Friday, 23 March 2012

What image problem?

A little while back, the Huffingpost Post published a piece by Matt Kepnes called “Why I’ll never return to Vietnam” which criticised Vietnam for being nothing more than a land of scam artists and rip-off merchants. 

Whether or not you agree with Kepnes (and for the record, I don’t, but that’s a post for another time), you can’t deny that the article caused quite a stir in Vietnam. Unsurprising for a country where the burgeoning tourism industry is a considerable source of national pride, and more importantly, income. 

It generated around 900 comments on the HuffPo site, many from irate Vietnamese readers, and prompted a flurry of articles and opinion pieces in the Vietnamese press. One of my favourites refers to the Huffington Post as being “mistaken” for a “prominent newspaper”, and then calls Kepnes “a self-proclaimed Dave Matthews Band super fan”. Ouch.

But the most interesting response appeared on the news site for Voice of Vietnam, the state-run national radio station and mouthpiece for the Communist Party.

Entitled “I am a real backpacker”, the article profiles an Australian backpacker named Thomas Johnson “whose back always carries a big bag full of things he bought from different shops in the capital city”. 

Thomas tells the reporter that he finds Hanoi “really comfortable, with a stable work environment and friendly people”. He loves the food, and he’s enjoyed all the places he’s visited, like the ceramics village, the silk village and the flower village. 

“’Wherever I go, I am always tempted by special hand-made products, such as Ao dai (Vietnamese women’s traditional dress), conical hats, ceramics and other handicrafts. That is the reason why my backpack is always heavy with a lot of things,’ he said with a smile.”

So, he’s a young, Australian, male backpacker who just can’t get enough of flowers, silk, handicrafts and women’s dresses. He’s just cramming them all into his “bag full of things”. 

In closing, the article makes it very clear that Thomas, unlike Matt Kepnes, will be coming back to Vietnam:

“The Australian visitor said he would come back to Vietnam as soon as possible to enjoy the hidden charms of the S-shaped country, and his next destination would be Ho Chi Minh City. “I’ve heard a lot about the great leader of Vietnam and wish to visit the city named after him to explore the southern part of Vietnam,” he said.”

Wow, Thomas. A state-owned mouthpiece for the Communist Party could not have said it better themselves.

I’m going to put it out there and suggest that maybe Thomas isn’t, you know, a real person. You see, you can write an article called “I am a real backpacker” but that doesn’t actually make the backpacker real.

But really, who better to respond to criticism that your country is filled with cheats and scam artists than a person you just completely made up? Tourists will surely now be flocking to Vietnam, voted Number 1 most ironic country in southeast Asia.    

Friday, 16 March 2012

East vs West in pictures

A blog's got nothing these days if it ain't got infographics. What's that all about then, eh? Good old-fashioned words not cutting it anymore? Anyway, not one to be left behind a trend that's probably already démodé if I know about it, I remembered we were shown some neat little representations of the differences between eastern and western cultures by a Vietnamese sociologist during our orientation program. Back in 2009, before infographics were cool. Just saying.

By no means am I the first person to write about this series by Chinese-German artist Yang Liu and it seems on many other blogs that have done so before me, the comments turn into a frothing racist free-for-all. So I'd just like to say that these are obviously very generalised representations and reflect the artist's personal experiences living in both China and Germany.  Even though China and Vietnam, and Germany and Australia, are very different countries, many of the artist's observations are still applicable.

Enough with all the words, already! Show us the pictures! Germany/generalised western society is in blue, and China/generalised eastern society is in red.

(Warning: More words do appear after the pictures. Avert your eyes, if necessary.)


The elderly in everyday life




Handling problems



The child


In a restaurant

There is so much in these which ring true for me, and I've thought back to them often. The first time I went to a Vietnamese party I remember realising that the representation of guests sitting in a circle was not just symbolic, but an actual and accurate depiction of how party-goers arrange themselves. Similarly, Vietnamese children are so often literally the centre of all adult attention, dozens of hands attending to them all at once, and any westerner who has been in Vietnam for five minutes can attest to the accuracy of the difference in noise levels, and not just "in a restaurant".

The ones I've thought about the most, though, are the ones showing the connectedness of eastern societies. I'm in awe at the ease with which Vietnamese people (generally!) manage their connections with so many more people than we do in the west, and with much greater flexibility. Social proximity and interdependence seem to be much more highly valued, maybe just by virtue of living so close together with so many other humans. By comparison, people like me, always banging on about my independence and autonomy and "me time", just look kind of... alone. 

This brings me to the one graphic which I'm not sure about:


I think the idea of "ego" is just so culturally different between eastern and western cultures that you can't even represent it on the same graph, let alone compare it. Apples, oranges etc. I know western society is (generally!) rampagingly individualist, but it's hard to think of a tiny little ego like that sitting inside one of the increasing numbers of Bentleys and Rolls Royces clogging the streets of Hanoi. Maybe it just goes to show that in any culture, being individualist is a luxury.

An English friend of ours who works in conservation here got into an argument with a Vietnamese colleague who accused him of being selfish because instead of working in a high-paying job and starting a family, he was doing low-paying but personally satisfying, meaningful work to try to prevent species extinction in Vietnam. I think this fundamental difference in the perception of what is "selfish", or even "the self", is so complex and interesting and challenging, it couldn't be pictorially represented if all the infographics on the internet, even the ones about rainbow unicorns, were combined into one. 

Friday, 9 March 2012

International Women's Day in Vietnam

Yesterday it was International Women's Day, the theme of which, according to the UN, is "Empower Women - Ending Hunger and Poverty".

In Vietnam, the theme of International Women's Day is "Have I Somehow Entered A Wormhole Which Has Transported Me Back To Valentine's Day?"

While women in many other cities use International Women's Day to rally together for equality, here in Hanoi women receive over-priced bouquets and heart-shaped balloons, and get taken out to lunch by their male colleagues.

There is no bigger day for flower sales in Hanoi than International Women's Day. The elaborate bouquets, always bolstered with a lot of size-enhancing packaging, are toted awkwardly to lunches all around town, often in plastic bags slung from the handlebars of motorbikes. 

Yesterday I cycled behind a bike carrying several bouquets in such a manner, their aluminium foil-wrapped handles dragging along the road creating two sprays of spectacular sparks. It was like a scene from The Fast And The Florist. It seems that no matter what the holiday, Vietnam will always find a way to make it a public safety risk.

On International Women's Day, a number of observations are compulsory:
  • Make a joke about how you're an "international woman"
  • Comment on how all the flowers will be in the bins tomorrow
  • Say you wish women in Vietnam received as much recognition as they do flowers.

All these points are valid, the last one in particular. I'm a holiday party-pooper from way back (Melbourne Cup Day? Horse torture! Australia Day? Invented as a money-making scheme by the pavlova industry!), so I'm expert in harping on about how International Women's Day in Vietnam is a load of tosh and flowers to distract from the real issues women face here.

Vietnamese women are amazing and inspiring, and face social pressures which I can barely conceive of. This post by Nguyen Thi Hoang Yen on the Oxfam blog gives you an idea of the difficulties that even educated, successful (and amazing and inspiring) Vietnamese women face day-to-day. For them, gender equality is about women being able to "do what they want to do, say what they want to say, or even be able to have better sleep". Funnily enough, flowers and a complimentary glass of champagne with dinner didn't make that list.

I spent much of my International Women's Day working at home (WHERE I BELONG), with the sound of raucous lunchtime revellers echoing across the lake. The ubiquitous, male, beer-sculling cry of "Một hai ba, YO!" carried on long into the afternoon, leaving me wondering if the women had all returned to the office so their male colleagues could celebrate International Women's Day in peace.

Then there was a knock on our door, interrupting my dangerously emancipated thoughts. It was our jolly landlord, Mr Chien, with a bunch of roses and a card:

I could say I was struck by this unobtainable wish, and how it reflects the pressures placed on women in Vietnam to maintain impossible standards. But I wasn't. I was simply delighted, and charmed, and actually said "For me?! Oh you shouldn't have!" like a veritable southern belle.

It was a perfect example of the rose-scented smokescreen of International Women's Day. But as I was arranging my flowers in a vase, I realised that Vietnamese women know what time it is. Gender equality is a long way off, and accepting the flowers won't make it any longer. It's not like they have to choose between gender rights and flowers. So next year, wherever I may be for International Women's Day, I won't be shutting up about women's rights, but I will be buying flowers for all the amazing and inspiring women I know. Because getting flowers is always nice, and God knows, they've earned it.

Friday, 2 March 2012

It ain't over till it's over

I have friends who tell me that the relentlessly upbeat tone of this blog really gives them the shits. It's true that I consciously try to couch any negativity in positive terms, and that does grate even on me sometimes - and I write it.

"Today I got run over by the number 33 bus, but what an adventure it was! Oh Hanoi, you're such an adorable little rascal! What will you have in store for me tomorrow?"

So I'm going to come right out and say it: I'm not loving being here at the moment. 

Coming off the back of two weddings, and a honeymoon, our return to Hanoi three weeks ago was a pretty crushing comedown. 

It's not really Hanoi's fault - the return to normality after any exciting event is always hard, no matter where that normality is geographically located -  but the grey, grey skies and the shoulder-hunching cold of this never-bloody-ending winter haven't helped. 

Nathan and I only ever planned to stay in Vietnam for twelve months. One Saturday morning, a few months before we were due to leave, we were sitting having breakfast at Cafe Five, which has long since closed down, discussing in earnest what we should do next. We wrote out a list of possibilities, with corresponding pros and cons. I still have that list, actually. The option of staying in Hanoi wasn't even floated.

By the end of breakfast, we had pretty much settled on moving to Bangkok - even though it had the rather considerable "con" of being on fire at the time - when Nathan's phone rang. It was a job offer he'd long written off. And, just like that, before we'd even finished our coffee, the decision was made: we'd stay in Hanoi another two years.

That moment changed everything for us. We went from "just passing through" Hanoi to really living here, like proper residents. We settled in, made investments - both physical and mental - and allowed ourselves to fall in love with this town, which gave us plenty of love in return. And worms, but nevermind.

It's been almost two years since that breakfast, and another departure date looms. But this time, there's no list of fanciful next steps being tossed around. We want to go home. Next time we get on a plane back to Australia, it will be for good; we just don't know exactly when that will be. 

I'm already mentally uprooting, undoing all the good work of the past two years. In the grocery store, I find myself pausing before making a purchase. Is it worth buying a whole new box of peppermint tea? Soon it will be our pantry and household goods being divvied up amongst the vultures, like so many boxes of lasagne sheets. Someone has already bagsed our half-used bottle of walnut oil, and guests are complimenting our possessions with that glint in their eye that says "Will you be taking that back to Australia with you?" 

I should be relishing every last day we've got here, but instead I'm browsing Australian rental properties for our future home, and dog rescue sites for a future Tiger to call our very own. Today I found myself looking at Ikea sofas. When you're looking at future furniture to put in a future house that's in a future city the location of which you don't even yet know... well, you need to get back to reality.

I've always said I didn't want to be one of those ex-Hanoians who only appreciates what they've got when it's gone, and I'm at risk of doing just that, right when I should be enjoying my Hanoi (pedal) swansong. So I'm going to snap myself out of it the only way I know how: with a gratingly upbeat ending. Here it comes!

Rather than sitting at home sulking about the cold (first day of Spring - HA! MY ARSE), I'm going to take up Laura on her March Challenge (not to be confused with this March Challenge...) to do something different, or just differently, every day of the month. 

Starting with today, when I made a chocolate cake, a first for our little bench-top oven - itself a hand-me-down from a departed Hanoian - and that spring-form pan we decided we urgently needed at some point but have never actually ever used:

It turns out nothing makes you appreciate the here and now like the smell of baked goods. 

PS. I'll be documenting my March Challenge on Twitter if you're interested.