Saturday, December 29, 2007

Taking out the Trash

One of my strongest memories of childhood Christmases were the mountains of presents that quickly became mountains of wrapping paper that pieces to that new toys, trays of cheese and crackers, dogs, and small children would bury themselves under, sometimes never to reappear from. Crumpled paper, ribbons and bows were sorted out, those least shredded put into a bag in the half-hearted attempt to reuse the next year (although they were usually lost or, when re-examined the next year, determined to be far to shabby to put to second use), and needle-in-paperstacks hunts went on for plastic Barbie shoes and Lego men. Then all was bundled up and put into the industrial sized can and hauled to the end of the driveway along with the skeleton Christmas trees to be driven off to the heaven of Christmases past.

Obviously in Vietnam there’s no post-Christmas cleanup, although wait until Lunar New Year and something very similar will happen. But between the nostalgia for Christmases past and cold rainy evenings this week, the culture of trash pick-up has been at the front of my mind…

In America, we scramble once, perhaps twice, a week to assemble all of our unwanted goods, sorted or no, and place them in a designated container as far from our residences and as close to the public way as possible. Then, almost magically, the trash fairies flit through our neighborhoods and with a little banging and grinding noticed only by those lucky enough to be home at a working hour, voilà, our problems are swept clean for another week. About the only communal aspect of the whole process is the appearance of containers lined up like sentries guarding each suburban lawn on a magically coordinated day of the week.

For the urban Vietnamese public, trash collection is a daily routine. Each large city employs an army of street sweepers and trash collectors, each outfitted with standard overalls and rainsuits for inclement weather, touched off with the traditional cone hat of Vietnam. Almost every one of them wears a dust cloth tied over the mouth, leaving a distinct impression of an anonymous herd of former-bankrobbers-turned-streetsweepers loose on the city. Twice a day, first in the dark of early morning, and next in the early evening, the army is loosed upon the city, and each dry leaf, candy wrapper and cigarette butt is mercilessly attacked with long-handled reed brooms and collected into large rolling dumpster pushed by members of the squadron.

The evening collection is the one that is attended to by whole communities. During this time the sweeper with the dumpster is also charged with a bell, which she (yes, probably 90% of the trash collectors in this country are women, in contrast to our image of burly men driving a big stinky truck) clangs repeatedly as she moves down the street. As if summoned an ethereal force, representatives of each household make their way into the streets, bringing dustbins and plastic bags full of rubbish. As the caravan of dumpsters on wheels approaches and the clanging grows louder and more insistent, people emerge from their brightly lit houses to make their daily contributions directly or to place the bag along the curb where it will be grabbed by a passing masked agent of the trash.

It is days like this last week, during which a steady drizzle of miserable rain has fallen, that makes me note our own masters of the daily ceremonies. These masked women clump cheerfully down the muddy streets dripping from their cone crowns and trading greetings and gossip with the women and men crouching in the shelters of their small overhangs waiting to dash into the wet to deliver their offering. They drag their brooms made of bamboo and tree branches against the current of water in the gutters and somehow manage to make the wet street look scrubbed in the streetlights. Children and old people shout across the way to each other as each family emerges for the nightly routine. Even with the masks it is easy to tell when the collection women smile as if applauding you for tossing your bag bulging with an oozing mess and thanking you for your generous contribution. Your bravery in stepping out into this damp night to offer up your garbage seems reward enough for their suffering hours in the elements just to arrive at your doorstep.

Everything in Vietnam happens in a communal and ordered way. We could debate whether it is a holdover from the more stringent aspects of hardline communism, whether it is simply an attribute of narrow-streeted urban living everywhere, or whether the Vietnamese naturally tend towards such arrangements. In any way, in Vietnam even trash pick-up is a grass-roots and almost gritty experience, in striking opposition to our American disaffection from our wastes. It is similar with the water and electricity bill collectors, the mail delivery and even the shoe-shine boys here. And yet, nowhere have I encountered such cheerfulness for such little reward as in Vietnam’s anonymous army of street sweepers and trash collectors.

Tuesday, December 25, 2007

Holiday Greetings from Vietnam

It is 7:30 PM on Christmas Day night; I am sitting warm and dry in my candlelit living room listening to a Christmas concert on my favourite NPR station. I am finally feeling assured that the only thing I have to be concerned about at this moment is what time I should go to bed in order to get up to make an early-morning Christmas phone call to my family.

The Christmas-letter writing season was a wash for me this year; it always seems life implodes in on iteslf around this season. So, finally, on Christmas night I have found the moments of peace necessary to reconnect with all the people brought to mind by the season.

The end of 2007 is also the end of my first complete year in Vietnam. Last year at this time I was shivering in the dark and damp that was so shocking after the recent heat and long days of a Madagascar summer. This year the cold doesn’t seem nearly so shocking. It’s actually quite pleasantly warm (highs of 65-70 (15-20) degrees during the day), but far wetter than the Malagasy winters I’d grown used to. The darkness from the almost constant overcast and fog in the mountains can be depressing, but that’s what good indoor lighting is for.

I suppose the defining factor of my life in Vietnam is my work. This year has seen a lot of changes in that also, as our organization moves through a period of strategic growth and development. It’s a very fluid time – I’m calling it the organizational adolescence – and I don’t think I have worked at the same job for more than two months at a stretch this year. Officially my title has changed from “Health Coordinator for the Cao Bang projects” to “Northern Regional Manager.” It’s a big change in words and in actual responsibilities. It means that I’m less project-based, and far less technically involved in the actual projects. It also leaves a lot of room for job growth as I increasingly focus on program planning, proposal development and other aspects of organizational expansion. It also means a lot more time given to capacity building for the staff coming up behind me – they have to cover a lot more of the nuts-and-bolts of day-to-day project management that the health coordinator used to do. It’s a good thing all around, but like adolescence, it’s also suffused with growing pains.

I feel very, very lucky to have been blessed with the opportunity to work with this organization at this stage in the development. I am doubly blessed with a committed project staff who are also capable of high-quality work. It speaks volumes about both the culture and the program managers who came before me. I am the one benefiting from my predecessors’ investments. The result is a program that is in many ways (and not just in my humble opinion, but also the opinion of external evaluators) an example of how development can work. Here, in Cao Bang, Vietnam, I have every confidence in the achievability of that often unattainable goal: the opportunity to work myself out of a job.

Much of that also speaks for the culture of Vietnam. Far from being a war-ravaged backwater, Vietnam is fast becoming an economic powerhouse in Southeast Asia. Some of my colleagues in the development arena here are beginning a pool to guess when Vietnam will declare itself independent of external aid, much as Thailand has already done. Unlike in the development situation in Africa, Asian countries refuse to be eternally propped up by external money. Just as our own organization is in an adolescent phase, Vietnam itself is reaching vibrant adolescence, with all the joys and pains and questions that goes with it. Perhaps it is appropriate that one of our major projects is an adolescent education and counselling program – we could offer advice and support to the country as a whole.

That brings us to 2008. For now I look forward to the continuing (albeit exhausting) changes that will persist in the coming months. My contract is until the end of June. It is difficult for me to say what I will be doing two months from now, much less in July. I have recently moved into a new house in Cao Bang and am continuing the search for reasonable housing in Hanoi city (a large reason why I have been incommunicado for such a long period). My job requires me to spend increasingly long periods of time in Hanoi; times which are suddenly filled with meetings and conferences and fighting the endless motorbike traffic jams. I am improving my motorbike riding skills by the day – and my ability to disengage my mind from following the rules of the road.

While it seems impossible to see into the coming two or three months with any clarity, I do have a vision of myself enjoying my first American Christmas in five years at home in 2008. What or where I will go between now and then, or beyond that, will be a story for me to tell in a year’s time.

Each day I rely on the words of Jonh Lennon:

Life is what happens when you are busy making other plans.

And so, unless I can retire next year, I will continue to make those plans and discover after that I am living that life already.

Best wishes to all of you at this holiday season. As I thank the Lord for the blessings of another year and for the gift of one very attentive and adventurous guardian angel, I pray that each of you may receive just such a gift in equal measure.

In loving peace,


P.S. For those of you that are more interested in the details of my daily life in Vietnam, I do continue to update my blog at fairly irregular intervals over the months. Currently I have several juicy ideas for upcoming posts – so check back regularly as I will write more very soon!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

One year in 'Nam

Somewhere buried in the pile of days and duties that was this week was my one-year anniversary of my arrival in Vietnam. This time I'm not actually very surprised that a year has passed since I landed here. It feels more of an inevitability than an achievement. I think once I passed my first year in a foreign country it became apparent that I was perfectly capable of doing it, and now it is simply by the grace of God that I continue to walk this particular path.

Still, an anniversary is an anniversary, but this week hasn't offered a lot of opportunity for reflection on the past year. In fact, it has been a week focused on looking ahead - first with a strategic planning meeting in which we outlined the future of our organization for the next 5 years, and now with a visit from a project donor in which we are busy scrutinizing the current project activities and how that is going to roll into the next years and phases of those project. So instead of spending this anniversary looking behind me, I will spend it looking ahead to the next six months of my contract.

One, other thing I haven't had much time to dedicate to looking to is Christmas. I realize it is right around the corner, and you have my sincerest apologies that for yet another year there will be no Christmas cards. Please know that I am thinking of all of you as you begin to celebrate the season in earnest - and I hope you all have very blessed holidays. I'm really hoping for a chance to come up for air on Christmas day, and I will do my best to catch up then.

For those of you looking for an opportunity to give a little this Christmas season, I would ask you to consider a small project that would be extremely grateful for your support. The name is Tu Van Tuoi Hoa - loosely translated at "Flowering Age Counseling Service" run out of Cao Bang by ADRA Vietnam and supported through private donations given to ADRA Australia. Our counseling project receives more than 120 phone calls per month (about 30 of those go to our 24 hour emergency hotline) and over 150 written inquiries from young people, their parents and friends. Three dedicated counselors work every day to personally answer each one of the questions about life, love, physical/emotional development and substance abuse received by our service, as well as organizing a weekly radio show that broadcasts in 4 languages (3 ethnic dialects and standard Vietnamese) and well as training commune health workers in adolescent-friendly health and counseling services.

If you say, "Boy, that sounds like something we could use in the US/Australia/Europe/wherever I am," you're absolutely right. And people from all over Vietnam and even Vietnamese-speaking individuals living outside of Vietnam take advantage of the service. And while it would be a good service for anybody in the world, It is invaluable in a place where young boys are still confused on the subject of wearing underwear and girls don't really understand how they can become pregnant - and reliable information sources are few and far between.

You can get more information on the project from the ADRA Vietnam projects webpage. Or if you would like to directly support a good cause and the work that I am doing during these holidays, please visit our donor's donation webpage.

Thank you for your consideration of our work and Merry Christmas to all - and to all a blessed and restful night!

Sunday, December 09, 2007

Justifiable paranoia?

Here's a little story to amuse you on your Monday morning:

About one month ago we did some shifting of equipment among the ADRA offices in Vietnam, including sending a motorbike from our Cao Bang projects down to Hanoi so that when I am in Hanoi there is another motorbike available for me to use. I have been mainly using that motorbike when needing to get around town. It hasn't been the happiest thing since it arrived, but particularly on this extended trip when I've put nearly 200 km on it just from running back and forth around the city I have started having noticeable problems with it. Mainly, it would cut out completely at random times, most dangerously right as I'm trying to make a left turn in the middle of a busy intersection. I know, I know I should've had it looked at just as soon as I noticed the problems, but between the general business of my time here and the lack of language skills to be able to fully explain the problem, I put it off.

Today, however, we started our strategic planning meetings, which meant that all of the ADRA staff were gathered in one place. As I was pulling out of the lot tonight after the end of the day's meeting, my motorbike started it's old tricks. So I flagged down the one Vietnamese male member of our staff and complained to him about the problems. He took me across the street to one of those ubiquitous random repair shops and told the guys about my problem. They took it out for a test spin, then rolled it back in, propped it up and started tearing it apart.

So, sure enough, it had a problem - but I already knew that. What I didn't know (but had kinda guessed) was just how many problems it had. So to add to the most obvious problem: a completely clogged fuel injection system, this is what else was wrong with the bike:

- completely worn brakes, front and back (I had suspected that also)
- worn tires
- low tire pressure
- low battery acid (did you know that a bike either has a "wet" battery or "dry" battery, and if you have a wet battery you have to have the acid levels checked every time you wash the bike? Assuming you ever actually wash the bike.)
- oil that hadn't been changed in a coon's age

And that's what they found in just the quick check - basically, it hasn't been serviced in the recognizable past.

Now granted, I shouldn't have been so stupid as to keep driving around on a bike with obvious problems, but this is what gets me - before that bike was sent down to Hanoi, I gave my staff EXTREMELY CLEAR AND REPEATED INSTRUCTIONS to have the bike COMPLETELY SERVICED and to have any necessary repairs done BEFORE it left Cao Bang. Specifically I asked for attention to be given to the oil change and to making sure the brakes were good. I asked repeatedly for this to be done, and before the bike was sent I confirmed several times that it HAD been completed. I even signed the receipt, which I believe accounted for an oil change. There were no other problems reported (okay, granted, I also didn't take it for a test drive before it was sent, but I totally didn't have time).

So, do my staff have it in for me? They knew I'd probably be driving this bike in Hanoi (though I suppose they could just have it in for the other Hanoi staff). The fuel injection system and low tire pressure I could let by if it had only really started acting up after arriving in Hanoi, but the fact that we apparently already paid for the oil change, but the oil hadn't actually been changed before it was sent and that the brakes were bad and the worn tires and low battery acid - those are all things that should've been taken care of and would've been obvious if it had been done just a few weeks ago. Yet none of them were taken care of, even after I VERY SPECIFICALLY asked if it had. And what's up with paying for an oil change that never happened?

Well, one thing's for sure - we're going to be keeping closer tabs on actual motorbike maintenance from now on (yay, one more non-public health related item to add to my list), and I'm going to be taking a much more proactive role in caring for the motorbikes in Hanoi (the Hanoi staff are even less crazy about actually caring for the bikes than the Cao Bang staff). And I'm going to have a very serious talking-to with my Cao Bang staff about how it isn't nice to set up your boss to get killed in a road accident.

Saturday, December 01, 2007

Alarm over “missing daughters” trend in Vietnam

HANOI (AFP) — Vietnam's birth ratio has become skewed toward boys, a trend that population experts are blaming on a traditional preference for male offspring and the availability of abortion and ultrasound fetal scans.

The international ratio at birth is about 105 boys for every 100 girls, but in Vietnam -- in an echo of trends in China and India -- the imbalance has grown to 110-100 and is as high as 120-100 in some provinces.

(read entire article here...)

ADRA in Vietnam takes lead in restoring Vietnam’s “missing daughters”

HANOI (ADRA Daily News) — With the arrival of Luu Cong Dinh’s new baby girl on October 30, ADRA in Vietnam has renewed leadership in ensuring the well-being of next generation of women in Vietnam.

ADRA Vietnam’s 14 national staff demonstrate personal responsibility for what is fast becoming an organizational mandate: taking action in Vietnam’s growing gender crisis by positively contributing to improving and maintaining the national male:female gender ratio. They are doing this in a unique way: by personally bringing happy, healthy and beautiful baby girls into the world.

Of eight married national staff members in ADRA in Vietnam, seven have already put this commitment into action with the birth of nine daughters, four born in the last 14 months. The organization’s overall child gender ratio 33 boys to 100 girls (normal population is 105:100). When children of staff recently returned to government posts following successful projects are included, the ratio decreases to 25:100.

“These statistics may seem drastic,” states ADRA's Regional Manager, “but ADRA is a small organization taking on a national issue. We will have to work hard to do our part.”

“The people working for our organization are driven and work hard to promote the roles and rights of women in our community. We are passionate about our role in the development of Vietnam,” said the manager.

ADRA staff also anticipate personal advantages offered by the new initiative. “I look forward to interviewing potential suitors for my own daughter when she comes of age,” announced Hoang Minh Phuong, counselor for ADRA’s CHIC project. “Perhaps I should consider holding a contest.”

The Year of the Golden Pig, traditionally considered a lucky year to give birth to a son, has not stood in the way of ADRA’s dedication to the cause of gender balance in Vietnam. Luu Cong Dinh, parent of ADRA’s most recent addition to the Vietnamese female population announces his “happiness” at the arrival of the 2.9 kg baby girl.

“ADRA staff are living proof of the value of women to assuring the fortunes of Vietnam now and for years to come,” states the Regional Manager, “Perhaps we should consider making this effort a part of our ongoing strategic planning process.”

Saturday, November 24, 2007

Colorful Finds in Hanoi

This week saw me making yet another pilgrimage to Hanoi for a couple of weeks of work ahead. But this time was different – I had procrastinated on making my hotel reservation and found myself suddenly in trouble when my laziness collided head-on with the start of high tourist season. Not only was my usual place booked solid – but almost all of the other hotels in the Old Quarter are completely packed solid. Or at least no rooms are available for the two solid weeks that I will need – both in and out of my price range.

Then, to add inconvenience to bad luck, the driver that brought me down to Hanoi refused to take me to the remote hotel buried deep in the traffic-choked claustrophobic lanes of the shop-filled tourist streets in the Old Quarter – the one that finally had agreed to give me a room for two weeks. That would have left me bailing at the hotel where my fellow passenger had a room and finding a local taxi to take me through the streets. Fortunately, the hotel that we did stop at first had a last minute opening for one night – and between my fellow passenger and the friendly hotel staff, we managed to negotiate a reasonable price arrangement and I got a perfectly comfortable room for the night.

Still, that left me the dilemma of Saturday with no room. So bright and early Saturday morning I was off on foot scouring neighborhoods for potential hotel rooms. I finally happened upon a Vietnamese hotel in a neighborhood halfway between the tourist district and the area where my hotel is. And what a lucky find it was! For $22 US/night, I scored a large 10th floor room (in a hotel with an elevator), with a bright window opening onto the Hanoi skyline and full of fresh air, two comfortable chairs, a writing desk, large wardrobe and very comfortable bed. The staff warned me sadly that this was their “small” room and they apologized for not having anything larger available. Small?!? This was almost three times the size of the room I had paid $10 more for the night before, and had a big tub and a window allowing fresh air into the room. Only downside? No breakfast included, but then, neither did my former regular hotel.

So, I was left to a Saturday of happy discoveries. After finding the hotel I set out to properly explore the neighborhood. I was several blocks south of the tourist district, and had finally escaped the prices and obsessive vendors. Yet there are a large number of nice shops, restaurants (every other one being Japanese…), coffee and juice shops, and it is near one of the largest markets and largest upscale shopping complex in Hanoi. Walking distance (if you’re a walker like me anyway) to just about everywhere I would want to be. People were friendly and not pushy. Streets are green with trees. And the whole area (my hotel included) is a wireless hotspot, so I can access the internet from almost everywhere – though I must confess to being torn between that and the 30 some-odd English language stations I can watch in my hotel room…

And so – for one of my adventures of the day:

As I said, my new hotel is located in prime Vietnamese shopping area, specifically next to the largest fabric market I have ever seen. The entire top floor of the almost one-city-block area (minus a large open atrium that looks down on the green grocers in the center) is packed tight with fabric stalls. Most of the stalls sell the same standard fare of fabric – cottons, corduroy, poly-mixes and wools for making suits; the lighter-weight shirt and blouse material in solids and prints; rich velvets, heavy knit material for sweaters and even some jersey for sweatshirts. There are a few specialty shops including denim and silks mixed in, and one whole corner devoted to pillows and bedding. Each shop is miniscule – the average being just long enough to lie down in and deep enough to sit upright with legs extended – height is only limited by how high the bolts can be stacked without falling over. Each booth is thigh-deep in layers of bulk fabric.

But what struck me the most was the atmosphere. I visited on a Saturday afternoon – prime shopping time for office workers and students and other people who can’t simply choose the day of week to browse fabrics. I emerged from the dark stairway to find myself ten people deep to the nearest stall – in a space so small that I could have almost reached over those ten people to touch the nearest fabric. For all the Black Friday-esque crowds, it was almost as if the very softness of the cloth was absorbing the energy, breathing out sedatives even as it absorbed the noise of the hundreds of voices.

The vendors, having been exposed to this tranquilizing atmosphere the longest, were the most subdued. Considering the fact that each one of the thousand-plus was selling practically the same stock as their three hundred closest neighbors, there was no rabid salesmanship or mind-numbing competition for attention between the sellers. There were no megaphones advertising half-price deals; no in-your-face shoving to prove that this bolt was indeed far superior to the identical twin next door. The opium of the fabric acted so strongly that even haggling seemed to be at a bare minimum and many were stretched out fast asleep on top of their inventory.

This picture I randomly found on Flickr captures the atmosphere well - great shot three-b.

The customers, still high on the intoxicating effect of the whirl of colors, were more vigorous, but the sellers calmly offered each interested party a seat on the child’s footstools that are so popular here, effectively blocking the two-foot-wide walkways with sitting human bodies. They proceeded to calmly introduce different colors and styles, easing each potential buyer into a languid consideration of the benefits of each texture and weight.

Even as a foreigner I attracted relatively little attention beyond the passing remark. I was allowed to browse each stall and examine the stacks for what I was interested in. I was addressed in polite Vietnamese, asking what I was looking for with none of the cutthroat tourist-quarter language showing how good-good something you would never want anyway was; there wasn’t even the same aggressiveness that I had encountered in the kitchen and housewares area in the lower level of the same building. When I asked prices, they gave me a reasonable quote – the same they were giving to all the other Vietnamese shopping beside me.

And thus, I was lured. I happily purchased two different corduroy colors and wove and shoved and dodged my way through the stalls until I found a denim dealer. Average price was about $3.50/meter – perhaps still a little high, but priceless if I can get custom-fitted pants in a land of size zeros. I saw as much as I could see – but now want to go back and look for flannels for making winter sheets for my bed. Then there’s the idea of looking for ribbed cotton or jersey to have turtlenecks made. And then, as winter passes I should think of a spring and summer wardrobe. Ah! The potential is endless!

Obviously the Vietnamese agree with me, so I am happy to say that the tailors of Vietnam are not going out of business any time soon. And when you can make people as comfortable buying something as the laid-back fabric sellers in Vietnam, why not go back for more?

Wednesday, November 21, 2007

Thankful for Teachers

Almost in the spirit of Thanksgiving the Vietnamese have reserved November 20th as "Teacher Day." Imagine, taking one day out of the school year in which the students all show up at school, but not to be lectured to or tested or otherwise tortured - and neither are their teachers. Instead, teachers bask in a day of appreciation, songs, dances and lots and lots of flowers. Bouquets were flying right and left and the flower sellers were doing a holiday's business as ever student raced to get a dozen roses or a stalk of lilies snuggled in a bed of babies breath or bright yellow daisies all trussed up in paper and lace and ribbons to present to their favorite teacher. I asked my staff how this whole tradition of teacher's day came about. Of course, the origins have to go back to the esteemed Uncle Ho Chi Minh, who wrote an open letter of appreciation to all teachers in the country, dated November 20th, year unknown. He included a quote that translates roughly as:

If you want to prosper in the next decade, plant trees;

If you want to prosper in the next century, plant people.

Teacher’s Day was only declared a public day of recognition only within the last few decades. I asked my staff for some of their experiences while celebrating the day. Almost all of them talk about going to visit their teachers in their homes on this day at. A large group of students would gather together and choose a teacher’s house. Many of them spent so much time there that some of them even wound up spending the night after being caught out after dark. Visiting teachers on this day is almost mandatory – and many don’t stop after they finish school. Many of my staff who had attended school in the area dashed away from the office at 5 PM to gather with their friends and begin to make rounds to their former teachers’ homes.

Today I had a meeting with members of our organization’s Project Management Committee, including the provincial director of the Department of Education. The committee spent several minutes chatting about the activities from the day before – then they asked me how Teacher’s Day in Vietnam compares to in the US. I had to confess that I didn’t think we had an official day for recognizing all the contributions of our teachers to our lives…and that I think Vietnam has something good on us there. Everybody laughed, appreciative that they were truly ahead of us in at least one major category – showing thankfulness and paying debts of gratitude.

Saturday, November 10, 2007

Midnight Tug-of-War

Evening has settled over the town – coming faster now that winter is creeping over the edges of the calendar pages. Noise from the local restaurant drifts up through windows, but mercifully the saws and hammering from the construction site next door have ceased. My curtains are drawn and windows closed against the evening chill. I’m fresh from a hot shower and ready to snuggle under the covers with a book for my first early evening in weeks.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.

I’m still not used to the noises that my new house makes and amplifies through the hollow backbone spiral stairwell. I wonder if somebody is downstairs pounding on my door. I’m wearing only a tank top and pajama pants, so I slip cautiously out through the French doors to my bedroom balcony to peer into the shadows below. There are a few people running in the street, but I don’t see anybody at my door.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boooom-boom-BOOM. BOOM-BOOM.

In the pool of light from the streetlight I see the disturber-of-the-peace. A woman is beating on a large drum, raising the cry of war. There are three or four adults milling authoritatively about and several children excitedly run over hoping for a turn with the drum mallet. A few insubstantial noises come from the drum as the children whack away. There’s no panic and no sense of urgency – just the persistent and insistent droned beats changing slightly in tone and tempo as different adults demonstrate their messaging skills:



BOOOM-BOOOM-BOOM-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-bo-ba-ba-boom. BOOM-BOOM-BOOM.

Obviously there is a message in all this banging, but people seem only mildly interested at first. Gradually more and more people wander down the street, bundled in winter coats and hats. Children race excitedly up and down through the puddles of hazy light from street lamps and doorways, thrilled to be sanctioned to be out past bedtime in a neighborhood made new by shadows and darkness. Several motorbikes get caught in the throngs roaming distractedly about. I stay hidden in the shadows of my balcony, hoping that whatever it is that is going on, they forget about the new foreigner.

BOOM. Boom-boom-boom-BOOM.

The banging continues, more frequent now as those milling don’t want to be kept waiting forever. Then suddenly a rope appears in the middle of the street and three parallel chalk lines are drawn about six feet apart. And I, with my bird’s-eye view of the proceedings, suddenly understand: this is rehearsal time.

Things happen a bit more quickly now. I slink even deeper into the shadows, hoping even more that my presence is forgotten. I have been assigned to the tug-of-war team for the Sunday neighbourhood party – a competition to be held against another city street, also apparently having a block party. I never imagined that a friendly tug-of-war competition would involve rehearsals, strategizing and practice. But here I am, shivering in the shadows, watching as the women and the men take their respective sides and places and prepare to rehearse pulling on a rope.

The banging on the drum has finally ceased, and all the attention is on the man holding the rag tied to the center of the rope. Ten people alternate sides down the rope on either end of the street, some giving anxious little tugs as they wait for the man in the middle to drop the rope. Women line up beneath my balcony; men have the rope in the shadows beyond the streetlight.

The rope is dropped and the referee leaps backwards as the rope is snatched taunt. This first battle lasts only seconds as the women quickly yank the men off balance and snatch the ribbon over their line – along with a couple of the men standing closest to the middle. Laughter and shrieks of victory cut through the darkness louder than even the beat of the drum. The men slink back into the darkness, not exactly into a strategic huddle, but to pass looks of quiet determination among them. The line-up takes longer this time as apparently more strategy is applied. Placements are considered, spacing carefully controlled. Finally they are ready to begin again.

The rope is dropped a second time and the referee jumps clear. The battle lasts longer now; while the women have sheer strength and endurance on their side, the men have their pride to defend. Balance is hard fought and won and suddenly the women are pulled across the line onto the men’s half.

The exchanges continue, with women and men alternating victories. Then suddenly everything stops when the referee grabs a sheet of paper and disappears into the house. I recheck my shadowy hiding place to make sure that it’s not me they’ve missed. Watching from above is one thing, being pulled down in my pyjamas to practice yanking a rope in the middle of a night is quite another.

Suddenly, to everybody’s amusement, a foreign couple wander through the mess. At first they appear slightly taken aback at the crowds standing about on a particular neighborhood street after dark, and then bemused by the sight of a rope lying on the ground. Nobody is making desperate moves in any particular direction, so I assume the foreigners don’t believe it to be a lynching. Soon the foreigners, tourists obviously, are noticed by a few in the crowd. A flurry of hand gestures and some monosyllables are exchanged, and as a few children rush through the crowd and attempt their own mini-tug of war with a rope twice as heavy as they are, the tourists figure out what’s going on. Why there is a neighborhood tug-of-war competition in the middle of the night is certainly still a mystery them.

Inspired by an audience and the return of the man with a sheet of paper, people leap back into action to demonstrate their tugging prowess. After some disorganized stretching and warming-up, three more battles take place in quick succession, again alternating victories between men and women. As the tourists watch, I am even more relieved that I am only observing from on high. It is better than trying to explain that, no, they aren’t just having a random game in the middle of the night, which would seem odd enough, but they are actually practicing for an upcoming competition this weekend. And they have been practicing every night this week. This is serious business.

Finally, the tourists tire of the strange occupation of the Vietnamese locals, and I begin to shiver in the evening chill. My hair is almost dry now, and my shoulders are still bare. I give one last glance to the jacketed and scarfed and now sweating population below, and retire to my warm bed and book. My participation in rope-pulling events will simply have to come the day-of…although I’m already considering just which shoes will provide the best grip and whether wearing gloves is allowed...

_____________________________________________________________________ Sunday Tug-of-war update: yesterday afternoon we had the competition - after 3 hours of communist party leaders giving speeches and patriotic song and dance (some of it absolutely awful, some of it impressively good). That was a learning experience in and of itself.

Then came the tug of war - and our team took it seriously. Matching team jerseys, red headbands, the whole bit. They even made me go change shoes (I was going to anyway, I just was unsure of the order of events). There were 6 competing teams in all, 3 men and 3 women's teams. We were the last women's team to compete, and we literally walked away with the prize. Hardly had to pull at all - completely walloped the other women's teams. Guess it pays to train against the men in your neighborhood.

I think the top men's team was the one from our neighborhood (all wearing matching red jerseys, and the women from our team went nuts yelling for them).

I had been hoping for a pull-off between the best men's and women's teams, but the whole thing deteriorated pretty quickly, and ended with us all tromping off to eat rice. Well, it was fun anyway - still think practicing every night was overkill though.

Tuesday, October 30, 2007

Bought a mattress...

Bought a mattress,
Bought a mattress,
Bought a mattress last night.
Last night I bought a mattress,
I bought a mattress last night.

It was springy,
It was lumpy,
It was creaky last night.
The mattress was lumpy, springy, creaky,
Lumpy, springy last night.

Slept on it anyway,
Slept on it anyway,
Slept on it anyway last night.
Last night I slept on it anyway,
Slept on it anyway last night.

Was really happy,
Was really happy,
Was really happy last night.
Last night I was happy I bought a mattress,
I bought a mattress last night.

Sunday, October 28, 2007


I'm shocked. I am totally shocked that I actually have the keys to my shocking green house.

As of this weekend, I have the keys and the majority of my important personal items have been moved into a shocking green-colored, 5 story house festooned with windows on the edge of the market, about two blocks away from my office. I'm not sure what is more shocking: the color, the number of stories and rooms, the number of windows, or the fact that I am actually finally inside the house.

Moving out of the office has been and (it seems) will continue to be a long and arduous process. When I first accepted the post in Vietnam, it was with the understanding that while I would have to live inside the office for the first few months, as soon as the new project budget was approved and implemented, I'd bet out of the office and into a private house. We started looking almost as soon as I arrived, and the first place I looked at was the first place I liked. We made a verbal agreement with the owner to come back in June. Then things went downhill.

No ugly details here, but things on both sides got stretched and stretched and stretched. Finally we agreed that when I returned from the US, I would move in (no sense in moving and paying for a month of rent when I wouldn't be there to enjoy it). Well, of course, that became the week after I returned. Then the week after that. Then they were doing official government paperwork, so it wouldn't be that week. Then I was in Hanoi. I spent several weeks packing and half unpacking and trying to find bags to take to Hanoi and keep packed, in a constant state of moving limbo.

Finally it was agreed that Saturday morning at 9 o'clock would be the time. Nine AM sharp my translator showed up as I hauled down the last big bag from my fifth floor room to the kitchen. We headed off only to meet my chief negotiator and soon-to-be neighbor, my head counselor coming to head us off. Sorry, she said, the family wasn't ready – time had been changed to two o'clock that afternoon.

Needless to say I wasn't crazy happy about that idea. But I suggested we go to talk to the landlady and at least get the contract signed. We found her hanging out in her pharmacy shop while her husband drank beer across the street, with pieces of beds and a few baskets of things sitting out on their steps. We sat down and started chatting. Then we said we understood they weren't quite ready and that they would need until 2 PM. She said, well, no, actually, 4 PM would be a better time for her.

Well, that's when I put my foot down. No more delays. I have to work and at this rate they're already getting almost 10 days bonus on the contract from our intended move-in date and that Saturday. Then she proceeded to tell me that there was going to be an issue with sharing the water meter with the house next door. The Landlady was inspired to drag her husband off his butt and put him to more semi-productive activity. And at least I had something to do with my spare time – change the contract to manage the water issue. So, there I was, back in my room, staring at the ceiling and waiting for two o'clock to come.

2 PM found the family frantically dragging things out of the house, people frantically running up and down the stairs and leaving heaps of resurrected detritus in their wake. We pulled up in our borrowed government pickup full of my bags and boxes and pedi-cab with the refrigerator transported two whole blocks from the office. So now we had people pulling bits and pieces out while my stuff was stuffed on in. All around the three or four men (including the husband) enjoying afternoon refreshment at the dining room table.

While my things were piled in the entry way, we made the tour of the facilities recording furnishings that would be left for my use while my dear head counselor scraped 10 years worth of grease build-up off the counters and glass cabinets and ventilator hood. And I started making mental calculations of how many hours and millions of Dong it would take to make the place livable. As we came down we were both more exhausted – her for the work already done, me for the work that was still to come.

Finally they were out – and I was off with my translator to purchase an all-important stove and gas bottle and lock for the gate, leaving one helpful staff person to watch over the house until we could get back and secure it.

We returned to find that some improvement had been made in the kitchen area – and that apparently I had inherited a Cheers. There, taking all eight seats at the dining room table was the local happy hour crowd, already well-ensconced with their beers and cigarettes.

Sigh, first thing to make clear – my house was no longer in possession of a liquor license, and Cheers was going to have to move premises. Sorry guys.

So, finally at 5 pm I said good-bye to the last of my helpful neighbors, staff and friends, their husbands and in-laws, and turned to look at the wreck was renting.

I managed to mop down the bedroom floor before 8 pm that night, but as I was without a mattress, I have yet to spend a night in my new house. So, while I have the keys and today I managed to make serious headway into bringing the house closer to health code, it might be a few nights before I actually sleep there. Still, it is nice having a place that I might escape to and know that it is my own territory. Now that Cheers has been relocated, I will be assured of nobody wandering around without my explicit invitation.

Strange, but this assured privacy is also bringing me closer to the community. I look forward to having more stories about Vietnam and Vietnamese people to post very, very soon!

Saturday, October 20, 2007

Praying at Hanoi’s St. Joseph’s Cathedral

About 7% of the Vietnamese population are officially registered as Catholics. While Catholicism and other religions are strictly controlled by the central government, Catholicism is certainly the most obvious influence on Vietnamese religious life after Buddhism. Churches, while nowhere near as plentiful as in Madagascar, sprout from surprising places in a fairly large number of communities. Some were originally built for "the French and holiday makers," but today you would be hard-pressed to find a church that caters only to foreigners or, indeed, even celebrates Mass in a language other than Vietnamese.

St. Joseph's Cathedral in Hanoi is the largest congregation in Hanoi and the north of Vietnam. The church itself stands in a largish courtyard at the T intersection of a couple of well-appointed streets full of up-scale boutiques, delis and cafés deep in the city's Old Quarter. The building towers over the surrounding one-story shops and looms mysteriously through the trees until you break out into the shadow of the stark grey gothic towers. After the colors, bustling sounds and woody environs of the tourist-filled streets of the Old Quarter, the Cathedral itself stands as an almost ghostly anomaly, like black-and-white scene lost and wandering through a modern-day action-packed film.

Before Mass time the courtyard in front of the church is packed with a procession of motorbikes, bicycle cabs and old women waiting at the riot fencing that prevents the crowds from climbing the long flight of steps to the two-story wooden doors between Mass times. At precisely 15 minutes before the hour of Mass, the wood doors are opened and the moveable gates unlocked to allow the masses inwards. First in are the few beggars the city of Hanoi hosts, who sit on the steps begging alms from the church goers. Next are the members of the Rosary society, who will race their way through a Rosary in the few minutes allotted to them before the clockwork priests begin their inward march. Mixed in the rest are the other faithful and a fair number of tourists, who, not seeing the doors open at any other time boldly take the opportunity to scuttle about looking at the architecture and icons – slightly disappointing I am sure after a general anticipation that is bound to build up if one is kept away for so long.

The inside of the church is frankly reminiscent of European-style church buildings with impossibly tall white columns meet in arches in a Mary's-robe blue sky-ceiling painted above. The impression is of well-ordered clouds in a peaceful firmament, supported below by a lively gold-gilt altarpiece backdrop. The impression is not nearly so foreign as in Thailand where gaudy Buddhist traditions and unabashedly mixed into all church decorations until the outward appearance of the religions melts together into an indistinguishable mix. Instead, it resembles closely the St. Joseph's of my childhood in my grandparent's home in Marshfield, Wisconsin. Tall red-and-gold columns housing a few statues of Saints rise to meet giant stained-glass windows. To ensure full appreciation of the craftsmanship of the windows during evening services, the tall peaked windows are lined with fluorescent bulbs lit with a flick of a switch about 5 minutes before Mass begins. The fireworks-like appearance of the pictures in the windows as the bulbs sputter to life in a lively and random manner is one of highlights of the pre-Mass ceremony.

The other highlight, which is a strong reminder of the foreignness of the locale, is the Rosary society itself. Beginning as soon as the first leader can whisk into her seat after the doors are opened, the members take up a chant that immediately calls to mind the deeply ingrained Buddhist roots of the region, the juxtaposition of which with the generally European surroundings can only be described as "exotic." The droning monotone continues up and even into the opening announcements made by an adjunct priest in the minutes before Mass actually gets underway.

For being a cathedral, I don't find the internal appropriations of the church to be immediately impressive. Even in size, I believe it is only about ¼ larger than my grandparents' church, and the new St. Peter's church at full capacity probably seats more (although this church also utilizes the miniature stools so favored by street-food vendors and the large area on top of the steps outside the doors to accommodate overflow crowds). The interior beneath the crowning blue-and-white is a flaking, faded spring-green-gone-puce color, and most of the tiles on the floor are chipped and scraped. There really is little to make you rejoice in the beauty and majesty of the building, and like many Asian buildings, it is generally overstuffed with miss-matched pictures, statues and icons.

Yet, some great care has been taken to the technological needs of the building. Lighting, while almost entirely done in the ubiquitous fluorescent strip-bulbs, is hung so unobtrusively as to cast as warm a glow as fluorescent lighting is capable of. Fans are located on each angle of the mighty columns and the controls are available to the worshipers themselves to adjust to maximum comfort. The pews are basic utilitarian as are found widely in developing countries and more generally outside of the US (where seats are to be found at all), but the sound system is probably the most remarkable feature in the whole building. With a surprising no-costs-are-too-much attitude, somebody wisely chose to invest in a Bose sound system, and then found a true professional to complete the installation. The result is an almost miraculous clarity of sound throughout the entire interior. I found myself sitting directly beneath one speaker but quickly discovered that it was no louder or more distorted than sitting at the furthest back corner of the church. Speakers are distributed evenly throughout, completely eliminating the delay that can be so deadly to a choir leading worshipers and the priest himself in signing from a choir loft. The sound is completely balanced; the priest, lector nor musicians are guilty of drowning out the rest.

The video system is also to be lauded. I discovered this when I came to a Pentecost celebration only to be completely bowled over at the immensity of the production. Needless to say, arriving 5 minutes before Mass began (and 25 minutes into pre-Mass spectacle), I and more than 150 others didn't chance a seat inside. Nothing to fear – an internally mounted camera broadcast live to an LCD project set up to project onto a large screen outside on the steps. The sound system also has external components, making it just as easy to see and hear as if we'd been sitting in the front row. Possibly better than three quarters of those crammed inside (and with better air, despite all the fans, I am sure).

The choir is an odd assortment of chanters and melodious singers. The pianists and organists have always been top notch when I was there (refreshingly not surprising in a city that appreciates music and culture). The music is nothing familiar, and incorporates an almost chant-like drone into most of the parts, giving the experience another shot of exoticism.

The service itself runs almost militantly like clockwork, with the constant quarter-hour chiming from the towering steeples above to remind us exactly what point we should be at. The procession is accompanied by the chiming of the hour, readings, homily and prayers are spoken with a clarity that scoffs at the need for a superb sound system, and the sending forth and closing song are chanted above the tolling of one hour more. There is a definite flow in which all celebrants are expected to participate fully.

The exodus from the church at the end of service is almost another shock of time-and-place, whether day or night. The crowds bottle neck at the colossal double doors and swarm around the two tiny holy water fonts almost hidden behind them on the far edges of the vestibule. Then you are disgorged onto blanketing humidity on the top steps, leaving you to feel like a rock star on stage with the adoring crowds of taxis, motorbikes and pedi-cabs, Hanoi's begging poor, people waiting to retrieve worshiping relatives, popcorn and streetfood vendors, helium balloon sellers, curious tourists and other opportunists staring up at you and your fellow humanity so recently sanctified.

As you make your way down and out through the protective fencing, you know you are leaving a place of (only occasional) sanctuary, and reentering the mad world of Old Quarter Hanoi.

Saturday, October 06, 2007

Racing Time Back Around the Globe

First, let me take this moment to say to all of you that I had a chance to see in the US – it was WONDERFUL to meet up with you again. Thank you for your hospitality, your conversation, your re-arranging of schedules, and for picking up right where we left off, making me feel as though no time has passed since we saw each other last. It is the greatest blessing to know that I am surrounded by friends, near and far, and to know that I can count on you whenever I may wander into your neighbourhoods. And all of you may be assured of a warm welcome should you ever wander to where I may be.

To all of those that I didn’t have the chance to see on this trip – I hope and pray that the next trip will be the one for you. There are still so many stories to share and lives to be updated on, meals to be eaten and walks to be taken – my blessings abound and my cup overfloweth.

In a brief summary of the blessings of this last trip: I spent my first days/nights with my grandparents and aunt and uncle over Labor Day. That time passed all too quickly, then it was back for the mandatory doctor’s and dentist appointments. My nurse practitioner, though he tried, could find absolutely nothing wrong with me and pronounced me again healthy as a horse, and the dentist could only pin me down to seal a couple of teeth that were threatening future difficulties (hah, take that PC Mada Adventist Dentist – here they only seal those teeth you were threatening to drill for no good reason! Glad I stopped your advances). That sent me on my way to Washington, D.C., where I was received at the US Meva in the Hood of Little Tana and was entertained in full Mada style with a constant flow of new PC faces, food, conversation and recreational opportunities.

Next to Minnesota and some quality time with my college roommate of four years. Kristi has received me as a guest almost every year since our college days and I hope we can continue the ritual of her visiting me in every place that I live. Then it was down into Iowa to see a high school classmate and her family, then to more college friends, two of which have the audacity to get married just after I returned to Vietnam. Best wishes Sarah and Jon – my visit leaves me in no doubt of your future happiness together, especially with good mentors like Amy and Peter close by. All of the couples I visited on my trip demonstrate only the best of what there is to be had in committed relationships – may you long be role models to the world. As with the next pair that I met with – who I hadn’t seen since college or since their marriage. How lucky you all are!

Then it was back up to Decorah for a quick breeze through the ole alma mater grounds and to grab my sister from her weekend army reserves drill and head back north. We stopped over at her new grad school accommodations for the night before going home. She made only a brief stop-off to pick up the loveable monster she calls a dog (but resembles more of a pony), so most of the time I had to spend with her was in the car. Then I was off to catch up with the local crowd.

I made some local excursions to see a variety of local friends, was invited to give a couple of presentations about Vietnam, and celebrated my 10 year class reunion at a local restaurant. I even managed to find some time to enjoy picking apples, making pies and to enjoy the extraordinary fall colors. It seems I chose the perfect time to be home this year. Autumn is undoubtedly my favorite time of year, and for the first time in 3 years, I had the chance to enjoy the fruits of the season (and I’ve made it back to Vietnam in plenty of time to enjoy a second fall here…whenever it should choose to arrive).

The next week our home was invaded by my father’s family celebrating the marriage of my oldest cousin. My cousin and her new husband, who were married in their home in the Alaska bush in early August, made the grand tour of the lower 48, with the last stopover being here. Their arrival set off a whole stream of family events, not the least of which was the opportunity to have a final memorial for my grandmother who went to her rest in February. In a rare even, most of our family and close friends were gathered together in my grandparents’ favorite place during their lifetimes to enjoy the stillness and beauty of nature, to enjoy excellent food and companionship, and to share our favorite memories and cherished family stories that will remain forever a part of the family oral history.

Family time in this journey was all too short as I didn’t have the opportunity to reconnect with cousins on my mother’s side or spend more time with that family. There were also other friends that I didn’t see and can only hope to see in future travels home. My life is simply too large to piece into a single month, and for that I am grateful. But I am also grateful that there was time for silence, time for reflection, and time for future planning – something that all too often gets shoved aside or is impossible to find in my daily life over here. And so, inevitably, the first of October came and found me waiting for (a yet-again delayed) airplane that would take me on the first leg of a journey halfway around the world.

But my story doesn’t quite stop there. I also had the chance to stay for two nights in Japan with a friend, formerly an intern with ADRA in Vietnam, now an employee of ADRA Japan. She met me at Tokyo Narita airport, helped me negotiate the entirely too-complex public transportation system into Tokyo where I stayed with her family in the heart of the city. We went to museums and other local sights, we ate Japanese food, and of course visited the ADRA Japan offices. Her mother overflowed with kindness, giving me not only the best of her local preparations, but also yogurt starter from the Caspian Sea that her family has grown and cultured to carry to Vietnam. They took me into the strangest of venues for dinner – we tromped through Tokyo’s famous fish market until we came upon a door half-hidden behind some industrial piping and packing equipment where we entered a restaurant serving some of the best (and obviously freshest) sushi and sashimi on earth! They treated me as a guest of honor as we enjoyed some of Japans famous oddities and fish with names that simply don’t translate into English. Then they took me, full and half nodding-off, on a great night tour of Tokyo.

The next day was my final return to Vietnam. I experienced only kindness and understanding throughout my entire journey from airlines and immigrations, and have no complaints about anything except the general culture shock of being back in a place where cleanliness is not necessarily considered an indication of godliness. Today I am home, safe and sound, but already there is a wish for the peace of a northern Wisconsin morning and for the orderliness of a well-observed road system. It’s good to see how much of the language I still remember after a month of disuse, and I am excited to see that they have painted the new hotel across from my office a nice, sunny yellow-orange that brings sunshine into my office and bedroom window even on the dreariest of days (and yesterday was quite dreary). Still, it’s difficult to leave so many enjoyable things behind and face down a year’s worth of work ahead. But I have a month of beautiful memories to hold on to and to ration out over the next year. Thank you and I love you all.

Saturday, August 18, 2007

Third person I am - an introduction to Vietnamese language

So I have been in Vietnam for 9 months, but I still feel generally unqualified to comment much on the language. Yet it is such an integral and fascinating part of the culture that I really am compelled to do so at some point. I do find it a fascinating, and fascinatingly difficult, language. The difficulties are mainly due to my lack of practice – my study has been completely self-study and practice speaking is completely random and unstructured. I would love to learn more, and I hope with time and discipline that I will.

It's all in the way it sounds

First, the most essential aspect to the language is that it is tonal. Tonal means that the inflection that you give an individual word will change its meaning entirely. In Vietnamese there are 5 tones:

1) the up (rising) tone, indicated with a ³ mark over the vowel. It sounds like you are asking a question.

2) the down (falling) tone, indicated with a ` mark over the vowel. It sounds like a sigh.

3) the question (sqiggly) tone, indicated with a dotless ? over the vowel. It sounds like an "ah-hah" intoning in the letter (start low, rise to the top, fall back to the bottom).

4) the tripping tone, indicated with the ~ mark over the vowel. It sounds like your voice catches in the middle of the phrase, or "trips" over the letter

5) the short tone, indicated with a . beneath the vowel. This tone pulls the word up very short and sudden, almost a grunt.

Some books teach that there is a 6th tone, the no tone. This describes any word not having one of these accent marks, and is spoken flat, with no inflection. Actually, there is a bit of relaxed inflection to these words – it is only foreign words that are spoken with a jack-in-the-box robotic lack of inflection.

The tone itself can change the meaning of a simple word completely. Here is one popular example:





mother, cheek

which, but



rice seedling

There is often no logical connection among the meanings of the words with different tones, and there isn't necessarily a different meaning or even a true word for every tone combination for any given word/syllable.

Yet, each syllable has one tone, and all words in Vietnamese written as mono-syllables, but an entire word may need two syllables to be complete. So all words are very short, but it may take two syllables (and two tones), separated by a space, to give a word proper meaning. For example:

ăn means to eat, and ăn sáng, ăn trưa, ăn tôi, accordingly mean to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner. But then it can get more confusing:

ăn anh: to be photogenic

ăn cắp: to steal

ăn chặn: to appropriate

ăn khớp: to fit together

ăn học: to study

nhà by itself means house, but when combined with other syllables, in additions to all the usual permutations and adjectival descriptions of a house/building (e.g., brick house, old house, unoccupied house and printing house, bank, restaurant, skyscraper), it can mean

nhà báo: journalist

nhà binh: military, army

nhà buôn: merchant, dealer

nhà chồng: in-laws

nhà chung: Catholic clergy, priest

nhà ngươi: thou, form of address to an inferior

nhà nước: state or government


nhà tôi: my spouse

There are a few annoying examples where the first word can have several different meanings, and the second word on its own means nothing. Each syllable may have its own meaning, or it may be a nonsensical syllable without a partner. For example, đồng means field, but when combined with hồ (meaning lake), it means clock or watch.

I am in the third person

One of the other extremely important cultural and linguistic aspects of the language is personal pronouns and forms of address. First, one helpful rule of thumb is to think of it as speaking in the third person all the time. There are multiple words for "I" – all depending on the social situation you are in at the time. There are a few more "neutral" options to express I or my, but much of the time several select words are used depending on your relative rank in any given situation. These also change depending on whether you are male or female.

This is a short list in order of increasing rank:


I used to refer to one's self when speaking to an old person. This is also second and third-person speak for child, so phrases might literally translate as, "Child wants [I want] to ask old person [you] a question," and "Child is [you are] welcome to ask old person [me] a question."


I used to refer to one's self around persons older in age than one's self, or to refer to those, either in second or third person, younger in age than yourself. Young men should not use this of young girls. Sometimes people use this to emphasize a lower rank, either of themselves or of the other person, regardless (but usually in general reference to) age. Third person pronoun adds the word em ấy to indicate he/she/him/her.


For young men referring to themselves or for second person pronoun for a young man; third person pronoun adds the word anh ấy to indicate he/him.


For women. Chi refers to oneself when around younger persons or for second person when a younger person is speaking to an older woman. is more formal and is used for teachers or any polite encounters with authority (or for expressing respect to an older woman or woman of rank). Like anh, add the syllable ấy to indicate she/her.


Used for first/second person for a middle-aged/older man. ấy is added to indicate he/him.

Used for first/second person for a middle-aged/older woman. ấy is added to indicate she/her.


Refers to a person of very old age. ấy is added to indicate he/she/him/her.


I, my, myself, you all generally used between persons of the same age, closer friends, or more informal situations. There are some additional ones used between schoolchildren, etc.


One all-purpose, I'm-not-sure-what-the-rank-really-is, first-person pronoun. However, it's not commonly used…or at least people aren't generally as comfortable using it, and neither am I.

Also, people will just refer to themselves using their names. "What are you doing today?" "Erica will go to the market and then Erica will go home and clean her house." The Vietnamese do this a lot, but I'm about as comfortable doing this as I am using tôi. It just feels strange. Sometimes I do a bit better using my nickname, sếp, which means boss or chief and is what the staff seem most comfortable using around me. I think this developed out of 1) them not being confident pronouncing Erica in the beginning, and 2) a general shyness about using my name when I have a higher rank than them and 3) knowing that I would get confused if half of them called me bà, half chi, and half em. So, they stuck with calling me boss, which works for me.

Not using the right rank is generally considered very disrespectful – and respect is a cornerstone to culture here. I've also heard it used quite explicitly to remind a person of their relative rank. I've intentionally used a specific one or another a few times when I want to assure a person of what relative status should be – or to drive home that I am now speaking as the "boss" or as an older woman. And several times to tell a person that I respect their ideas as my elder. I still get laughed at for using them both correctly and incorrectly.

Well, that's only scratching the surface. And also a disclaimer – this is only my understanding as an extreme amateur at this language. I may have made grievous mistakes just in describing some things above, but I would like to give you a taste for how the language and the culture here are intertwined.