I was part of the distinguished stage party at Hanoi National University International School’s graduation celebration last month (in the foreground on the left, under the bust of Ho Chi Minh).
My friends Long & Giang took me for lunch yesterday to a restaurant on Trấn Vũ beside Trúc Bạch Lake that specializes in Phở Cuốn, which is basically all the ingredients of a bowl of Phở Bò minus the liquid & rolled up in rice paper. It’s eaten by dipping in a slightly sour dipping sauce. This is the best thing I have eaten on this trip to Vietnam.
The restaurant is on a little island separated from the city by a narrow canal & Trúc Bạch is itself separated from the much larger & more famous Hồ Tây (West Lake) by a narrow causeway. After lunch we went down the street & drank coffee beside the lake.
At the singing competition the other night, most of the songs were sentimental tributes to the relationship between students and teachers, but maybe a quarter of them were in a genre the Vietnamese unselfconsciously call “nhạc đỏ,” red music. It is both frankly patriotic and martial. Imagine a genre of contemporary American pop based on Sgt. Barry Sadler’s “Ballad of the Green Berets,” complete with march time and military drumming.
Yesterday was National Teachers’ Day in Vietnam, a day on which Vietnamese college students return to their high schools & high school students to their elementary schools taking gifts to their former teachers. The night before last I was invited to a big party & singing competition at the International School of Hanoi National University. It was a lovely, typically Vietnamese affair, which is to say wonderfully welcoming & relentlessly cheerful. The International School is a success story during a difficult period for Vietnamese education.
The singing acts–all composed of students, faculty, or staff–varied in quality, from barely passable to semi-pro, & they went on for far too long. A lot of the songs advanced commonplace sentiments about the value of education & the importance of teachers, but by far the most popular combined such sentiments with a strongly patriotic, even martial, strain. This feels distinctly odd to liberal, Western ways of thinking about education, but it makes sense here given the strong Confucian & revolutionary / communist traditions of contemporary Vietnam. Indeed, the choreography & musical arrangements retained a hint of the Soviet aesthetic.
The Confucianism of Confucius is, as David Hinton notes,1 quite different from the Confucianism of that philosophy’s subsequent evolution:
The brand of Confucianism wielded throughout the centuries as power’s ideology of choice focused on select ideas involving selfless submission to authority: parental, political, masculine, historic, textual. And the “sacred” Ritual dimensions of these hierarchical relationships only made them that much more oppressive. It is this aspect of the Confucian tradition that has become so problematic in modern times, for intellectuals came to recognize it as the force that was preventing . . . modernization.
At the same time, and much in evidence on Teacher’s Day, were the Confucian virtues of filial piety & ritual. There was a great deal of sentimental celebration of teachers & parents–teachers being seen as auxiliary parents due virtually the same respect as one’s mother & father. The event, held in a hotel conference room, was in every sense a deployment of ritual, with many formulaic exchanges between teachers & administrators & between teachers & students. David Hinton, in his introduction to his translation of The Analects, writes:
It was in this context that Confucius extended the use of Ritual to include all the caring acts by which we fulfill our responsibilities to others in the community – hence the entire weave of everyday social life takes on the numinous aspect of the sacred.
The ritual mode is clearly evident in Vietnam in a way that surprises Western visitors, if they notice it at all. This can be as simple as the way one hands an object like a key or the change from a purchase to another person–with both hands & a slight bow. It is one of the things that draws me back again & again, despite the fact that I find some of the actual, formal rituals–like the singing contest–hard to throw myself into with the complete abandon of the Vietnamese. Even the retired Rector of the International School was still going strong after three hours. Which is about when I slipped out. There were a couple of other Americans in attendance & it was clear that we were unable to make the leap into sincere participation. Some of this is language, but not all. All cultures make use of ritual, some more consciously than others. Americans have plenty of rituals, but we generally don’t call them by that name and we do not cultivate them in the same way as the Vietnamese.
One of the things that makes Vietnam unfamiliar, even incomprehensible, to many Westerners, is the sheer density of religious practice here. I suspect that to most visitors, Vietnamese religious practice is mostly invisible, at least in part because it is ubiquitous. The Vietnamese have settled, to varying degrees, on a practical & syncretic combination of three traditions that they designate tam giáo, “triple religion,” which combines elements of Confucianism, Buddhism & Daoism, though the cement that binds them is the cult of the ancestors, which is fractal, reproducing itself at scales ranging from the family, the neighborhood / village, to whole regions & the nation itself.1
The 11th of November was the 30th of the lunar month, so all the temples were open & busy. Families were burning votive paper on the curbs, sometimes in the small metal incinerators constructed for the purpose, sometimes right on the concrete. The city fills with the smoke at the new & the full moon.
The Vietnamese make a distinction between a temple & a pagoda that may be lost on Western visitors. A temple is a place where spirits & deities of many different kinds can be addressed & petitioned; a pagoda, on the other hand, is a specifically Buddhist place of worship. The neighborhood temples–many of them founded when people from a particular village moved into the city in the 15th century–were open & people were bringing offerings of food & incense.
One of the first things I remarked about Vietnam, twenty years ago now, was that the line between the sacred & the profane was not so sharply drawn as in the secular West. But it is more complicated than that, or perhaps less complicated. The sacred saturates the secular in Vietnam, but at the same time is taken so completely for granted that religious practice can seem casual, even desultory. The casual respect paid to household gods says a great deal about the depth of belief–belief doesn’t really enter into it, in fact, if belief indicates some sustained act of will that must be held in mind and applied like a tool in particular situations.
In Vietnam, people approach the sacred, sometimes, from frankly mercenary directions. I’m not sure whether this contradicts what I just claimed about will. A Vietnamese friend, a scholar of languages & culture, speaks disdainfully of people who go to the local temple to pray for wealth, or children, or health. “They don’t know anything about what they’re doing,” he says. Though people do pray to different Buddhist Bodhisattvas, especially Quan Âm (Avalokitateshvara) or the historical Buddha (Thích), but most such prayers are addressed to Daoist gods & local deities in temples that, while they may include images of Buddha, are not strictly Buddhist. Related to these Daoist & local practices, the veneration of mother goddesses adds another layer of complexity to religious practice here. The roots of this practice are very old, but it has recently moved into new social space. There is a strong thread of divination practice in the goddess cults, though that alone does not set it apart from other religious practices–divination also flickers around the edges of Buddhism, with fortune-tellers taking up residence in some temples & pagodas.
The visible & the invisible, the profane & the sacred, coexist in Vietnam, but the categories overlap in ways not common in the West, if that is not too broad–or too vague–a characterization.