Five Lessons I Learned in Saigon, Vietnam
People make places. Stunning scenery may inspire you or give you that “wow” factor, but get to know the people and then you will really start to learn. Teaching in Saigon, Vietnam for eight months, I made friends with and learned from as many local people as would let me. My list of things they taught me is endless, but these five lessons are particularly memorable.
1. That all words have one syllable
I learned and struggled with this tonal language: that Qu is pronounced Wa. That Tr is pronounced Ch and there are five different ways to pronoun chi. Most of all that each word has only one syllable. Hence it is not Saigon but Sai Gon, not Hanoi but Han Oi, and my name would be Al vi na.
—from Nhu, my Vietnamese language tutor
I learned that all the herbs had uses and which were used as shampoo, which were used for stomach pain, and which were to ease the first night in the marital bed.
2. That you can’t move in Vietnam
Well, you can move, but not out of your area. Not out of your province, without permission from the government. It’s their attempt to prevent the cities from becoming ever bigger, but of course this does not work. There are always those who move anyway. Either they move into the houses of relatives or they squeeze more tin shacks into tiny narrow streets and attempt to work under the radar of authority.
—from Ms. Chung, my teaching assistant
3. Why some women marry Western men
Travel in Asia and you won’t fail to see young women adorning Western men. Why? Money? But what was their story? I met Ha in a guest house, where she was working in reception. She was an English graduate with a bright, happy easy going attitude. Out on mountain bikes one day, she told me her story and how the promise of a wonderful international career, if you learned English, was not guaranteed. Unable to get a job in the city after graduation, she’d come back to the village. At least she could practise her English with tourists.
And the other women? In this village alone, I had met two who worked hard in their guest houses while their white husbands propped up the bars in the evening and “entertained” the guests. Was it just for money? Why did these women put up with these men? Reluctant and shy at first, Ha eventually spoke. These women were strong. Stronger than her. She respected them. The could do things for their families. Which she, Ha, could never do. Prostitution has many forms, and who was I to criticise? I’d always been able to feed my child.
Her father worked for the U.S. Seeing dead bodies on her morning walk to school was normal. She had stories of learning how to ask, “Have you any chocolate?” from U.S. soldiers.
4. How to bribe the authorities
I met Hien climbing Fansipan, the highest mountain in Southeast Asia. Hien was traveling alone. Her parents did not know this, nor did they know what she was doing. Now in her mid-20s, she was under pressure to marry and certainly should not be doing anything as risky as climbing a mountain. Hien is a primary school teacher who earns £60 ($100) a month. She too graduated from university with an English degree and a promise of an international career. She too returned to her village, but to secure a job as a teacher her family had to pay the authorities. And so corruption continues. If children do not get good grades, the parents try to bribe Hien, especially if they are members of “the party.”
5. More about the North-South divide
I taught Ms. Mai how to speak English. She taught me to cook Vietnamese food. English lessons were laced with visits to tiny streets packed with market stalls. Smells and colours stopped me in my tracks. Sing-song chatter between Mai and those selling fresh vegetables brought from family farms in the countryside and fish selected from battered tin bowls, still swimming, these trips were not for the squeamish. I learned that all the herbs had uses and which were used as shampoo, which were used for stomach pain, and which were to ease the first night in the marital bed. (Young marriage is still common in the countryside of Vietnam.)
But Mai’s lessons went further than her culinary expertise. She was a child during the Vietnam war. Her father worked for the U.S. Seeing dead bodies on her morning walk to school was normal. She had stories of learning how to ask, “Have you any chocolate?” from U.S. soldiers. For years after the war, trade embargo stifled imports. The Soviet Union sent wheat and bread flour, but what do you do with with bread flour when you eat noodles made from rice flour?
Communists made their capital and base in Hanoi, in the North. Southern Vietnam is the prime rice growing area. Rice was taken to feed the north. Money was banned. Selling of surplus was banned. No trade was allowed. Farmers stopped growing. What was the point? With a decrease in production, there was little left for southern Vietnam, so hunger was the norm. With a starving and restless population, the government realized something had to be done and slowly relaxed their grip on farmers and allowed surplus sales, thus avoiding civil unrest and leading to the strange mix of communism and consumerism which now exists in Vietnam. You can read about this in political texts but to hear those stories firsthand, to see how Ms. Mai and other women survived, fought, and still fight their way up from poverty and continue to look after their families is humbling.