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.
I’m about half-way through my stay in Vietnam. It’s been eye-frying hot the last few days & it has sapped my energy a bit. Glad it’s Sunday & a little cooler. Having a bit of bread & cheese & coffee in my room this morning — there was a large Japanese family in the small dining area downstairs — and I’ll go out before it gets too hot & take some pictures, then try to get some work done this afternoon. The week that starts tomorrow is going to be busy, culminating Friday with my conference presentation on translation “best practices,” so, yes, I’m glad it’s Sunday.
I was talking to an American expat here who runs a company that provides training & education for Vietnamese students, helping many go to study in the US. He’s also beginning to bring American students to Vietnam, which is why I was talking to him, but that can be a subject for another day–I just wanted to make a note of something he said in passing. Mentioning an American student who had spent time studying in Vietnam and was returning for a longer stay, my friend inquired, he told me, about the reason for his return. “Love,” the student had replied. “Ah . . .” I began to say. . . It turns out he has a Vietnamese girlfriend. (That’s cool–I only get creeped out when 50 year old American / German / Australian / Korean men come to VN and take up with Vietnamese women half their age.) But my “Ah!” had not been meant to acknowledge the narrow definition of “love” — I was thinking that the student, like me, had fallen in love with the place, not merely a particular citizen of the place.
“I fell in love with the place” is of course a cliche, but I can’t really think of a better way to express the feeling I have when I come here. Hanoi is not my home, but coming here feels like coming home. I have felt this I think–or some version of it–from the day of my first arrival & now when I go out in the evenings to walk around the Old Quarter, I feel a deep affection and a sense of peace, even amid all the honking & hammering & the cries of vendors & school kids darting along the sidewalks among the chickens & parked motorbikes. There is a liveliness here that stirs my heart. Which is not to imply that it never makes me crazy. It does. That’s the way love is.
All my Vietnamese friends complain how much worse the traffic has gotten in the last few years & are surprised when I say I think it has gotten better. I’m willing to grant that Hanoi traffic is chaotic, but when I first came to Hanoi there were perhaps half-a-dozen traffic lights in the whole metropolis. Now there are lights at virtually every major intersection. It’s true that they sometimes have burned out bulbs, but they’re there and drivers take at least some notice of them. I’d say compliance runs about 80%. That is, when the light goes read, about 80% of the oncoming traffic stops, with the other 20% racing through as the traffic from the other direction begins to move. Pedestrians must take nothing for granted. Most of the traffic is still motorbikes, though there are many more cars than when I first began coming to Hanoi & the general rule is that the bigger the vehicle the less likely it is to stop for a light. Oh, and all the drivers are talking on a cell phone. Still, the lights give pedestrians an opening they did not have in the past. For one thing, once the front row of traffic stops (which can take some time in its ragged compliance) the traffic behind is blocked, leaving the way (mostly) clear. For the most part, people don’t go fast, but move mostly with the flow of traffic. I’ve been here almost three weeks, walking the city every day, and I’ve seen only one accident.