Saturday, May 24, 2014

Young Voices of Vietnam

Culture differences aside, the first thing that struck me about Vietnam was that there is a noticeable difference between living on an average of 1 dollar a day (Cambodia) vs 2.  Hanoi felt much more prosperous, even though it may not have looked that way on the outside compared to Phnom Penh.  Even their garment district was much more decorated with sheltered ATMs just outside of each building and workers wearing lanyards with official ID cards.

There is an air of productivity and seriousness in the population.  All business, even from the most poorest of farmers.  You can see it in their eyes.  They want to take advantage of all potential opportunities -- Not in a pushy way.  If someone sees you looking, they will perk up quickly but will also back off quickly if they see you aren't interested, as to not waste their energy or time.  I had no problems with that.  People work long hours. Some travel from far away to sell their produce in the city.

Education is revered there.  Everyone I had a chance to talk with saw it as their ticket to financial success.  There doesn't seem to be significant amount of corruption in the educational system even though Vietnam is rated quite high in this area.  Maybe it is because the government recognizes that the country, in order to reach the heights of global success it wishes for, needs to support the growth of its people?

Not all areas of the country are receptive though.  In Sapa, I was told that in the minority tribes, education is not encouraged by parents even though government sponsored village schools are available.  There is just too much money to be made from child beggars.

One of the more difficult things trekkers encounter are the swarms of children whining out their words while holding cheap bracelets up to your face.  They just keep repeating it over and over until you don't actually understand what they are saying.  Their bored and frustrated expression says it all. It can really get under your skin.  Much worse than at Angkor Wat.

If you buy from one, beware that the entire lot of them will be at your feet.  Their siblings and mothers stand a few steps away, occasionally encouraging and coaching them.  When these girls grow up, they will marry early, 14 - 16 and continue the uneducated child bearing cycle.   It saddened me to witness it. 

I had no idea that the majority of conversations I would have with young women in Hanoi would end up being about women's rights, or the lack of, in Vietnam.  I'm talking about university educated women who are telling me how apprehensive they are about marriage.  How it will mean a life time of "slavery" especially if you marry the first born son. 

The first time the conversation swung to this topic, we were at a cafe and I was with another solo traveler, a strong willed Austrian woman.  You can imagine the looks on our faces when we started hearing about how many young Vietnamese woman have been marrying Korean and Japanese men, just so that they are able to leave the country.

Unfortunately that move hasn't been very successful for many of them as there have been many cases of severe spousal abuse.  With no rights in the new country and no money to return home, many women continue to suffer greatly.  Apparently there has been a new law introduced in South Korean which offers some protection to these women.

Women who do stay in Vietnam and get married are expected to do everything for her new family.  Husbands do not help, even if they might want to, as to not anger their mother.  The day starts early, 4 - 5 am, with a trip to the market to buy ingredient for breakfast.

Once that is cooked and kids are sent off to school, the wife then proceeds to her workplace.  After work, it is another visit to the market to buy food to prepare supper. Traditional Vietnamese food takes a couple of hours to make.  Then there is cleaning and washing and then tomorrow, the cycle starts all over again.

The young women were genuinely surprised to learn that I did no such thing.  That women here in Canada, do not move into the home of their in laws.  (I told them I would not be married if that was the case...) That we are allowed to create our own home.  That husbands do and are "allowed" to help out around the house. That I wasn't "forced" to have children.  That it is acceptable for me to travel solo especially as a married woman. 

The young men I spoke with were all quite philosophical.  They too were educated.  A common theme was their fear and frustration with not knowing what they really want because their parents have directed their entire life.  From what to study at school, to making contacts to help ensure a job afterwards.  Learning to separate the automatic thoughts of parents with truly "original" thoughts was challenging.

Many of them second guessed themselves.  They didn't feel strong enough to go against their parents' wishes but they felt a strong pull to forge their own paths, even though they didn't know what they were.  They have not heard their own inner voices before.  One of them told me that neither he nor his wife wanted children but there comes a point in adulthood that you must put your wants aside for the greater good...

It was especially difficult for the young men to understand and accept solo female travelers.  It is just not done in their culture.  You travel with family first, then friends.  And they all said they would not allow their wives to do such a thing.  And that the wives wouldn't consider it anyways because they would worry so much, they would not be able to follow through with it.

As much as they want to marry women who are educated, they don't want to be with one who is stronger and more independent than them.  Whereas universally, all the young women I met, want the opportunity to live my life.

The men and women I met are smart and driven.  They would give me a run for my money if they weren't "trapped" in their country.  Unanimously they are frustrated with their government and wanted to move abroad.  But the chances of that are slim to none, unless they marry a foreigner.  A mixed race relationship would be challenging to accept culturally.


I have stayed in touch with a number of them so am getting to hear about what has been recently going on with the demonstrations. 

There is strong anger in Vietnam against China and their recent oil rig installation.  People are determined to make their stand and are fed up with China's continued trespasses.  They are sick of it.  The Vietnamese are intense people.  I don't know that I'd want to go up against them.  They are proud of their fighting history.  However, China is not known for backing down either.

When I first arrived in Hanoi, I wasn't sure what to expect in terms of attitude towards foreigners.  Were there going to be topics that ought to be avoided?  Is the Vietnam war a touchy subject? 

What I hadn't expected was the obvious dislike/hatred for China to be so near the surface.  Normally composed but this topic brings out the uncensored in people.  That goes to show that history chronology doesn't always dictate what remains.

I did expect Ho Chi Minh to be revered but was surprised to see how strongly young people felt about him.  Was given a quick tour in an art gallery with contemporary paintings illustrating the history of Ho Chi Minh and you'd think that the 20 year old had been right there fighting from her gusto. 

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