Tag Archives: Vietnam

Vietnam Observations

Debbie says:

All countries have contradictions; countries that have been the subject of centuries of colonization and invasion are even more subject to confusions of identity and values. Please take this blog post in the spirit of what I noticed and what surprised me, not as a judgment on the country I found so welcoming (and where I am aware that I barely scratched the surface of the culture).

Everywhere we went in Vietnam (Hanoi, Da  Nang, Hue, the Central Mekong Delta, and Saigon), we saw these two flags: the flag of the country on the left, and the hammer and sickle of the Vietnamese Communist Party on the right.

“Communist country” covers a range of expectations — but my jaw nearly hit the floor when our guide, the son of a North Vietnamese Army soldier, said that the country has no health insurance. He and his wife have employer-paid health insurance, but the government provides none. “If a farmer gets sick, he might have to sell his water buffalo.” This is, of course, tantamount to selling his livelihood. I had no conception of Communism that doesn’t include basic human needs being met by the state.

A couple of days later, at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang, the same guide told us that the Cham people (a Muslim ethnic group which has largely migrated out of Vietnam to Cambodia and elsewhere) do have government-paid health care. On further questioning, it turns out that the Cham people put up a significant enough protest to get some basic care. It seems to me that this must create some contemporary inter-ethnic resentment, beyond the centuries-old conflicts, but the guide didn’t want to talk about that. He’s a tourist guide, it’s his job to tell the truth but not dwell on the rougher aspects.


On the whole, the Vietnamese seem fairly prosperous, and very committed to what they call “the free market,” because they can’t call it capitalism in an officially Communist country. Vietnam was united as an independent country in 1975, and until 1991 received a good deal of support and subsidy from the Soviet  Union. When the Soviet Union fell and the support evaporated, Communist values like basic income, health care, and real equality for women seem to have disappeared as well. “We are ashamed of Cuba,” said our guide cheerfully when asked, apparently because Cuba offers too much to its citizens for free, and therefore doesn’t encourage a work ethic.

I wrote from Vietnam about the expectations placed on women in the country today, and the stark contrast between the all-too-familiar 21st century “do it all” role of hold a job, and care for the children (and care for the husband’s parents, and the house, and the external religious life of the household). Ho Chi Minh, who fought for (some) gender equality in his army, would have called for similar equality in home responsibilities — but then, he also wanted to be cremated. Instead, his embalmed body is on display in central Hanoi, and respectful visitors (tourists and Vietnamese citizens) file past it every day, instructed not to wear shorts or flip-flops. I wonder whether Ho’s reaction would be laughter, sadness, or both combined.

The Vietnamese are hard-core gamblers; famous worldwide for their love of the tables. Gambling is (almost) illegal in Vietnam, however. Foreign countries have established casinos on the beautiful beaches near some of the big cities–and only people with foreign passports can play. Like the health care of the Cham people, this inevitably must cause resentment, especially if locals work in the casinos, which seems inevitable.

Vietnam is a beautiful, friendly place, where most of the children you see on the streets seem well-fed and happy, where the flowers abound especially before the Tet (New Year’s) festival, when all businesses stop and virtually everyone connects with their family and local community. Oh, and during the five days of Tet, the ban on gambling is lifted.

I am excruciatingly aware of what a comparable post by a Vietnamese person visiting the U.S. might say about my country. Today on the bus in Oakland, it struck me that I saw no tent encampments by the side of the streets of any Vietnamese city. If anyone knows any more about Vietnamese culture and can deepen any of this, please let me know in the comments.


Vietnam Women’s Museum: A Multifaceted Perspective

Debbie says:

Heroic Mothers of Vietnam

I am on a pleasure trip to Vietnam (a fascinating place). When we were in Hanoi, I had the opportunity to visit the Women’s Museum. Vietnam is not a country with much women’s equality: our middle-class Vietnamese tour guide (from Hanoi) talks freely about how all housework, child care, and maintenance of ancestor worship traditions are women’s responsibility (even though his wife also works full time). He tells us that when women marry, they transfer all of their family obligations to the man’s family–and that prospective fiancees are expected to cook for the man’s family — and wash the dishes — the first  time they come to meet the parents. (When the man meets the woman’s parents, he is treated as a guest — and his prospective fiancee makes the meal and washes the dishes.)

However, as in all relatively prosperous developing countries, the women are rising and things are changing. The very existence of the Women’s Museum surprised and pleased me, and the place itself was a real treat.

The museum has four floors of exhibition space: one is devoted to traditional Vietnamese culture, with a lot of information on the different Vietnamese ethnic groups and their (somewhat) different marriage and birth customs. One is devoted to fashion, both historical and contemporary. Both of those floors are worth your time, should you be in Hanoi.

pig and piglets by Xuan Lam

The fourth floor is for special exhibitions. When I was there, the exhibition was “Rendezvous Between the Old and the New,” contemporary folk paintings by Xuan Lam, like the delightful pig and piglets above. These paintings evoke traditional art for Tet (Vietnamese Lunar New Year) and also a delightful modern sensibility. Seeing about 20 of them together put me in a good mood all day.

Brave Tran Thi Tam, devoted to her people and her nation.

Even Xuan Lam’s paintings paled, for me, in comparison with the floor devoted to Vietnamese women war heroes, from traditional times, from the French War, and from the American War (which in the U.S. we call the “Vietnamese War”). This exhibit begins with the picture from the top of this post, of women who lost more than one child, their only child, their husband and one child, or their own lives, in the American War. They were declared heroes in a ceremony in 1994, and many of them are pictured in the museum.

The large exhibit on that floor is devoted to individual women — dozens of them — soldiers, leaders, journalists, nurses, organizers. We see their photos, their paraphernalia, and sometimes posters made of them, like the one pictured above.

I have never been in a museum anywhere in the world which showcased this large a number of women as fighters, or which provided this wide a range of the ways women fought in a dreadful conflict.

Outside the museum is a sign which says “We know the grass ceiling better than the glass ceiling.” The day is coming — soon — when Vietnamese women will be in the forefront of breaking that grass ceiling. I hope I get to see it.