Friday, March 20, 2009


Some of these facts or stories involve or came from our guide on the DMZ Tour; others are just things I’ve noted in our time here. Probably not too many photos, but hopefully some of the stories will be entertaining and possibly even enlightening. Also, I should make the disclaimer that I have not attempted to verify any of the factual information shared by our guide, so you are free to take it or leave it. Just please don’t leave a snarky comment telling me how wrong I might be.

On the DMZ tour, our minibus stopped behind a full-sized bus at a rail crossing. To the right side of the road, in front of a long hedge, were several Vietnamese gentlemen dressed in business suits, backs to the road, obviously answering nature’s call. As they were zipping up (some after turning back to face the road), several Vietnamese women in the traditional ao dai came out from behind the bushes, straightening their garb. I guess this is what passes for a rest stop. (Speaking of ao dai, I could have a silk one custom made for a very reasonable price. Should I? Leave a comment to let me know.)

From the tour guide: The population of Vietnam is some 86 million people. Hue City has about 400,000, while the province in which Hue is located has about 1.2 million. About 75 percent of the population works in an agricultural capacity. Population control is strongly encouraged though not as rigorously as in China. Families are encouraged to have only one or two children, and a government employee who has a third child will not be promoted … ever. There is also an extra tax for having more than two children. This fits with the fact that I have only seen one pregnant woman here and only one store selling any type of maternity clothes. Interestingly, the guide made it very clear that responsibility for birth control falls with the man. As we passed fields of rubber trees, he commented on the special relationship between a man and the rubber tree, and how important the crop was to family planning. When I thought about it, most of the contraception women can use is a bit more high tech in terms of involving a physician (even for something as seemingly simple as fitting a diaphragm), whereas condoms are relatively low tech and easy to obtain.

Land mines were planted by both sides in the war and remain a large issue even today. The warnings in the guidebooks and on signs to stay on marked paths are quite valid. Mines pose a real danger agriculturally, also, as a danger to opening up new fields. We have seen a couple of places selling t-shirts to benefit the Mines Advisory Group, an organization that sends teams in to search for and disarm land mines. (I should decide if I want a t-shirt since they're $10 at the DMZ pub around the corner but 15 British pounds from the MAG website.)

I mentioned in the Good Morning, Vietnam! post about the number of cemeteries here. Much of the DMZ tour took place in Quang Tri province (the province north of the one Hue is in). There are 72 cemeteries in Quang Tri province alone, with 16,000 soldiers of both genders buried there. And while folks in the US make a big deal about the number of American soldiers still missing in action from the war, the number pales in comparison to the 300,000 Vietnamese still missing. The guide also more than once mentioned the 5,000 children born with birth defects due to the use of Agent Orange.

According to the guide, Vietnam does recognize reincarnation. If you live a good life the first time around, you will come back as a human. If you live a bad life, you’ll come back as an insect or other lower life form looked down at or even stepped upon by humans. In the twice-monthly festival to honor deceased ancestors, fake money is burned in order to be transmitted to the dead. Also burned can be paper replicas of motorbikes or other luxuries, because don’t we want our dead ancestors to live comfortable after-lives? Finally, many of the dead today are buried in the fields so that when people go there to work, they can also visit family members buried there.

Vietnamese history is one of invasion and war, which largely explains the attitude of young people being taught to defend their country. China or Mongolia invaded Vietnam three times over a period lasting 1,000 years, and tensions continue with China today. The conflict with the French lasted some 80 years, with the American War lasting a comparatively short time. Finally, the Khmer Rouge and Japanese have also invaded or threatened to invade Vietnam. In the war, call it what you will, Vietnam or American, there were basically three conditions necessary for a Viet Cong victory. These were inclement weather, favorable terrain, and harmony with the locals.

As we drove from Hue to Dong Ha on the DMZ tour, we passed multiple schools in which the entire student body appeared to be sitting outside, in front of the school building, in some sort of assembly. After we picked the guide up in Dong Ha, I asked him about this. He said that they gather in the schoolyard every Monday morning for the national anthem and an assembly. Students wear a red scarf (we’ve seen lots of these) to symbolize that they are children of Ho Chi Minh. What we think of as K-12 education starts at the age of six, and runs six days a week in Vietnam, Monday through Saturday. The months of May, June, and July are holidays. In the urban areas, schools meet for a full day. In the rural areas, children go to school in the morning but go home to help in the fields or the house during the afternoon. A national exam determines which students attend university and which attend trade school. University costs about $70 per term for tuition; living expenses and books are extra. The government does make student loans. If this sounds like a real deal, keep in mind that nationally, the average income is $30 per month. For cities, it is $50 per month. A university professor here makes $150 to $200 per month but has the added benefit of tenure from the first day on the job.

Ho Chi Minh placed a great value on education. A often-quoted Ho-ism is something along the lines of to hold the land for 10 years, plant a tree; to hold the land for 100 years, educate the children.

Since I’ve been talking education, I’ll mention here that the husband and the other UVa professor teaching here right now have been very complimentary of their students’ motivation and interest. No student has missed a class, and the husband’s classes start at 7:00 a.m. on Thursdays. The husband says that his students participate well in class, ask good questions, and correct him should he make a mistake when working a problem on the board. He notes that their English is quite good considering that some may only have had a year and a half of instruction in English. I watched a physical education class meet at the university one day and wondered how UVa students would feel about wearing a gym uniform for PE classes. The students here wear one.

Again, according to the guide, the official name of the country is the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. There is one political party, the Communist Party, though only about 20 percent of the population has membership in the party. Although there is only one party, there is a mixture of politics between candidates in any election.

The principal crops grown in the highlands where much of the DMZ tour took place are rubber and coffee. In the lower areas, rice, tobacco, corn, and sweet potatoes are grown.

There are different dialects spoken in the South, the North, and the central part of the country. The guide indicated that if he were to visit Hanoi, he would have a bit of difficulty understanding and being understood.

I asked the guide what date Vietnam considers as “Independence Day,” wondering whether it would be based on 1975 when the war ended. The national day is September 2, based on September 2, 1945, which Ho Chi Minh declared Vietnam to be one country. It took some 30 years for unity to come to pass. Vietnam and the US normalized relations in 1986, although the economic embargo was not totally lifted until 1992.

“Viet” is a private name, while “Nam” means “South.” At one time, the country was known as Nam Viet, but there is a province in China that shares that name. Accordingly, one of the emperors flipped the name to “Viet Nam” to make it stand out. The Vietnamese are considered to be the children of the phoenix and the raven.

Remember my comments about the driving here? I forgot to mention in that post that younger son said the driving on the trip to My Son and Hoi An reminded him of the Night Bus in Harry Potter; I would tend to agree with him. About 12,000 people die each year in auto accidents. In the US, blinking lights from an oncoming car indicates a policeman or accident ahead. Here, if an oncoming driver waves his hand out in front of him, it means that there is no police or other speed coverage ahead. Pointing down in front indicates that there is, so slow down. As for motorbikes, the guide noted that there are about 80 million for the 86 million people, though this may have been an exaggeration. He said that young men could get a motorbike license at the age of 18, but women had to wait until 19 or 20.

The age difference noted here brings up the whole issue of gender roles. Put very simply, Vietnam is a fairly if not more so sexist country, though much of it is rooted in the Asian traditions. It is quite all right for men to smoke and drink, but not so for women. Women are also expected to dress modestly (I’m treating Vietnam the same way I treated churches in Italy—knees and shoulders covered); women who color their hair and paint their face or nails are usually seen as prostitutes. The guide talked openly about prostitutes and spoke about how a man could get bored in a marriage and need some variety. The other woman on the tour asked about women getting bored in marriage, and the guide just laughed. I think that some of his comments about gender roles may actually have been intended to bait her just a bit. (Being already very aware of the way things work or are perceived here, I was keeping my mouth shut.) The hands-down favorite comment among the young men in my family was the guide’s response to a question about whether the role of women had changed in recent years. He replied that it had, saying very dryly and matter-of-factly, “Women try to be equal. They are not, but they try.”

Here’s another random but fascinating fact about life here. I don’t know if any of my traffic photos have shown people, usually women, riding motorbikes or bicycles wearing face masks, so here's one that does. My initial thought was that these were to protect against the fumes (which can get ugly at times). Women wear these to protect their skin from the sun, because white skin is a beauty ideal here. Sometimes, the face mask wraps around and covers the neck as well, leaving only the eyes visible. You will also see women wearing long, cocktail style gloves that cover their arms up to where the short sleeves of their garment end. These, too, are to protect against the sun. And when it rains? Well, the Vietnamese are enterprising people, and some of the rain ponchos are made to accommodate human and machine needs. I know the photo is blurry, but what you're supposed to see is that the poncho has a clear plastic place that lets the motorbike's headlight shine through.

While we’re on the subject of motorbikes, we did drive through one place where motorbikes are not allowed. On the way south to My Son and Hoi An, we went through a long tunnel beneath a mountain. Someone from the university said it cut more than an hour off the trip in terms of how long the road used to take to go over and around the mountain. No motorbikes are allowed in the tunnel because the minimum speed is judged to be too fast for them to maintain. Motorbikes either go up and around by the old route or wait until there are enough motorbikes to fill a flatbed truck, at which point the truck ferries them through while the drivers ride in a bus. I don’t know how much this costs, but I’ll bet it does cost since vehicles pay a toll for the tunnel.

The restaurant at which we had lunch today has as its motto “We boil all our water.” Ya gotta love that. Something perhaps not to love is that while we’re looking at banning smoking in any and all restaurants at home, many of the restaurants here list cigarettes by brand on the menu. And, yes, they do eat dogs here, and cats as well. The guide pointed out a restaurant sign we passed that indicated that they served both dog and cat. In terms of dogs, the guide noted that the way to get a dog to protect a home is to cut off its tail. The rationale is that a dog with a tail can stay warm in the wild by curling its tail over its face to keep warm at night. Without a tail, the dog has to stay closer to the house, and then will serve as an early warning system for people approaching the house.

It is amazing how clean the streets are here. Shop owners sweep the sidewalk in front of their business daily, and you see little piles of trash in the gutter awaiting the city employee who will pick them up and deposit them in the cart. Of course, before the city employee gets there, various people will squat and pick through the pile looking for anything they can use. I have even seen trash cans emptied onto the sidewalk so that people can pick through them. They are serious about recycling here, too, at least in the hotel. The maids separate the recyclables from all the other trash daily.

Finally, the folktale told by the guide about the role of the toad in weather forecasting (toads chirping signals rain): The country had suffered long from a drought, so the toad decided to go to the sky to ask the gods for rain. As he travelled to the sky, he met a crab who asked where he was going. The toad explained that he was going to the sky to ask the gods for rain. The crab said that the rains would replenish the rivers and oceans, so he would accompany the toad on his journey. On their way, the toad and the crab met other creatures, and ended up accompanied by a tiger, a bear, a fox, and a bee. When the animals got to heaven, there was a drum at the gate. The toad told the crab to get into the pool of water, the bee to fly around up high, and the other animals to hide in the forest. The toad then beat the drum at the gate. The gods looked out to see what was going on and saw the small, ugly toad beating their heavenly thunder-drum. They sent out a rooster to kill the toad, but the toad called the fox out of the forest to kill the rooster. Seeing the rooster dead, the gods sent out a dog to kill the toad, but the toad called the bear out of the woods to kill the dog. Finally, seeing both the rooster and the dog dead, the gods sent out the thunder assistant, a human armed with an axe, to kill the toad. The toad called the bee to sting the thunder assistant, who jumped into the water to get away from the bee. The toad called the crab in the water to sting the thunder assistant, who jumped out of the water to get away from the crab. Finally, the toad called the tiger to jump out of the forest and kill the thunder assistant. When the gods saw how smart the toad was, they made him a special creature with a special mission. They asked him to grind his teeth to signal them if water were ever needed on earth. This is why the toad is under the special protection of the gods and chirps loudly before it rains.

Tomorrow, we go to the beach at the mouth of the Perfume River. Sunday, the sons and I are taking a Vietnamese cooking class at a restaurant on the next block while the husband gives a talk at a physics education conference at the university. The husband is free on Monday, so we’re off to the Citadel and the Imperial City then. Right now, though, it's time to practice my number one front and side Myo Sim karate kicks. I'm making lists of things I miss and don't miss, and Myo Sim is at the top of the things I miss one.


Caroline M said...

You are far too interesting, I let my coffee go cold reading this.

Jean said...

As we say in the south (of the US), aw, shucks. But thanks, Caroline, it's nice to know that people are enjoying these. It takes a bit of time to prepare the posts, but then this is essentially serving as the journal I'm not otherwise keeping of the trip. And speaking of coffee, I do plan on trying to duplicate Vietnamese coffee at home.

A. said...

I miss Myo Sim too, a lot.

I agree, your blog is very interesting and well-written. Coffee ... ah, you all get to drink some approximation of real coffee. If you order un café here, you always end up with espresso. I would give a lot for a real, American, steaming cup of hot coffee.

Debi said...

The ao dai...YES, YES, YES!!!

Anonymous said...

ao dai...I vote yes also

Nancy N said...

I voted yes for ao dai anonymously, but I didn't mean to be anonymous. N-i-N

Running Amok With An Ax said...

I vote a big "yes" for ao dai, too - go for it! Mmmmm, silk...

VA said...

I made myself an ao dai in the 1970s with Thai silk. Very comfortable and flattering and feminine! Go for it, Jean!

VA said...

Bet there is little skin cancer among women in Vietnam! or in other Asian lands!

I keep seeing so many parallels with other places - human nature is the same everywhere, and it's evolutionary. Your blog is FANTASTIC!

Anonymous said...

Rolf recently forwarded your blog to me and I am loving it. I find it fascinating and extremely interesting, so thank you for taking the time to do this.

As for the ao must! Lenke M.