Sunday, February 14, 2010

Communism in Viet Nam

I didn't have any idea what to expect when traveling in a communist country. It's good, because none of my stereotypes about communism have born up. Perhaps they would elsewhere, but not here.

I've never been virolently anti-communist, nor pro-communist. I've always considered it just another form of government with its own set of good points and bad. Certainly capitalism has its faults and as much as I love my country, I don't think it's the best in the world. A good place to live for many people, certainly, but not all.

First of all, people own their own houses and businesses and motorbikes. There is definitely a rich class here, as well as poorer people. Unlike the states, there aren't homeless people here. Our guide was saying that it is not communism but the culture. If you have family, you have a home. A family would never, ever leave one of their own to sleep on the street or starve.

There are some huge gorgeous French colonial homes here, multimillion dollars in the states. I asked my guide and he said that a family of four lives in them. Most of the homes I have seen are from two to four stories high, with the bottom one or two floors devoted to a family business, like a store or restaurant. They are row houses, long and skinny, with lovely French colonial fronts and backs, and no sides. When we were on the bay, we saw floating houses that were very simple, and some of the boat houses we've seen on the river in Hue were extremely modest. There definitly are richer and more humble people here.

I've only seen one person beg. I've seen no one that looks underfed or injured or in need of medical care. The one handicapped person I saw had a job and was obviously respected by his colleagues in the store he worked in. Medical care is free. I don't know how good it is as I've thankfully not needed it, but it is free for everyone.

My mother was in China twenty years ago and there was one style of bicycle in one color that everyone rode. Here there are hundreds of styles of motorbikes, from old and clanky to very fine, and the cars I've seen have all been luxury models.

Our guide here volunteers on a regular basis for forest restoration, in orphanages, and in hospitals. I thought it must be at least semi-compulsary, but no. He says that he is unusual and most people don't. He doesn't have a family and doesn't know what to do with his free time, so he volunteers.

People here are encouraged to have small families, "One or two for better care." There are no penalties, though, if you choose to have a bigger family. This is a newer policy. Our guide, in his early thirties, was one of four children, and his father is one of nine.

There is only one political party allowed, the Communist Party of Viet Nam. They have elections every four years and while there are more than one candidate, they are all part of the same party. Our guide says he does not bother to vote because "it doesn't matter who wins."

Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is venerated. We went to an old king's resort complex and effigy yesterday. While it was not venerated to the same extent, it was protected and open to the public. The old royal complex in Hue is also protected and a popular tourist destination for both Vietnamese and foreigners. Much of it was destroyed in the wars with the French and Americans, and they are rebuilding the old complex, to be opened in 2020. The Thai royal family has built a temple in the complex in honor of the last royal dynasty. There is a movement to protect the history of Viet Nam, even if it does not conform to current ideology.

Disparaging comments about the government are not allowed, and religions are controlled. It used to be an athiest country, I believe, but now certain religions are allowed but not all. Most people are Buddhist, Confuscians, Taoist, or Catholic. There are other religions allowed, but one was working against the government and is now heavily controlled but not completely disallowed, I don't think.

There are Vietnamese flags everywhere, often alongside the communist flag. They just celebrated 80 years of communism on Feb. 3rd, so it may be just part of the celebration. I don't know. They are quite beautiful.

It's a very interesting experience, learning about communism here. Our guide says it's not true communism, more like socialism, and he says the hearts of the Vietnamese are not really communist.

The government is, though.

Thursday, February 11, 2010

Ho Chi Minh and the war

We went to see Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum yesterday. It was an experience that I will never forget. Such ceremony and honor!

The Vietnamese Communist Party venerate Ho Chi Minh and his picture is on every single domination of their money, the Dong. His mausoleum is protected by a great number of men and women (soldiers?) in elegant white uniforms. His mausoleum was built in the Russian style with their help and is a dominating stepped block of gray stone, flanked on the left side with a row of communist flags, red with the yellow sickle in the middle, and on the right side a row of Vietnamese flags, red with a yellow star in the middle. It is impressive.

Everyone must pass through security to go to see Ho Chi Minh. There is a fabulous sign in several languages that insists that people need to wear "serious costumes." A woman came down the row of people waiting to go inside and checked our "costumes." I almost didn't get in. I was wearing a sleeveless shirt, a modest one, but sleeveless. A wonderful Australian woman behind me came to my rescue with a white blouse she let me borrow. No cameras were allowed and no purses, backpacks, or other baggage. Our guide held our things for us, but there was a place to check such things otherwise.

Two by two we filed in to the mausoleum, passing many soldiers that checked that we were following other signs of respect. We weren't allowed to speak once we were inside. Our hands were to be at our sides.

Ho Chi Minh's body is still being displayed. He died in '69, the year I was born, in the midst of the Vietnam War (they call it the American War here.) Our guide said that President Ho wished to be cremated and buried in three different locations, in the north, central, and south of Viet Nam. Unfortunately, they weren't able to honor those wishes because of the war, so they decided to preserve his body instead. The Russians had the technology to do this and helped the Vietnamese. He is kept underground at a certain temperature for most of the day and only brought up for display for a few hours in the morning. One month of a year he is taken off display to have maintenance done. It used to be done in Russia, but the Russians shared their expertise and now the Vietnamese do it themselves.

He looks like he died yesterday.

The mausoleum is a complex of buildings. One is the presidential palace, a beautiful yellow stone French colonial building that our guide called "The Yellow House" that no president lives in. It is for visiting dignitaries. Ho Chi Minh's house is in the complex, too. It is a simple wooden house on stilts, two rooms above, a bedroom and study, and a open air dining room under the stilts. It is also guarded with soldiers in white uniforms and has been lovingly cared for.

Our guide, Ha, told us a story for our amusement about one visiting dignitary that stayed in the "Yellow House." It was a certain President George W. Bush who visited a couple years ago. Apparently he wanted to bring 2000 body guards! There wasn't enough room to accomodate all of them, so they negotiated down to 700. Then, at some point President Bush wanted to go somewhere (I forget where, but it was only a few blocks away.) Any other president, apparently, would have just walked. But no, George W. needed to have a car and an escort and it turned into a parade.

Ah, to be the laughing stock of the world.

After we went to the mausoleum, we went to a Military Museum for the American War. It was a simple museum, not large, with an assortment of helicopters, tanks, destroyed airplanes, and the like on the outside. Inside they showed a movie about the war in English. I've seen so many showing the American perspective that it was fascinating to see the Vietnamese perspective. Apparently, the Vietnamese are very proud of their ability to fend off larger enemies. I've heard it described as a "David and Goliath" syndrome. They fought off China for a thousand years, fought for their independence from France, and then defeated the mighty Americans. They are very proud of themselves.

There was one item on display that I had a visceral reaction to. I am not a paint me red white and blue patriot. I am not terribly proud of my government and their policies, especially recent ones. But I do love my country. It is my home.

They had a captured American flag on display. It was a simple exhibit in the corner of the museum, of all the flags of the "puppet" South Vietnamese government. Among those was an American flag they had captured during some battle during the war.

I wanted to take down that flag, stuff it under my shirt, and take it home with me. (I didn't, of course.)

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

First Impressions of Viet Nam

Good morning, Viet Nam!

I've been here for almost 24 hours, so now I'm an expert, right? I've been to exactly two official places--the airport and our hotel somewhere in Hanoi. I have no idea where. I've been shopping down the streets a bit, saw the lake, and had dinner out.

Quick Takes:

1. Motorcycles and motor scooters! They are the transportation mode of choice, by far, and the streets here are teeming with them. Some are rusted ancient relics that look heavy as sin, but many are fancy brand new and sleek. Most people wear helmets, but not all. About half are driven by single drivers with nothing on them, and the other half have me oggling! I've seen tiny babies propped up in front of their mothers, families of four, and lots of doubled up friends. Mattresses, huge boxes, desks, and mounds of flowers as wide as a car are strapped on any old way. Almost anything you would stick in the trunk of your car is perched about the driver or tied on. It is mind boggling.

2. Western dress. I have no idea what the traditional Vietnamese dress is called, the loose silk pants and long sleeved shirt that goes down past the knee but is split up to the waist. I've seen them, but mostly in my own hotel as a show for tourists, I think. The Vietnamese on the street would blend in just fine on any street in the US. Anything from jeans and T-shirts to tight skirts and heels, with a few business suits thrown in. Since our country is to diverse, take almost any Vietnamese person I've seen today and stick him in downtown Portland, and you couldn't pick him out. Hair styles, too. The only thing I've really seen as different is that the women seem much more inclined to wear high heels.

3. Orange trees. We're going to be here for Tet, the New Year festival, the biggest celebration in Vietnam! I think it starts on Valentine's Day, but I'm not sure yet. Wow! Orange trees and cherry tree branches are the traditional decoration, set up like Christmas trees in your house and decorated with red and gold ornaments that say things on them. I haven't figured out what, yet, but I assume things like "Long life and prosperity." Those orange trees, six feet tall and more, are strapped onto the back of motorcycles to be taken home! It's like the week before Christmas with people strapping trees onto the roof of their cars, except these potted orange trees are on mopeds!

4. Chubby babies. I really thought I'd look like an elephant here, taller and fatter than the average Vietnamese gal on the street. I am taller and fatter than all the gals here, but I am amazed that I'm not as huge as I thought I'd feel. Yes, many of the adult women here are the size of a skinny 5th grader in America, but I've seen chubby people here! And tall people, too. Some of the babies look downright fat! I think the nutrition must be improving to the point where they need to worry about overweight children. It's certainly not the epidemic we have in the US, but there are chubby kids here. Adults, too.

5. Conical hats, double baskets. While motorcylces and scooters dominate the scene here, there are lots of bicycles, too. Most of them are ancient things that you would pay big money for in the states because they are "retro." These old bicycles are mostly driven by old folks that wear those conical straw hats you see in the movies. I love it. I'm sure you've seen in those same movies that long pole with two baskets, one tied on each side, held on the shoulder. Woof! They look heavy. Mostly they carried by women, selling anything from fruit to toys. The loveliest thing by far is a portable restaurant. In one basket is a metal cookstove. The other basket has all the ingredients you need to cook something. These ladies sit down on the sidewalk and set up their restaurant wherever there's a spot. Very cool.

6. Short chairs. If you go into a fancy restaurant or hotel, you get normal sized Western chairs. If you go into a street vendor's stall, you get a tiny plastic chair about a foot high and 6 inches square to sit on.

7. Architecture. Mi'ita and I both said that it looks like Mexico out there. The buildings are old colonial French instead of Spanish, but it's similar.

8. Warning. I have been warned many times not to criticize anything or I may find myself deported or put in jail. Thankfully I haven't found a thing to criticize yet, but I will need to muzzle myself. I have the subtlety of an ox.

Saturday, February 6, 2010

SE Asia

We're leaving for a monthlong trip to Vietnam, Laos, and Thailand tomorrow. It will be Mi'ita, my mother, and I, taking a GAP tour, then visiting my uncle in Thailand who will be showing us around. He married a Thai woman and has lived there off and on for probably 20 years. Mi'ita and I have been trying to learn some Vietnamese for the trip. I must say, I was better at Swahili. (We originally planned on going to Tanzania on Safari, but canceled that trip due to dangerous political conditions.)

My goals for this trip:

1. I hope we all have some fun. I hope my mother enjoys it, especially, and I hope Mi'ita and I don't drive her batty (or vice versa.)

2. Mi'ita and I have already learned a bit about the linguistics of Asian languages--tonal rather than syllabic, lack of articles, formal address for different types of people, etc. I hope we will learn some more.

3. My mother was a young woman during the Vietnam War. She never went, but knew many people who did, and the war was huge for that generation of Americans. I hope that she puts some of her own demons to rest, and I hope that Mi'ita and I learn some about that period of American (and Vietnamese) history.

4. Money! Oh my Lord, it is hard for me to convert dollars to dongs, bahts, euros, or pesos. It will be good math, and I hope Mi'ita is better at it than I am.

5. How to travel. Whether she enjoys traveling or not is of no consequence to me. I hope she learns how to do it well, though. Packing for it, navigating airports, getting along with fellow travelers, figuring out maps and train schedules, learning enough of the local language to get along, bartering at markets, enduring a bit of discomfort, how to be safe from diseases and accidents and "bad guys."

6. Politics. Husband was doing military intelligence during the Cold War, and has definite negative views about communism. I am hoping that she will learn how communism works from the ground (and be less negative herself. After all, capitalism has it's own list of problems.) Also, Thailand is much like England in which they have a mostly figurehead monarchy and a ruling parliament. Unlike England, you can be jailed for even saying something disparaging of the royal family. They are also expected to have a coup attempt while we are there, which my uncle assures us will not be violent. He's lived through 4 or 5 himself. If that's not a crash course on political systems, I don't know what is!

7. I won't be making Mi'ita do any actual academic work while we're there. It's going to be a tremendous education in itself. I will be making her keep a daily journal.