Stories from a Village

In July, I went to my father’s village for the death day commemoration of my great-grandfather. His village lies in Quảng Trị Province, home to the infamous border at the 17th parallel that divided North and South Vietnam during the war. The village itself lies less than 40 km (25 miles) from the dividing line and was essentially entirely destroyed during the war. Being there is always a bittersweet experience for me, as beyond the childhood memories of family reunions and picking wildflowers by the rice paddies, I also remember the stories my father told me and the people that I have met who are living testaments to Vietnam’s turbulent history in the 20th century.

As with most ethnic Vietnamese on the central coastal plains, my father’s family can trace its roots back to the first generation that settled the village after leaving the northern plains. At family reunions, we are usually counted by generation, a practice that also helps with relationship titles, as titles such as “aunt” or “uncle” trace themselves back to the nearest common ancestor. I am the twentieth generation since the settlement of the village, which would date the foundation of the village to about the early 1600s.

My grandparents are illiterate, while my father remembers a childhood of hardship, where he had to walk for hours to collect firewood as a ten-year-old. Even as a child, I still remember when the fields were ploughed by water buffaloes, and the road was still a dirt road that snaked through the fields. My grandparents’ house did not have an indoor toilet – I remember being terrified of the outhouse at night, and the only source of water was from a well in the front yard. Today, the sealed road through the village is lined with streetlights, my grandmother has air-conditioning, and WiFi is available at my cousin’s just a few houses down. While visiting my grandparents has become immeasurably easier, sometimes I still miss the moonlit nights on the rice paddies, when the moon is so bright that it can cast shadows. Living in the cities, we forget the power of the moon, but out in the depths of the countryside, moonlit nights filled with the sound of chirping crickets took on a magical quality.

Every time I’m there, I hear new stories that reveal aspects of the village’s history. Just this past trip, my dad told me a story of how he used to find old jars and urns filled with beads from an abandoned Cham cemetery across the river. It’s a poignant reminder that prior to 1307, this was the northernmost province of the Kingdom of Champa, given to the Vietnamese state (along with what is now Hue) as a bride price for the Princess Huyen Tran.

The village itself lies on the plains by a river, and across the river are the white sand dunes that extend for tens of kilometres along the plains here. The sand is so white it resembles snow. My dad’s village is lucky in that the dunes are across the river – villages in the middle of the dunes used to be inaccessible in the summer, as the villagers, who were too poor to afford shoes, could not cross the hot sand on foot. In emergencies, a villager needing to leave would carry a stack of banana leaves to tie on his feet as each leaf became worn out. When my dad was younger, the dunes were all bare and would shift with the winds – now, forestation campaigns means that the sand is held in place by trees.

IMG_20180712_091836

Today, green fields surround the village, extending all the way to the forested peaks of the Truong Son Mountains. However, my dad told me that, during the war, the peaks and much of the fields would all be barren and red, with all foliage destroyed by defoliants or burned to cinders by napalm.

IMG_20180711_073114

Meeting people in the village also means meeting living pieces of history. I remember greeting an old lady at the entrance of the village. After we exchanged pleasantries and she went on her way, my dad explained to me that her mother was killed when she was fleeing the village, shot in the back by French soldiers while carrying her child in her arms. Her relatives later found her child, the old lady, still clinging to her dead mother’s breast. Another man I met at my dad’s cousin’s place was the sole survivor among his three brothers in 1968. His two brothers, aged 4 and 6 at the time, were shot by American helicopters while they fled across the fields, leaving him, only 8 at the time, as the sole survivor.

It is hard to imagine the neat little village with flower-lined paths nestled among the green fields was the scene of such terrible violence. However, remembering history reminds us of the value of the peace and prosperity we have today

Surviving Traffic in Vietnam

Anyone who has been to Vietnam knows that our motorbike traffic is the stuff of legends. In fact, it is a common sight in most Vietnamese cities to see foreign tourists stranded on the pavement, looking fearfully across the street to seemingly-unreachable destinations on the other side. This is a particularly serious problem in our two largest cities, Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), where the flow of motorbikes is endless at all times of the day. In fact, the flow is apparently so impressive that I’ve seen tourists taking photos of motorbike traffic (which always struck me as rather odd, since this is essentially our equivalent of tourists taking photos of traffic on Wilshire Boulevard, but who knows what tourists think). I have even seen YouTube videos on traffic in Vietnam.

So in the face of this unceasing onslaught of motor scooters, what is a hungry traveller to do when some of the ubiquitously excellent food lies tantalisingly just across a stream of motor scooters? Simple! Just start walking, don’t hesitate, and stop only for cars, trucks, and buses; the motorbikes will change course to avoid you.

What about driving? Many foreign tourists think that they can rent scooters and drive around Vietnam, Top Gear-style. While getting on a scooter and moving is fairly easy (especially on an automatic), navigating traffic is not, and tourists have the reputation of being particularly bad drivers among locals, as most have little clue how to navigate traffic and as a result cause many accidents (indeed, my car driving instructor warned us all to stop if we saw foreigners on motorbikes, as more likely than not, they would be accident-prone). Moreover, as far as I know, without a motorbike licence from elsewhere, driving a scooter in Vietnam is, in fact, illegal, regardless of what scooter rental shops may tell you.

Let’s assume everyone on the road has a licence. How, then, do you navigate Vietnamese traffic? Most of my driving experience has been in Hue and Saigon. While at first glance, driving in Hue appears easier due to the far lower volume of traffic, in my experience, counter-intuitively, driving in Saigon is in fact easier. Due to the low traffic volumes in Hue, bad drivers can get away with driving quite poorly, and often will merge into lanes or emerge from alleys at higher speeds. Running red lights and abruptly stopping are also lower-risk, due to the overall lower levels of traffic on the roads, and blinkers seem to be mere suggestions. In Saigon, despite the overwhelming volume of traffic, most rules are followed quite closely, as bad driving could be fatal. Running the red light usually means getting caught in a large stream of traffic, and signals are followed religiously by everyone. For example, if I were to put on a left turn signal in Saigon, all bikes behind me will drift to the right to give way. In Hue? Probably no one will notice. Speeding is also a much bigger problem in Hue, as the consequences of speeding in Saigon are far more serious. Sometimes, some young men in Hue will try to drive “dangerously” on the road by swerving and speeding to show off, but ironically, these “daredevils” do not dare drive in bigger cities such as Saigon. Another trick worth remembering in Saigon is that driving is ultimately a group activity. One scooter crossing a busy junction is nearly impossible; however, wait long enough and you’ll have your very own bikers’ gang that will exploit the next opening in traffic and collectively cross. This is particularly important at major junctions with traffic lights.

Now with these rules in mind, armed with a licence and a helmet, you should be able to zip down a tree-lined Saigon avenue in no time! That said, I make no promises about driving in Hanoi. I myself do not dare drive there, so if you find yourself in need of getting around our nation’s capital, I wish you all the best while I look for a taxi…

Turkey Day? Meet Duck Day

Today, the fifth day of the fifth lunar month is celebrated as Tết Đoan Ngọ. The holiday started as a Chinese holiday to commemorate the death of Khuất Nguyên (屈原), who was a respected politician and a poet who lived in the country of Sở (楚) during the Warring States period in China. Disheartened over the state of his country and the scheming of fellow courtiers, he committed suicide by jumping into a river on the fifth day of the fifth month. The local people tried to rescue him to no avail, and began to bang on drums and throw food into the river so that wandering spirits would not disturb his soul and the fish would not eat his body. From then on, on this day, people gather at the river where he died and throw food into the water.

Now, the way the holiday is celebrated in Vietnam has diverged significantly from these origins. After going to the same high school with some people from northern Vietnam, I found out that out north, they celebrate the holiday by eating lots of fruit and bánh tro (a kind of rice cake wrapped in leaves – yes, I know this describes dozens of Vietnamese cakes, but we don’t really eat it where I’m from) and drinking sticky rice wine. Friends from Hanoi have also told me that the festival is celebrated much less there than in Hue (my hometown), where it certainly is among the most important festivals in the year. We don’t bother with the fruit and wine however; we do it with a nice duck meal.

Yes, you read that right. It’s the day when we, for reasons unknown to me, eat lots of duck dishes. In fact, it’s quite common to see motorbikes driving around in Hue around this time where the driver and/or passenger is holding two, three, or even four or more live ducks bound for slaughter.

Anyway, I usually spend the holiday out at my paternal grandparents’ place in Quang Tri, about 60km north of Hue – this year, my cousin came to pick us up in the morning and dropped us off again in the afternoon. All my aunts and uncles had gathered in the morning to cook the day’s array of duck dishes, which, this year, included duck noodles, duck soup, boiled duck dipped in fish sauce, and of course, the all time favourite, tiết canh (coagulated duck blood with meat, herbs, peanuts, and various spices, eaten with crispy rice cake).

The meal was great, and it was a lot of fun to catch up with all my aunts, uncles, and cousins, most of whom came for the meal, and, of course, my grandmother (who is now 96). In the evening, I headed to my maternal grandmother’s place, and once again, was offered (surprise, surprise) duck. As I really like duck, this really isn’t a problem – in fact, everyone has a great time during Đoan Ngọ each year, with the probable exception of the ducks.

Memories of Diyarbakır

I was reminded of Diyarbakır today when I remembered a story from the New York Times in March about a Banksy mural protesting the imprisonment of Zehra Doğan, a Turkish artist.  Zehra Dogan was jailed after painting Turkish flags over ruined buildings after the bombardment and partial destruction of the town of Nusaybin in 2015.  It reminded me of a very friendly young man from Nusaybin whom I had met very briefly in Diyarbakır who had tried to convince me and some other travellers to come visit his hometown.  I hope his family was not affected.

I did not plan to visit Diyarbakır when I came to Turkey in the summer of 2012.  Armed with funding from the economics department at my undergraduate university, I had gone to Turkey to conduct research for my senior thesis, and the plan was to go to İstanbul, Ankara, Konya, Kayseri, and Malatya.  In Malatya, I had decided to take an overnight trip to watch sunrise on Nemrut Dağı, and there, I met an Italian couple from Milan who convinced me to come to Diyarbakır with them.  Since I had another week before my flight out of Istanbul, I agreed.

Diyarbakir, the centre of Kurdish culture in Turkey, is often the centre for conflict between the Kurdish insurgency and the Turkish government and was often considered off-limits for travellers (it is again considered off-limits today); I was lucky enough to have been there during the relative peace of the ceasefire between the PKK and the Turkish government. However, the city dates back to Assyrian times and boasts impressive historical monuments.

I remember looking out of the window of my bus and seeing a river flowing by the road.  I looked over to the man sitting next to me and asked “O nehrin adı nedir?” (what is the name of that river?).  The man answered, “Fırat”. Fırat. Euphrates. The city of Diyarbakir itself lies on the bank of the Tigris. I was entering Mesopotamia, one of the cradles of human civilisation.

Diyarbakır’s giant city walls are the most immediately noticeable feature of the city.   The first walls were constructed during the Roman era, and today, they encircle the historic centre. with only one gap at the Dağ Kapı Meydanı (Mountain Gate Square).  Inside the walls, the old city has a layout reminiscent many walled cities in Europe, with a tangle of narrow lanes cut through by several major streets.  After I found a room, it was already late afternoon, and I wandered out to the market nearby just as the sun was starting to set.  The vendors were closing their stalls, and I remember seeing a young man rush past me pulling a handcart laden with watermelons as the sound of the muezzin echoed from the 11th-century black-and-white banded Ulu Camii.  It was then that I truly understood that I was in a different Turkey, a world away from the cafes and plazas of the Mediterranean coast.

P1390660.JPG

The alleys of Diyarbakir conceal surprises at every turn, with dozens of mosques and churches of numerous denominations.  Guidebooks will tell you that exploring the warren of alleys alone may be dangerous, and you may have issues with children along the way.  Fortunately, I had the opposite experience – a group of children on their summer break took it upon themselves to lead me around several of the sights while even occasionally chasing away children who wanted money.  Perhaps they found my accent in Turkish amusing.  Before I could thank my little heroes for their help with some candy, however, they had already disappeared off to their next great adventure.

Thanks to the children, I managed to visit quite a few historical sights, testaments to the city’s historical diversity.  A friendly imam took me up to the dome of his mosque.  Churches peppered the landscape, many of which were in disrepair – I remember one was being used by a group of women as a place to do their weaving.  Others still had congregations of varying sizes.  The churches bear testament to the changes that have happened in Southeastern Turkey over the last one hundred years – almost all the Armenian churches in the city, for example, no longer have active congregations, while the docent at the Syriac Orthodox Church of St Mary (completed in the 3rd century) told me that the other Syriac churches in the city have all closed, and only a few families remain in his congregation.

P1390642

 

The alleys of Diyarbakir also conceals other surprises.  I remember walking down an alley and peering into a courtyard that turned out to be a cultural centre.  The group of people were there to watch a performance of dengbêj, a form of Kurdish song that is used for storytelling and has no musical instrument accompaniment.  I joined a circle around the performers and listened as they sang and improvised.  I do not understand Kurdish, but the passion that the singers had for their art was palpable.  Afterwards, I went with a Kurdish family who had moved to Denmark to visit a Kurdish music shop, hidden up on the third storey of a shopping centre.  It’s also then that I realised that despite the city’s being majority Kurdish, I did not see a single sign in the Kurdish language in the streets.

Other moments from my time there still make me smile.  When I headed towards the city walls, a man, seeing my camera, insisted that I take a picture of his friend who was napping on his tractor in the shade.  The exquisite stonework on the black-and-white bands stone bands in some of the old houses in the city, a style which I have been told is also found in Syria.  The friendly waiter in the restaurant in the old caravanserai insisting that I try the local specialties.  Even six years later, the memories of Diyarbakır still feel fresh.  The hospitality and incredible resilience of the people continue to linger in my mind, especially as the conflict in Syria and south-eastern Turkey drags on.  I hope that one day Diyarbakir will again find peace.

Reflections on Điện Biên Phủ

Like generations of Vietnamese school children, I was taught from a young age that the Battle of Dien Bien Phu, where Viet Minh forces defeated the French Empire, “shook the globe”. As children, we are all familiar with the sense of pride as we see the famous photo of the flag of the Viet Minh flying over the headquarters of the French forces in the valley at Dien Bien Phu. It was, after all, possibly the most prominent example of an indigenous army in a colony defeating an imperial power in a conventional modern battle and marked the end of the First Indochina War and the collapse of French Indochina. The war was not kind to Vietnam – in addition to the military losses, the French also made an effort to destroy priceless cultural relics that had little military value, beginning with much of the Imperial City of Hue (including the priceless scrolls in the Imperial Library) upon reoccupying the country in 1946 (aided by the British, who were tasked with disarming the Japanese south of the 16th parallel) and ending with the One-Pillar Pagoda in Hanoi as they withdrew – the pagoda had been constructed in 1049. More than simply smashing the myth of French military supremacy – after all, the French Empire was defeated even when 80% of the French war effort was being funded by the United States – the First Indochina War was the final nail on the coffin for French claims of cultural and moral superiority; after all, such wanton destruction inflicted by a losing army seeking to reimpose control over a colony spoke not of dignity or cultural refinement, but rather of a desperate moral bankruptcy.

But I write this not as an attempt to list the crimes of French colonial system; the sins are self-evident and have been enumerated by much better scholars. The legacy of Dien Bien Phu extends much further than its influence shaping the political future of Vietnam. Paradoxically, I never truly understood Dien Bien Phu’s impact on the rest of the world until I left Vietnam. Even as we commemorate almost sixty years since the battle, the memory of it lives on beyond our shores. I still remember the first moment I realised this, when I talked to an old Algerian couple on the shores of the Red Sea in Egypt. When they had heard that I was from Vietnam, they immediately recounted to me their memory of receiving the news of Dien Bien Phu on that fateful day in May 1954. The man told me he still remembered waking up to the news as a teenager and what it symbolised for Algeria. The French Empire in all its might was defeated by some indigènes in Indochina! The names Ho Chi Minh and Vo Nguyen Giap were on everybody’s lips. If it could happen in Indochina, it could happen in Algeria! Dien Bien Phu became a beacon for decolonisation all over the world. I felt pride mingled with humility and awe with this realisation. We fought to liberate ourselves, yet our actions had great repercussions for the rest of the world. Even as we struggle in our corner of the world, we do not stand alone, and our struggle carries meaning beyond our borders. We were the fabled city on the hill, and I only hope that since then, we have managed to live up to our reputation.

It wasn’t until later that Dien Bien Phu began to carry even more meaning to me. In Vietnam, Dien Bien Phu is often talked about as the moment when we gained our political freedom. However, as I progress further in my studies and my travels, Dien Bien Phu has taken on new meaning. As I became exposed to post-colonial studies, I often found that despite coming from a former colony myself, the social structures and attitudes described in these texts often seem very foreign to me. The remaining deference to the white man despite independence did not seem reminiscent of the people I grew up with. Yet, as I travel to other former colonies, vestiges of the colonial system still lingered in many places, internalised by post-independence elites, whether through the continued use of the colonial language, the maintenance of the colonial political system, or the implicit elevation of the white foreigners above natives. It was through this experience that I realised that Dien Bien Phu did not just liberate us politically; more importantly, it liberated our minds. How could we continue to perceive Europe as superior if it could be defeated so utterly in open battle? How could Europe claim to be morally and culturally enlightened when its actions in defeat spoke of such terrible moral corruption? Through Dien Bien Phu, we as a nation found the courage to break the bonds of colonialism and smash the colonial system to reclaim our destiny. Perhaps on that day in May, we gained not just our political independence, but also a psychological freedom that allows us to perceive ourselves as an equal member of the global community. It is a freedom so complete that millions of us who grew up with it do not even realise the incredible privilege that it has brought us. We see the right to be masters of our own fate as a birth right and our self-assurance as equal to anyone in the western world to be self-evident. The rest of the twentieth century was not kind to us, but nothing could take away our dignity and our sense of self. We have been through destructive war and crushing poverty, but we remain confident in our ability to stand on our own two feet and stand proudly as an equal in the world.

Today (7th May, 2018) is the fifty-fourth anniversary of the battle, and while we commemorate the great losses we suffered during the French War, we must also remember that we freed our minds that day. That hard-gained freedom is priceless, and as we look towards the uncertainties of the future, I hope that independence continues to be an anchor for us to remind us that we are privileged in being the sole masters of our own fate.

Travelling on a Vietnamese Passport

When I was little, I thought travelling abroad was an impossible dream.  My dearest ambition as a teenager was to have travelled to ten different countries by the time I turned thirty.  Beyond the financial considerations (as Vietnam is still a very poor country), travelling on a Vietnamese passport was not (and still is not) easy. It was beyond my wildest dreams that now, as I celebrate my twenty-seventh birthday, I have surpassed that dream and feel incredibly privileged.

Travelling independently on a Vietnamese passport is challenging at best.  Visa requirements are complex (often with additional complexity as a special “bonus” for us Vietnamese), which drastically changes the preparations needed for travelling.  That last-minute flight deal to Europe? Good luck getting that visa with less than three months of preparation.  Want to pop over to Jordan from Israel? Go without me, because who knows when I’ll get that visa.  Fancy a short hop into Guatemala from Mexico? Have fun, because I can’t figure out what a visa consultada even entails.  Since not many Vietnamese people travel to more “unusual” destinations, finding visa help can also be quite difficult online (although this is changing very quickly).Vietnamese_passport

Because of this, when I came across the page of a Filipina traveller on visas, I felt an immediate sense of solidarity (however, a Philippine passport gives visa-free or visa-on-arrival access to 63 countries, clocking in at 75th in the world, compared to just 49 for a Vietnamese passport, putting us at 88th).  Quite a few countries have special hoops just for us Vietnamese to jump through: we require prior security clearance in both Lebanon and Jordan, require an advanced visa in Macau, must get prior approval from the Ministry of External Affairs to enter El Salvador, and cannot enter Armenia without a special invitation letter (which appears to be impossible to obtain).  I’ve had to change my travel plans multiple times due to visa snags, and the bureaucratic hoops are never-ending.  Neither is there rhyme or reason for these policies: while it is impossible for me to get a visa to Armenia, both Azerbaijan and Georgia are quite open with their visa policies; on the same trip where I could not get a Jordanian visa, the Israeli visa was fairly straightforward; and despite my difficulties entering El Salvador, I can go to Panama and Chile visa-free (along with Mexico and Costa Rica with a valid US visa).  There’s a special place in hell for the Schengen visa, so it’ll deserve its own dedicated post.

Of course, there are a few perks for Vietnamese passports.  Russian visas are quite straightforward to get and don’t cost much (although Russia doesn’t seem to apply its policy of reciprocity to Vietnam, as Russian citizens can enter Vietnam visa-free for two weeks) – the Russian consulate even made sure I got my visa in time and gave back change in cash (however, I just checked the website of the Russian embassy and it turns out that processing times are now 20 days.  So much for that).  We can theoretically stay indefinitely in Kyrgyzstan and don’t need to register with the police under 60 days (whatever the land border officials might try to tell you).  The requirements also have been getting easier – Chile just abolished visas for us in 2018, and many other visas are much easier to get than before.  Travelling on a Vietnamese passport also makes you inherently unsuspicious in a few places, which makes checkpoints much less of a hassle.  We can also travel visa-free around Southeast Asia – however, there may still be problems at borders.  When I tried to cross from Singapore to Malaysia, I was taken into a separate room, questioned about why I travel so much (heaven forbid someone from Vietnam likes to travel), and then allowed in…while they forget to capture my fingerprints, which would have happened had I gone through the regular line.

As nightmarish as this all sounds, it is a huge improvement to what it had been before. My mother, who had first gone abroad in the 1980s as a student to Australia, is still stressed out by the prospect that border guards will arbitrarily stop us.  Because of all this, I always feel incredibly fortunate to have been able to travel.  I suppose all these visa stickers also make my passport more “interesting” to some people (which causes my friend to retort: “what you mean is I’m very good at jumping through bureaucratic hoops”).  So, next time you go anywhere on a whim because you don’t need a visa, spare a thought for our struggles.

Rambles from the Unexpected Life

This is my second attempt at writing a blog – however, unlike my first attempt, which mostly documented my itinerary in detail, this will mostly be about my observations and thoughts in general.  Don’t worry – I ramble just as much in real life.

If you’d like to see some of my travel photos, please visit http://ramblesfromtheunexpectedlife.tumblr.com/

For my first attempt at blogging, please visit https://patlayanpatlican.blogspot.com/