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The Violin Village: Then in Bắc Giang Province

~ The Violin Village: Then in Bắc Giang Province

Our dear friend Hongky called one day.

“Pam, I have an idea,” she began. Hongky’s ideas are usually intriguing and well-thought-out, so I was immediately all ears.

“Do you know the Violin Village?” she asked.

Well. Larry and I had been hearing about the Violin Village for years, since our very first visit to Vietnam in 2006. Many people knew about it, but no one could tell us where it was, which seemed very strange. I explained this now to Hongky, who was beginning to acquire a real Western sensibility about this kind of thing.

“I know where it is, Pam, and I will take you there. I will send the youtube link to their concert.”

There’s a youtube link? No one had ever mentioned that!

“My idea is that we will do a news program on you visiting the violin village. I have arranged it.”

There will be no stopping this woman; someday, she will rule the world.

I viewed the video. Sure enough, there they were, the violin village orchestra (the village name is Then, in Bắc Giang province) playing in venues around Vietnam. Large venues. Where hundreds of people were in the audience. And they were pretty good! I mean, they weren’t on the level of professional European and U.S. groups, but number one, they weren’t professionals, and number two, they were in Vietnam, where things like a violin and its accoutrements (strings, a bow, rosin, music, etc.) were typically hard to come by. And yet, there they were, up there performing, from memory, the songs in their repertoire. Impressive.

The video went on to interview some of the players, who said that it was an all-male affair; women were too busy taking care of children and keeping the home going to participate, even though many females learned to play when they were growing up. So, Hongky’s proposal to take me there was pretty gutsy in this way too; an American woman coming in and sizing them up could present some issues. But then, Vietnamese can be surprisingly open-minded. Larry and I decided to just go and see.

We set the date for a couple of days following our discussion. The plan was to ride out to the village, about an hour Northeast of Hanoi, film all day, then stay overnight and film anything that got missed in the morning.

We arrived in the village at around 9:30 a.m. The television crew had several shots that they wanted to get of me playing in the streets, me walking with Hongky, and getting a feel for the surroundings. The village itself was quite typical of Vietnamese villages; dirt roads, thatched roofs, wild stock everywhere, surrounded by farmland.

The weather was pretty iffy: as we were waiting in the street for me to play something, it started to drizzle. I looked at Larry and shook my head. My $20,000 modern Italian violin could not get soaked in a downpour, and I was relatively certain the television guys would not get this. I put the violin under the raincoat Hongky had lent me (among other things, they had forgotten to tell me how to dress, and I had chosen black and white, which wouldn’t show up well for the cameras in the gloom. So the aqua blue coat I’m wearing was hers).

Fortunately, the weather never got worse than a little misting and spitting that day, so I didn’t have to get too stressed and demanding about my instrument.

Eventually, we got around to approaching what amounted to the Civic Center, and we could hear the sound of violinists warming up. I was filmed approaching it with Hongky at my side. We entered the space, and there was the orchestra, fervently practicing one of their pieces. There were about ten or eleven violinists, a cellist, and Mr. Nguyen Quang Khoa, their conductor. They seemed happy to see us, if a little nervous.

The T.V. guys told me to get up on the stage and play something, which was somewhat unexpected, but I quickly complied with some Massenet. The orchestra members whipped out their cell phones to record the momentous event, and I did the best I could under these unusual circumstances. Then, I was asked to play in the orchestra!

So, we did some collaborating for another half hour, all without much in the way of speaking to each other; no one in the village spoke English, and the television crew knew only rudimentary words. (The camera guy, when he wanted something from me, would shout, “YOU!”, which always made me jump. Then he would point energetically at the spot he needed me to move to.)

Next, we needed a one-on-one with Mr. Khoa, the conductor and mild-mannered leader of this remarkable ensemble. It turned out he was in insurance, not a typical farmer, and had a nice house at the entrance to the village. We started to converse with Hongky translating, and among other things, I asked him the question, why are there no women in the orchestra?

Of course, he gave me the pat answer, babies, cooking, etc., but I could see, coming from me, an actual woman, that this gave the question a different, slightly uncomfortable slant. To be fair, the orchestra has recently started a music school, where there is an equal number of boys and girls. Their star pupil, who I would soon meet, was Tram (“chum”), a delightful and determined little girl.

The thing they needed most, it seemed, was music. They had been playing the same, tired old pieces for decades. They needed to freshen up the act! That was something I was more than willing to help with, and sent them many excellent, fun arrangements post-visit. (One thing I did recommend was that they train some violists for their group; they only had violins and a cellist. With a couple of violists, they’d have what amounted to a string quartet, which would open up my ability to send them hundreds of arrangements. However, this was a radical idea given how they had been operating for over seventy years, and the odds of even acquiring an instrument could be insurmountable.)

Pam in Violin Village

From the Civic Center, we walked to the home of Mr. Khoa’s partner in crime, and the son of the founder of the group, for tea. We chatted about how the group started (Mr. Khoa’s friend’s father, from the village, went away and learned to play, then came back and taught everyone else), if the urge to play had spread to nearby villages (it hadn’t), and what was in store in the future. To be truthful, I felt as if they were a little stuck on this last point, and my being there had made this more obvious. But that could be my imagination.

Next up was lunch at a village restaurant, where we also had the local sake. So there were many toasts to each other as we dined on delicious, yet unrecognizable dishes. (In the countryside, every part of the animal is used for food.)

We went back to the Civic Center after lunch, where the children had gathered for music school. Their teacher Ha Van Chinh, who I hadn’t yet met, was helping them take note dictation on a blank piece of staff paper that each of them had in front of them.

For those who aren’t familiar with teaching music, this is a fundamental, yet often overlooked, method of helping students understand how music is put together. To say I was impressed is an understatement; these children were fortunate enough to have teachers who understood the importance of comprehending the basic structure of composition, not just how to play the notes. It would be similar to learning how to pound in nails, but not know how the building is put together from a design perspective.

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Then the children got up to play for us, all from memory. Again, this is an impressive aspect of learning music, to have it in your ear, not on the page. As they played, it became clear that one student was their passionate leader, a determined little girl named Tram (“chum”). She told Hongky that she started practicing when she got up in the morning and didn’t stop until she went to bed. I believed her: she had only been playing for six months, and she was unstoppable. (She is featured in the .mp4.)

I was then asked to play and interact with the children, so I chose a simple jig from my Irish playbook, the Devil’s Dream. It was one of the first things I learned to play and love, and sure enough, soon everyone was trying it. There was suddenly a flurry of kids desperately trying to figure out the fingerings and bow crossings, and Tram was leading the way. I promised to send over the music so they could keep going with this fun little tune.

The television guys were still getting shots of the village, but they had pretty much finished with us. So rather than stay overnight, we opted to get a taxi back to Hanoi. I promised Mr. Khoa that I would start scanning and sending music right away, and we parted with smiles and nods.

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#MeToo Vietnam

#MeToo Vietnam ~

Back in 2014, we were renting an apartment in Long Biên from a friend, across the Red River from Hà Nội. As is my habit, I went about looking for a running route that would take me the four miles I normally run each day. I found a pretty good one on MapMyRun that took me all around the neighborhood, but never very far from our apartment.

After several times using this route, it became routine, and I relaxed in the warm, humid air, having no fear of becoming lost or running into other challenges.

I was out early one morning when I heard a motorbike behind me, causing no concern. However, I could hear the driver was slowing down, but that still was nothing unusual. Then, there was suddenly a hand…..on my right buttock….giving me a good squeeze.

I gasped for air as I tried to take this turn of events in and make sense of it. By then, the rider had sped up, and all I saw was his back getting smaller and smaller as he put distance between us. He was wearing an army green shirt and helmet, his only distinguishing feature from hundreds of thousands of other motorbike riders.

I continued my run; I had not been hurt, and I doubted the guy would show up again. I was pretty sure he had just taken advantage of what he considered an opportunity, and thought himself fortunate that no one was around to observe his actions. (However, Vietnam is such a densely populated country that odds are someone saw it.) I was actually somewhat amused that if he had known me, he may have been surprised that his victim was likely more the age of his mother. I kept a lookout for him for the rest of my run, but didn’t see the drab green clothing again.

When I related this incident to young women friends later, they nodded in recognition; clearly this was a challenge in such a packed population. Anyone could grab anything in passing, whether on foot or a motorbike, and there would be no repercussions, as the perpetrator could melt into the background crowds easily.

I have been exceptionally fortunate in my life in terms of sexual harassment or attack; there has been almost none. There was a creepy guy in college who came into my practice room one day when I happened to be wearing shorts, and shoved his hand in my crotch. When I recoiled in horror, he asked, “Well why do you dress like that then?”. In mentioning this to fellow female musicians, I found I wasn’t the only one he had touched; the guy was not only inappropriate and gross, but guilty of criminal assault. But aside from that, I somehow escaped anything more heinous.

Young women in Vietnam are experiencing something of a revolution, and Larry has documented many of them in his abstract photography project “The New Global Women”. They see online how women in more developed countries are negotiating their lives and careers, and they want those lives and careers for themselves. This gets them into all kinds of trouble; most Vietnamese parents from my generation never thought of the girls in their families as being able to choose how they live their lives; it’s all laid out for them before they’re even born. You might go to school, or you might work in the fields, but you certainly are not going to have a career when you need to stay home, cook, clean and raise children.

So some men in Vietnam are feeling angry, resentful, guilty and fearful at this turn of events, and most of them are under no circumstances getting on board with this new way of thinking. There is a sexual tsunami coming to Vietnam, and it just won’t be pretty, no matter how you look at it. If the #MeToo movement ever takes off there, I suspect there will be an avalanche of pretty pissed off women aligning themselves with their global compadres. This will be to Vietnam’s ultimate advantage. It stands to reason that if half your population is suddenly contributing in a very significant way to the bottom line, that you’ll do better as a whole.

We have seen young women friends leave the country in high numbers; they tire of hearing the old mantra of how they should live, and go take advantage of a free education in Germany. Many of them settle in Europe and never go back except to visit, because they know they’ll be hounded to get married and settle down. If the men can’t rise to the occasion, and stop looking at women as conveniences or worse, why would they?

Comedy in Vietnam

COMEDY IN VIETNAM ~ I have been puzzled by the lack of Vietnamese or Vietnamese-American or Vietnamese-anything comedians in the world. While there are many Asian comedians, some quite well known (e.g. Margaret Cho, who is Chinese-American, whose parents are from China, and Ali Wong, half Vietnamese and half Chinese, but grew up in the U.S.), Vietnam is largely not a player in this field of endeavor. I’ve watched sitcoms on Vietnamese television, and although I don’t understand much of the language, the body language they use seems relatively slapstick, with exaggerated facial expressions and gestures. I’ve also picked up some translated Vietnamese joke books, with the same impression of the humor.

So, of course, I wonder about this in my efforts to understand a very different culture from my own. One day, having just arrived back in Hanoi, we were talking to our housemate, Ha. She inquired about our trip, and Larry explained that he had not gotten one of his suitcases yet, and in fact it had mistakenly been sent to Saigon. I remarked that his suitcase traveled more than we did, a not uncommon joke in the West, but it still elicited a surprised laugh from Ha, who speaks excellent English. She probably hadn’t heard this joke before; but I was pleased and  curious that she recognized the humor in it.

So that gave me an idea; start using different kinds of humor around my Vietnamese friends and acquaintances, using a Western standard of what’s funny, and see if they get it. I’ve had some pretty satisfying results, as they typically not only understand, but they want to emulate and spread the joke around. I love telling them anecdotes that have humor, because Vietnamese really love to laugh.

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Our Vietnamese friends enjoying Chicago’s Millenium Park for the first time

For instance, when I was visiting my son Aubrey in Los Angeles several years ago, he wanted to get some Pho, so we went to a restaurant called Pho King. After the soup, I asked him if he knew of any other Pho restaurants, and he said he did, but that he liked Pho King best (which I’m certain he was waiting the whole meal to say), which of course sounds like a sexual activity, and is therefore funny. We speculated about the owners, and if they knew they were emulating the F-word when they named their establishment, and concluded that they probably thought it was a selling point. I tell many of my Vietnamese friends about this restaurant and its compromised name, and they not only get it, they love it! That restaurant keeps coming up in conversation, accompanied by giggling and eye rolling. Admittedly not high art, but still, it’s wordplay humor and more subtle than hitting each other to conjure laughs.

So, why is comedy comparatively nascent here, to my Western way of thinking? The U.S. was in a comparable stage during the Vaudeville days, where much of the comedy was slapstick, but it quickly evolved to a much more sophisticated form with the help and advent of television and movies. But television and movies have been around Vietnam for a long time too. True, government censorship is still a thing here. When Facebook first emerged, the government tried to shut it down, but the Vietnamese citizenry came up again and again with work-arounds, so they eventually gave up. They obviously have more control over what gets onto the mostly government-controlled television airwaves, and which movies are shown, since that probably has to go through the Ministry of Culture. But plenty of Vietnamese get streaming services like HBO, so exposure is becoming less of an issue.  

There are no comedy clubs in Vietnam that I’m aware of. For perspective, jazz clubs are just becoming known in the larger cities, and some of that activity is by foreigners. I asked my (very Americanized) friend Huong about it, and she said, “We don’t have time to notice things about each other and turn it into something funny. We’re just trying to get through the day.” And she’s right, a lot of American humor is based on making fun of ourselves and each other, even if that borders on racism and other -isms.

Perhaps with being an emerging economy, there will be lots of laughs coming down the road. Maybe Huong is right, a culture that is struggling to get on its economic feet has little inclination to think about funny.

Depression in Vietnam

Depression in Vietnam

My struggle with depression began in my teen years, with my junior year in high school being particularly sepia-soaked. I lost all hope that my life would be happy, and since I didn’t feel in control of it, measured every calorie that entered my 69” 120 pound body.  I struggled on with school and violin playing, but was living in the depths of despair, and I didn’t know why.

My parents knew something was wrong on a scale they couldn’t deal with. My father however, was battling his own depression, so was reduced to merely watching me go through mine. My mother probably decided that since I was young, attractive and talented, and “had everything given to me,” that I didn’t need any help from her. Mom and I never did get along very well, but I now realize she was doing the best she could with what she knew at the time. She had had her own struggles that involved losing a husband to World War II and an early life-threatening illness of her second husband, my father.

Going to college at Bloomington, Indiana’s storied I.U. music school certainly helped. I was away from the oppressive blinders that defined my parents’ lives, and was meeting new interesting people. My life was my own, and I loved it. I worked hard at practicing the violin and my course work, and got involved in new groups, expanding my horizons as much as I could at a midwestern campus surrounded by cornfields. I experienced some problems in the form of stage fright, but was mostly emotionally functional.

It wasn’t until much later in life, after my second child was born in 1984, that the depression reemerged with a vengeance in the form of excruciating headaches. Suicidal ideation was what it eventually was labeled, and I landed in a local hospital to be kept for observation. Larry got busy finding me some good help, and came up with Dr. John Markson, a student of Karl Menninger. Three years of therapy and Prozac finally got me back on track, and I felt I had the tools to get through my life, even enjoy it, without further emotional crises.

But, I had to look the demon in the eye before this was possible, and as it turned out, the monster was anger. Then guilt, because of the anger. Then more anger, because why should I feel guilty? I was on a merry-go-round of negative emotions and couldn’t get off. This was mostly because this wonderful pattern began when I was small and didn’t know any better. (My mother always did say I was born angry.) It just whirled around into a tighter and tighter ball until one day, I snapped.

I remember telling Dr. Markson my bunny picture story one day. I was probably around five years old, and had made the Easter Bunny for a school art project. I remember being proud of my picture, and Mom put it on the refrigerator. After regarding it for awhile, I asked her to take it down, and I tore it up, then dissolved into tears. Mom was puzzled, and held me for a bit, asking me why I had destroyed my bunny picture. I always cried when I replayed that story in my head.

“That’s a beautiful story of childhood guilt,” was Dr. Markson’s comment. Guilt, I thought? What would I have had to feel guilty about? The answer was apparently my anger, which I was trying so desperately to hide that it morphed into a bottomless sadness. “Depression is rage spread very thin,” I remember reading somewhere later.

In Vietnam, with so few Dr. Marksons around, most mental illnesses are mishandled, if they’re handled at all. Cultural stigmas, misperceptions, and poor management leave many mental health professionals and their patients in Vietnam fighting an uphill battle. For example, there is currently very little a parent with an autistic child can do to diagnose or help that child; they are usually mainstreamed into public schools, and often abused for their behavior.

A Vietnamese musician friend, a violist who has traveled the world, has an autistic son. She came back to Vietnam to start a school for autistic children, and was able to bring her son back as well. (She is divorced from the boy’s father, who lives in Europe; he blamed her for the autism.) Because of her worldly experience, she is teaching other Vietnamese about autism.

I’ve described our friend Hongky’s father’s struggle with PTSD, a ten year episode that left him bedridden. His only recourse was to trust his family’s ability to care for him, which is often how mental illness is handled in this communal, village-based culture.

This actually isn’t such a bad thing; any experience with depression comes with a desire to hide and not communicate with the outside world at all, for many reasons, fatigue and fear being two big ones. I remember living in terror that I would have to interact with a friend, only to have them realize how out of it I actually was. I know this makes no sense, but that’s what the disease does to perception. To be forced to continue in normal, everyday life in a village environment at least reminds the sick person what life is supposed to feel like, and perhaps hastens recovery if compassion is part of the mix.

Many Vietnamese believe that if a child has signs of being “different” it’s a punishment for something you did in the past, or it’s bad luck that you must atone for. Vietnam is a culture that’s had its moments of animism and mysticism and other -isms that make the population less than logical at times. Since gossip, that form of human communication rooted in all the negative emotions, has often been the villager’s best hope of getting news, it’s understandable why these belief systems took root. Many Vietnamese still don’t make any important life decisions without a local fortune teller weighing in as well.

Vietnam, however, appears more rosy than many nations in the suicide department, the only really objective way to measure depression and its effects. The World Health Organization reported in 2012 that it was one hundred twenty-three on the global list, tied with Gambia, whereas the U.S. came in at fifty (South Korea took the number one position. I suspect their northern neighbor is worse, but there’s no current way to measure that). Male and female suicides were roughly equal in Vietnam that year.

Anecdotally, this makes sense to me. For example, Larry and I have seen poverty in Vietnam, but unhappiness is not always a by-product. On the contrary, people we know who have very little seem satisfied with their lots in life, and take pleasure in things we Americans tend to overlook, or don’t consider important. Like American Indians, Vietnamese appreciate and revere Mother Earth and all she has to offer, and this seems universal to the culture. It’s one of the reasons food is so central: it came from Her abundance. Constant reference to ancestors and knowledge and reminders of your family’s roots is also fundamental. There is a lot more to be thankful for than material wealth and well-being, and the numbers on the mental health of the culture bear this out.

Note: the featured image is of Mrs. Van, who was beaten by her husband before divorcing him. She has successfully started a take-out food business in her village using a microloan, and plans on sending her two children to university. After telling us her story, she is congratulated by Mrs. Mai.

 

Censorship in Vietnam

In 2015, the first printing of Larry’s photography book, “The Soul of Vietnam”, was nearing readiness. We were having the book translated by Dao Mai Trang. There was a foreword by Joseph Galloway (author of “We Were Soldiers Once, and Young”), an essay by Nguyen Qui Duc, and Larry’s own stories that were in English. We had decided the book should be dual language, English and Vietnamese. Ms. Trang felt there might be a problem with the essay by Mr. Duc, as she didn’t think the Cultural Ministry would allow it to pass its censorship watchdogs, or at the very least, it could hold up the process.

(Yes, Vietnam has a Cultural Ministry that decides what passes muster and gets out into the hands of the general public and what doesn’t. It has little to do with their Communist status, it’s just how they function in this country to maintain control. For example, in a 2014 exhibit, one of Larry’s photographs was censored because the young subject, even though wearing a bikini, looked like she might have been nude. However, for perspective, a large painting at the main entryway to the Ho Chi Minh Art Museum is of a full frontal nude woman.)

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Nguyen Qui Duc

This presented an immediate issue, as the essay by Duc was an integral part of the book, and he was not willing to change anything just to appease the watchdogs, nor did we think he should. But because of this, we had some amazing insights into how the Vietnamese think and function, something we have been struggling to understand since the first time we arrived in Hà Nội in 2006.

First of all, Duc’s father was well-known and influential in Huế, the country’s ancient capital city. He was one of the higher-up officials in the Southern government when things began to change during the country’s reunification. The newly unified government threw him in prison, where he remained for a good portion of the rest of his life. Duc himself had been a boat person in 1975 when he was a teenager, ending up in the U.S. with his mother, where he eventually became a  radio broadcaster, writer, editor and translator. When his mother’s Alzheimer’s became untenable, he brought her back to her birth country in 2006, the same year we arrived, to be cared for and eventually die.

So Duc then resettled in Hà Nội, after having been away for several decades up to that point, and the government has kept a close eye on him. He has run several restaurant establishments, and speaks fluent Vietnamese, English and French. In his essay, he talks about the vast changes Vietnam, and Hà Nội in particular, has seen since the end of the American War here. Of course, it’s not always complimentary, and for that reason, and because of Duc’s status as the son of a political prisoner and an outsider, our translator thought his essay might be an issue. Also, Larry’s publisher for the first printing was Thế giới, the government’s own publisher of art and foreign books, so even more reason to be worried about the essay being axed.

We funded the printing of the book through a successful Kickstarter campaign, which claimed that the essay was part of the book, thus we were a little concerned that our supporters would be disappointed if there was a sudden change of plans. So, after a great deal of thought and brainstorming, we decided to bypass the committee altogether and print the essay as a separate piece in the U.S., and explain to our Kickstarter supporters what had happened so that it wasn’t a printed part of the book. So far, all the initial books have been delivered with an explanation about the essay’s fate, and no one has raised any eyebrows about it, at least out loud.

We faced a second printing, as the book sold out almost immediately, and needed to decide how to handle Duc’s central essay. Since we had more time, we decided to submit it to the Cultural Ministry, just to see what they did. We realize it’s an all or nothing proposition: if they wanted any changes, we couldn’t have it be part of the book, and if it’s okay, we could have it be part of the book, and our troubles would be over. We were ready for either decision.

(As it turned out, we decided to ship the entire printing to the U.S., so were not required to submit it to the Cultural Ministry.)

But…….this has been an amazing road to imagining what the average Vietnamese goes through on a day to day basis to deal with this issue, the one that limits freedom of expression. And if the government is restrictive in that area, surely it’s put its hand in other areas of its citizens’ lives, and what does that mean to the average person living here? And what could it mean at the village level, where the leaders can be even more involved in their inhabitants day-to-day existence?

So I imagine myself as a writer living in a country like this, and immediately have a gnawing in my stomach, realizing that every word would need measuring, that what I may have thought flowed beautifully one way won’t appeal to the uncreative and insensitive soul who will take a cleaver to my work. I would have to look behind myself every step of the way. Wouldn’t that wring the creativity right out of me?

Suddenly, I have a surprising epiphany: when our Vietnamese friends arrive at decisions that make absolutely no sense to us, this must be at least part of the reason. They’re trying to anticipate the effect their actions will have in a culture that is mildly watched and restricted. They must be mindful of these restrictions, but they also must be very light on their feet and clever if they want to get around them without fallout that could reflect badly on them or their family. I’m suddenly exhausted by the thought of living this way from day to day, and grateful that I don’t need to worry about this sort of nonsensical oversight. (And with my new insight, I’m pretty sure that word nonsensical would have been censored, if not the whole paragraph or essay.)

I am not naive enough to believe that my own government is above disturbing involvement in Americans’ lives, but at least we have some recourse at this point in time to deal with those kind of issues. Those who fight for our freedom and civil liberty can do so in the open and with support from the citizenry. Creative expression without outside intervention is still held in relatively high esteem.

If you are interested in ordering a copy of “The Soul of Vietnam”, please go to https://songhongstudio.com/bk22017, Larry’s publishing site. You will receive a book that contains Duc’s essay.

Thanh Hóa Province: a peek at the countryside

In 20014, our close friend Hongky (an unusual Vietnamese name, pronounced Hom-kee) invited us to meet her parents and extended family, who live in the countryside in the province of Thanh Hóa (tang hwa), which is also the name of its largest city. I had seen photos of her home, and had some deep misgivings about going, involving my usual ridiculous bathroom worries, but we wanted to show our respect and we were curious about her upbringing and seeing this part of Vietnam.

Hongky has qualities that are consistently impressive to us, especially considering her background. First of all, she is over the twenty-seven-year-old dreaded marriage deadline and not married, and she doesn’t seem to care. This may seem unimportant on the surface to Westerners, but in Vietnam, especially in the countryside, it is shameful for a woman to still not be married at thirty, and they are constantly harangued by their families and friends to get a move on. Going home for Tet holidays, young women can be certain there will be an empty chair set out for their one-and-only, who they are expected to bring along and introduce to the family. Relatives and family friends begin to wonder if something is wrong with the unmarried one.

In Hongky’s case, just the opposite is true: she is brilliant, clever, beautiful, graceful, loving and affectionate, a capable and natural leader – in short, a remarkable human being who volunteers to raise money to take children in the countryside warm clothes and blankets because they have none. We later met her “team” from Ngọc Lặc, consisting of other young people who wanted to help those less fortunate. (See photo below.)

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Larry, Sam, Pam and Hongky with Hongky’s team of volunteers

We have discussed the marriage issue extensively with her, and she admits that she gets a lot of flack from her parents about it, particularly from her mother. When she goes home, her mother badgers her to hang around more, but the result of this is that marriage is all that gets discussed. This is pretty typical in Vietnamese households, and puts tremendous pressure on the daughters who are single. Hongky is extremely understanding about it, but she is not willing to settle. She wants to see the world and try many things, and knows this dream will never be realized if she goes down the traditional path.

So we took a taxi from our apartment in Long Biên, East of Hà Nội,  to Hongky’s street and picked her up, then on to the bus station, where one of my fears was realized: I had to use the bathroom. We had just met Hongky’s friend Sam (pronounce “Sum”), and she led me to the “facilities”. I walked past some squatting young women to an empty stall – no door – and a none-too-clean hole in the ground.

Squatting for a middle-aged American, even one in fairly good shape as I am, is okay for about 20 seconds, but when you’re tense about the entire experience, you need to squat a lot longer than that for the bladder to relax and get the job done. Then there’s the fear that you won’t be able to stand up with nothing to grab onto, or you might slip on the wet floor while doing so. All kinds of horrible scenarios were crossing my mind as I tried to get the whole thing over with. Thank goodness I only had to pee! We were spending the night at Hongky’s home, where no toilets existed, only an arrangement such as the one I was now grappling with, outside their tiny dwelling. I am a nighttime pee-er – usually twice per night – so that prospect was not one I was looking forward to.

I succeeded in the basic task, took the tissue out of my purse for wiping (because providing toilet paper would be a luxury in a public bathroom like this), and looked for a faucet to wash my hands……none was in sight. I was relieved that I thought to bring hand wipes, and Larry had stashed two rolls of toilet paper in his backpack, knowing I was freaked out by the whole bathroom controversy. I shook my head at my own wimpiness.

This bathroom situation is typical of most of Vietnam (and probably most of the world) today, especially when one is outside the larger cities. It is not unusual to see men peeing anywhere and everywhere, and children are held over gutters to do their business, then shaken off before being put back together. Honestly, if Ebola ever came to Vietnam, the entire population could be at risk due to this one habit. (That, and the men hocking up all over the place. I’ve never seen a woman hock up in Vietnam.)  I wonder about the immense obsession with cleanliness in America versus the cavalier trading of germs in a country like Vietnam – which way is more likely to keep you well? The Vietnamese must have built up iron immune systems to counter all the germs they’re exposed to on a daily basis, through tainted water and exposure to bodily fluids.

This is another of my misgivings about the country in general. Meat and fish sit out in the sun where flies are happily using them as runways. People in stores grab every exposed loaf of bread to feel which one is best. When one is sharing a meal, your dining companion reaches over to help peel your corn cob or in some other way touch your food, and it’s clear that washing their hands before eating is not a priority. But, at the drugstore, Tetracycline is available without a prescription, so that has been our savior on many occasions.

We board the bus and we’re off, finally, and Hongky has expertly moved several young men to make sure we have a row of seats together. The taking of selfies begins, and goes on for the entire trip – Vietnamese youth are wild about Facebook and selfies. (The government, however, is not so wild about Facebook and other social media, and periodically will try and shut them down. However, everyday citizens have become very clever about developing work-arounds as fast as the sites go down, so those in power have basically given up tinkering with them.) We will be in her village in about three hours. There is one stop, where I encounter and slay yet another primitive bathroom, a faucet is provided (hooray), and we buy a popcorn snack.

Bus to Thanh Hoa
Sam, Hongky, Larry and Pam begin their adventure

Sam, as it turns out, is just learning English. We are just learning Vietnamese. So, we have a fundamental way of communicating, but we’re all trying. Somehow, after two days, this builds a pretty strong admiration society, and of course, we become fast Facebook friends, where translation is easier. Hongky is our tutor, and she never lets us get away with any crummy pronunciation, which for us is just about all the time. We are forced to repeat the phrase until we get it right, even if it takes ten laps.

We arrive in Ngọc Lặc (“nyup lahp”), Hongky’s tiny village, and one of the villages on the famed Hồ Chi Minh Trail. Waiting for us there is one of her four brothers-in-law, who owns a restaurant on the main street. We do the usual tea ceremony, and her sister brings out a drowsy child who has just woken up from a nap. After about five minutes, a black car pulls up, to take us to Hongky’s home. The car is immaculate inside and out – clearly someone has gone to some trouble for our arrival.

We drive about five more minutes, and pull into a small sand driveway, then into another smaller sand driveway. Her parents’ home is a two room stone cottage with a breezeway and another room in the back that serves as a kind of kitchen. Hongky’s parents come out to greet us, with big smiles and lots of Vietnamese. We don’t hear any English for the next two days, except from Hongky, ourselves, and a little from Sam.

The next several hours are spent eating (we have not had lunch, so some corn on the cob, sweet potatoes, and noodle soup are served up right away), getting a tour of the house and grounds, straddling motor bikes (me on the back of Sam’s, Larry on the back of Hongky’s) and viewing the immediate area (which is mostly lovely farm fields), and visiting other relatives, which of course means more tea. Everyone is thrilled to see us, and it’s clear most of them have never seen Western faces. We are instantly famous, and the subject of many cell phone photos. Since Hongky’s relatives run the village, we are assured no police interference.

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Pam and Sam in the fields of Thanh Hóa

We arrive back at the house, and Hongky explains the sleeping arrangements. Her parents will go next door to her sister’s house and sleep there, and we will sleep in their bed in the main room of the house. We are shown the outhouse bathroom (another squatting situation) and the indoor bathroom, which does not have a toilet, but she says we can use it for peeing in the corner, where there is a drain. This is also a typical country setup – you pee where the floor is canted somewhat, then spray or ladle water on it to dilute the smell.

Hongky grew up here with four older sisters, and at that time they had no electricity. Today, they have that and WIFI, so clearly have come a long way in the tech department. I ask where they slept, and of course it was all five sisters in one large bed, in a room that is now being used for motor bikes. These people all seem very happy and relaxed with the situation, and they have, to our eyes, nothing. Why aren’t so many Americans this happy, I find myself wondering. Many of us have everything we could ever want.

Dinner is announced, and the entire extended family has arrived. A mat has been spread in the breezeway, and the food and drink is set in the middle. The brother-in-law who we first met, a local chef, has cooked the meal, and it is elaborate. There is a rice roll filled with mushrooms cooked in banana leaves, chicken with lemon grass, a veal dish, many kinds of greens that you wrap in rice paper and dip into a sauce, and rice wine or sake, which we begin to consume in liberal amounts because the family keeps filling our shot glasses.

Halfway through the meal we are squirming because we can’t sit the way Vietnamese people can, cross legged for hours on end. They find a couple of tiny wooden stools for us, and our pain is relieved somewhat. The men have begun to shout and laugh, likely due to the sake consumption; we are all very relaxed and enjoying the delicious food. The subject of our age comes up, which is totally Vietnamese; their culture is built on age hierarchy, so they need to know how to treat us based on that. We are good enough with our language skills that we can tell them in tiếng Việt, which really tickles them. Larry and I look much younger than a comparably aged Vietnamese couple. But that is a reflection of great difficulty and struggles in life: agrarian work and stressors about health and money, raising children and finding enough to feed the family in challenging times.

This is another cultural obstacle for Vietnamese. They are extremely hard working, but it is in the end just to survive one more day. There is no life plan for most of them; you work to feed yourself and your family, and hope it all works out. It has been this way for centuries, and sometimes it does not all work out. This is also a country that has withstood dozens of invasions over the centuries, from the Chinese, the French, the Portuguese, the Japanese; life is tremendously difficult here, and people still go on and thrive. (It is worth noting that the Vietnamese have only once invaded another country, and that was when Cambodia and the Khmer Rouge became too big a threat to ignore.) But being in survival instead of growth mode is holding the country back somewhat, as Vietnam tries to enter the global economic arena. However, Vietnamese are both resilient and clever; once this population decides to do something, there’s pretty much no stopping them, and we have seen many examples of this (one of the most recent examples being the successful resistance they showed the U.S. in what they refer to as the American War).

There has been another hardship in Hongky’s family that she has told us about. Her father, a soldier in the Vietnamese army, fell into a PTSD depression that lasted for ten years as his daughters were growing up. He couldn’t get out of bed, so the family struggled to survive. Somehow, with the help of relatives, they did. Hongky’s relatives, as the leaders of her village, made sure she and her sisters were in good hands.

So, seeing someone like Hongky, coming from this country setting, is relatively uncommon. She just happens to have many of the tools she needs to go farther than anyone in her family, and her father apparently saw that in her. She told us that he is extremely well-read, and that he loved talking to her about ideas when she was growing up. He is proud that his daughter is, in her own way, taking the world by storm, and gives her a lot of encouragement. He must walk a fine line in supporting his wife and her marriage campaign at the same time, no easy task.

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Pam, Larry and Hongky’s father during a Hà Nội visit.

Featured photo by Lawrence D’Attilio.

Microloans in Vietnam

Larry and I have been involved in the Vĩnh Phúc (“ving foop”) Women’s Micro-finance program since 2007, when he first visited it and began photographing the program. Our Rotary Club in Wisconsin, where we were members for twenty years, subsequently supported the program with donations over a five year period.

Vĩnh Phúc is a province about two hour’s drive from Hà Nội. On this trip in 2011, we are headed to the township of Lập Thạch, which is also the name of the District in Vĩnh Phúc Province. The District houses one other township and eighteen communes, which are smaller towns.

Our friend Phuong, who runs a Vietnamese non-profit called Volunteers for Peace that attracts young people from all over the world to Vietnam, introduced us to the program. When Larry told him that he needs more video footage of the program for documentary purposes, he suggested that we go and videotape the recent winner of the Citi Bank Micro Finance Entrepreneur of the Year award; she has proved herself to be an outstanding businesswoman, and is being rewarded by this recognition.

So we meet one morning at Phuong’s home in Cau Giay (“Cow Zeye”), a southern district of Hà Nội, and he has arranged for one of his top assistants, Nguyen Thanh Mai, to be our guide and translator. Mai’s English is very good, and she is a clever and charming young woman. We are to go to the winner’s home today, a farm, stay overnight in the village, then see a second woman in the program, a chef who makes a dish called banh cuon (“bang kwahn”), tomorrow.

We get to know Mai a little in the car. She and her husband have two young children and live in Long Biên, an urban district across the Red River where Larry and I lived for a time as well. She has many skills, and speaking English is certainly one of them; she is quite fluent. Phuong has noticed her competence and lends her out for projects such as this one.

We arrive at the farm, and encounter a water buffalo at the entrance. The woman who is the winner of the bank award, a slender fifty-ish lady, Le Thi Sinh, greets us with her entire extended family, who are all smiles and excited for her. Husband, sons, daughters, spouses and grandchildren are all there in celebration of her success. Since it’s around lunchtime by now, they have put out the typically amazing Vietnamese meal for guests, spread on the floor, and complete with sake. After some informal introductions and shoe removal, we all sit cross-legged around the mat on which the meal has been placed in the main room of the home, and with arm gestures and encouragement from our hosts in Vietnamese, start eating.

The food, as has invariably been our experience, is incredibly good. They fill our sake glasses as soon as they are empty, even though it’s midday; we learn to empty them at a slower rate, if we want to get any work done. There is a lot of joking around, and we ask questions through Mai to get to know them a little better. And, of course, we must reveal our ages at some point, and this is the basis of much discussion in Vietnamese.

“They say you look very young,” says Mai, interpreting with her sparkling smile. We look around at them and grin and nod, to show our pleasure at this compliment.

As it turns out, they used to lived on much lower ground, and they point to where their animals are now housed. Floods came, and they had nowhere to go. Then they heard about the microfinance program, and Sinh signed up to start her business. She wanted to get some geese for eggs, grow some crops in the field, have chickens and pigs and goats. With the money she borrowed (about $50 USD), she started building her business, and from that the family was able to construct a new home on higher ground, impervious to flooding. They are ecstatic telling this story to us through Mai.

It is clear that this is a very healthy human situation; everyone is proud of what Sinh has accomplished, including her husband, who is respectful and loving. We get up from lunch to start filming, and I walk over to put my sneakers back on. One of the tiny grandchildren has inserted her toes into my size 10 shoe, and is squealing with glee over the immensity of it around her little foot. I break into laughter, and look around at the family, who also think this is amazingly funny, and a great way to bond without the help of language.

Larry gives me a tutorial in my job, which is recording sound for the video; the quality of the microphone in the camera isn’t high enough for our purposes, so we use another system for that. While he’s filming, I follow him around with the sound equipment, turning it on when he rolls the camera.

We film Sinh feeding the geese first. The birds are well aware of what is about to happen, and as she calls them in her clear, high voice, they come running with a lot of their own vocalizations; it’s hilarious, but also in its own way, beautiful, to see this diminutive woman surrounded by hungry and demonstrative geese. They do a dance they have rehearsed many times with their owner.

Next is the farm field, where she starts whacking at a seemingly unassailable tall and tough plant. I am fascinated, as over and over, she hits it with her scythe, and it succumbs after a few such motions. “How many hours per day does she engage in this activity?” I wonder. No surprise that she is like one long muscle, if this is how she spends her days.

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Sinh and her husband take a moment to relax.

We move on to the other farm animals, all of whom seem to be happy and healthy, and Sinh expresses some affection for the previously-encountered water buffalo by reaching out and petting it, and it nuzzles back. Larry then wants to get the couple interacting with each other, so they start a conversation about their lives together, and how far they’ve come. It’s charming out here in the countryside, to see these two middle-aged people look into each other’s eyes and recount their story. Even though we don’t speak the language, we are spellbound by their devotion.

We have gotten the footage we need, so it’s time to go find our hotel. The whole family comes to say good-bye, and there is a lot of waving, and a mixture of language, although we’ve gotten good enough to speak a little Vietnamese, at least to say thank you and goodbye.

We travel to the main part of the village, and pull up in front of a several-stories-high structure. After Mai checks in with the owner and signs some papers (probably for the police; foreigners’ visits to countryside villages are pretty well regulated), we are directed to the third floor, where our rooms await us.

We drag our one suitcase and photography equipment up the stairs and push the door open – no locks here! A single bulb dangles in the middle of the room, where there is a basic bed and a mattress with a coverlet that looks none too fresh, and a table. I look at Larry, a bit horrified. He looks back. “Spoiled American,” he finally mutters, and that should be the end of it.

He’s right, of course. My visions of the hotel were quite different than what lay before us, but all in all, it was shelter, and it had a bathroom. I had stupidly conjured up something more romantic and, well, Western.

Mai’s room is right next to us, and our driver is down the hall. We all decide we need a good night’s sleep, because the banh cuon woman starts work at around 4:30 a.m., and is expecting us at 5 a.m. That means, to get there, a short distance away, we need to get up early and ready our equipment. So, we prepare for bed.

As is true for many Vietnamese homes and hostels, the mattress is rock hard. It has turned chilly, and the windows have only shutters, so using the coverlet is necessary. We make do with some clothing under our heads, as there is only one inadequate pillow.

“It’s only one night,” I keep reassuring myself, while watching my own intolerance in amazement, and thinking about my friend in the Midwest who is a self-proclaimed neat freak. I can’t wait to tell her about this, I muse, and that thought is what gets me through the night, although sleep eludes both of us for much of it.

As it turns out, it eluded Mai as well. She knocks on our door at 4:45, and looks tired. “I did not sleep,” she confides, in her case, probably because of worry that we would miss the wake up call. She goes quietly down the hall to wake our driver, and we all tiptoe out to begin our next adventure.

The next entrepreneur’s home is minutes away, thankfully, and we arrive in total darkness. Van (pronounced “Vun”), a broad woman in her forties, is already at work at her cooktop; she is seated in a tiny room off her home on a low chair, stirring a bowl of a thin, milky liquid that turns out to be a rice paste. Using a ladel, she pours it on top of a large, round stone-like surface above a blazing fire, and as it firms up forming an immense pancake, she uses three-foot long chopsticks to pick it up and transfer it to another surface. Before she prepares it, she pours another pancake, then turns her attention to the one that sits before her.

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Van arises at 4 a.m. each morning to make Banh Cuon.

She takes a small handful of chopped wood ear mushrooms, green onion and oil mixture, and sprinkles this along the diameter of the rice cake. Then she rolls it up to form a glistening tube, uses a scissors to cut it into bite size pieces and puts it aside. By that time, the next one is done, and she repeats the same process with a precise and mesmerizing rhythm.

Larry has been busy setting up equipment, and by now he is filming and I am recording. And our mouths are beginning to water; it smells amazing in there!  The dark and coziness, and lack of sleep from the night before, and the rhythm of the banh cuon production, all combine to make us drowsy.

Customers begin to arrive, and Van produces plastic bags from a rickety cabinet to house the orders, which her consumers take home to their families. Mai has been chatting with her all the while, and I know just enough Vietnamese to realize she has asked about Van’s family. A cloud came over Van’s face, along with the impression that at some point we were in for a tragic story. Mai confirmed this a few minutes later, saying the woman was divorced, a rarity in the countryside.

After the morning rush, we are escorted to what amounts to Van’s living room. She sets up a small table, brings a plate of banh cuon, and gestures for us to come sit down. The aroma is tantalizing, and as we begin to eat, so is the taste. We dip the banh cuon into a wonderful fish sauce, and are immediately in food heaven. Banh cuon is one of my favorite Vietnamese dishes, and this is the best I’ve had, light and flavorful.

Next on our agenda is to get Van on video working in her small farm plot down the road. She needs to plow it, so we grab our equipment and follow her on foot the quarter mile it takes to arrive. She plows for a while with a wooden implement that she is somehow, possibly by sheer will power, moving through solid earth by herself. We film until Larry is satisfied.

And now, we want to interview her. We move off the road to a more secluded place, and Larry has a conference with Mai.

“Tell her that we want to know her story, that she shouldn’t hold anything back. She can laugh, she can cry; that’s what people learning about her want to know and see.”

Mai is a little uncertain; she has not been trained in conducting live interviews, so is understandably worried about how it will go. But we all sense there’s an interesting story here, so we plunge in.

The interview begins, and gets pretty intense right away. We didn’t need to know the language to realize Van had had some pretty tough experiences. As we intuited, she had been in an awful marriage, and her husband beat her. As she described it to Mai, her face became contorted with anger and hurt, and her tears flowed. Mai was amazing; she simply looked into Van’s eyes, took her hand, and let her talk.

This beating of women in the countryside is not, we have heard many times, uncommon. In fact, it’s so common that people have learned to look the other way, even though it’s a crime punishable by prison. Depending on who is leading the village, the behavior is either overlooked, excused, or enforced; it’s the luck of the draw for the women involved.

Life in the countryside has its own sets of sometimes seemingly insurmountable challenges, at least to Westerners, and going there is discouraged by the government. Even while we were in this tiny village and wanted to film a market, we were accosted by first the citizens and then the police, so had to leave quickly. We have heard of children raising children because something has happened to the parents, and other horror stories that just can’t be addressed because of difficult locations and scanty information. Of course, this is nothing unusual in developing countries, but it’s still hard to digest.

Van has two teenage children, a girl and a boy, and she is determined their lives will be better than hers, that they will go to college. She heard about the micro-finance program and decided to sign up. She loved cooking, and is obviously great at it, so that’s what she based her business plan on. With the help of the program, she was trained in bookkeeping and how to run a rudimentary business. Her mother took her and her children in after the divorce, and her life immediately improved.

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Van and Mai take a moment to connect.

The interview came to an end, and we all hugged. Through Mai, we told Van how remarkable and strong she was, and how much we were saddened by her story, but also in complete admiration at how she had made a truly challenging situation into such a positive one. Van was glowing; telling us what she had been through had seemed to lift a weight, and we all felt closer from the experience.

We walk the short distance back to her mother’s home, and in the meantime several of her mother’s women friends have descended on the house. They look like a flock of happy birds, and were drinking tea and joking around for several minutes before moving as a group down the road to the next stop, wherever that was. All elderly, they were clearly enjoying their lives and each other, and made for quite a spectacle in this tiny village.

The woman who runs the micro-finance program, also Van, arrives from Hà Nội to check in on how things are going and give Van the chef some moral support. She is served some banh cuon, and we are asked to eat more, which of course, we do. Then there is a session with the two Vans on how the business is going. They go over the numbers, which are meticulously copied down in a notebook (we have never seen a computer used in the program for this purpose), every penny accounted for. Cook Van gets some helpful advice from the other Van, and she listens to it carefully. Then she is handed some Dong for the meal she has just provided us, which she tries to deflect, but in the end has no choice but to take it.

Our work is done, and we and Van get back into the car to return to Hà Nội. On the way, we stop at the micro-finance office, and ascend to the second floor. There, we encounter several young women counting money, and again recording the amounts in meticulous ledgers. Still no computers in sight. Vietnam is still largely a cash-based economy, although it is slowly converting to the use of credit and debit cards, but only in the bigger cities. We are offered tea and fruit, and some chairs to sit on, as Mrs. Van checks in on the progress.

We return to the car and continue on to Hà Nội. Van talks about her upcoming retirement and spending time with her grandchildren, while Mai listens and translates for us. She and Van have a lively discussion in Vietnamese about this, and Mai tells us that Van feels grandchildren validate her life in many ways. Van is usually all business and very stern; this is a side of her we haven’t seen before, and it’s eye opening.

Photos by Lawrence D’Attilio

Planning for the future in Vietnam

Over the years, as we came to know the Vietnamese culture more (and by no means do we claim to understand all of the subtleties and intricacies of this amazing group of people), we became aware that they generally had a difficult time imagining themselves as anything but what they were. For instance, we and Americans we know can decide that they want to change something in their lives: their job, family ties, daily habits, etc. They can then put the pieces in place to accomplish this. They don’t always succeed and some are better than others at making fundamental changes, but at least they can visualize the change and try.

Vietnamese, for the most part, seem to be more challenged by this. Because their culture has been hard-wired just to get through the day (to feed their family, respect their rituals, farm the land, etc.), they are a society that perhaps dreams about a better life, but taking steps to become that dream is not always obvious to them. Cultural emphasis is on developing stability through collective behavior, as opposed to American culture, where it’s put on developing individuality first. Many school children are still taught with rote as the primary tool; coming up with original ideas is apparently not a typical part of the classroom activity.

Because of its collective, or hive-like, nature, Vietnamese are inextricably tied to each other and their ancestors, and any decision-making must take all of that into consideration. As opposed to American ways of thinking (“This will be good for me, so therefore I will do it”), Vietnamese must stop and consider, “How will this affect my family? Does it follow their closely-held beliefs? Is this how my Great Grandmother would have wanted me to proceed?”

Vietnamese have conflicts with their own government and institutions on a daily basis, which of course happens in most countries. For example, Want a job? Money under the table. (Wait, when you have a job, aren’t they supposed to pay you?) Want your university degree? Maybe money under the table. Want to get out of this traffic ticket? Well, you get the picture. It’s pervasive and exhausting.

When Larry and I would try and help some of the remarkable women we came to know with seeing themselves differently (as leaders, as innovators, as mover and shakers), we were often met with enthusiasm, but a puzzling lack of action. And it wasn’t because they didn’t want these things for themselves, or didn’t believe in themselves, or weren’t capable of accomplishing them; they just couldn’t envision what that would be like and how they would get there. So, many times in our experience, they would take the easy way out, meaning a fast track to marriage and family.

Young Vietnamese women in general are hounded about marriage and offspring, a theme that plays out from the time they are little. There is the mythical belief that if you’re not married by the ripe old age of twenty-seven, that your chances are all but doomed. Of course, this is a platitude put in place to scare the living daylights out of women to get them to comply, and most of them do, or at least try to. But because they’re done for reasons that obviate the couple’s compatibility, many of these unions aren’t happy, and certainly don’t contribute to the economical, creative and human resources side of the equation as far as the woman is concerned.

This challenges Vietnam’s desire to become a fully developed country, as the talent of half their population is not being used effectively, and not generating an adequate income to lift the family out of poverty, or lower middle class status. This cycle can be broken, and most likely will be at some point in the near future. In fact, one might predict that in the next decade, there will be a revolution such as the one in Japan at the turn of the century, where women started to flat out refuse to marry. (Today, a third of Japanese women in their 30’s are unmarried.) They hadn’t gone to university, earned a degree, just to sit at home with children and cook and clean. So, Japanese men had no choice but to see them as equals or import brides who hadn’t evolved as far as their countrywomen.

One of our very closest friends, we’ll call her Hien, felt the need to have a baby, so she married a very sweet and capable guy with whom she may not have been in love. He is an only child, and grew up without a father, so his love and loyalty go first to his mother. (This is a pretty Asian thing for men to do, as it’s steeped in thousands of years of hierarchical one-upmanship. The mother has no power until she has a son, then when he marries, suddenly her status is elevated to ruler of the household, and boy, does she rule. The poor daughter-in-law doesn’t see the light of day unless she, too, has a son, and waits for her turn in this very destructive circle of life.)

So this is the situation Hien has found herself in, and she is already, after barely two years of marriage and a female toddler now in the mix, considering alternate options. Multiply this by thousands of Vietnamese women and you have a picture of how this is going to come to a head, and soon.

Of course, part of the problem is the men; they are getting no training in updating their way of relating to a partner in life, and so far have zero incentive to change. But, the women are changing, because they all have laptops and can see what’s happening in the rest of the world. It’s just a matter of time before there’s a critical mass of I’ve Had It Up To Here!

Divorce in Vietnam isn’t as high as many countries, but it is on the rise, with the woman the more likely person to put the wheels in motion. If divorce does happen, it’s generally considered by the older generation to be the woman’s fault (she didn’t keep herself attractive, she didn’t cook the right dishes, she didn’t get along with her mother-in-law, etc.), and up until now, she has a difficult, if not impossible, time finding another relationship.

Visualizing change is certainly problematic right now in Vietnam. Vietnamese themselves tell us that they don’t believe their country is capable of competing on a global scale; they still think of themselves as a bunch of farmers, not big time creative thinkers. “We are just a small country,” they say to us. “Who would pay attention to such a backward place?” This, from the world’s thirteenth largest population, who only recently tossed out one of the most powerful countries on the planet, the good ol’ USA!

A couple of other examples of this in our experience involves the production of coffee and the use of a highly effective fertilizer, two separate examples. In the coffee example, an American interested in investing in a coffee farm was in Da Lat. (The highland area of Da Lat, incidentally, is an absolutely ideal climate for coffee growing. Vietnam is still the second largest exporter of coffee in the world next to Brazil.)  This American friend gathered all the farmers in that area, and got the chairman of that village to attend, and proceeded to show the farmers how they could make more money by producing high quality Arabica bean coffee. (The farmers had been growing the ubiquitous and uniformly awful Robusta, because it’s cheap and easy to grow. The better Arabica bean is slightly more difficult, being susceptible to a leaf disease.)

Our American friend laid his plan out carefully in front of the farmers, showing them how they would increase their incomes many-fold if they only would focus on the better beans, which he knew he could then sell to single source coffee shops in the U.S. The chairman of the village was also on board, and gave a speech about it. But, the farmers had been operating this way for many centuries, and couldn’t initially break away from the old way of doing things, so ultimately, our friend was frustrated and moved on to other ventures.

There seems to be some movement in the direction of growing better coffee, finally, several years later. And once one farmer succeeds, they will all cross over to that way of growing the beans.

A similar story involved a Vietnamese friend of ours whose company had produced a fertilizer that gave a yield thirty percent higher than the fertilizer farmers typically use. He convinced a group of farmers to use it, they did, and got the better yield. But, when he went back in a year to sell them more, they told him that they had decided to go back to their old fertilizer!

There is a complicated system of “I’ll scratch your back” in Vietnam where you can’t just walk away from established business relationships without it having a negative effect somewhere else in your life. So, even if there’s clearly a better way to do things, in this communal culture it’s sometimes just easier to do it the old way and not rock the boat.

Photo by Lawrence D’Attilio

 

Protest, Communism and Gathering

I was out on my three mile run one morning. We were living on Hoang Hoa Tham street, very close to the Presidential Palace and Ho Chi Minh tomb, and my route took me right past all of that. (It’s a nice, open route with wide sidewalks, and not much in the way of dodging traffic, so better by a long shot than other areas of Hà Nội for running.)  Having passed the botanical garden that precedes the Palace, I noticed some commotion in the street ahead of me. Two women were carrying signs and screaming and crying at the tops of their voices in front of the palace gate, as the usual thousands of vehicles swarmed nearby to get to work or school. The uniformed guards did not appear to be taking much notice or even trying to subdue the women as they carried on next to a cart that sold everyday household items. I was able to run through the fracas without being stopped. (Occasionally, police will redirect you if anything unusual, like a visiting dignitary, is going down.)

I asked our friend Ha about this later, and she said it’s not uncommon, and that it’s usually about someone being treated unfairly, or a complaint about the government letting Chinese, who the Vietnamese detest, into the country. She also said that the uniformed police will never take action because it might get into the news that they brutalized someone. (This was amusing to us; the Vietnamese government also owns all the news outlets.) There are plainclothes police, she said, who will get into the fray to subdue the so-called troublemakers, if they think it’s necessary.

Vietnam is one of the five Communist countries left in the world, along with China, North Korea, Laos and Cuba. However, aside from some corruption (which is not an exclusive by-product of Communism), this has very little real impact on the population. It’s economy is based on capitalism, the same as the U.S. The party runs the government, but that’s about where the term Communist ends. The population as a whole is really not entirely happy about the government (not because they’re Communist but because some are dishonest and corrupt, but no worse than countries like the United States as far as we could tell), which is no different than many countries around the world.

People are not allowed to gather in groups to protest something, or for any other reason, unless there is specific government consent. Recently, hundreds of thousands of dead fish showed up on the beaches of central Vietnam, and the culprit appeared to be Formosa, a Chinese steel company that used a toxic material to clean its machinery. There were protests in many cities in Vietnam against this activity, and the government surprisingly allowed it, although closely monitored the proceedings.

Dead fish

There are pockets of corruption at every level, and the average citizen just accepts that. For instance, you’re riding your motorbike and a policeman stops you. You may have committed an infraction, but you may not have. You have no choice however but to 1) pay the fine, whatever it is, or 2) pay the policeman to forget that he issued you a fine. The motorbike helmet law seems to be losing its effectiveness because some police are probably taking bribes to look the other way.

Some of our friends have told us that this corruption goes back to times when you gave a gift for a service provided. So now, if you need some medical care, for instance, often money that is not for the service will trade hands. It’s an extra “gift.” Or, as I mentioned earlier, you may need to pay your teacher for your diploma, or your boss for your job. It’s at every level of society in Vietnam, and no one knows how to scale it back or stop it. But I can report with no uncertainty that Vietnamese have had it up to here, and would like nothing more than for it to go away. And of course, to attract global money into their economy, most developed countries prefer transparency when it comes to corruption.

Older Vietnamese citizens still meet for so-called Communist gatherings in their neighborhoods, but these are more socially motivated and nostalgic than anything else. In fact, Vietnamese look for reasons to get together and party, so there are many made up motivators. Our friend Ha told us that her parents were going to take time off work to travel back to their village for a great-great-grandmother’s death day celebration. Most Vietnamese working for corporations get a few days per year to take off at their discretion, as well as some sick leave that provides reduced pay for the days you’re out sick, and only if you provide a doctor’s note. There are no vacation days, that is not a concept Vietnamese are familiar with (which of course goes back to their agrarian history of a seven day work week). So, if her parents are going to spend some of their days off on a trip for a long forgotten relative, what is the motivator, we wondered? Ha provided the answer: they are looking for an excuse to get together with friends and family, and not go to work.

Friendship Village (for the Child Victims of Agent Orange)

WARNING: This posting talks about Agent Orange, a chemical used by the American military in Vietnam during the war. It describes and has photographs of some of the chemical’s effects on the Vietnamese, which may be upsetting to some. The accompanying New York Times article also shows photographs of some of its victims.

In late 2010, Larry and I were visited by our son Galen in Hà Nội. He had never been to Asia, but he had met our three visitors from that summer, Hoa, Duong and Hanh, when they and Larry slept at his apartment in Santa Monica on their way back to Vietnam via Los Angeles.

Our friend Don Tuan Phuong had suggested a visit to the Friendship Village outside Hà Nội, and so we decided to accompany him on one of his trips there to check in on how things were going. (His organization, Volunteers for Peace, places young people from around the world there and in other NGOs to help out with day-to-day operations.)

The Village was founded in 1992 by an American veteran of the war with Vietnam. He wanted to make amends for some of the damage done to the Vietnamese through the use of Agent Orange, a chemical made by Monsanto and Dow Chemical to strip the jungle of its foliage, thereby exposing the enemy. (The U.S. military began experimenting with the use of the chemical in the 1950’s, and first used it in Vietnam in 1961.) Unfortunately, the after-effect of chemical exposure, which actually lodged itself in Vietnamese DNA and appears in every-other generation, was children born with mental illness, retardation and (often times) horrific physical aberrations, such as missing or deformed limbs. Even children born today can suffer the effects of the chemical, and in many cases, it has had a catastrophic effect on their lives, and the lives of their families.

So, some children are accepted into the Friendship Village, but its inhabitants usually only number around one hundred thirty, whereas thousands of children are afflicted with the problems of retardation and deformity. Some of the children at the village are orphans, generally cast aside by their families because of their abnormalities. But not all are. The ones who are capable of being trained are taught to sew and do handicrafts, and the resulting craft items are sold to the general public. Money can then be sent to the families of the children, many of whom are poor and can’t support the care of their afflicted children. The village also has a small farm where the inhabitants can raise crops and tend to farm animals, in an attempt to teach the children to become self-sufficient. There is a medical facility on the campus to attend to the many afflictions brought on by Agent Orange.

To this day, the United States government does not admit any wrongdoing when addressing the Vietnamese problem. Their main legal argument is that no one knew the effect the chemical (the “unfortunate byproduct”, dioxin) would have, so therefore they can’t be held responsible for that effect when there wasn’t any criminal intent. U.S. military veterans are slightly more fortunate, as in the double-standard world of the American government, they now can at least apply for financial help if Agent Orange has created any health problems for them.

We arrive at the Village, and many of the children are in the courtyard playing. It is a large compound that includes a cafeteria on one end, dormitories along the long side of the rectangle, and the health facility and classrooms on the other end. We are also shown the garden where the youngsters can learn how to grow and harvest vegetables. Several children are playing with volunteers in the central courtyard area. Phuong takes us into one of the classrooms, where children are learning a song. They are delighted to see us, and we start to photograph and film the proceedings, which produces a lot of giggling and laughter.

We move on to the area where the children are trained to do crafts, and there encounter our first highly deformed human being, a little girl. She looks more like a fish than a person, as her eyes bulge out of her head and are more on the sides of her face than the middle. But, she seems comfortable, and is smiling. I notice that she has beautiful hands. There is a volunteer with the children, guiding them when needed. Galen sits down and tries his hand at making a flower, but realizes after a few minutes that it’s harder than it looks, and allows one of the small girls to show him the process.

 

Phuong explains how things work here. The children, once accepted, live in the compound full time, and may stay until they reach adulthood. There are single women, usually middle-aged, who serve as house mothers at the dormitories, and take care of the children’s needs 24/7. There are no private rooms, just rooms with several beds in each one. He says that the children tend to do better here in the Village, because they won’t be teased and bullied, and they’re given special tutoring and training that may ensure a livelihood of sorts when they grow to adulthood.

It was very difficult to visit the Friendship Village for all of us, and it is equally difficult to write about it. We have seen examples of human misery caused by Agent Orange all over Vietnam, not just in the Village. Just roaming around Hà Nội’s city center reveals many people begging who have deformities that will ensure their poverty. The sense of injustice inflicted on these people by our government makes us angry and ashamed. These are families and children whose lives are made terribly difficult by choices and decisions our leaders made, choices and decisions for which they will not take any responsibility.

As a side note, one thing our country has made amends for are the so-called Amerasians, children born to Vietnamese women who were fathered by an American soldier. After some years went by they were finally recognized as legal American citizens by our government, and were welcomed to our country if they wanted to come. Before this happened, they were reviled by their countrymen, but became symbols of hope for a better life after the U.S. recognized them. Small compensation, in my opinion.