sculptural objects, and one of the American artists was working on her large abstract painting there.
The second floor was reserved for meetings and classes, and more artwork, as well as the exhibition of work by the resident artists. That night, there was a show of one of the American artists who was just ending her time there, and that was what we were to record.
The next three floors were bedrooms to house us, the artists, and we began in the very top of the building with no air conditioning, moving down two floors when one of the American artists left the next week. Each of these floors had a bathroom, with the usual arrangement of a shower hose, but no actual shower. So, every time one showered, the entire room was open to the spray, hosing down towels and bathroom tissue, if you weren’t careful. But at least there were working toilets, a luxury for the majority of Vietnamese, who typically use a squat porcelain bowl, or hole in the ground.
I admit it: I have bathroom angst. (It’s the reason a ban on camping is in my marriage contract.) That, and an aversion to insects, which uniformly think I’m their dessert. I am a self-proclaimed neat freak. I know, that begs the question, how could you possibly have agreed to go to Vietnam? That puzzles me too. I guess I just didn’t think through the type of bathrooms I would encounter there. I had been to Japan, and was pretty damn impressed with the care and thought they put into that area. I suppose I just assumed that all of Asia had risen economically by magic, and the first thing that happened after that was fabulous bathrooms! That sounds like me, frequently relying on magic as a source of rescue from anything untoward.
In Vietnam, until recently a relatively poor third world country, most of the plumbing (if it exists at all) is old and in not very good condition, or if it’s new it’s not always made of the best materials. In contrast to Japan, a wealthy country, where you can practically create your own space shuttle in the bathroom, Vietnam asks that you not put anything in their toilets, including toilet paper. (Human waste is allowed, but that doesn’t mean the toilet will like it; I know, I’ve had that embarrassment.) So, with used toilet paper going into waste containers in most bathrooms, you can imagine the smell, and therefore the likelihood of bacteria.
We were to visit some of our artist friends later in our trip, and one of them lived out in the countryside with no plumbing. We had a wonderful lunch, complete with homemade sake (flavored with caterpillars!), and afterward I inquired about the bathroom. I was shown a 3-sided, roofless concrete outdoor room. I looked at our host with my palms up, questioning, where do I…..? And how……? He shrugged and left me alone, hoping I would figure something out. I turned around, mildly panicked, now wondering if I could hold it, and noticed a ladle on top of one of the walls, and a bucket of water nearby. I guessed that dilution was the key……I mean, there wasn’t even a drain! I did the best I could, fervently giving thanks that I only had to pee. I later learned that the other waste was usually deposited by squatting in a field somewhere.
It is common to see men and children peeing out in the open in Vietnam although it’s been declared illegal, and there are plenty of city streets where the smell is overpowering; I have occasionally seen women squat down wherever it’s convenient, but that is less common. This is probably a good time to point out the problems with the lack of bathroom facilities for women, other than my own wimpy attitude about it. In fact, as a side note, a wealthy male Indian entrepreneur, Bindeshwar Pathak, has noticed this issue, and has formed the Sulabh International Foundation to deal with it in India. It seems that women’s future successes in these countries are very much dependent on the presence of clean, private bathrooms. If women are forced to defecate out in the open, they are prey to anyone who comes along and wants to, um, rape them, as happened in one instance in India to two teenage girls, who were then found hanged. Dirty or non-existent bathrooms have kept girls and women out of school once they start to menstruate, endangering their education and the chance for a career and better life. And the hygiene/health issues that third world countries deal with because of the disease fecal matter can carry are much reduced with functional bathrooms. The Sulabh International Foundation builds simple bathrooms for women to use inside their homes and workplaces, greatly reducing the passage of disease and the occurrence of violence against them.
Anecdotally, I can attest to the problem of bowel regularity in a country like Vietnam, and I’m certain that the clean bathroom issue is somewhat at fault. This kind of medical problem can lead to much more serious issues, especially later in life.
So, the bathroom detour is over; back to Campus.
We took a short nap in the afternoon, and were ready for the evening’s celebration. The American artist Morrow Pettigrew (see below, with her Vietnamese helper Ha) had her works set up and ready for the attendees. Her major work was an incredible collaboration with a Vietnamese seamstress. Morrow had taken a photo of the Vietnamese countryside, had rendered it so the pixelations were entirely visible, and she and the seamstress took squares of fabric they found at the local market to create a massive fabric representation of it. It was stunning.
Campus had provided a table with beer and spring rolls, a Vietnamese specialty consisting of shrimp and pork, carrot, greens, bun (or rice noodles), all wrapped up in a rice paper then dipped in a fish and lime sauce. In other words, heaven. If all Vietnamese food turned out to be this delicious, we were going to have a great culinary adventure as well. And magically, when you ate Vietnamese food, you never gained weight!
Linh and Huong were there to facilitate for us, and the public began to arrive. We met many of the Vietnamese artists that night: Le Huy Hoang (who would succumb to stomach cancer in 2014, and is pictured at the top of this post), Duong (who would eventually marry our translator Linh), Hoa, Giang, Tam; people who would become our close companions over the next several months, and would give us another window through which to view Vietnam.
A word about Vietnamese names: there aren’t that many, and you may have ten friends with the same given name, like Duong (which is actually both a woman’s and man’s name); three Duongs are some of our closest friends, and we also have acquaintances named Duong. There are fifty-four origins, or traditions that define Vietnamese origins, in Vietnam. Everyone has a card identifying what family origins they descended from, a bit like a driver’s license. You could be a Nguyen or a Pham or a Le – that’s on your card, and so is your origin, such as Thai, Chinese or Hmong. There are usually three names: a given, a family name and then another name or two that, like the given name, is at the discretion of the parents. Some urban young Vietnamese also often choose a Western name, and sometimes use that as an identifier on Facebook and other social media. The given name, incidentally, is usually listed last in the group of two, three or four names. Whereas I am Pamela Bayard Foard in the U.S., I would be Foard Bayard Pamela in Vietnam, another nod to the importance of ancestry: first and foremost, what family origin are you?
There was a pretty electric excitement that was part of that first trip, and I think Campus Hanoi really facilitated it. When we run into Vietnamese friends now, years later, they all agree: it was a special time. It gave the artists, who were all educated at the local university, a chance to try out new ideas and play off one another. Their education had been very traditional, and by that time many had computers and were on the internet, so they were aware of artists in other parts of the globe. They were therefore also aware that their education had a lot of holes, and they needed to catch up. Our presence just reinforced that feeling.
Larry and Hoang struck up an immediate friendship, and decided to do an art project together. Hoang was dirt poor, married to a health professional (which is no guaranty in Vietnam of a reasonable living) and had a little girl. His was the home in the outskirts of Hanoi where we had lunch and my first encounter with bare bones facilities. He had fought for Vietnam as a teenager (not because he wanted to; he was conscripted) when Pol Pot was a threat in Cambodia, and the Vietnamese Army invaded; Hoang was also half Cambodian on his father’s side. Making an escape from the army, he was caught and tossed in jail for many months, eventually making his way back to Hanoi. From that point on, he decided to devote his life to art, and his conceptual artwork caught our attention and earned him some brief fame and financial success before he suddenly succumbed to stomach cancer about seven years later. When we met him, he was thirty-nine, depending on how you counted his age; as in most East Asian countries, Vietnamese are counted as “one” the day they are born. (Go here for a video of Hoang: https://youtu.be/px1ZRNYZhN4.)
The first quest Larry and Hoang went on was a wholesale produce night market, so they literally left at around midnight. The night market consisted of Vietnamese farmers trucking (and by trucking, I mean by whatever means necessary: beast of burden, motorbike, and in rare cases, an actual truck) their produce into the city to be sold to restaurateurs and the thousands of women roaming the streets with various fruits and vegetables for sale during the day. I marveled at the Vietnamese work ethic, which basically translated to staying up all night to get the job done, then returning to their farms in the countryside to start the whole process again, seven days a week. As Hoang would repeat many times in the next few months, “Life is very hard here!” No kidding. I could not imagine an American child enduring this kind of existence, although I could see first-generation parents’ counterparts stepping up to the plate. People will do a lot for the possibility of a better life, for themselves and/or their families.
Larry told me later that they stopped by the wholesale flower market next, where the stalls had precise demarcations: if you were willing to pay the government a fee, you were allowed inside the demarcation. If not, you had to sell outside the line, not as popular a location. He and Hoang found a young woman with her few flowers, waiting to sell them so she could go home, outside the line. Hoang asked her if she wasn’t angry about the rules and the lines, and she said, no, she just wanted to make her twenty thousand Dong (one dollar) and get out of there, she had no time or inclination to think about rules.
That story stopped me in my tracks. In America, as in other first-world countries, we are hard-wired to think about our futures and how we are going to spend our time on Earth. Many Vietnamese people are living day-to-day, and it appears from this story, never thinking about anything except where their next Dong is coming from. This may sound obvious on its face, but it had simply not occurred to me that this was a vast difference between advanced and third-world cultures, because I had so cavalierly taken my own planning for my life, and the support structure that enabled me, for granted. And, this young flower lady’s situation is a hard truth for most of the world’s population. It is how most people on our planet are living. The gift of my birth circumstances were coming into focus. Not that I hadn’t been aware before, but now it wasn’t abstract anymore.
Larry took many photographs during his sojourns with Hoang in the coming weeks, and the two of them became very close. Hoang had taught himself some English, and was somewhat rough around the edges, but he and Larry developed a rudimentary way to communicate. He knew martial arts and had a wonderful singing voice, something we captured on video. He generously invited us to his home on several occasions, and I took care to use a bathroom before we arrived, although I think there was at least one other occasion when I used his “facilities” with much more confidence.
The fruit of their labor was a joint exhibit at the end of our stay called “Hà Nội Windows”. They developed the photos, which were in black and white, and printed inversely on plastic sheets, so they looked like big negatives. They and several other of the Campus Hanoi artists then constructed a huge bamboo structure which would force observers to climb and weave through to observe the photos. They asked me to add a soundtrack, and I worked with the well-known composer Vu Nhat Tan to create something that combined East and West on solo violin, with some of the audio Larry had recorded on the jaunts he took with Hoang, and that continuously looped during the exhibit. Two fans blew the hanging transparent photos, moving them in ways that forced the people viewing them to move through the structure looking like dancers in slow motion. It was pretty cool, and my first attempt at improvising.
Sarah Sharp was the other American artist who was in residence when we arrived. She was working on an immense, multi-colored oil painting on the first floor of Campus. The painting was abstract, vibrant and ever changing. I couldn’t help but think of Bach’s counterpoint whenever I saw it, or watched her working on it. I suggested to her that we do a joint presentation, where when the painting was done, she would talk about her process and vision, and I would talk about and play Bach solo violin excerpts as an aural way to illustrate the abstract nature of her painting. It was some of the most fun I had ever had playing the violin, and it seemed to be a hit with the Vietnamese: they all gathered around speaking Vietnamese, laughing and playing “air violin” afterward. No translation needed.