No, this is not about the war that people assume. On the 30th anniversary of reunification, I stand on the frontlines of the more insidious war – the culture war.
Yesterday, I managed to fit in a few tourist stops including the Temple of Literature and the Museum of Ethnology. The Temple of Literature is essentially a shrine to the importance of education in the Vietnamese culture, including records in stone of each person who had passed the third and final test to become a Mandarin in the ancient courts. It is interesting that the culture comes close to worshiping education, and I found it rather congruent with the academic success of Vietnamese in the U.S.
The Museum of Ethnology is Vietnam’s attempt at dealing with their minority people groups (around 54 distinct groups) that make up approximately 16% of the population. Typical of most countries (including the U.S.), the Viet majority have a relatively racist attitude to these mostly poor and marginalized groups that live in the highlands throughout the country. However, because of their colorful traditions due to time passing them by, the minorities are now a major driver of tourism in Vietnam. Many of my days and nights on my motorcycle trip were spent in minority areas, including the Hmong, Thai, Tay, and Dao groups. From my observations and from some information gleaned from others and the museum, the minorities are in a "change-or-stay-impoverished" dilemma, similar to what the Native Americans in the U.S. went through and are still going through. Vietnam hasn’t approved gambling casinos yet for these groups, so right now there only options are to make their villages into a Disneyland experience (Sa Pa is coming close to this) or stay on the outside of the growing economy here in Vietnam. Most men feel they are discriminated against when looking for jobs or trying to trade on market days, which is why they, for the most part, have abandoned traditional attire for the regular pop culture wardrobe. However, the women stay true to the traditions and try to keep their culture alive and well. Education is improving, as schools have been built by the government, aid agencies (Oxfam and UNICEF are two I noticed), and other organizations such as the travel agency that organized my motorcycle trip. So things are looking up, but the unique cultures are in danger of extinction as the younger generation is exposed to the outside through this education (good influence) and TV (bad influence). It is the same the world over. No matter how impoverished a village is, not matter how empty the lowliest shack is, there is a TV. And it is on all the time.
Most of you who know me realize that I am not a big fan of the boob tube. All it seems to do is leave everyone with a desire for what they see – fancier clothes, cars, gadgets, money, etc. Here in Vietnam they have copies of game shows popular in the U.S., including The Price is Right, Wheel of Fortune, and Who Wants to be a Millionaire. Copies faithful down to the smallest details, including sets, lights, and music. But think about what these shows are selling. And the sad fact is that this culture is winning. They may be celebrating the end of capitalistic military occupation today, but they are losing their unique culture as people tune in to TV and tune out to the family and community activities that enrich the relationships and inter-personal learning that forms the fabric of a culture.
As a non-scientific sample, I now need to relate my experience of yesterday afternoon/evening. After a nice shower, I head off to dinner hoping to find someone to share it with. I am unsuccessful, so I enjoy a nice meal while writing in my journal. Then another American sits at the table next to me and when I ask if she would like to share a table and conversation, she says she would prefer to read her book. No problem. Just a little strange to me now that I’ve been in a country for over a week where everyone is anxious to meet new people. Then I go over to a book seller and xe om drive that Susan had befriended and introduced me to. I ask him to take me to a Bia Hoi place, which is where locals congregate after work and sit around drinking Bia Hoi – draft beer (ridiculously cheap) with no preservatives that is only good for one night. In the smaller communities, folks drink till the beer runs out. Here in Hanoi, it seems that the beer never runs out, but maybe I just don’t stay long enough! Anyway, Lam drops me off and returns to his job, while I’m left standing by myself, obviously alone and confused as to where I should sit. Then a man at a table with his three friends invite me over to sit, drink, and eat over the typical personal conversations that I’ve had with Vietnamese. They don’t chit chat – their first questions are very personal as they want to develop a familiar relationship as fast as possible. Are you married? How old are you? Any brothers and sisters? Each question is followed by intelligent, probing questions that get down to the heart of who you are. So after an hour, I left with a mighty fine buzz, three new friends, and an invitation for the following night before I head down to Hue. Then I meet Lam, his friend, and Susan for a delayed celebration of her Birthday. Though neither Lam or his friend speak great English, we still managed to have open, honest, and fun conversation that felt like I was amongst true friends. This is why I love Vietnam and why I hope they don’t completely lose the culture war.
Tonight I say a sad farewell to Hanoi and head down to Hue, 15-16 hours on an overnight bus. I’m not looking forward to it, but who knows, maybe I’ll get to sit next to a new friend.