Our trip to Vietnam a few years back included a visit to Halong Bay. A staggeringly beautiful area of forested limestone rocks that populate the coastline. Naturally it is a huge tourist destination. On the ride from the northern capital, Hanoi, the tour guide thought it a good idea to get on the microphone and give everyone a few home truths about the Vietnamese and how they perceive themselves.
“The Northerners,” she said, “are the brains and the heart of Vietnam.”
Pretty generous to the northerners, I thought, but I was sure things would even out.
“The people in Central Vietnam are the empty stomachs,” she continued without a wink of humor. “Because they suffer from typhoons and floods, and are always very poor.”
The western tourists glanced at one another with goggle-eyed amusement. I regretted not having my mp3 recorder rolling.
“And the southerners are the empty pockets,” she said. “Because they are rich but they spend their money very quickly.”
Every country you can think of has its own particular version of north/south, east/west, highland/coastland prejudices. Never have I heard them so officially pronounced with such assurance to a group of strangers.
Upon telling people in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) that we were due to travel north, we were shown sour faces and dour expressions. “People are not so friendly up there.”
Vietnamese are the “same same” as us. But different.
In order to understand the Vietnamese, you have to understand rice. Many things about the national character, and the wars they fought during the twentieth century, become clearer when you know a little about rice production. During Tung's childhood, 80% of the population in Tonkin (Northern Vietnam) were involved in agriculture, and the majority of those worked the rice paddies.
Wet rice farming is an arduous process. As the seasonal flood waters recede, an intricate network of dikes, waterways and dams are revealed that need repair. After ploughing the waterlogged fields, Tung's father would ride a flat piece of wood behind the water buffalo, spreading the mud into a soup-like consistency that would receive the young stalks of rice, prepared in nursery plots.
Unlike the paddy fields in the south, Tonkin's long rainy season meant there was only enough time to get one growth cycle in every year. In some parts of Cochinchina (Southern Vietnam) they managed as many as three. That goes some way to explaining the more carefree attitude common in the south.
Yet for all the efforts during the seeding, growing and harvest seasons, nothing is guaranteed. Floods, bandits or pests can ruin a crop and leave a farmer in penury for years.
As the young stalks began to grow, Tung would join his parents in the fields after school, learning how to add fertilizer and remove weeds. Water would be gradually drained, so that by the time the crop was brown and ready to be harvested, the fields would be dry.
Everyone who could wield a blade went out from dawn till dusk to get the rice in before early rains could damage the crop. Still, month after month of back-breaking work was no guarantee of success.
“God would decide if all the rice was collected in time,” Tung said.
“How did you know when the rice was ready?” I asked.
“You would pray.”
The Vietnamese farmer was used to external forces determining the success or failure of his endeavors. His only option was to keep working. The Vietnamese insurgents were faced with formidable enemies in the French and United States military. Yet, as farmers, they had faced floods and famine that were even more dangerous. They saw no other option, so they kept fighting.
Clearly I am only scratching the surface of these questions, but it was surprising that none of the historians I read in my research gave any real time to the Vietnamese relationship with rice. Many cited a familiar illustration, that the geographical shape of Vietnam itself is said resemble two rice baskets connected by a pole. But I had to turn to anthropologists to find any real discussion of how subsistence farming and wet rice agriculture can create such patient and tenacious soldiers.
Work goes on even when the rice has been harvested. It has to be dried, threshed, winnowed, and separated to from the chaff. Then it is beaten in a mortar to break the precious white morsel from its bran husk.
“At the time l lived in Mai Dong,” Tung's brother Co said, “all people made their living by growing rice. It was a very hard way of making a living. The peasants worked from dawn to dusk in the field, rain or shine, cold or hot. They spent all their energy to find food in the soil. Seeing the life of peasants in my village since childhood, I didn't want to live as a farmer.”
Like most of his generation, he became a soldier.
Being fighters is another characteristic with which the Vietnamese identify. It's hardly surprising. They've been struggling against invaders since the Chinese and the Mongal hordes. The French and the Americans were not even the most recent. In 1979 China invaded again and were repulsed.
One guy proudly told me that Vietnam was the only nation to have defeated three of the five permanent members of the UN Security Council in a war!
For a nation who's national anthem begins with the line, “Soldiers of Vietnam, marching onward”, that is more than just an idle boast. It is proof and affirmation of their identity.
This view is difficult to imagine when you're there. We were bowled over by how warm and generous the Vietnamese people are. Smiles greeted us everywhere, and it wasn't simply a result of our white skin and [comparatively] deep pockets.
After so many years of hardship, the Vietnamese are enjoying something close to a peaceful period in their history. Difficulties with their neighbors, particularly China continue, and will never go away. And they are still ruled by a Communist Party that is answerable only to itself.
We saw only a couple of bookshops during our stay and their shelves held cookbooks and travel guides. No literature and no history. Facebook is officially legal, but the government do their best to ensure servers block the site. Some days it was available online, the next it wasn't.
It may be a softer form of Communism than thirty years ago, but it's still Communism. Leslie's mother was deeply anxious about our trip. Having left under the threat of mass executions, convoys of tears and labor camps, it is no wonder.
One thing I wanted to highlight in Uprooted is the contrast between the will of the government and the will of the people governed. Communist literature is full of “for the people” platitudes. In practice it is anything but.
However, having been there, we can't wait to go back. I'll just make sure to have my own reading matter.