15 Things about Vietnam: Part 3

North vs South

There are some small-to-medium-sized difference between Southern and Northern Vietnamese and a degree of underlying tension between them. Much of the tension arises from the War. Some Southerners believe that the Northerners have used the Norther victory in the War to enrich themselves and generally grind the noses of Southern Vietnamese; others hold that the Northerners are basically arrogant, uptight and no good at enjoying themselves. Some Northerners on the other hand suspect that Southern Vietnamese have never been fully signed up to the communist vision of the nation, or else think that Southerners ought to be more grateful for the sacrifices Northerners made in uniting the country; a small but significant number of Northerners find the free-wheeling party mentality of Southerners an offence to customary Vietnamese ways.

As important as The War is though, the differences between North and South Vietnam go much further back in history. The key thing to remember here is that North Vietnam, centred on Hanoi and the Red River Delta, is the cultural and historical heartland of Vietnam. (It is also worth remembering that Central Vietnam makes up a region of its own.)

For a lot of Vietnamese history, there was no such thing as South Vietnam. Up until about 300 years ago, the lower reaches of the Mekong, which make up the core of the South, were a sparsely populated Cambodian marshland.

Central Vietnam is not altogether different. Until the 15thCentury most of it was an eccentric Indian-Malay kingdom called Champa, with a culture and a mentality all of its own. To get a rough idea, go and check out the huge stone penis statues and the ecstatic dancers, complete with square unVietnamese jaws and full unVietnamese breasts, on display in the museum in Đà Nẵng:

In short, what passes for the Vietnamese national character was formed over several thousand years under the conditions of village life in the North. A Northern Vietnamese village was a fiercely independent, fiercely parochial little locale that was self-supporting to a large degree. Its inhabitants didn’t take kindly to visitors and they weren’t inclined to take orders from high-up places hundreds of miles away. (Sometimes they still aren’t, down to this day.)

The centerpiece of village life was a communal hall that doubled as a cultural centre and a place to worship the founding fathers of the village.

Two other strategically important centres of village life were the river-landing and the village banyan tree. The river-landing was the place where women gathered to talk among themselves — after Vietnamese Confucians decided that they weren’t going to give women a say in the communal hall any more. The banyan tree was the place where various spirits (good, bad and indifferent) were supposed to lurk, where men and women on their way back from the rice fields took a breather and where most exchanges with the outside world took place:

Surrounding the village was a solid wall of bamboo that was tough to burn down or tunnel under. For villagers, it was something that was difficult to see out of OR in through, both mentally and physically.

If you’re trying to imagine what I’m talking about in the comfort of your living room at home, think of a kind of commune crossed with an old boys’ club. Or, if you can get hold of it on Amazon, read the relevant chapters of Hữu Ngọc’s book, Wandering through Vietnamese Culture, which explores all these issues in a sophisticated tourist-friendly way.

If you don’t like the whiff of patriarchal penis power that hangs over the traditional Vietnamese village, recall that the distinctive Vietnamese mode of existence that started up there had its strong points: a fierce sense of independence, a far-reaching ability to support itself and some basic features of democracy (families represented in the communal hall regardless of wealth or social standing).

If you’re tempted, on the other hand, to think of village life as a pure, beautiful expression of community spirit that is sadly missing from the modern Western world, then keep reminding yourself what the fierce independence of Northern Vietnamese villages brought with it: informal village pecking orders, a deep-seated fear of the foreign and the new, a stubborn self-satisfaction with local customs and traditions, as well as a kind of Vietnamese version of what Australians call tall poppy syndrome — the urge to “scratch everyone down to the same level” (cào bằng).

Now it was this kind of village mentality that changed when the Northern Vietnamese took over what is now Central and South Vietnam. And how the mentality changed tells you quite a lot about why the Southerners are, on average, a bit more easy-going, and less ceremonious, than Northerners.

Southern Vietnamese villages didn’t turn out to be as inward-looking as the villages of the north. Walls of bamboo existed down South, but they tended to be ornamental — they didn’t radically separate the inside from the outside. Part of all this was simple geography. The South of Vietnam is criss-crossed by waterways — swamps that eventually got drained or turned into canals — and it was along these that life proceeded to move rather freely.

Just as importantly, the South of Vietnam was settled at a time in history when business was becoming a much bigger factor in the life of South-East Asia, and doing business doesn’t just mean wheeling and dealing with people from distant places, it means talking to them about stuff other than money — the sort of thing that Southern Vietnamese life on water seemed made for.

The fact that Southern Vietnam depended for its economic survival on trade as much as farming meant that Southern Vietnamese were much less suspicious of outsiders than their Northern cousins. Because the society created by trade in the South was more liquid in every sense of the word, the Southerners tended to be less attached to village hierarchies, and in general less moved by the idea that the present has to answer to the past.

Southern Vietnam was a kind of nation within a nation — a nation of settlers — and the Southern mentality reflects this down to today. However, settling the South didn’t mean giving up entirely on being Vietnamese. The new inhabitants of the Mekong Delta in the Seventeenth and Eighteenth Centuries set up new cults to new ancestors (the founders of new places, the victors of new battles), as well as taking with them some of the older gods of the North. But as geographical and spiritual wanderers, they were disinclined to take the rituals of village life as strictly as their Northern cousins. Hence the Northern Vietnamese complaint, voiced down to the present day, that Southerners don’t take the rites of Vietnameseness seriously enough, or celebrate them in a slightly obscene spirit of irony.

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Operating across history on the mentality of Vietnamese from the different regions is the weather.

Northern Vietnam has to cope with monsoons and floods, while Central Vietnam suffers monsoons and floods and droughts. Scraping together a living has always been a tiring and dicey business for the Northern and Central Vietnamese.

Contrast this with the situation in the Mekong Delta, where the Southern Vietnamese confidently expect helpful weather and bumper crops, year in year out. The Southerners, for as long as the South has been the South, have had to do less hard labour and put aside less of what they produced — far less — than Vietnamese from the other two regions.

The result is a kind of hedonism. The Southern imperative to live for the day is summed up neatly in the phrase “Làm bao nhiêu ăn bấy nhiêu” — to eat and drink as much as you make — and in a kind of complacency, which traditionally says: “If that’s as far as I got then why think of going further?”

Weather-wise, Hanoi is truly beautiful in the autumn — and infernal at the start of summer when a hot, dry wind blows down from somewhere in the Laotian mountains adjacent to Hell.

The heat of Ho Chi Minh City is most bearable from November to February. Day to day, the city is at its most beautiful in the early morning and at night — before the heat starts setting off bombs behind your eyes (around 9am) and after the squalls of motorbikes have dried up (around 9pm).

As traditional guidebooks will tell you, Ho Chi Minh City has two seasons (wet and dry), while Hanoi has the standard four. This accounts largely for the different dress-sense, and also partly for the different sense of life, in the two places.

The shabby-chic outfits worn by the motorbike taxi-drivers of Hanoi are obviously what’s most appropriate for autumn and winter in the North.

The uniform of the Ho Chi Minh City Hondaman, which he puts on to ferry Westerners to the airport, is t-shirt and board-shorts, worn with heavy gold jewelry if he thinks you want a driver who’s really got class:

In the women’s department, the light, cotton leisureware (đồ bộ) worn in public and private by most women in South Vietnam is again what’s best suited to the all-year-round heat. (But is that a valid excuse?)

If Southern leisureware is scary enough, then keep an eye out for the heavy northern version of the same costume, which looks like a full-on pair of pyjamas:

Weather also has some cultural side-effects. The entire language of older Vietnamese culture, plus the rhythm of Vietnamese festive days, is geared to the changing of the seasons — as they unfold in the North. How do you have a Mid Autumn Moon Festival (Tết Trung Thu) without an autumn, or a Vietnamese New Year — Tết, which celebrates the beginning of the end of winter — when it’s already balmy and 33 degrees? Like Australians or South Americans celebrating Christmas, the Southern Vietnamese in a sense celebrate Vietnamese New Year in metaphor only. Dressed in their finest cotton leisureware, they’re probably glad to be 1200km away from the chilly New Year gatherings in Hanoi, which are telecast right across the country and involve ancient revolutionary comrades celebrating the end of winter — wearing grey sackcloth from the 1945–1975 period.

And of course there’s the rain.

The heavy rain of the South is traditionally compared by Vietnamese with the moods of Southern Vietnamese girls. When they’re miffed with their boyfriends they can become sour and scornful in a really extreme way — for about 20 minutes, after which the sun comes out again straight away. By comparison, the bad moods of Hanoi girls, like the rain of Hanoi, last for days. If, as a single Western male, you want to try living in the Vietnamese cultural heartland, then pack a heavy raincoat and try to build up some emotional stamina.

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By Western standards, doing business anywhere in Vietnam depends a lot on political connections and favours from well-placed friends. However in the North things get political even faster than in other places. If a Vietnamese from out of town presents a Hanoian with a business plan, the gist of his response will be — present your family’s revolutionary credentials and genealogical tree and I’ll have a think about it. If a different guy — one who already has the right credentials — presents the same Hanoian with a business plan, the first question will be “How much can we get out of the local People’s Committee for this little number?”

In Ho Chi Minh City they are more pragmatic. The Southern attitude to business plans is basically “bring it over for a squizz and we’ll see if we can’t get rich together.” Business is the dream of half the folk of Ho Chi Minh City, and almost all the Vietnamese who migrate there. In Ho Chi Minh City, if you are in your 20’s and don’t have a plan to start your own business, you are obviously suffering from some sort of moral paralysis. Conversations between dynamic young people trying to make their way in the world often have a slightly fraught “here’s the deal” tone to them. Down south, the Marxist word for worker (“công nhân”) gets out-mentioned by the word for company (“công ty”) by a ratio of roughly 100/1.

This doesn’t mean that Southerners are more preoccupied with money or the stuff money can buy. When it comes to money, Northerners have a kind of cult of keeping up appearances which makes for another interesting difference between North and South. For instance, Northern men who have next to no money will spend what little they have on hotted-up bikes, wafer-thin phones and denim shirts which for some reason they always tuck into their pants. If they invite you out to dinner though, watch out — it’ll probably be your shout.

Southern Vietnamese men with sizeable fortunes, by contrast, will keep on driving beaten up Hondas from the mid-90’s and are happy to buy chunky $75 Nokias. Whether a Southern Vietnamese guy is rich or not, if you ask him for a loan, he’ll ask you how much you need — depending on the situation, he’ll put his hand in his pocket, drive you to an ATM or go borrow some money to lend to you from a more solvent mate.

Northern Vietnamese bogans tend to flash their accessories like weapons. While the bogans of South Vietnam are more laid-back — give them the option and they’ll come to the wedding wearing the casuals they’ve been wearing on the farm all morning:

Manners and formalities, as this suggests, are worried over more in the North than in the South, but what’s expected among family and friends differs widely from what’s expected when dealing with strangers. Northerners are more elaborately deferential towards older people, more conscientious in observing feast days and more lavish in displays of conformity around bosses. And they have a more polished sense of politeness towards guests. But they can be grossly offensive to tourists and to their fellow citizens. If you say thank you (“Cảm ơn”) to a Hanoi shopkeeper, she will probably think you’re trying to put one over her. And she won’t hesitate to utter obscenities if you walk out of her shop without buying anything.

Contrast this with the situation in the South, where the receptionist at your hotel will greet you with a cute little nod, will be MOVED (or ring her friends and start OMG’ing) if you successfully say one sentence in Vietnamese and where the shopgirls will ask you in a hot, soppy tone to drop by again, whether or not you make a purchase.

In Hanoi, if you take too long over your food in a café or a restaurant then you will get the hairy eyeball. In the South you can literally order one coffee and stay the whole day.

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Most visible in people’s dress-sense, most palpable in the weather, the difference between North and South is at its most audible in the different regional accents. If you end up trying to learn Vietnamese, which as a culturally sophisticated expat you should, then learning to pick the difference between the Northern and Southern accent is an important stage of the journey. Just as being able to hear the commonest varieties of British AND American English is basic to mastery of the English language, so being able to comprehend the Vietnamese spoken in both Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi is basic to learning Vietnamese.

The Northern Vietnamese accent has lots of sharp consonants and guttural rasps. Southern Vietnamese speech is higher on decibels but sounds less like the speaker is getting ready to clear his throat.

Among Vietnamese, Northerners are renowned for being eloquent, wordy and difficult to understand, Southerners for being blunt, a bit screechy and hard to MISunderstand.

There are also the differences between regional vocabularies to cope with. Vietnamese from the three different regions have different words for many different things, including family relationships and the intimate parts of the human anatomy (and the things that people do with them).

As in most countries around the world, they also have a nice little palate of psycho-issues relating to language and accent.

The standard Southern Vietnamese accent sounds to the trained North Vietnamese ear like a careless blend of slurs and screeches, roughly, I guess, the way broad Australian English sounds to educated British and American ears. Only where Australians turn vowels into dipthongs, the Southern Vietnamese turn consonants into vowels and yowls. In the South of Vietnam, they don’t speak “Vietnamese” (tiếng Việt), they speak “tiếng Yiệt”, “Yietnamese”. And they don’t eat “roast duck” (“vịt nướng”) they eat roast yuck (“yịt nướng”).

Northern Vietnamese is classical Vietnamese, PROPER Vietnamese. Like High German, it’s the language of high culture and officialdom. Like American English, it’s also the language of pop culture.

Southern Vietnamese accept that all this is true by the way.

But that doesn’t remotely make them want to change their way of speaking or learn the “proper” Northern Vietnamese way of pronouncing their consonants. That is because, in the mind of many Southerners, with the Southern attitude to consonant formation comes certain powers of straight-talking which a Northerner could never possess, no matter how clearly or eloquently he speaks Vietnamese.

In the minds of Southern Vietnamese, the linguistic prowess of the Northerners is the sign of a mildly deceptive attitude to life. The North, from the point of view of Ho Chi Minh City, is most of the way to China. That is, most of the way to the home of boring, staid, double-talking, imperialistic viciousness.

From the point of view of Southern Vietnamese, the best thing that can be said about Northerners is that they stick to their guns. And turn up on time more often than they do themselves. Sometimes.

But the Southerner attributes to himself a warmth of character which is a whole lot better than that — a power of DIRECT, SINCERE speech that makes his inability to speak “proper” Vietnamese just another upside-down sign of a virtue.

(The trump card in the whole pack by the way is the accent of Southern Vietnamese girls, which is praised as silky sweet throughout Vietnam. The singsong powers of girls from the provinces around HCMC are said to make Northern Vietnamese men go to water.)

Of course, as a foreigner, you don’t have to buy into the various value judgments relating to regional linguistic usage.

But you should spare a thought in all this for the Central Vietnamese.

Southern Vietnamese people can understand and sometimes do a pretty good impersonation of a “proper” Northern accent.

A few Northerners fence off the Southern accent with their prejudices, but most just accept it for what it is. And a certain percentage of Northern men dream permanently of having a girl from near the Cambodian border pour warm treacle in their ears.

In the meantime, no one “gets” the Central Vietnamese.

To anyone from the North or the South, a strong Central Vietnamese accent is literally impossible to understand. If a Southerner heads too far north on a holiday, or a northerner too far south, then s/he will start to flounder. If either of them goes to Huế, the old royal capital right in the middle of Central Vietnam, they will flounder completely.

The Cosmo Kramer theory of Italian culture — that Italian life is like an opera in which everyone sings instead of speaking — has a direct analogue in the minds of Southern and Northern Vietnamese. The speech-patterns of Vietnamese from Huế are like music to the ear; but only real buffs have any idea what Huế people are actually going on about. . .

Vietnamese stage comedies produced in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City, especially if they’re set in the past, often have a character from Huế who’s basically there to do a funny accent: to sound vastly poetic or vastly poofy — ultra-sophisticated, but totally incomprehensible.

(This piece originally appeared at The Great Stage: www.cshingleton.com)