Việt Kiều is the name often given to Vietnamese people living outside Vietnam. Of the roughly 3 million Viet Kieu now spread around the world the majority left Vietnam as refugees in 1975 or the years following the Fall of Saigon and the Communist takeover. This exodus is often referred to as the Vietnamese diaspora. Unlike the Jewish diaspora this was not the result of foreign conquest and expulsion. It was the product and outcome of the bitter division within a country fighting to reclaim it's own national identity. Vietnam was officially and artificially divided by the Geneva Conference in 1954 following the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu. Four years earlier the southern part of the country declared its independence and soon became the Republic of Vietnam.
Vietnam is not homogeneous in either population, geography or climate. There are distinct differences in accent and dialect. Central Vietnam adds a third dimension, because it is not like either north or south in these regards. And, there are two distinct climates. Three years ago we left the hot humid south on a train and a few hours later walked out into a cold drizzly rain that persisted for the rest of our stay in the north.
People in the north feel that theirs is the true Vietnamese culture and people in the south think the people in the north are arrogant and lazy. The situation is not unlike the north and south in America. We had our Civil War and Reconstruction and they had their civil war and re-education camps. There's plenty of pain to go around and it's not all gone.
But the "Overseas" Vietnamese, the VK, are bringing their experience with other cultures back to the country they left 40 years ago. Almost every day I meet VK who have come back to find out about where they and/or their families came from and if there is a place and opportunity for them here. My newest VK friend is a 26 year old from Seattle. She grew up dirt poor in White Center, one of the Seattle housing projects left over from the Second World War. But family is everything to the Vietnamese and she and her family scrimped and saved and worked hard to help her succeed. And, she did. She graduated early from Seattle University with a degree in accounting and went to work in the audit department at KPMG. She was on her way there, but she wanted to know more about the place she and her parents left. She bagged the audit job and bought a one-way ticket to Vietnam.
She's been here a year and a half, tried a couple of jobs, and is now part of a start up software firm in its stealth phase. She's bright, independent, opinionated, beautiful and VERY confident. Her two brothers are happy in the US, but she needed to find out about Vietnam. She's found out a lot of things she would rather not have known about Vietnamese men and women and about VK men who have returned. More about that in the next post.
Tuesday, February 9, 2010
This photo is pretty typical of the sidewalks of Saigon. They are crowded, chaotic, torn up, obstructed, and messy. They are also orderly, organized, and surprisingly clean. Like a lot of other things in Saigon they are paradoxical. For an outsider they take a little getting used to.
I like to learn a city by walking it, but it's close to impossible to do here. Except for Dong Khoi, the main shopping street in the tourist center, there are almost no walking streets in Saigon - and for practical reasons almost no one walks anyway. It's hot. It's humid. And, except for Sunday, there is almost never enough room to negotiate the narrow spaces between storefronts and the streets.
My view of sidewalks was formed in urban America where they are pedestrian zones that provide a safe path, off the street, for strolling, exercise, or neighborhood shopping. In Saigon they are extensions of the streets, restaurants, living rooms, showrooms, bedrooms, parking lots or playing fields. At any time of the day or night they are teeming with activity. At 3:30AM families are setting up their food stands or sidewalk retail operations. As the day emerges they expand into motorbike parking lots, alternative motorbike roadways, communal living rooms, cottage industries, social centers, and classrooms of this energetic country.
If I had seen the future I would have invested in children's furniture 15 years ago. Every Vietnamese sidewalk is crowded with the tiny tables and chairs that characterize the entrepreneurial spirit and energy of this city of 8 million. At first I thought they were comical, but they are just another practical solution to the space problem - and they are surprisingly comfortable.
The sidewalks of Saigon are an interesting challenge for Westerners but they are also the business hubs and venture projects of an emerging economy that cannot be contained by its architecture. So, grab a tiny chair, order a ca phe sua da (Vietnames iced coffee), and enjoy the show. This is where it's all happening.
Monday, February 8, 2010
This is one view of Vietnam, but Vietnam is a country of contrasts, and last week Marilynn and I saw some of the extremes that exist in this amazing country.
On Friday we flew to Danang where we spent 11 hours visiting East Meets West projects with Bob Greenwood, one of the organization's strongest and most articulate advocates. Bob is helping us adjust to changing times and develop new funding strategies for the projects that are the lifeblood of the organization. That’s his business and he’s very good at it; but EMW is in a different category than his other clients. Bob loves Vietnam. He was here in the Navy during the war and he’s been back a number of times since the country opened up to tourism in 1995. It is no exaggeration to say that people who visit this incredible country come away transformed. Bob is a classic example. This time he came to see EMW projects up close in order to better understand them. I’m inspired every time I visit the programs and traveling with Bob gave us both another chance to see them and the people they serve.
We left our apartment in Saigon at 3:45AM, flew to Danang, and 13 hours later Marilynn and I were dropped off at the Furama Resort just outside the city. We started out at the Village of Hope orphanage, one of the signature EMW projects, where we support 150 orphans, 35 of whom are hearing or speech impaired, and help prepare them for life as adults. Then it was on to the EMW dental clinic where last year 3 staff dentists, supported by volunteer dentists from all over the world, performed more than 40,000 procedures on more than 10,000 children, most of whom had never seen a dentist. After a quick lunch we drove out to the countryside to visit a school and 30 of the more than 6000 students from the poorest families in Vietnam who receive EMW scholarships from the 3rd grade through high school. But the school itself is only part of the story. You have to visit the kids’ homes to really understand the program. We visited two homes; both families with a single mother and 3 siblings. The houses themselves, sturdier than most in this impoverished area, were “compassion homes” donated by another NGO. Each had 2 small rooms, cement floors, corrugated tin roofs, and small add-on outside kitchens made of materials left over from the homes they replaced. On Friday it was about 90 degrees. This is the coolest time of year. Imagine what that hut feels like in summer. Yet, the mothers were smiling, and the kids stood proudly in uniforms with white shirts, orange kerchiefs and baseball caps embroidered with the name SPELL, the scholarship program that supports them. SPELL is designed to show them the way to a better life through education. By providing scholarships to the poorest of the poor, parents are encouraged to keep their kids in school instead of sending them out to work and contribute to the household income. It will either break your heart or make a true believer out of you. These kids get tuition, fees, books, uniforms, and tutoring twice a week. In high school they get a bicycle if they live more than a mile from school.
At the end of this long day Marilynn and I were dropped off at the Furama Resort (picture above) on China Beach just outside the city of Danang. From a sweltering afternoon in huts with tin roofs to a 5 star luxury resort with Italian sheets and pool boys; this is the kind of contrast Vietnam offers – from abject poverty to absolute luxury. It’s jarring.
We loved our weekend at Furama. It was one of total indulgence – but in the end we’ve talked more about the kids we saw on Friday than the luxurious comfort of the hotel. Vietnam has a long way to go, but it is going to get there. It’s a privilege to be part of process.