Vietnam upfront – you never would have Nguyễn it

It’s been 7 months living and breathing Vietnam, with a touch of Laos and Thailand. I still have a ‘what the hell Vietnam’ moment most days which only increases my curiosity and understanding of the culture’s intricacies. Whether it’s a swan lake performance at a Vietnamese wedding or being gifted the chicken head and feet for my birthday, there is always something to laugh about.

Here’s my latest insights:

1. The street seller is the rawest form of business to be admired

Street sellers are trade in its most pure and honest form. The farmers who bring their produce straight to the market cut out all middle-men in the value chain. Street-side food stores buy their goods direct from the markets, reducing the value-chain to 2 parties. No land ownership is required and all their assets can be contained within the one mobile cart, or packed onto a motorbike. Minimising parties involved in bringing goods from the producer to the consumer maximises profits and reduces complexities. This laborious and time-consuming business practice is predominantly a woman’s business and is relied on as the sole form of income by many Vietnamese families.  The Vietnamese Government’s current ‘clear the footpath’ campaign is denying many families of their income, forcing street sellers to pack up their business and move elsewhere. Have no fear, the street sellers will always return the next day in the hope that the police will not.

2. The difference between poor and rich is stark

17.2% of Vietnam still lives under the poverty line of $48 AU (VND 871,308)/capita/month (World Bank and Vietnam General Statistics Office 2012). At the same time, Vietnam has the highest per capita ownership rate of Rolls Royce and Bentleys. With a tax of more than 90% on cars, this brings their average price to $2million US. The government’s focus on growing the economy through rapid industrialisation had led to growing inequality, soaring inflation and social discontent. The disparity between poor and rich is obvious when beggars and 5-star hotels line the same street.

3. The crucial role of the scavengers

At the centre of waste sorting is scavengers, those who sort through bins for valuable recyclable items. They may be labelled as poor beggars and be looked down upon by society, yet they should be appreciated for their diligence and contribution to sustainability. The recycling industry, and the environment, relies on these local waste heroes. It takes less than 5% of the energy to create a can from recycled aluminium, in comparison to a can from raw materials. Waste has incredible resource potential, and economic opportunity.

4. You are what you eat, and what you eat eats (or gets sprayed with) 

Chemical fertilisers, pesticides and antibiotics plague the agriculture industry and threaten your food safety. Whilst they are financially convenient for crop and livestock growth in the short term, they are deadly to human health, soil longevity, water quality and air quality. Unsafe food accounts for 35% of cancer cases in Vietnam. In the first half of 2011 there were 3,000 cases of pesticide poisoning with over 100 deaths (Department of Ministry of Health). Whilst food safety is highly un-regulated in Vietnam and carries higher risks, all countries are susceptible to the effects of agrochemicals and contaminated food. Do you know where your food comes from and how it has been grown?

5. Ask why

The traditional Vietnamese Communist education system does not support students to ask ‘why’. There is a set way of doing things and little grey area; you are either right or wrong and challenging the teacher is regarded as disrespectful. This institutionalised sense of right and wrong is evident in daily life. I will be corrected in the kitchen if I do not cut my carrots into flowers, corrected whilst eating lunch if I do not eat the dishes in the correct order, and corrected at the gym when I incorrectly position my hands on the bicycle. Whilst I admire the Vietnamese community that is strengthened in unity, I am often frustrated by the lack of freedom and challenging of social norms. The cemented attitudes and hierarchical structure of families, schools and workplaces can prevent dynamic learning and development.

6. Understand how your food reached your plate

I have never felt so connected to my food. I have seen how many fruit and vegetables are grown, how coffee is grown, the details of rice production, the details of tea production, and even how noodles are made. More brutally I have seen the slaughter of a pig and chicken. One day I was woken up from a nap by my friend saying, “Wake up, we are going to go kill a pig.” Lovely. It's upfront and it's a wake-up call I needed. This experience made me firstly question my meat consumption altogether, then made me appreciate the local farming food harvesting process. The modern developed world is so removed from meat production that I could not even stomach watching the killing of the meat I have been eating all my life. If we can’t kill the animal ourselves do we really have the right to eat it? Keep in mind that livestock, including feed crops, contributes 30% of greenhouse gas emissions from the Agriculture and Forestry Sector (FAO 2013).

    Who would have thought dragonfruit grew on cacti? 

7. Scrap the road rules

Technically people drive on the right side of the road, but left side is also okay. Passengers on a motorbike should be limited to 2 people, but 5 people plus groceries is also okay. Don't make eye contact as people will assume you are waiting for them. You shouldn't go on a red-light but if it looks clear, go for it (I was a fan of this rule on my bike when I didn't want to lose momentum). Respect the road hierarchy and you should fear less for your life: bus, car, motorbike, bicycle then person.

8. Industrialised agriculture is destroying Vietnam’s economy  

44% of Vietnam’s total employment is in the agriculture sector, yet it only contributes to 18% of the GDP (The World Bank 2015). Industrialised agriculture has dis-empowered farmers as large companies steal their profits, deny them of traditional farming methods and force them to depend on expensive and toxic agrochemicals which have very short-term growth benefits, quickly outweighed by the consequent soil, air and water degradation. Farmers are at the mercy of loan sharks and middle men in the industrialised agri-business. Friends who run the NFP 'Filanthrope' have seen first-hand just how far farmers are removed from the value-chain - they showed some rural communities for the first-time that the berry they grew actually had coffee beans contained inside them that produced coffee. Vietnam often concentrates on quantity, not quality, which has severely depreciated the value of exported goods. The younger generation realises the hardships of farming, causing many to move to cities for higher-education and non-farming job prospects. This consequently is increasing the issues of rapid urbanisation, and un-wanted farmland.

Here is a Google Earth shot of the Vietnamese city Dalat. The sea of greenhouses is evidence of the severe deforestation and commodification of goods due to industrialised agriculture. Dependent on pesticides and fertilisers, you can literally smell the toxic chemicals when you walk by.

“We are slaves in the sense that we depend for our daily survival upon an expand-or-expire agro-industrial empire – a crackpot machine – that the specialists cannot comprehend and the managers cannot manage.” Edward Abbey

9. No one wins a war

Vietnam officially ‘won’ the war against America, allowing the Communist Government of North Vietnam to gain complete power over the South of Vietnam. Ho Chi Minh’s Mauseluem is visited by thousands of Vietnamese everyday in Hanoi (North Vietnam) to pay their respects to the original leader of the Communist Party. Comapratively in the South, despite the major city’s name Ho Chi Minh City, most locals still call it Saigon (the original city’s name pre-war) and some do not associate themselves with the Communist Ideologies. There is an obvious divide between North and South Vietnam, even the accent is very different – I had to re-learn a lot of Vietnamese when I travelled from the North to the South.

Despite Vietnam's surge in the economy over the past 20 years and applaudable reduction in poverty, remnants of war still plague Vietnam with victims of Agent Orange, amputees from bombs and landmines, and remaining political divides. The war did not just affect Vietnam, but Laos and Cambodia, as the Ho Chi Minh trail went through both countries. In an effort to destroy this trail, U.S. dropped upwards of 2.7 million tons of bombs on Cambodia, exceeding the amount it had dropped on Japan during WWII. From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance on Laos, making Laos the most heavily bombed country per capita in history. Up to a third of the bombs dropped did not explode. Each year there are now just under 50 new casualties in Laos, down from 310 in 2008. 19 million gallons of herbicides were sprayed over Vietnam, majority Agent Orange, to eliminate forest cover and crops used by North Vietnamese and Viet Cong troops. The incredibly toxic dioxin contained within Agent Orange caused tumours, rashes, psychological symptoms, cancer and birth defects. Those exposed to the dioxin passed these diseases on hereditarily, the human effects still visible today.

10. The West holds an incredible ‘soft’ power

Vietnam is a capitalist society in a communist state. Although the ‘hard’ power of war with America is over, Western influence, capitalism and consumerism is heavily influencing Vietnam through the ‘soft’ power of Western culture in media, retail and business. America is revered for its freedom of expression, deconstructed familial roles and non-traditional fast food outlets. Businesses strive to attain competitiveness through Western capitalism. Unfortunately, the idea of ‘development’ is directly related to consumerism. Bangkok now has over 10,000 7-Eleven stores, literally 2 on every street. The first 7-eleven store opened in Ho Chi Minh City this June, an indicator of further Western influence as fast-food franchising is preferenced to local street food (a characteristic which greatly defines Vietnam’s urban landscape). Many young Vietnamese spend their nights at Starbucks to Instagram their American-style coffees. 

   The opening of the first 7-eleven in HCMC Vietnam, June 2017 (Vietnam Investment Review). 

11. ‘Democracy’ is a buzz word

Laos is a communist state however its official name is Lao People’s Democratic Republic (PDR). This only infers that the citizens are allowed to vote for the Prime Minister based on candidates the communist party carefully selects. Thailand can be seen as a failed decomcracy, now functioning as an authoritarian state following the military coup of 2006. In 2006 Thailand’s middle class launched street protests against the elected leader whom they viewed as excessively populist, triggering the military coup and sending their Prime Minister into exile. There is still a Prime Minister in Thailand however the King maintains ultimate power. The 9th King died last November and the country is still in its year of mourning, signified by black ribbons and nation-wide silence at 8am and 6pm everyday to play the national anthem. The dominance of the King is incredibly visible; every shop, household and building will boast an adorned image of the late King.

12. Language is an invaluable skill

Being able to talk to the motorbike taxi driver, the neighbour, the market seller and the noodle lady has enabled me to truly understand the culture. I have found that if you want to discover the culture in its raw value, talk to the people who don't talk English. Vietnamese language has allowed me to shock locals, haggle my way to the local price and avoid ordering fertilised eggs. Language is like a nation's narrative, constructed through historical influences and reflective of society today. It's also a great ice breaker. Since a lot of people know English but are unconfident in speaking to foreigners, by showing I'm not afraid of making mistakes we can laugh and communicate in Viet-lish. Language has helped me uncover the cause for certain Vietnamese behaviours and mannerisms, and develop empathy for those struggling with English as a second language.

13. I have never felt lonely because it’s literally impossible to be alone

There are nearly 100 million people in Vietnam but I cannot walk down the street without being screamed at "Hello! What are your hobbies!?" by kids who had obviously learnt the critical conversation starters in English class, or asked by an old lady, "Have you got a husband yet?". I have felt like an adopted child in multiple families. Collectivism was at its finest at my recent homestay in Dalat. I honestly thought they were all a close-knit family however I later found out that they were a mix of guests, friends and family. I too became part of this family, adopted by a tribe who would continuously ask, "Have you eaten yet?" (I believe the most frequently asked question in Vietnam). The collectivism ingrained in Vietnamese culture is welcoming and grounding in a foreign country.

    I was trying to buy bananas when this happened.

15. Familial pressures can destroy families

The close-knit Vietnamese family and wider community network is integral to the traditional definition of happiness. Between the ages of 20 and 30 you will be harassed by your family to find a wife or husband. I am commonly asked if I have a boyfriend before I am asked for my name. The label of FA – forever alone – is taboo, so Vietnamese must quickly find a partner to avoid family dishonour. Unfortunately, husband/wife relationships are not always equal and domestic violence is not uncommon. Divorced rates have increased dramatically over the past years from 51,361 cases in 2000 to 145,791 cases in 2013, of which 70% of cases are filed by women.

16. Vietnamese women are fierce and their empowerment is slowly being realised

Vietnam is a champion of Women Leadership in Business with 25% of CEOs being female, in comparison to Europe and Americas where this percentage is only 7.8%. Vietnamese women are known to be strong, multi-skilled, hard-working individuals whom the family relies on for stability. They are the care-givers and the financial managers, traits that may stem from the war in which men went out to fight and women learnt quickly to be resourceful. Women also fought, particularly skillful in the Viet Cong. Whilst you will see coffee shops packed with men at all times, you can be assured the women will be busily working or preparing the meals at home (an observation also linked to gender inequality). Provided the opportunity, you can be assured a Vietnamese woman will step up to the plate. Now more women have the tenacity to demand for these opportunities and their human rights.

   Propaganda from the war reflecting the crucial role women played in Vietnam's liberation struggle. 

17. The power of the young generation

The University Scholar’s Leadership Symposium in Bangkok with over 900 ambitious socially-driven students from 78 countries was inspiring and thought-provoking. We discussed the biggest challenges our communities currently face, current solutions, future solutions, threats and opportunities. We were inspired and called to serve a greater purpose in our lives for the greater needs of humanity. Differences in geography, language, culture, professions and upbringings were celebrated in their diversity to nurture understanding and leverage our ability to serve as leaders. Listening to an Australian share her story about her childhood under Taliban rule and fight for freedom as an Afghanistan refugee brought the audience into an eerie silence, especially as an American War Veteran’s story fighting in the Afghanistan War preceded it. Open conversations about the Palestine and Israeli conflict, facilitated by those directly involved, removed political and religious stigmas. The group of young people present were a snapshot of our generation’s potential to breakdown social, cultural, political and religious barriers to find unity, consensus and action on global issues that threaten our sustainable future. The young generation is powerful. We have the knowledge and skills to make change and the support networks to create a greater impact, but now we need the guts to do it. 

“So many people want to make a difference, but they don’t want to be different. So many people want to be better, but they don’t want to change. Don’t make a difference in this world, you make the world different.” Francis Kong.

18. Developing and developed worlds are not unalike

Issues in developing and developed nations are often the same, realised in various degrees, often extreme in developing nations due to over-population and low socio-economic circumstances. Developed countries have greater resources and capacity to deal with the challenges yet the underlying issues are globally experienced; climate change, poverty, corruption, indigenous rights, freedom of speech, gender inequality, refugees, terrorism, and conflict just to name a few. We have much to learn from each other, our failures, lessons learnt, and plans for a more prosperous future. By combining internationally acclaimed skills and knowledge our power is far greater in realising the potential of humanity. 

Here's me on a mountain in Laos before rolling down and eating the hands-down best Indian I've ever tasted (don't get too heated, I haven't been to India yet). 

Peace out. 

See you on Insta: @tallgirl.smallworld. 


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