Megan Grandall :: Vietnam
February 15, 2008
Well I am officially writing this from Vietnam, and I cannot believe this experience has actually been real. I have been living in Hanoi now, Vietnam’s capitol city, for one crazy month and time here is definitely flying by. Yes I have had my ups and downs, and yes I have randomly broken out into tears riding the crammed city bus, but I must say that I really love it here and have not been this happy in a very long time. Although I have not gotten used to the constant staring, I am trying to take all of the comments about how much I look like the Virgin Mary as compliments and have learned to wear hoods as much as possible to disguise my blonde hair in a crowd.
Hanoi is a city which I could easily have gotten lost in if it were not for the amazing people surrounding me. Actually, I get physically lost every day, and getting lost is something I have quickly adopted as a new hobby. However, the type of “lost” I am really describing is emotional. I have so much support here from so many wonderful people, and felt the love as soon as my plane landed here. Not only do I have the most understanding boss I could ever imagine who baked me a cake for my 21st birthday and laughs heartily at jokes which are not all that funny, but I have been easily accepted into a Vietnamese family which treats me like one of their own and even expects me to wash the dishes after dinner every night.
Let me first describe my experiences with my internship with Catholic Relief Services, CRS - Vietnam. Already recognizing myself as a very hard worker in the U.S., I have begun to feel a bit lazy in comparison to the local Vietnamese and CRS staff. Even though I wake up Monday through Friday at 7:00 AM, work all day with one lunch break, and often do not return home from work until 7:30 PM, I still feel like I should be completing more tasks or working with more focus. It is not uncommon for staff to stay at work into the night or spend their weekends at the office. I am truly amazed by how hard-working everyone here is.
Luckily, I have been able to complete a few meaningful projects as well as some that I will honestly refer to as tedious busy-work. As an Environmental Studies major at Seattle University, I was very excited when I could edit, i.e. completely re-write, a report on the potential for a Fairtrade coffee program in Vietnam. I was even more excited when I learned that I earned recognition for my work on the front of the report. It feels good to be able to see a finished project that you know will be read widely and eventually help bring some good to the world. The main idea of the report is that Fairtrade certification would work very well in Vietnam’s coffee sector, and it is just a matter of providing coffee farmers with enough training and financial support.
I also got to attend the first Seed Fair to ever take place in Vietnam, which provided maize and peanut seeds to poor farmers whose crops were destroyed by Typhoon Lekima in October, 2007. It went very smoothly, and I even got to chew betel-nut with ethnic Thai women and drink shots of rice-wine between two officials of the Peoples’ Committee of Nghe An province. That was quite the experience. Let me just say that the government officials here are really into providing peer pressure when it comes to drinking everything in your glass, even if you are not into the disgustingly strong flavor. It is a matter of respect and maintaining good relations, which is manageable at dinner time. However, I had to toughen up when breakfast rolled around and I was still being offered alcohol. Gross.
Currently I am working on writing a report on a past project for the Influenza A virus subtype H5N1- or the bird flu. I am honestly feeling a bit in over my head with this task, knowing that my writing will be presented at a large regional conference in Thailand in only three weeks with hundreds of important people in the development world. No pressure or anything, further considering the fact that before last week I knew absolutely nothing about this topic.
With all of this being said, I love everyone at my office even though I cannot understand them most of the time, my boss is very nice and I am definitely learning a lot about how development work actually goes. Let me also add that my life of office work in Vietnam is definitely a stark contrast to the lives of my new backpacking friends romping throughout Southeast Asia. I often find myself feeling envious of their freedoms and adventurous escapades.
When my life is not consumed by my work with CRS, I am honestly living like a local. My host family is really amazing, and it only took a few days before I felt completely at home in their house. I live with a newly married couple, and the wife’s two younger brothers. Luckily for me, the wife comes from a wealthy family and bought her and her husband a rather large and comfortable house. I literally have the entire fifth floor to myself, with a large room, balcony and private bathroom. It is quite different from the bamboo mat I was envisioning in the corner of a dusty one-room shack. I have everything I need here, and receive help in an instant if I need it.
I have easily bonded with the wife, Phuong, who is only 25 years old. I have spent many nights learning how to cook like her, talking about boys and love, teaching her how to put on my makeup and cuddling under the blankets to watch the few movies available on HBO in English with Vietnamese subtitles. She has already shared family secrets with me, and even expressed that I am her best friend. I know we are going to cry when we say goodbye to each other in the end of March.
Another large part of my life here is culinary-related. As a girl who appreciates new and exciting foods, I already have developed quite the extensive list of “frighteningly exotic” and “wonderfully exquisite” foods. On the first list, I have successfully checked off dog meat, eggs containing developed duck fetuses, processed meat made of pig ears, cheeks and tongues, frog legs, mushroom stew with a blood-clot base, pig intestines, goat-meat spring rolls and most recently some type of mystery animal testicles. On the more enjoyable list, I have checked off tons of new juicy tropical fruits, all forms of sweet sticky rice and steamed leafy green vegetables, various hot noodle soups and a special drink called “che”, which is eaten with a spoon and contains ice, fruit pieces, colorful jellies, frozen corn, red beans and coconut shavings. I have only had it once and have been craving it ever since.
In conclusion, this has been the most amazing experience of my life. I feel challenged here, not just with my internship but with the task of fitting into a new culture. I have had the opportunity to really observe and analyze Vietnamese society, not only noticing key injustices and management flaws but realizing the value of living in a community and family-oriented society, much different from that of the US. I have witnessed many things which have made me worry and have made me laugh, and my eyes have basically been opened to a whole new world. In my next post I will discuss my societal observations more closely, and will hopefully be able to provide a success story about my upcoming report on Avian Influenza. Wish me luck!
March 12, 2008
Experience of Sounds
Now that my time in Vietnam is coming to a close, I am realizing how difficult it is to put my everyday experiences into words. Therefore, I thought it would be interesting to let the sounds I hear throughout my day paint a picture of Vietnamese culture and my brief time in the heart of it. While some sounds tell stories of unfortunate social injustices, others tell stories which are just plain comical. Maybe through these sounds I can begin to describe life as a Hanoian.
The first night with my host family, I was woken up by the sounds of a neighboring husband beating his wife. I guess that is what can happen when houses in Hanoi are so crammed together they often share walls. It was an eye-opening experience and a terrible way to spend a first night. However, it definitely gave me insight into the world of Vietnamese gender roles. A woman at my office describe to me that although men and women have recently become equal in terms of laws and policies, there has been little change within the minds of men, who expect their wives to cook, clean and be subservient. On my first night I quickly learned that violence can be part of the equation as well, and I got a frightening taste of what can happen behind closed doors between husbands and their wives.
It also did not take me too long to realize that the constant barrage of traffic noise truly affects my psyche. Noise pollution is a major problem in Hanoi, as the amount of traffic is out of control and poorly regulated. The sound of car and motorbike horns is constant, and the only time the city sounds peaceful is in the dead of night. Some clever young boys have even equipped their motorbikes with horns that sound like ambulance sirens or car crashes. I have also noticed that the rich Hanoians often over-use their horns, to the point where I am convinced they are merely on power trips. Interestingly, the few cars in Hanoi are often expensive, such as Mercedes Benz or BMW’s, while the poor majority of people have a hard enough time affording a motorbike.
I have also noticed how the rich like to demonstrate their wealth in other ways, taking advantage of the numerous “VIP” rooms in restaurants. In fact, “VIP” is an English phrase I was surprised to discover is used often, and I have even seen VIP rooms in the most run-down chair-less cafeterias – a reminder of the large gap that exists between the rich and the poor. When you mix the Vietnamese driving style and the inflated egos of those few men who can afford cars, you get the traffic sounds that only Hanoi can offer. Personally, the noise pollution has become unbearable, and I cannot imagine how it affects those who are born and raised here, completely unable to escape it.
I have also realized there is nothing like waking up to songs of political propaganda to remind me that I am living in a communist country. If I am lucky enough to spend the night in the countryside, I either get to experience the joys of government loudspeakers, roosters crowing or a combination of the two before the clock strikes 5 AM. Throughout Vietnam, loudspeakers are placed in strategic locations within communes that blast political songs each morning to wake up the masses for work. The playlist usually begins with the Vietnamese National Anthem, followed by music to accompany calisthenics routines. The music is loud and intense. I am very thankful that the nearest loudspeaker to my host-family’s house is a few blocks away - just enough distance for me to sleep through it.
On most days, shortly after I wake up, I then get to hear the dreadful sounds of men spitting. The spitting here is unlike anything I have ever witnessed. It is deeper in the throat, more vulgar and more common. It also has to do with the high numbers of cigarettes smoked by most Vietnamese men. After being here for two months I have come to expect the sound and gained some insight into the ways of personal presentation here. Spitting in Vietnam is not rude, and neither is burping or public nose-picking. In fact, many men in Vietnam grow out one or a few of their fingernails, and I have seen men with nails as long as three to four inches. A co-worker explained to me that these long nails are strictly for “digging” purposes, nose-digging in particular. I have also seen teenage boys on the sidewalk helping each other squeeze their pimples, along with old women picking through each other’s hair for lice. The highlight was when a co-worker began clipping his toe-nails at his desk behind me. I could hear his nail-clippings hitting the walls and I had to get up and leave for fear of them getting caught in my hair. These experiences have definitely required some getting used to.
I have also gotten a hang of the city bus, realizing I can have a most enjoyable morning commute if I ditch the hope of getting a seat and listen to my iPod to drown out the blaring Vietnamese pop music. Not to offend anyone who may be a fan, but I have realized that it is not my kind of music. When you mix vocals that always sound a bit off key, cheesy synthesized backgrounds and a tonal language, it is not the most ear-pleasing experience. I tried to give the music a chance during my first month of bus rides, but I recently decided that Vietnamese pop-music is a wild world that I will never conquer.
Then, if I close my eyes during meals and hear past the boisterous conversation, I also always hear the smacking of lips and slurping of noodles. There is a whole differently style of eating in Vietnam. Everyone eats fast, holding their bowls up to their mouths and literally shoveling the rice in with their chopsticks. Lucky for me I had proficient chopstick abilities before coming here, and I have come to really enjoy Vietnamese meals and their communal style. There is always plenty of steamed rice, along with three to six dishes, usually vegetables, meat, fish, eggs, tofu or noodles. All of the dishes are placed in the middle of the table and shared by everyone. Then, after dinner there is always fruit and green tea for dessert. I recently conducted a personal experiment and tried to eat at the same pace as everyone else, but that only left me with stomach aches. I decided to settle with my “always-the-last-one-finished awkwardness” instead. I am really going to miss authentic Vietnamese food, but the International District of Seattle is definitely the next best thing.
I also never go a day without hearing people break out into song at least once. In the mornings and evenings, Vietnamese women sing songs of advertisement through the street as they push their carts of fruit or bread. When I went to a “hot-pot party” with about thirty university students, the game of the night was for one boy who was dubbed “MC” to randomly choose a friend to sing for the whole crowd. Nobody was ever shy about being chosen, except for me when my turn came around. I just kept thinking how my friends would never be interested in such a game! I also get asked by young children on a regular basis to sing for them, and I have adopted Britney Spears “Baby One More Time” and “Twinkle-Twinkle Little Star” as reliable favorites. I have become so comfortable with singing out loud that my new hobby is to make up songs on my walk home from the bus stop. I never worry if people are judging me, because everyone else does it too. I wonder how it will be accepted if I try to continue this new game when I return home?
Finally, when night falls I usually drift asleep to the sounds of make-shift brooms sweeping the streets clean. These sounds provide a glimpse of Vietnamese waste management and all of its flaws. Along with the terrible traffic, the thing I have found disturbing living in Hanoi has been the pollution. Since the Vietnamese economy opened in 1986, Hanoi has been developing at a rapid pace while its waste management system seems to be stuck in the past. While most people wear face masks while they are outside to protect themselves from the air pollution, garbage cans are non-existent once you exit the few districts designated for tourists. It is common practice to throw your trash on the street and in the ditch. The solid garbage remains in piles on the sidewalks all day, until it is swept up by the street-sweepers who come out at night. At least the garbage is made available all day to those who make a living by collecting the glass, plastic and cardboard. If you look close enough, it is a common sight to see people digging through Hanoi’s many garbage piles.
Even worse, the liquid waste is never contained as it makes its way from the industry and household, through the ditch and into the nearest surface water body. For locals, Hanoi is part-famous for its “Black River”, a heavily polluted river running around the city and out of the eyes of tourists. The many lakes in Hanoi are also heavily polluted, despite their beauty from afar. The most disturbing part about these polluted water bodies is the fact that they are still used for fish cultivation, while the fish are sold at local markets. My host-mom, Phuong, described how foods are never labeled at outdoor markets, where most poor families buy their daily food. How are people to know if their fish come from polluted waters or their vegetables come from pesticide-laden fields? How can people take control of their diets and the diets of their families’ without such information?
While I have made life-long friends in Vietnam and have had the time of my life, I cannot help but notice so many things I wish would change. If Hanoi is going to keep developing at this pace, practices and policies need to be developing along with it. It is so unfortunate that this is often just not the case. I hope that by explaining the sounds I hear throughout my days in Hanoi I could help to describe my experiences. I feel confident that I will return to Hanoi in the future, but I worry that the problems I have noticed will only become worse with time if nothing changes, and this breaks my heart.