Vietnam Adventure 3rd – 22nd November
Vietnam is a name to many people which reminds them of the 1960s and 1970s war against America. To us, it is the Vietnam War; to them it is the American War. This has certainly left its mark on the country, as Kathleen and I found in our recent visit.
We cannot forget the large craft workshop we visited. The workers were people disabled by the effects of the defoliation chemical ‘agent orange’ used by the Americans. What our Vietnamese guide naturally wanted us to remember is how the country is rapidly moving forward as a strong, mainly agricultural nation, though it has a growing industrial base thanks to support from international companies. Shoe manufacture, as I think we know, is one of their main exports.
It was during the years when the communist government closed the borders and cut off contact with the outside world that all intellectual people, doctors and teachers, were outlawed.
These people fled the country in fear of their lives by any means possible. We knew them as ‘the boat people’. Some of these people are returning to the country of their birth with new skills for their native land. Some have established successful businesses abroad, and though having no wish to return, do support Vietnam with large financial donations towards the growing infrastructure.
In the long term, this policy has now left Vietnam with a severe shortage of teachers. According to our guide, there is never an unemployment problem. If workers have no jobs in the city, there is always work on the land.
Laws concerning population growth are not as severe as in China. Government policy is to ask families to restrict their size to two children. For those families that have a third child, education and healthcare cease to be government subsidised, and promotion at work becomes more difficult.
Our first impression of Ho Chi Minh City, or Saigon as we better know it, is the ‘river’ of motorcycles that flow constantly along the streets! Over the years, these have replaced bicycles. In the future, I fear the congestion will get far worse, as in their turn, the motorbikes will be replaced by cars.
Vietnam’s French colonial history is evident everywhere, in the architecture of imposing buildings, the kilometre stones along the road, the number plates where the first two digits denote the region of origin, and driving on the right.
But what has not been inherited is any concept of giving way to any other traffic! It is very much every man for himself! Consequently, crossing the road is fraught with danger. The advice is to walk slowly, but keep going; do not stop and they will weave their way round you. Easier said than done!
The currency is the dong. Oh dear – we really needed a head for figures. The U.S. dollar, the favoured foreign currency, is worth 20,000 dong. The notes, (no coins) are in denominations of 500, 1,000, 2,000, 5,000, 10,000, 20,000, 50,000, 100,000 and 500,000 dongs. How often, when paying, were we left staring bemusedly at a handful of notes fanned like playing cards!
The helpful shopkeeper would gently remove the required notes from our fists. Even towards the end of our three weeks there, I found it difficult to grasp that 100,000 dongs are worth less than a fiver!
The Vietnamese are great ones for celebrating anniversaries, but as their religions all contain elements of ancestor worship, they regularly remember ‘death-days’ rather than birthdays. The date of the death of a relation is marked by their family annually for five generations (in a large family this could amount to quite a number of annual remembrances!).
Also, seven years after the internment of a deceased relative in the family grave, the bones are exhumed, cleaned and kept in the house for a while before being reinterred. We passed one of these death-day celebrations while visiting a market garden area beside a lake full of water-weed.
It certainly sounded as if a life was being celebrated rather than a death being mourned! Intriguingly, the plants in that village thrived, fertilised by the weed the farmers harvested from the lake. Farmers took out their boats to gather the weed and then dug it into the soil. The crops certainly seemed to flourish as a result.
Agriculture is the main source of income and walking through the rice field was a memorable experience. We were on our way to visit a tribal village of stilted houses belonging to the Tai people, related to, but separated from their kin in Thailand.
The rice was at various stages of growth. We saw the young blades of rice being laboriously planted one by one into their watery nursery. We witnessed the harvesting of the rice with the hand sickle and the seed heads being laid over stubble in the bright sunlight to dry. An ingenious contraption, fabricated from an old bike, was being pedalled to thresh out the seed and chaff. After winnowing in the gentle breezes, the seed was laid on large sheets all over the road to dry. It was the task of the women to visit this seed regularly during the hot sunny days to turn it with a rake until it was completely dry.
Flocks of ducks wandered on the raised banks between the flooded fields; bullocks with their humpbacks and the huge water buffalo were wallowing deep in the mud, their huge horns clearly visible above the surface. Egrets perched on the backs of the buffalo, using their long thin beaks to feed themselves and, at the same time, rid these huge grey creatures of unwanted insects.
We were astonished to see a distant figure sweeping to and fro over the ripening rice, with what appeared to be a conical butterfly net. We were told that he was catching ‘flying prawns’! They were in fact grasshoppers that were sold to the farmers for $1 (20,000 dong) per kilo.
These were then dried, and at the meal we enjoyed in the Tai tribal house, we were offered these delicacies. Amazingly, they tasted much as their name suggested they would.
Vietnam has little dairy industry. Small amounts of milk are produced, and the only cheese we found was “La Vache Qui Rit” – the French Dairylea!
Perhaps one of the most difficult of their customs to accept was the caging and eating of small birds. These delightful finches and sparrows were not welcome on the rice fields, as their food was the crops the farmers were toiling over, and poverty and hunger make for behaviour patterns we find uncomfortable to live with.
This was our difficulty. At the same time as not wishing to offend our hosts, we were fully aware of the contents of the bird stew we were offered.
We visited many temples, which were mainly Buddhist, with some Confucian and Jain. All of these contained strong elements of honouring nature and ancestors.
As we soaked up the atmosphere in these temples, believers quite openly performed their acts of worship, gesticulating before the statues representing their Gods, and holding burning joss sticks, whose cloying smell and pungent smoke carried their prayers to heaven.
From our travels we like to bring home souvenirs, but baggage weight restricts these, so we often bring a Christmas decoration. What caught our eye, in a shop in a remote village, were five miniature coolie hats hanging on a red cord, which, suspended from our lounge ceiling light fittings, look quite delightful.
So much to see, and so much to say. Perhaps to finish with, something quite different: in Hanoi at the end of our time in Vietnam, we were taken to the mausoleum of the man whose vision has, without doubt, made Vietnam the country it is today.
We may not agree with his vision, and certainly not with some of the consequences of his communistic ideals, but it was the leadership of Ho Chi Minh that guided and in a way still guides these people.
We were led from our coach via a tourist office, to set out on our walk to see this man’s mummified body lying in state. We were kindly but firmly directed to walk in twos along a covered walkway sheltering us from the sun. As we walked we were able to watch film of Papa Ho, as he was affectionately known.
In silence we filed respectfully past the unmistakable gaze of this charismatic figure. For us tourists, it was a point of interest, but for the Vietnamese, this was without doubt a pilgrimage. We paid; they did not. For the people of this nation, I expect they were looking at a figure who was once their future, and who still – if the huge propaganda hoardings were any indication – plays a significant role in their vision for Vietnam today and tomorrow.