It is easy to forget every once in a while, that you are not in India. Roads, traffic, styles of sign boards, markets and retail outlets look eerily similar. Construction is going on everywhere. International brands and shining showrooms existing alongside the traditional shops lining the streets represent a rising, well-off middle class. Beneath that shine, however, is also the daily struggle and poverty of masses. Just like India! The similarity of appearances is aided by the script used for the Vietnamese language. Vietnamese is written in Roman script (enriched by numerous diacritics) and for a while, you may not realize that you don’t understand what is written even though it looks readable. It is also difficult to learn the words through signboards. You may think you are seeing the same word, but unmindful of the diacritics you might be looking at a word that has a completely different pronunciation and completely unconnected meaning.
Politics and Corruption
Politics is different. The government is supposedly communist, nowadays “more socialist than communist”, in reality, corrupt capitalist. Okay! Maybe not so different. But corruption among the political bosses is perhaps more blatant than in India. Starbucks franchise in the communist country is owned by the son-in-law of the Prime Minister. Our British walking tour guide in Saigon compared the corruption to that of other countries in Asia, including India. Abhaya wanted to counter that our top politicians indulge in corruption at a much higher level. They are not petty that way. They do under the table defense deals and all. They leave Starbucks and McDonalds to the market. Although with Robert Vadras and Jay Shahs of the world that counter may not hold much water.
Religion or not!
Another impact of the communist regime is that religion is not fashionable. Reading about the country before visiting I was under the impression that it is a Buddhist country. Technically most people may describe themselves as Buddhists if pressed to answer the question. But on talking to the tour guides it seemed like irrespective of their professed religion, the only religious practice Vietnamese actually care for is ancestor-worship. Even during the stricter communist days of rationed food, many would save whatever meager meat ration they received for the death anniversary “feasts”.
Two curious Vietnamese Buddhist things I came across were a Buddha with a Swastika and a female deity they kept calling “Lady Buddha”. Our guide gave a strange story for the former, where enlightenment of Buddha was supposedly not completed under the Bodhi tree and he had to go to the Himalayas and take the help of Agni to finally attain it. The swastika is supposedly the symbol of Agni. I got no explanation whatsoever about the Lady Buddha. I suppose she must be a mixture of some ancient female spirit and some Hindu Goddess wrapped up nicely in some supposedly Buddhist story.
In some sense religion in Vietnam is similar to that in India. A curious mixture of practices indigenous, imported and borrowed. The way somebody coming to India with a straightforward definition of Hinduism would be disappointed by the rather dispersed, fragmented and varied practices that are prevalent here, you have to keep the notions of a “Buddhist country” aside while looking at the contemporary religion in Vietnam.
Many Vietnamese tour guides claimed that they were atheists, which is perhaps politically prudent and socially fashionable. Catholics feel particularly unwelcomed by the regime.
Participation of women in the workforce is high. You can see it on the streets (with a majority of shops and eateries “manned” by women, even in wholesale markets) as well as in statistics. This might again be a result of the communist past. It hasn’t necessarily resulted in social equality though. People hanker after a boy child much like in India. The preference stems from the importance of ancestor-worship, which is the prerogative and responsibility of the sons of the family. Running a family business is perhaps seen as a woman’s work, much like a lot of farming activities are considered so in small and marginal farming families in India. Hence, so many women in the shops. In the higher echelons of business and politics, the participation of women may not be that high (a guesswork, but those numbers might still be better than in India). We never saw the villages, where the story may be similar to India. That is, high participation in agricultural work, but not necessarily an empowered social position.
An interesting historical curiosity is that there are reasons to believe that before Chinese imperial influence brought and imposed Confucian patriarchy on the natives of current Northern Vietnam (people to whom Vietnamese trace their history now) their society could have been matriarchal, or matrilineal or at least much more gender-egalitarian. They identify China has their biggest enemy today. But the Chinese patriarchy is considered their own! Much like how some of our current-day nationalist bristle at Britain’s past enslavement of India. But insist on treating oppressive Victorian morality as their own.
Vietnam (and perhaps most places in the world, even most Asian countries) surpass India in tourist-friendliness of its infrastructure and businesses. Even the smallest restaurants, cafes and hotels have wi-fi and they proactively offer you the password. I think some (or most?) taxis also have wi-fi, although I never used one in a taxi. Getting clean bathrooms is not a challenge, especially not at tourist places. Money exchange is easy, although converting to VND at the airport will fetch the best rates.
The Great Indian Influence
I almost forgot! Dubbed Indian serials seem to appeal to Vietnamese audience. A guide described an Indian serial that was super-popular and it seemed like she was talking about Balika Vadhu.
- Photo by Hiep Nguyen on Unsplash
- Photo by Hiep Nguyen on Unsplash
- Photo by Jack Young on Unsplash
- Uncredited photos are our own!