After returning home and editing photos for the last few days, I have started to synthesize this fantastic trip and along with my reading in preparation for teaching Vietnam at War this fall, I have a few preliminary conclusions about the trip. This is not exhausting, but I think accurate- at least in my mind.
In the Yin and Yan of Vietnamese life, one thing you recognize here is the idea of balance. Some food is “hot” other food “cold” there is a balance between respect for and use of herbal medicine and western medicine; there is an understanding of the long history of Vietnam and the forward looking character of the people who see the future as one of opportunity and prosperity. his particular issue has really impacted me. I expected in the unofficial Vietnam to feel an air of hostility, unforgiveness or outright hatred for Americans given the absolute carnage of the American war. e Vietnames suffered in that war horrors that one cannot even imagine. While on the trip I have been reading Nick Turse’s “Kill Anything that Moves” a book that chronicles American war crimes in Vietnam. After visiting My Lai, and other areas, I would expect even more a Vietnamese suspicion if not hostility toward Americans
The Vietnamese I spoke to on the street gave no indication of anything other than a smile and a welcoming attitude. I spoke with regular folks who were part of or children of the war, and I felt no animosity. Some told me parts of their stories, and yet the retelling while emotional, was not vindictive, or unforgiving. In essence I felt welcomed as a stranger is welcomed by the monks as described in the Rule.
Vietnam is Benedictine
Work is valued here. Hard work. we visited a factory in the Hanoi area and although I do have some concerns about wages and environmental standards- the wages are terrible and the environmental damage will be a significant problem in the future. Nevertheless, the reality in this world of global capitalism is that the factories are going to go somewhere. In terms of the deep culture of the people, there is no fear of hard work and I applaud that. In the photo above, this woman works 10-12 hours a day and makes about 4 dollars US per day; she has a family and children and what she earns is enough with her spouse to keep a roof over their heads and live a little above sustenance, but they do not make enough money for the education of their children etc. Most farmers are living at or below subsistence and most of the population are farmers. Yet in the urban areas where people have taken risks, the ability to work hard and see it rewarded with a fairly significant prosperity is also a reality. Viet, our tour guide in Saigon, owns the tour agency and he is doing remarkably well. We went to dinner with the founder of Vietnamese Language School which teaches students and foreigners Vietnamese and English to Vietnamese along with her husband, an executive with an import/export company and they are the face of a new and growing middle class. Everywhere we looked, one thing was clear regardless of you position on political economy; the Vietnamese value and find honor in work and are trying to find ways to honor that in a changing economic climate.
Vietnam is Benedictine
There is a commitment to monasticism
We visited many pagodas and temples in this country and in Hue we visited the center of Buddhist monasticism, Thien Mu pagoda. As we met with monks in several temples including a woman monk near Hanoi, it became clear to me that in the changes that have happened to Vietnam over the centuries- Chinese domination followed by French colonialism, Japanese oppression, wars against the French, the Americans and the Cambodians, one thing remained constant, Buddhist monasticism and ancestor worship. I think this presence of the monastics and the worship of ancestors has brought a framework of thinking in the country that allows it to understand its long history and in so doing, place these years, centuries of war and carnage in a perspective that allows the people to still look forward; to still see the future as one that can be lived in peace and harmony. A future that honors the sacrifices of the past. I believe the monastic presence brings a stability in the culture that is important. It holds and promotes the critical values that form the foundations of the culture.
Vietnam is not Benedictine at all
The corruption in this country is outrageous. We heard stories about school teachers who hold back on curriculum because their pay is so low they give ‘tutoring’ to kids who pay after school so they can get the rest of the curriculum. Have a problem with the police- bribes. At every level of the society corruption is everywhere. There are those who clearly are working to expose it and get reforms, but right now, the popular belief is that it works. Only when it is clear corruption is holding Vietnam back, will it be stopped- or at least lessened. Vietnam has dismantled almost all of the social safety net. There is no universal free public education, no universal healthcare etc. the gap between rich and poor is growing rapidly and the uneven growth and abandoning of the poor is not Benedictine.
The Communist government and its officialdom is not Benedictine. The government allows some religious expression, but Catholicism for example, is very circumscribed and monitored as is Caodiism- the reason is not religious, it is political- to manage dissent and have the ability to control those groups exactly for that purpose.
Protestants may gain an official recognition in Vietnam, and six denominations have, but they can only perform religious ceremony for ex-pats. Preach on the street or pass a track to a Vietnamese citizen and you can be arrested and deported. none of this is Benedictine.
It is a country that is much more complicated than I thought, more beautiful than I imagined, more scarred by war than I knew and more welcoming and future looking than I expected.
I look forward to building relationships there and broadening my understanding of this wonderful country.