It has taken me a while to get a sense of Vietnam. At first it seemed that each place we visited had its own culture, heritage, history and atmosphere and that there wasn’t much that held them all together. Even adversity, war and struggling to survive and start again, again and again, had affected each in very different ways. Each place in its own way seemed unique and picturesque but I couldn’t sense the cultural connection. What makes Vietnam, Vietnam?
Recently it has dawned on me that it is the character of the people. Although there is no one defining type there is a multitude of characters and personalities that reappear with regularity, they are not definitively different from north to south.
Well OK the food also connects the whole nation but there truly are regional and specific variations it is just that they all seem available in most places.
The many faces, characters and mannerisms of the Vietnamese students I have taught over the years have come back to me at various times throughout this trip. When a certain similar expression or physical appearance flashed me back to a memory, or certain gesture or an almost identical pronunciation prompted the recollection of names and events from the past, it was with delight. That strong, independent, close-knit, resourceful and uncomplaining group students gave me the first glimpse of the character of the Vietnamese people and built my initial impression, which has expanded and developed into deep respect in the last month, just as it did for those first few individuals so long ago.
I can readily recall:
-Phuc’s fiery spirit and entrenched patriotism,
-Niem’s stylish and articulate ways,
-Anita Nguyen’s assuredness and benevolence
-(Khoi Quoc Lee) Kevin’s confident and outspoken manner and affability
-Mai’s grace and charm and emotional maturity
-Tim’s shy but determined application- I wonder now if his Vietnamese name was Toan. I cannot recall it as he always used this English pseudonym
-My Linh’s responsible, protective and diligent approach
-Phuong’s pensiveness and that overwhelmed expression that often appeared
-Minh’s wide-eyed innocence and eagerness to be part of the in crowd
-Bao Tran’s cheerfulness and zest for life
I have seen their faces in the crowds at the markets and the masses riding motorcycles in the streets. I have heard their voices in the calls of stall vendors, conductors and tour guides and the gentle melodic voices of hotel receptionists and strangers offering assistance. I thank those students for their initial lessons and feel glad to have a better understanding of where they came from and what shaped their characters.
Though here in Ho Chi Minh City I have only had the chance to meet one of them it was wonderful. I know that some are now proud to be Australians but some are also home here in Vietnam. Meeting successful adults, who have made their way in the world years later, is one of the greatest rewards of teaching, and it certainly was the icing on the cake for me in Vietnam.
I guess I’ll get back to the food in the next entry!