Monday, December 26, 2011

Culture Corner: Vietnam

This past winter break I decided to take a trip to southwest China, Vietnam, and Laos.  Laos was easily the highlight of the trip, but as it was perhaps only touching on a personal level, the experience is difficult to describe in a way you may find interesting.  This is not the case with Vietnam, however.  With the warmth of hearts and severity of greed constantly tugged me in opposite directions, my final opinion is left sitting on a fence.  Unable to say whether or not the country deserves the blessings of the gods, I will nevertheless pass along one experience that exemplified my time there and let you be the judge.

As some of you know, my father was in the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese call it), and while I did not travel to Vietnam on some soul searching, Hallmark quest for spiritual salvation on his behalf, I did think amongst my travels it would be interesting to visit where he was stationed amongst the other things I had planned to see while in country.  And so it was one morning that I rented a motorbike and headed for a place called Chu Lai.

A mere speck on the squiggles and dashes I'd somehow wrangled from the internet (Vietnamese road maps not as readily available on Google as airport security plans), Chu Lai proved to be more of an area rather than a town.  An extremely rural location, the land was a former military base, runways now roads, bunkers drifted over with sand dunes, grasslands now rice paddies, and palm trees and little villages occupying what was once undoubtedly a more active place.  As a result, It took me some time to figure out the layout as I wound my way on gravel drives and dirt paths.  Though feeling lost, in fact I was where I wanted to be.  While riding in Vietnam, it had become my habit to stop for a break and have a beer or a smoke, and upon coming to the realization the fields, villages, and palm trees were as civilized as Chu Lai was going to get, I pulled over at a Vietnamese "café" to see what it was like. This is where the real story begins.

The café was beachside, waves rolling steadily in, a couple cows wandering through the sand, and warm sun shining all around.  (It in fact turned out to be the most pristine section of beach I've encountered in some time, miles and miles of white sand, village huts and children playing, the area completely unknown to tourism.)  As I put down the kickstand and  brushed the dust from my t-shirt and shorts, what should walk out from beneath the thatched roof of the café but the most beautiful girl I'd seen in Vietnam.  Not the least afraid, she smiled and invited me to sit down and served what I pointed at in the little glass counter.  The choices were: one kind of beer, two brands of cigarette, one water, and two kinds of soda.  As I drank my beer and rolled a smoke, I was completely amazed at how unabashed this girl was, even the Vietnamese I met in Hanoi (a city of four or five million with thousands of tourists) were often shy and embarrassed at the sight of a foreigner.  But she in her country comfort was not the least concerned, sitting down beside me in her café's rickety, homemade chair, eager for contact.   As I spoke no Vietnamese and she no English, everything between us was smiles and finger pointing.  I had a guidebook with a few phrases in Vietnamese, but since "Does your restaurant have baby seats?" had little practical usage, the only real pieces of information I could get was that her name was Tao and she was 19.  As there were no other customers, for an hour we had the ocean breeze and cool shade of the café to ourselves, nothing but fun and laughter in our outlandish attempts at communication.  

After a while her mother appeared to relieve her for noon break, and so Tao invited me to her house for lunch.  Getting to her house we rode amongst the most pastoral scenery I'd seen in Vietnam, lazy rice paddies, dirt paths hardened by bare feet and the simplest of square concrete homes open to the warm sun, dogs and ducks sitting in the shade.  Her father greeted me enthusiastically (the little devil), and after taking off our shoes, brought me inside to sit down and eat.  

Myself already three beers deep, her old man pulled out the booze after we began eating, and soon enough, shot after shot of rice wine was burning its way down my throat.  A half hour later, our meal finished, his literal 50 pound frame, unable to handle the bottle we'd knocked back, began its propositioning: I should marry his daughter.  Tao seemed a little hopeful about this, but I had to disappoint and answer 'no.'  He repeated his offer, but I held firm, causing him to shake his head disappointedly at my answer.  

This is where the story takes a drastic turn.  Tao’s father upped the ante:  I didn't have to marry his daughter, I could just have her for money.  Tao got up and left the table.  I'm quite certain she was afraid her father's bid might be taken, men in their traditional culture having such power over women.  But I refused these repeated offers as well.  There was a period of silence in which I tried to change the subject, but the father was still focused.  Wavering and red faced in intoxication, he then propositioned killing one of the dogs nearby, miming slitting its throat and taking a big bite out of its hindquarter.  As I'd already seen that kind of dog used as food (and eaten some!), I'm 99% certain he was serious.  Certainly he viewed it as the cherry on the cake in exchange for his oldest.  I refused this as well.  More shots, and things deteriorated further: he asked directly for money, the hand gestures for this universal throughout the world.  I asked him why, pointing at the food we'd eaten with a shrug.  But the only reply he could come up with was to continue to rub his thumb and forefinger together.  He simply wanted me to give him money.  Quite a guy, huh?  Well, he gets better.  

After seeing I wasn't going to marry his daughter, sleep with her for money, or give in to his begging, Tao’s father drunkenly figured he was down to one last hope to take advantage of this exceedingly rich foreigner who'd magically landed in his lap that afternoon: he proposed we go to a local brothel (the sign language for this equally well known around the world).  I'll be the first to support the traditional cultures of this world, but as I cannot combine them, I simply got up from the table and went off to find Tao, uttering a simple 'goodbye' and 'thank you' to the man for his food and wine.  

Saddened at her prospects for the future, I found Tao with her mother back at the beachside café.  We sat around in silence for a while.  What do you say after such bargaining ended with bitter feelings on both sides?  I had a little chocolate with me, so I gave it to her and wrote a note in English that said something to the effect she needed to somehow continue her education and escape her father's clutches if she were to have any hope of enjoying life.  I hung around for a bit more, wandering on the beach and thinking of various possibilities, but after a while I just got back on the motorbike and puttered off, leaving nothing but confused, opposing ideas behind.

So, that's what Vietnam was in a nutshell: moments of extreme beauty, the mountains and hill tribes in the northwest, Halong Bay, and the children playing amongst the noodle stalls in the quiet back alleys of Hanoi, mixed with moments of extreme ugliness, the rapacious manner in which money is sought, the dust and grime covering everything urbanized, and the lack of self respect so many of them had in their mannerisms towards tourists.  I don't know what to think of it all.  Maybe you should go to make up your own mind?

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