Viet Nam Culture
The children of the Dragon and the Fairy will steal your heart and smile sweetly as they ask, “When will you come back to Viet Nam?” The Vietnamese myth of the Dragon and the Fairy has colored all of my interactions with the people of Viet Nam. I have been reminded by my friends that it is just a story. In my life I have learned that when I embrace the spirit of the myth I open myself to a transformative experience. It is from that place that I share with you, the culture and the people of Viet Nam.
From the very beginning my experience coming into the culture of Viet Nam was that of being sincerely welcomed. The passport check and customs officers were genuinely curious about me being a student, given my age. In Viet Nam it is not normal to be a student at the age of sixty-four. This was a taste of the curiosity of the Vietnamese people in general. Even though I had read everything I could about current day Viet Nam it was not the same as looking into the face of a Vietnamese person as she welcomed me to her country with quiet pride.
The inquisitive nature of the people of Viet Nam and more specifically of Da Nang came through to me very clearly on my second day here. I was out walking down the alley close to our house. A man close to my age, walked up to me, stopped me and touched the tattoos on my arms. He nodded, gave me a grinning “thumbs up” and walked away. Not a word was spoken and yet we had a wonderful brief moment of communication. Obviously he wanted to know what tattoos felt like. It never occurred to me that this man was anything but curious. I have had many similar situations since those first few days. When my wife Bernie was here, she always felt safe walking by herself in Viet Nam. She does not say that about walking by herself at home in America. In Viet Nam around the Vietnamese people we feel very safe. That is a very positive reflection on the people of Viet Nam. When I walk down the tiny alleys, I am in their neighborhood and since everything is so close I am practically in their house.
In previous conversations with friends back home I have described Viet Nam as, “a land of amazing people, awesome beauty, incredible paradise and inconceivable paradox.” While in Viet Nam I have learned to see paradox as a normal part of everyday life. In my experience, the Vietnamese people are intensely curious and painfully shy. They will come alive and reveal themselves in small groups, and volunteer nothing in a classroom full of their peers. The Vietnamese smile has its own contextual language that is bewildering to me if I am not paying close attention. I have seen the smile mean joy, shyness, embarrassment, anger, and slyness, or as one young lady said, “We smile when we are trying to trick you.” And there is the Vietnamese sense of humor. Everyone I have met in Viet Nam loves a good laugh. Many times I have been a great source of amusement to our Vietnamese friends. My stumbling attempts to use the language have typically gotten quite a laugh. Here is another place where paradox shows up because even when I have been the source of amusement, as an elder, I have never felt as though they respect me less.
I have always felt completely included when I have been doing things with Vietnamese people. The problems that I have with my hearing has often been an issue, however the Vietnamese people I have been with are infinitely patient and will continue to find ways to communicate until they succeed. This speaks to the determination, creativity, and tenacity of the people of Viet Nam. I have been making a Jeff Foxworthy like joke that goes, “If you know how many cases of beer your motorbike can carry you might be Vietnamese.” I am really only half joking because my last quick count was 20 cases of beer, and for most Vietnamese people the motorbike is how things get where they have to go. My little joke looses something in the cultural translation. The thing that people do not get about this little joke is that it is my way of honoring Vietnamese creativity. Another example is “Ho Chi Minh sandals.” On my first trip to Viet Nam I took home a pair of these and wore them until I wore them out. To my mind these are a symbol of Vietnamese resourcefulness and creativity with a bit of their sense of humor thrown in. Very simply, these were sandals made from discarded American military tires and, during the American war sold back to Americans! I always thought that was the funniest thing I ever heard. During this trip I had the opportunity to have an updated pair of these sandals, complete with a personalized fitting. It is just not the same as knowing I was wearing something, sold to me by a Vietnamese person that use to be on an American military vehicle.
On many occasions our program staff displayed this inclusivity complete with the invitation into all of their homes during Tet, the most sacred time of the year for the people of Viet Nam. That was inclusivity which, in my opinion goes above and beyond the call of duty. For these wonderful children of the Dragon and the Fairy it seemed so normal and natural. There were two other times when I felt included by individuals on our program staff. Both of these were very special for me because they involved what I consider to be personal spiritual practices. The first was with Xuan on our trip to Marble Mountains shortly after our arrival here. About one quarter of the way up the mountain is a series of Buddhist Alters. Xuan got the incense, made her prayers, placed the incense and passed what was left on to Victor. He made his prayers, placed the incense and passed what was left to me. I was in such a state of awed thankfulness and gratitude that, those were my prayers. It was a simple, “this is what we are doing and of course you are part of it.” I chose to see it as a simple yet powerful message that I have been included into a special place in this person’s life.
The paradox of Viet Nam is, there is no paradox, it is just life
Next vacation visit beautiful Viet Nam
Hen gap lai
An (a Vietnamese name that was given to me)