Thursday, November 25, 2010

Hello again. And what about all this modernizing Vietnam, anyway?

Well, I've been really busy teaching 4th grade lately.  My energy level at the end of the day has been enough to just barely get me to the beer fridge and the tv remote at the end of the day, but I'm adjusting, and, out with a hurt knee, have found a little time to post.  (btw, It's a great job and I encourage anyone with a feeling for the vocation to give it a whirl.  There are about a dozen international schools in Saigon, and hundreds, if not thousands, world-wide.  The topic deserves a post all it's own.) 

That said, a reader mentioned to me in an e-mail that he is probably going to end up in Hanoi. That got me thinking about some of the differences between Saigon, Hanoi, and really the whole country.  Though I haven't been to Hanoi, I know there are many.  I'm hoping to visit up there next year, and perhaps go to Sapa, as well, but this is really worth exploring, as the differences (and similarities) really define this place.

For the sake of conversation, let's set up a sort of common point for further discussion we can use to talk about girls, music, architecture, politics -- really anything.

Forgive me while I indulge my penitent for analysis here. You can codify any other cultural subject/object along a 3 dimensional grid: a geographical y-axis -- running north to south -- a cultural y-axis -- running from the countryside to the city -- and a z-axis representing duration in these places.

The y-axis. Starting in Hanoi, moving, to Hue in the center, then down to Binh Dinh and Nha Trang, south to Saigon, and then all the way down to the Makong Delta, people begin in the north conservative and become more happy-go-lucky, with Makong people (let me say girls here) being pretty derned free-spirited.  The common understanding is that weather in the north is such that farmers had to prepare for the possibility of their crops getting wrecked by a bad year, and thus had to be more conservative with their behavior and resources just in case.  At the opposite extreme is the Mekong (referred to as the "west" here for some reason), where food grows everywhere year round resulting in a perpetual sun-baked party of sorts.

The x-axis.  The "countryside" can be mountains, coasts, and plains -- just about all of which involve rice.  The big cities being Hanoi (a thousand-year-old city), Hue, Da Nang, Saigon/HCMC, with Can Tho in the Mekong.  And a bunch of other big towns (Da Lat, for example) that are pretty much cities now.  The differences here are astounding.  Visit the countryside, for example, and you can still hear the voice of the State broadcasting interpretations of laws over a system of one-way wired speakers planted on poles all over the place.  People didn't have radios in these areas just a short while ago.  The level of naivete can be astounding and is still exploited here in the city where xe om (cab drivers) have been implicated in enslaving kids coming in to the city from the countryside via train. (This is a sad story: they do it for 500k dong -- about $25).

The z-axis.  Hanoi and Hue have been around a long time, but as you get farther south, the areas are newer and faster moving.  Saigon was just a little coastal village when the French got here, the Mekong wasn't even "settled" yet (though there were tribes and villages there).  Now, the migration is constant and cultural change revolves around tensions of staying put where the family has been, and moving on, invariably to a city, sometimes to one in the US, Australia, and franco/anglo points in between.  Just like everywhere on the planet, this sense of time is becoming increasingly compressed.  If you stay here even a few months, you'll see what I mean.

All this is really a way for me to make sense of things here, but I hope it helps you understand the constant change here that takes place amidst a very old backdrop of tradition.  My students' parents, for example, want their kids to really understand living internationally.  Class is English but many of my students study Chinese and French as well.  One student is moving to the US next year, one student is from the US and, though Viet Kieu, doesn't know a word of Vietnamese, another is moving to Belgium.  In a way, all of my Vietnamese kids are sort of Viet Kieu in mind if not actually. 

What I hope to do in coming posts is to place my experiences more along these complex axes. Nothing is standing still here.  The pagodas, for example, are poles planted into the earth that anchor people to their sense of being, but their hold is at once deep and tenuous, their architecture in stark contrast to the minimalist, modernist architecture abounding here.  I'll leave this post with an interesting discussion of architecture I found this morning entitled Saigon is a city of clean lines, by Helen Clark. I'm working with my wonderful fiance on a little virtual tour of traditional music as well.  Look for it, hopefully, in the near future.  Now, I need to prepare myself to return back to the classroom.

ps, I apologize for not responding to comments -- I wrote a bunch of responses and couldn't post them, for some reason.  A technological glitch I know not what's up with.