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.

Photo Credits

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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

Unity in Stupidity

Some proverbial straw broke the proverbial camel’s back today and I have to get it out of my system.

There is one thing that seems to unite people on social media across caste, creed, religion, political beliefs, social standing, educational background, and economic status. The temptation to make strawman enemy, challenge them, ask them questions,  then feel outraged or victorious that it hasn’t been answered, and pass judgment on them. This strawman enemy, at first glance, doesn’t sound like a strawman. Because their names do carry a meaning. Questions get asked to Hindus, Muslims, Christians, Parsis, Atheists, Agnostics, Americans, British, Pakistanis, Indians, Liberals, Feminists, Upper-class Hindus, Sunni Muslims, rich Dalits, Men, Women, Transgenders, Homosexuals, Gay, Lesbians – you name it. And the victorious question typically takes the form of “Why is (category) X not saying thing A about the issue I?”

DogWearingSheet

“Why are high-caste Hindus not talking about beef lynchings?”

“Why are Muslims not condemning terrorism?”

“Why are feminists not saying anything about this actress misbehaving?”

“Why are liberals not decrying this incident of state oppression?”

And when they don’t get an answer or don’t get a satisfactory one, they proceed to pass on a sweeping judgment about the group (sometimes the judgment is passed beforehand, because they already know they won’t get the answer).

Bhai/Behen, exactly who are you talking about? Do you know all the Hindus, all the Muslims, all the feminists, and all the liberals? Do you know about all the different places, where all of them express things? What on earth does it mean that X is not talking about I? Who exactly is X? Are you asking that question to all the people who belong to X? Do all of them have to talk about it? Are you looking at a certain percentage? Why that percentage? How do you know whether or not that percentage has been achieved? Do they have to talk about it on the specific forum you want? In the specific way that you approve of?

Get a grip. There is no Feminists Association of India that can talk on behalf of all the feminists. Even if there is an AIMPLB, what they say is not what all Muslims think and say. There is no Liberals United issuing memberships. There is definitely no Hindus of the World Association which speaks on behalf of all Hindus.

By all means, ask questions to an organization or a group that has a responsibility or has control over resources important to the issue at hand or whose job it is to have answers and which is identifiable enough to answer it. Ask questions of National Commission of Women (disclaimer: it is NOT a feminist-representative body, just a political-bureaucratic organization). Ask AIMPLB how can it support triple talaq in this day and age. Ask Congress why it had brought 66A and despite that is pretending today to be a champion of free speech.  And ask BJP why it condones lynchings? Ask the government why people are being denied food because of Aadhaar when it was supposed to bring inclusion? Ask news channels why they didn’t cover a particular issue.

You are still not guaranteed an answer. But at least you are not being stupid by asking.

I can’t give you a strict definition of what kind of group can be asked a question, and what kind can’t be. I don’t have a strict classification in my head. If you really started making a list, there would be gray areas. But I know absolute absurdity when I see it. If you stop to think for a moment, you would know it too. Think, who you are asking the question to. Who are you passing the judgment on? If you are asking it to too broad a group with no ‘official spokesperson’, most likely you are being absurd. Most likely, it is just a few individuals you are following or connected to, that you are talking about. Then please do us all a favor and refrain from passing sweeping judgment about a group.

Of course, who am I to stop you from asking and saying whatever you want? Not only do I not have any power, I am a supporter of free speech and all. Even in principle, I can’t ask that you be stopped.  Even if I had power, I wouldn’t. So ask if you want. Your freedom of speech. I will call it ridiculous and stupid. My freedom of speech. And I might especially call you out (and not answer the question) if you direct stupid questions at feminists, liberals or agnostics (even atheists). Because I identify myself with all those labels. Then you will perhaps ask why do feminists not call me out when I ask a question to Hindus. Why only when I ask a question to liberals. Guess what? You are being absolutely absurd!

Disclaimer: This rant is about what we see on social media, where these questions and judgment keep getting absurd by the day. I am not trying to say that groups don’t have specific, identifiable majority inclinations and characteristics. Just that discussing those and understanding the nuances is beyond the ability of our social media scholars.

Photo by Matthew Henry on Unsplash