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Travel

A week of constrasts

It feels like I’m doing more work out of the office during this tour.  Being able to do work in addition to visa interviews is rewarding.  I like talking to visa applicants, and I think I’m good at it.  But doing that all day, every day, for weeks on end, can become tiring.

For three days last week, I went on an investigation trip into the outer provinces.  This is a different kind of diplomatting.  We sometimes have to check the relationships between U.S. citizens who are married to Vietnamese citizens, and are applying for immigrant status for the spouses.  Most of these cases are legitimate, but there is a lot of fraud as well.  By visiting the homes of the applicants, and interviewing them there, we can determine whether the marriages are real or not.

We were a small team of three: me, a locally-engaged staff member, and a driver.  We drove a LOT over bad country roads.  We typically had to drive from one to two hours between appointments.  By the end of each day, my butt was sore from hitting all of the bumps in the road.  One of the managers told me that we really earn our hardship differential when we go out on these trips.  I agree.

The trip took us west, toward the Cambodian border.  That area is very rural, and is home to some of Vietnam’s 50-odd ethnic minorities.  Most people in this part of the country work in agriculture.

Farm workers

Economically, there just isn’t a lot happening in the countryside.  Here’s the local store:

A busy shopping center.

And in case you’re wondering, here’s a typical gas station bathroom:

Desperation makes one do things that one would not do under ordinary circumstances.

Not only is the countryside spread out and sparsely populated, but the roads are not well marked. Compared to well-organized urban areas, addresses in the provinces seem arbitrary.  We had to stop several times to ask directions.  One time, we asked directions from an old guy who was cooking outside his house.  He started to tell us how to get to the house we were looking for, then he stopped and thought for a moment.  He seemed to figure that it would be more efficient for his to show us himself.  So he walked away from his pot, but kept his spoon in his hand, as he led us down the street to the applicant’s house.

My Impressive Spoon of Direction will lead us to the correct destination.

 

Houses are constructed of wood and brick.  We saw several places in different stages of construction.

Very basic brick construction.

After seeing the low standard of living in the countryside, it isn’t hard to understand why some people would want to leave.  Some people move to the city for work, some people choose to emigrate.

Among the farms and poverty, though, we got to see some interesting regional culture.  A local religion called Cao Dai started in the 1920s in one of the provinces that we visited.  The religion combines characteristics of traditional Chinese religions like Confucianism and Taoism, Buddhism, and even Christianity.  I don’t pretend to understand much about the religion, but their temple is beautiful.  We were allowed inside for a brief visit before the evening service started at 6:00 pm.

Cao Dai temple at twilight

 

Inside the Cao Dai temple

On Friday, we finished our investigations, and returned to Ho Chi Minh City on Friday evening.  The next day was the annual Marine Corps Birthday Ball.

Many Embassies and Consulates have a detachment of Marine Security Guards.  Their official role is to provide security to the grounds and guard the classified information inside post.  Every year, the Marine Corps celebrates its birthday (November 10).  MSGs at posts abroad hold a ball to celebrate, and invite all the diplomats and their families.  It’s like prom for grownups.  People have a “day of beauty” to do their makeup and hair.  The Marine Ball is about the only opportunity that I have to wear my tuxedo.

We went to prom in order to learn how to do this.

I had the privilege of writing the speech for our guest of honor this year.  This was my second speechwriting experience for this tour.  Like most skills, speechwriting takes practice, and like most tasks in the Foreign Service, there are structures and rules.  I forgot some key elements in a standard State Department speech, like acknowledging the guest dignitaries (oops), but the speaker was experienced, and she filled in the parts that I left out.  The speech was well-received (whew!).

This was an interesting week.  My job took me out to the dust and poverty of remote provincial countryside, then back to a night of glitz and dancing in the city, all in a few short days.  This wasn’t a typical week.   My schedule for next week should be business as usual.  It will be nice to calm down and relax by doing some routine work.  Even so, the meaning of “routine” while living abroad is different from in the U.S.

Another city,…

…another Awesome Chair Of Awesomeness.

–in the Intercontinental Hanoi.

Didn’t have.

You aren’t fooling anyone, you know…

A coffee shop in the small village of Sapa.

Apparently, “Starbucks” is a generic word now, like xerox and kleenex.

If you’re within earshot of my sister,…

…plug your ears. Loud remonstrations will commence in 3…2…1…

Selling meat al fresco in Hanoi. Reason #486 why KJW will never visit me in Vietnam.

Thanks for the clarification.

On a random street in Hanoi.

Surrendering dragon surrenders

Sandstond sculpture on display in the Chăm Museum in Danang.

Storm in Danang

We experienced a typhoon here in Danang. The center was farther south, we only got the outer rim of it. Just a lot of wind an rain. But the ocean had a lot to say.

Another city,…

…another Awesome Chair Of Awesomeness.

in Danang, Vietnam.

Colonialist Advertisements

On a recent business trip in country, I stayed at a very nice hotel. The decor was French colonial, very tasteful. However, some of the artwork in the hotel was off-putting at best, offensive at worst. The reaction of my Vietnamese coworker was surprising to me, though.

So look at this ad. Do you see what I see?

king of the world

I see a white man (and he’s dressed in white, as if to underscore his race), prominently strutting, as “natives” toil.

Look at the details of the Vietnamese people’s faces. What’s wrong with this picture?

hint: Vietnamese people do not look like this.

It’s as if the illustrator went out of his way to make the Vietnamese people more “other.”

And here’s another one. This one is a little more subtle, but the message is still clear:

All of the servers are Vietnamese, and all of the servees are European.

I showed these to my wife, who was as horrified as I was. She asked what the Vietnamese people though of them. I happened to be traveling with a locally-employed staff member, so when I had the chance later that day, I showed him the photos that I took of the ads. He didn’t seem to have a strong reaction, so I asked if he thought they were racist, or colonialist, or simply offensive. He thought a moment, and told me that he understood the message of the advertisement, and intellectually agreed that it wasn’t appropriate, but he wasn’t offended by it.

I told him that if such an advertisement appeared in China, there would be a very strong reaction by the government. There would possibly be economic sanctions on the hotel that posted them. Why not in Vietnam? I asked. Vietnam has an even more recent history of colonialism than China does, and fought a bitter war to gain its independence. Wouldn’t the country want to put that painful period of humiliation behind it, and certainly not glorify it in advertisements for a hotel?

He seemed bemused, and hinted that I was thinking too much. He said that Vietnamese people have more important things to worry about, implying I was overreacting. He asked how many Vietnamese guests we saw in the hotel. I had to admit that he was the only one. So, he said, maybe the artwork is aimed at foreigners.

But that’s the point! I countered. Why would the Vietnamese people not have a problem with glorifying colonialism to the colonists?

He conceded my point, but maintained that it didn’t bother him. He said that he knows about Vietnam’s colonial past, knows that it was an unpleasant period in his country’s history, but he didn’t think the symbolism of the ad was worth getting upset about.

Maybe he doesn’t want to waste time and energy re-fighting a fight that his people won.

I guess he is OK with us foreigners dwelling in the past. Meanwhile, the Vietnamese people know who won in the end.