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.
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.