Coming from Boston, you’d think we’d be used to crazy traffic and pedestrian behavior. Boston is an Eden compared to Vietnamese cities, where the intensity of the traffic takes your breath away. Most people ride motor bikes (due to the high cost of cars and huge taxes imposed on the purchase). Many wear face masks to protect against pollution. Sometimes a family of four, or two people,supplies, and a dog, pile onto a single bike. Other times, it’s a single rider, with an over-sized stack of product tied to the back of the bike, towering over him or her and extending two feet on either side. Their balancing skills are prodigious.
Pedestrians are at a distinct disadvantage. There are few cross walks and even fewer traffic signals. Those that exist are ignored. Once you start crossing, you must walk straight ahead and assume the traffic will swerve to avoid you. Traffic accidents and fatalities, I am told, are common. Changing your pace or showing trepidation is an invitation to disaster. There’s a constant tooting of horns, but we saw no expression of driver road rage or even swearing. With a guide on one side of me and my husband on the other, I practically closed my eyes and let them propel me across the street.
Walking through the Old Quarter of Hanoi, its narrow streets going back more than five centuries, you pick your way among the street sellers, people young and old selling everything from spring rolls and dumplings they’re steaming or frying, to fruits and vegetables they’ve grown, to stacks of enough shoes to make Imelda Marcos envious. Often they’re squatting on tiny plastic stools, eating a meal, paying little attention to passers-by.
The women farm in the countryside and come into the city to sell their produce, staying for up to two weeks in rooming houses, ten women to a room. They may have little more than $20 profit to show for their labor. Private enterprise has been allowed by the Communist government only since 1986, and the people take advantage of the opportunity. They are industrious and entrepreneurial. You are expected to bargain, but they earn so little it’s hard to feel right about haggling to reduce already-low prices.
When you leave the cities, the beauty of the landscape is inescapable. As far as the eye can see are rice paddies, always being worked by farmers up to their knees in water, their bend-from-the-waist position an orthopedist’s dream in our country. Typically, they wear traditional conical hats (“Non la”) woven of palm leaves with bamboo.
Elsewhere jungle-covered hills and mountains are eerie reminders of wartime settings enabling Viet Cong guerrillas to hide and slip from one attack place to another. It’s wet and humid even in the non-rainy season. American troops struggled in these conditions, getting supplies dropped in by helicopter whenever the dense cloud cover lifted. Even without the scars of defoliation, ghosts of the war are everywhere.
Rising from bays and narrow waterways are towering limestone karsts, looming peaks sometimes inhabited by birds and monkeys. Beneath the karsts, it was remarkable to explore caves in the Ninh Binh nature reserve in a tiny bamboo boat rowed by a hard-working woman of indeterminate age with sinewy hands and back, head protected from sun and rain by the ubiquitous conical hat.
The still-Communist country has lifted its ban on religious practices, which continued in various forms even during the darkest years after the North defeated the South. The Vietnamese are steeped in their founding mythology, dragons, sea monsters and evil omens. Even cosmopolitan young professionals believe in numerology and consult with seers for advice on good dates for events like getting married or launching a new business.
There are 54 ethnic groups in the country, many still practicing folk religions, but the dominant faith is Buddhism, honored in pagodas across the country. There, local people come to pray, light incense sticks and deposit offerings of fresh flowers and fruits. More omnipresent than pagodas are temples, honoring guardian spirits, whether Confucian, Taoist, royal or personal. Remarkable are the tombs in Hue, offering tribute to kings and emperors from dynasties long ago. There are almost always steep stone stairs leading upward to the structures (in one I counted well over 130 steps), and rarely are there hand railings. That I survived that challenge was itself a kind of religious experience. (Caption this photo “grunt and groan.”)
Buddhism embraces non-violence and compassion, and I found myself wondering if that accounts for the friendliness of Vietnamese people and even the benign attitude of drivers as they inexorably compete for space on crowded roads.
Consistent with their religious beliefs, the Vietnamese have deep respect for ancestors. Even the most modest private homes usually have small altars guaranteeing constant awareness of deceased family members, to whom prayers are offered. Some cemetery plots in the countryside include structures resembling small temples, even in sodden rice paddies.
A Confucian tradition is manifest in respect for elders both dead and alive. Extended families live together, with additions to homes built as each son or daughter marries and a spouse moves in. Respect for elders is given far more than lip service, and it is taken for granted that, as parents and grandparents age and become infirm, the younger generation will take care of them. One of our guides was perplexed that our grown children didn’t live close enough to care for us if we become incapable of being independent. That, dear reader, is a discussion for later. Much later.