Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Like and Unlike Cambodia

Since we had visited Cambodia last year and since it is Vietnam’s neighbor with shared French colonial and early communist history, it was inevitable that we kept drawing a comparison with Cambodia.

The Milk Problem

IMG_20171202_161658_BokehHere is the most notorious similarity. Like Cambodia, fresh milk seems to be missing in action in Vietnam. These guys are wedded to their sweet condensed milk. The famous Vietnamese coffee also comes with condensed milk (when it doesn’t come with egg, but we will come to that later). A guide in Vietnam explained the history of condensed milk. Apparently, milk has traditionally not been a part of Vietnamese diet, but when French colonized them, they wanted milk! Since no milk was to be had in Vietnam, they had to get it from France. And getting fresh milk all the way from France was just not feasible. Hence, they got condensed milk and Vietnamese (and Cambodians, presumably for the same reason) continue to eat condensed milk while the French might have reverted to drinking fresh milk back home!

We heard that now Vietnamese government is pushing to feed fresh milk to children in a bid to make them taller! Vietnamese are apparently the shortest people in Asia.

Misery vs. Pride

One of the biggest difference I felt as a tourist between Cambodia and Vietnam is that Cambodia’s modern history has resulted in a sense of misery and gloom there, whereas despite all the wars Vietnam has fought through the 20th century and the devastation it has consequently suffered, there is an optimism and pride there. Not without reasons. They had to fight one big power after another and they came out on top every time!

The economic condition of the local population in Vietnam is definitely better than that in Cambodia and Vietnam feels more like in India in that regard. A rising and well-off middle class, although beneath that shining layer there is definitely a lot of strife and poverty for the masses, just like in India. The result is that in Cambodia (especially in Siem Reap) spaces occupied by the tourists and the locals seem completely separate, with even the supposedly cheap tourist hangouts being beyond the reach of the local population. In Vietnam that is not the case. The tourists here find themselves sharing space with the locals at the tourist sites, restaurants, hotels, everywhere (and that is definitely more comfortable and natural).

Communism and Communism

IMG_20171202_141205456Vietnamese communist regime had its share of typical communist excesses, but it never became anything like Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge in Cambodia. So, despite today’s capitalist economy, technically and politically, Vietnam continues to be a communist country, while Cambodia is not.

It is interesting that in Cambodia today, Vietnamese capture of Phnom Penh is called liberation. For Vietnamese, it was just a war with Cambodia!

The Linga Commotion

Shivalinga produces similar delight and elicits similar suggestive jokes from guides in both Cambodia and Vietnam. Presented as a curiosity it seems to work with most western tourists at both places.

IMG_20171205_110532

As Indians, visiting any India-influenced historical site (especially Hindu ones) with local guides can be incredibly frustrating. They just don’t have anything to tell you beyond slyly pointing out what Shivalinga stands for! In Cambodia, we thankfully went to the temples with our own research and books. We even revisited the main Angkor Wat temple on our own later because the first visit with the guide was not satisfactory. But we didn’t take the same precaution while visiting My Son temples in Vietnam and we regretted that. My Son contains the most famous remains from the Hindu Champa kingdom, which ruled what is today Central Vietnam. They were ultimately destroyed by the Northern Viets who were expanding towards South. Mainstream Vietnamese today trace their history to these Northerners and the few remaining Chams are a small minority in far south. Multiple tour guides told us that Cham script was undeciphered. But their inscriptions have been transcribed and translated and used to write history books! So that can’t really be true.

We should also have kept time for Cham museum in Da Nang, which might have made up for the deficiencies of My Son tour. But somehow, I totally missed it while planning.

Da Nang, by the way, was a major American air base during the Vietnam war and perhaps features in most American Vietnam-war movies!

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Snippets from Vietnam Trip: Like and Unlike India

Appearances

HCMC-ShopIt 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.

Hanoi-Street-1

Politics and Corruption

IMG_20171202_113655Politics 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!

IMG_20171204_150611Another 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.

IMG_20171204_141957In 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.

Women

Hanoi-StreetParticipation 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.

Tourist Friendliness

IMG_20171209_151526Vietnam (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.

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Snippets from Vietnam Trip: The Airlines and Us

Low-cost? Not.

Runaway

For going from Bangalore to Ho Chi Minh City (henceforth HCMC or Saigon), we booked a full-service airline (confession: Thai Airways was available at its cheapest and the travel time was much shorter than other options).

While coming back from Hanoi to Bangalore, we decide to go cheap (confession: couldn’t get full-service airlines at their cheap fares!) with low-cost Scoot. It was priced lower than the low Thai price we had gotten on our forward journey. Until I started booking! Oops! It was a hand-baggage only fare. Now, for all the claims of traveling light, we can’t go on a 10-day vacation with hand-baggage only. So, I added checked-in baggage service. The fare was now comparable to the Thai one. That’s fine. Time and price-wise it was still the best we could get. And then… On the final page, there was a convenience fee.

The moral of the story is that we paid higher for a low-cost airline on our return journey (without any food included) than for the full-service on our forward one!

Airlines are not your best friends.

Since Vietnam is a fairly long country, we opted for flights for domestic travel also to save time. Since I researched well, I knew that flying low-cost Viet Jet or Jet Star was not a good idea. Because they will list many flights on all the routes, but habitually cancel a good number of them, clubbing them with a later one. So, I garnered up all my economic willpower and booked internal flights with Vietnam Airlines. We had to fly domestic twice and in both cases, we had booked early morning flights to be able to make the best use of time (and not pay twice for the hotels on the same day). The timing of the first of these two, from HCMC to Da Nang, was especially important. Because we had arranged for an airport pickup plus day-tour of Hue (which is slightly far from Da Nang) plus a drop in another city on the other side of the airport on the same day. Meaning a tight schedule. We religiously woke up early, paid a hefty price for hotel-booked airport taxi, reached the airport well-in-time, accepted help from a smiling and pleasant Vietnam Airlines staff for self-check-in and went to drop our bags. It was while in the queue that we noticed that the time of departure on our boarding pass was later than the time at which we should have arrived at the destination! I will spare the details of everything we tried to fix it and failed. But no prizes for guessing what Vietnam Airlines had done to us. Yep – canceled our flight and clubbed it with a later one!

Thankfully our tour operator cum guide was super resourceful and we still managed to see everything we wanted to.

Our second internal flight was dot on time. In this case, we would have welcomed couple of hours delay, because we had to wait at the Hai Phong airport for a few hours before we could be pickup up for our next destination!

A bonus extra country in the itinerary.

Changi

Continuing with flight stories before I move on to other things, our return flight with Scoot was via Singapore. The layover was long enough that I was looking forward to showing Abhaya the great, big mall that Changi airport is. Except that there was a sudden weather situation at Singapore and two landing attempts had to be aborted (confession: aborted landing attempts are scary!) and the flight needed a diversion. Singapore, being Singapore-sized I guess, didn’t have another airport to divert the flight to. So, we ended up at Senai airport. (It’s in Malaysia, as we later found out).

Finally, we did make it to Singapore and did catch our connecting flight. But we had to rush for it, instead of the planned leisurely exploration of Changi airport. And we saw (for free!) another country, albeit only the landing area of a rarely-used airport from within the aircraft.

Photo Credits

पद्मावती

पुरुष की ही नज़रों का शिकार थी
तुम तब भी पद्मावती
और आज भी।

सिंदूर का ग़ुलाम किसने किया?
सौंदर्य का बखान किसने किया?
जौहर का इंतज़ाम किसने किया?
युद्ध में, जुए में, स्त्री को परिभाषित
जीतने वाला सामान किसने किया?

ना किसी मुसलमान की हवस थी
ना ही थी किसी राजपूत की हार,
तुम्हें आग में ढकेलने वाला था
पुरुष का तुम पर तुमसे ज़्यादा अधिकार।

तो जौहर में तुम्हें झोंकने वालों को आज
राजपूत और मुसलमान किसने किया?

उन्होंने जो तुम्हारे ज़िंदा जलते शरीर पर
शर्म और दर्द नहीं महसूस करते,
गर्व का महोत्सव मनाना चाहते हैं।
और जो स्त्री को आज भी
तलवार चलाना सिखाने की जगह
आग में जलाना चाहते हैं।
तुम्हारे मुंह से तो कभी सुनेंगे नहीं
कहानी तुम्हारी,
वे अपने शब्दों का
डंका बजवाना चाहते हैं।

पुरुष के ही शब्दों का शिकार थी
तुम तब भी पद्मावती
और आज भी।

Photo by Ravi Shekhar on Unsplash

बेचारे पुरुष बड़े आहत हैं

एक स्त्री के सिंदूर पर सवाल से
बेचारे पुरुष बड़े आहत हैं।
यूं लगता है सखी कि सिंदूर में
वाकई बड़ी ताक़त है।

जादूगर का तोता है सिंदूर,
जान बसती है इसमें,
पहनने वाले की नहीं,
उसकी ज़िंदग़ी को जकड़ के रखने वाले
पुरुषों के बनाए गए समाज की।

Sanyasi

और उन समाज-निर्माताओं ने
फ़तवा दिया है,
कि सिंदूर पर सवाल किया,
तो तुम जाहिल हो।

अगर तुम्हारी शिक्षा-दीक्षा ने
तुम्हें सिंदूर पर अटका दिया है,
सवाल खड़े करने की तुम्हारी
शक्ति ख़तम कर दी है,
तो तुम्हारे चुप सयानेपन से बेहतर
मेरी सवाल पूछने वाली जहालत है।
एक स्त्री के सिंदूर पर सवाल से
बेचारे पुरुष बड़े आहत हैं।

Photo by Ashes Sitoula on Unsplash