One of my favorite experiences was a little ritual our culture professor did with us one day on our class break at 9:30 in the morning. Our professor, Nguyen Manh Hong and his neighbor are versed in the special skill of making rice wine. An explanation is necessary here. Vietnamese rice wine should not be confused with the Japanese drink called sake. It is not the same. Actually it is not wine it is distilled spirits made from rice. It takes one kilo of rice (2 ½ lbs.) to make almost a liter of homemade rice wine with about sixty to seventy percent alcohol. In the store off the shelf it is only forty percent. The ritual proceeded as follows; the wine was poured into small glasses a little larger than a shot glass. The wine was also poured into a saucer and lit on fire…it gets better. A cut open, flattened, and partially dried squid, including the tentacles was clamped into a hand grill like you could use to cook a sandwich over an open fire. The squid was then completely dried and almost toasted, but not quite. Again it is a special skill. At that point the tentacles were offered to the elder. In this case me. The elder eats before anyone else. Then the first glass was consumed…bottoms up, with a nice long ahhhhhhh afterward followed by smacking the lips to be sure and get all the flavor. After the first glass the wine was sipped and the squid was consumed and then we went back to class. Talk about bringing culture right to class! I have to say I like that guy.
In Viet Nam rice wine is a cultural part of many of the ethnic minorities as well. There are 54 ethnic groups in Viet Nam, the largest of which are the Kinh also known as the Viet. These are the people we interact with in the cities and the ones we see the most as they comprise about 86% of the population of Viet Nam. The Viet are the glue that has pulled all the groups together when solidarity has been needed to defend their homeland against foreign invaders. The different ethnic groups of Viet Nam are accepted as part of the overall culture. While we were in Ha Noi we visited the Viet Nam Museum of Ethnology where the different minorities are represented. One of the inescapable things that happened there was school children. The museum had an endless flow, busload after busload, of fifth graders. Obviously the educators in Viet Nam see the importance of teaching the children about all of the ethnic richness of their country. One of the things that all of the school kids found very interesting was the one white guy in the building…me. It seemed they all wanted to practice the four English words they could say, “Hello, how are you.” I felt like a living display in the museum as I waived and answered them. I lost track of my wife Bernie and was the display of the lone westerner.
In writing to people at home I have said many times that Viet Nam is a land of paradox. We have seen and helped very poor people. We also see evidence of overindulgence. There are very large and fancy restaurants in Da Nang whose sole purpose is the wedding party. These make the party house in and around Rochester New York look like a shack. I cannot imagine the wedding of a farming family in Quang Nam province being performed in these places. An important question for a young woman about to get married is, “can you be a good daughter in law.” The reason is that once she is married she moves in with her husband’s family. It can be different for young people living in a different city than their families, but for those in the villages, this is the custom. In Viet Nam there are many stories about mother and daughter in law as you may imagine. Of course the younger woman is always supposed to be respectful to her mother in law. Young women consider themselves lucky when they have a good relationship with their mother in law.
One of the things I have quietly enjoyed in the culture of Viet Nam is the respect for elders. This lines up with the Native American culture and respect for the elders. It is because they have the most experience, have lived the longest, and are the next to die and join the ancestors. When my wife Bernie arrived here and was interacting with the students at a coffee shop after class I became aware of how I often defer to elder status. Vietnamese people have what I call the seating ritual. When we come into a café or restaurant in a large group, tables and chairs have to be rearranged. I stand out of the way of moving furniture and the language which I do not speak. Then when all is ready someone says to me, “Sit here.” Our Vietnamese friends are very mindful of where they seat me at the table because I am an elder.
Respect for the elders is ingrained in the culture of Viet Nam as well as respect and reverence for the ancestors. The religion of the people may be Catholic, Buddhist, or Hindu they still honor the ancestors in a way that is referred to as ancestor worship. The worship of the ancestors under lays the culture of Viet Nam regardless of the religion. I have seen the ancestor alter in a prominent place of honor in every home I have visited. There may be pictures of the person who has passed on as well as items that person may have enjoyed in this life. There is an incense holder and incense is lit whenever communication with the ancestor is desired. It is expected that the ancestors will be informed of all important events within the family. People learn the way of honoring the ancestors from their parents so there is no one way that it has to be done. During Tet it is important for people to go back home to celebrate with the whole family, which includes the ancestors. The ancestors live in the spirit world of gods and deities and there is the chance that they might bring good luck to the living family members.
The hope for good luck is everywhere in the culture of Viet Nam. A light rain on the first day of Tet is considered good luck. It is good luck if a man is the first person you see when leaving the house on the first day of Tet. To have all of the aspects of Tet point to good luck in the coming year is very good luck indeed and it is what all Vietnamese people wish for. My personal experiences at the Pagoda on the first day of Tet all indicated a year of good health and good relationship with my wife. After last year I will take all of the good luck I can get, and there is no better place than Viet Nam to come get some good luck.
It was lucky for me that I read all I could about Viet Nam before coming here. The reading was a good prelude to my experience. I have made it a point to always be polite and humble in my interactions with the Vietnamese people. When first meeting someone here there is certain personal information one should be prepared to share; my name, age, whether or not I am married, how many children I have, are they married, are there grandchildren, what is my job, and why am I in Viet Nam. When these personal things are shared the people become more relaxed because they have begun to know who I am. The Vietnamese are excellent judges of character and authenticity. If I am not being authentic they will see right through me immediately. Many Vietnamese people understand the use of physiognomy as insight to a person’s integrity. Physiognomy is the art of reading the facial features to determine personal characteristics. In other words who I am is quite literally written all over my face for all to see.
The people look for harmony and balance in their everyday lives and I have attempted to model my behavior on what I see the people doing. There is nothing like sharing food and beer with a group of brilliant young Vietnamese professional people. What sounds like a simple meal is a wonderfully colorful adventure into the personal lives of a dynamic and incredibly friendly group of people, and knowing that the intimacy goes both ways. Mot, hai, ba, YO!
Next vacation drink beautiful Viet Nam
Hen gap lai