Those among us, who were young in seventies would remember the meetings, processions and slogans throughout the country—‘Aamar Naam Tomar Naam—Vietnam- Vietnam’ (My name your name—Vietnam—Vietnam). Names of Ho Chi Minh, General Giap would evoke the feeling of reverence. The way a small country on the earth has faced and challenged the most powerful country in the world—United States of America, has turned into folklore. That too after defeating French colonial power and then fighting a long guerilla war against USA. Vietcong, the guerilla force became the source of inspiration for all freedom loving people of the world. Ho Chi Minh, President of then called North Vietnam and Pandit Jawaharlal Lal Nehru; Prime Minister of India had cemented the friendly relations between two countries. The victory and unification of Vietnam and defeat of USA in April 1975, though after the passing away of Uncle Ho, as President was called in the country, was celebrated throughout the world. Saigon, the capital of then South Vietnam, led by a puppet Government of USA, was renamed as Ho Chi Minh City.
Vietnam after eighties seems to have gone out of foreign policy considerations of India. The relations continued to be friendly, but remained very limited. War between Vietnam and China and Kampuchea or Cambodia issue also made Vietnam loose positive attention. So much so that in the wake of tragic Mumbai happenings in the recent past , an overzealous media, particularly electronic one, almost skipped two major political news. The death of former Prime Minister V.P. Singh and the visit of Indian President Pratibha Patil to Vietnam and Indonesia were almost ignored by media. Ironically V.P Singh always attracted media attention, when alive, but in his passing away, many electronic media channels did not give him even the strip coverage, so was the case with Mrs. Patil’s Vietnam visit.
I got a chance to visit Vietnam, a month before the visit of President of India. I got an invitation to present a paper in an international workshop on ‘Vietnam Epic’, organized by Institute of Cultural Studies, a wing of Vietnam Academy of Social Sciences, Hanoi. The workshop was held in interior town Buon Ma Thout of Dak Lak province of Vietnam, which gave chance to me to see the ethnic minority culture of Vietnam, particularly of Ede’s ethnic minority. The workshop was held from 24th to 26th October, with a time kept apart to visit Dak Lak Lake and ethnic minority rural area. As there is no direct flight to Vietnam from any Indian city, one has to choose a route through Kuala Lumpur or Bangkok, I chose through Kuala Lumpur by Malaysian airlines, as it was bit cheaper than the other one. It was exciting for me to visit a country, which has touched the emotions in my young age.
I reached Hanoi on 22nd October 2008 afternoon from Kuala Lumpur, where I had to spend few hours in transit. Kuala Lumpur is a huge airport, which can not be compared to any Indian airport; however Hanoi airport is not much different from our own. Time difference between Delhi Hanoi was also not much different. Hanoi is just two hours early. Without checking about weather, I took all winter clothes, whereas Hanoi was quite warm in October and I had to bear heavy clothes for all 5-6 days of my stay. The organizers of the workshop had come to receive us and we were put up in Education ministry hotel of Vietnam. This hotel was quite good, but some neo rich Chinese professors opted to stay in five star hotels. Hanoi now had Malls and many star hotels. Hanoi just looked like Kolkata or north east city to me and I did not have the feeling of a stranger there. I took a stroll in the market near the hotel site; only precaution taken was to keep hotel card with me, in case of loss of way. Only problem in Vietnam is of language, as English is not very common, it is spoken in big shops or big institutions, but mostly it is Vietnamese, which is language of communication.
First positive thing which strikes in Vietnam is the participation of women in every practical aspect of life. In most of big shops, sales persons are women. On roadside ground tea or eatery places, more women are in charge. Even the street food vendors on cycle are also women. Other thing which strikes immediately is the craze for physical fitness—among men and women both. Vietnam is an early rising nation. They start working by 7.30 a.m. In my early morning stroll, it was an interesting sight to see lot many women and men taking long walks or jogging, many men only in half pants. It was a common sight to see women doing acrobatic exercises in front of their houses—in Hanoi or Buon Ma Thout in Dak Lak province. Dinner time in Vietnam is 6 p.m., even if they go to bed late. Vietnamese go to theatre or see any programme after dinner. Evening students attend classes after having dinner.
Vietnam, a country of 85 million people consists of 54 national ethnic groups. This is another striking feature of Vietnamese society that these ethnic groups, called ethnic minorities enjoy full respect in Vietnam and there is no sectarian feeling or tension. Major ethnic group is Viet, called Kinh also, which is almost eighty percent of total population, like Han in China. There are four major cities—Hanoi is the capital, but biggest city is Ho Chi Minh City, called Saigon earlier, financial capital of Vietnam like Mumbai or Shanghai. It was renamed as Ho Chi Minh city after 1975 Vietnam victory over USA and its unification. Other cities being Danang and Hue. Buon Ma Thout, a city in central islands, where the workshop was held, is also a nice clean city. It has airport and a victory memorial is built in the city after 1975 war victory over USA. But irony of present time is that young people in Vietnam do not talk much about America’s aggression on Vietnam. Younger generation is perhaps even influenced by so called American democracy, as one young scholar put it to me that ‘ in America one can criticize president, remove him through election, but in Vietnam they can’t criticize their president or change him, if they don’ like him.’ I tried to argue with him that it was Vietnamese revolution only, by which they have acquired this level of social security in Vietnam, but he was not impressed. His parents are communists, but he dislikes politics. Young people in Vietnam are attracted towards Karoke singing sessions in all towns. These singing sessions are held in specially created rooms with music systems in hotels at night, mostly after dinner and continue till late. Young boys and girls or men and women join in singing romantic, sometimes patriotic songs, while big TV screen showing beautiful scenic sights. Karoke singing has perhaps come from Japan. I listened to these singing sessions which were quite aesthetic in nature. But there is a trend of massage parlors also in big Vietnam cities, sometimes in the pattern of Thailand parlors, which don’t carry good reputation.
In the workshop, attended by nearly forty scholars, including almost half from abroad, mostly from China, I presented paper on ‘Two Indian epics on national hero Bhagat Singh’. It was perhaps first introduction to Bhagat Singh in Vietnam, which attracted attention. Workshop was informed about more than three thousand ethnic epics, most of these still in manuscript form. Institute of Cultural studies has started publishing many of these and some volumes were put on display as well. But the institute is having organized collection on CD’s etc. and also in original manuscript form. Participants were taken to Ede’s ethnic minority’s traditional long house, where they were welcomed with traditional music and wine drinking ceremony. Forty feet lone one piece house is inhabited by all family members. At the gate there is wooden structure with woman shape, to ride the stairs one has to touch the breasts of structure. This is a kind of respect to mother, which holds special position in Ede’s. Buon Ma Thout area is known for its coffee plantation also. Vietnamese coffee is now getting popular world over. Delegates were also welcomed by People’s committee at Dak lak headquarters. President of local People’s committee accompanied the delegates to the beautiful lake around. Another attraction was elephant ride in the area.
Hanoi is the capital of the country and it is known for its Museums. There are number of Museums in Hanoi like—Ho Chi Minh Museum, Revolution Museum, Vietnam Fine Art Museum, Vietnam Military History Museum, Vietnam Women’s Museum, Vietnam History Museum and very special Vietnam Museum of Ethnology. For Indians there is special interest in Champa sculpture Art Museum in Danang area, where Indian gods and goddesses are sculpted. Some of the Museums in Hanoi have similar names in Ho Chi Minh City; these might be in different form or in replica. I could visit four Museums quickly in short time. Ho Chi Minh Museum is very impressive; it is built close to Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, which was closed for annual upkeep. This is also close to Presidential palace, from where Ho Chi Minh used to cycle to his office. Ho Chi Minh Museum has preserved many items relating to Ho, it also depicts his life through pictures etcetera is a statue to symbolize the victory of Vietnam over French colonialism in 1945. Women Museum depicts the role of women during revolution through pictures and other items. History Museum is more like natural history Museum, but it depicts modern period briefly. I was quite keen to visit Revolution Museum, but could not due to paucity of time. Hanoi also has got The Temple of Literature, which is also first national University of Vietnam. It was established in 11the century. This impressive place has depicted Confucius as great thinker. One pillar pagoda is located near Ho Chi Minh Museum. Hanoi has two beautiful lakes. West Lake I could see from the taxi only and Hoan Kiem lake I moved around in Sicklow, Vietnamese Rickshaw, which is cycled from behind, passenger sitting in front. Hanoi has expensive taxies, in place of three wheelers; one gets motorbikes for single traveling. Hanoi is crowded with motorbikes and there are accidents also because of fast driving and violation of traffic rules.
Most impressive Museum in Hanoi is-‘Vietnam Museum of Ethnology’. It not only displays ethnic minorities’ cultural life through many items, it also built the models of houses at least twelve ethnic groups in its original shape to understand their life style. Many folk art items depicted in or upon these houses are also created. One of the house models is of “The Giarai Tomb. It has 27 wooden statues carved over it, many sexually explicit, indicating the pregnancy and fertility. The idea to establish this museum came up in 1981; however it took sixteen years to make this idea real. The museum was finally inaugurated on 12th November, 1997. This Museum perhaps attracts most foreigners visiting Hanoi, apart from Vietnamese themselves.
I could not visit many places in Hanoi itself, not to talk of other parts of Vietnam. Vietnam is changing, perhaps fast, for those who had romantic ideas of Vietnamese revolution in seventies, might not feel very happy with the present Vietnam, which is more or less following the rules of the game of market economy. Most of the things are privatized; state control on economy seems to be at minimum level. But people under poverty line are not more than fifteen percent. I did not come across any beggar or so called prostitute, though some people think they exist in Vietnam. People have become more religious oriented, that was evident from the crowds in Buddhist or other temples. Films or entertainment programmes are also more of romantic nature than reality oriented. Books have become expensive, even the Government publications, not like earlier Soviet publications. Ho Chi Minh is held in respect, his position is more or less like Gandhi in India. General Giap at 97 is too old to meet, though I was very keen to see him and present the copy of writings of Bhagat Singh. Madam Binh in her eighties is active but it was not easy to meet her also. People in general are simple, warm, friendly and hard working. Equality between men and women was evident very clearly. On the whole it was a pleasant journey. Both the ambassadors—Indian ambassador in Hanoi and Vietnamese ambassador in Delhi are keen to strengthen and expand relations between two countries. This was evident from my meeting with Indian ambassador and also in a meeting called by Vietnamese ambassador in India, who is keen to form ‘Friends of Vietnam’ forum in India.