Vietnamese poets—this may be common in everyday speech, but I haven’t run across it—will pile up two words with essentially the same meaning. Here is an example: The poet Tô Ngọc Thạch begins a line with the phrase “Lớp lớp địa tầng” in which, as near as I can tell by dictionary crawling, both “Lớp lớp” and “địa tầng” can straightforwardly be translated as “layers” or “strata” in English. I don’t know whether I should render this as just “layers” or “strata” or something more like “layers of strata.” Clearly, I need to seek the help of a Vietnamese poet on this, but I’m beginning to think that Vietnamese writers use these doublings & sometimes triplings to elicit shades of meaning. That is, redundancy — that’s what we’d call it in the West — is a fundamental element of style in Vietnamese, particularly in literature, but also in everyday speech.
Talking to a young Irishman staying at the hotel who is working here with the Ministry of Tourism. He says the Vietnamese hardly have the concept of marketing. They are proud of their many historical sites & cultural treasures & actually spend a good deal of money fixing them up, but once that’s done they seem to believe that people will just naturally find out about them & flock to see them. Well, there is something sort of refreshing about this, of course, but my young friend’s job is to figure out ways to make Vietnam available to the West. Does that inevitably mean commodifying it? Perhaps it does. For what it’s worth, I think that individual entrepreneurs in Vietnam have done a pretty good job of getting the word out about their services for tourists. I follow a couple of Vietnamese tourism feeds on Twitter & they are pretty active. Perhaps the government could look for the best of these individual efforts and aggregate them. This is far outside my area of expertise . . .
Tourism is important to the Vietnamese economy & that’s going to continue indefinitely, even as the tech sector & industrial production & agriculture continue to modernize. For many in the West, I think, Vietnam remains a challenging tourist destination, for several reasons: 1. For North Americans, it takes a long & expensive flight to just get here; 2. For many in Europe, North America, & Australia, there remains a strangeness factor — culturally the place is just very different from what we are used to; 3. Language: in the cities you can get by easily if you have a little English & quite a few Vietnamese my age speak French or Russian.
When you put those fact together, the result is what you would expect. By far the greatest number of tourists in Hanoi — by my extremely informal, anecdotal survey — are Australian & northern European. I hardly meet any Americans. What’s more, they are disproportionately young, falling into the backpacker category. Adventurous, they stay in hostels & drink bia hoi, which means they don’t spend much money. At the other extreme are the wealthy Westerners who know that by staying in the most expensive hotels and travelling in organized air-conditioned tourist buses, they can have a sort of exotic, cinematic experience without ever actually having to leave home. On this trip, for the first time, I have seen families — usually mom & dad & a couple of teenagers — traveling together & that, I think, is a very hopeful sign. All such families I’ve met here at the hotel, by the way, have been Australian. There are also a fair number of Japanese tourists, who tend to travel in large organized groups, but I really don’t know anything about their assumptions or motives for coming to Vietnam.
If I were in charge of Vietnamese tourism, I think I’d let the backpackers & the elites take care of themselves — I suspect those groups will always be there — but I’d focus on providing interesting, entertaining, & educational experiences for middle-class European & North American tourists, especially families. Market Vietnam as a “trip of a lifetime” that will be more than just another vacation. I guess I’m suggesting that making the “challenging” part of the equation a strength rather than a weakness.
There are people who retain the ability to learn languages with relative ease into adulthood. I’m not one of them. In fact, I was a lousy language learner even as a kid taking Spanish and then French in school. I wonder if this has anything to do with musical ability. The young Rousseau, he tells us in the Confessions, went to Turin & picked up Italian in a few months; he was also a good enough musician that he could take small solo parts in a church choir. Some people have an innate ability to grasp the logic of musical sequences that exhibits itself, often, when they are very young. Again, not me. Piano lessons were a dismal failure. I played the snare drum for a while in the elementary school orchestra, but never progressed beyond that point. I do have a strong sense of rhythm & meter, I think, especially when applied to my native language. I didn’t start trying to learn Vietnamese until I was fifty & it has been something of a struggle. I do pretty well with the written language & can makes sounds that sufficiently resemble Vietnamese to be understood by (sympathetic) native speakers, but I still have a very difficult time with auditory comprehension.
When the Jesuit missionary Alexander de Rhodes–already fluent in French, Portuguese, Latin, & Chinese–came to central Vietnam in 1624, he said that spoken Vietnamese sounded like “the twittering of birds” & despaired of ever being able to learn the language. Nevertheless, with the help of a twelve year old Vietnamese boy & another Jesuit who had arrived earlier, he was fluently speaking the language in less than a year. He went on to invent a phonetic writing system for Vietnamese, using the Roman alphabet, that over the next couple of centuries slowly–& then in the 20th century, quickly–replaced the old system based on Chinese characters. I would never have attempted Vietnamese if I had been required to learn ideographs. As it is, the myriad vowels marked by diacritical marks and the six tones, indicated by another set of marks, give me plenty of work to do. For some reason I’m not entirely clear about myself, I have made more progress with the spoken language on this trip than on all my previous trips, even when they were longer & when I studied formally with a teacher. Maybe it is because I continued to practice in the US using Rosetta Stone. For simple interactions on the street & in the hotel, etc. I am living in Vietnamese now.