Country pregnant with hope

I have not seen so many pregnant women in one place, except in maternity hospital outpatients, until I got to Vietnam.

In Hanoi, Hoi An, Nha Trang, Saigon – wherever we went in this beautiful country – the bustling streets, markets, cafes, restaurants and shopping malls were populated by extraordinary numbers of radiant, and even glowing women in different stages of pregnancy. Being pregnant and still working does not seem to bother these smiling, sharp and hardworking women any more than it does their families, customers, passers-by or anyone else for that matter. It is a common sight in Vietnam for a pregnant woman to sit outside and have her large belly gently, lovingly touched by small children.

Vietnamese are family orientated people and seem to have the Italian quality of treating their families with the benevolent and tolerant bemusement mixed with the ferocious loyalty of unconditional love. Vietnamese are mad about their families. They are mad, I say, mad but not silly. An old woman is loudly berating a young man in his late teens, who guiltily hangs his head in acknowledgement. As soon as the old lady notices that we are watching, she stops haranguing the guilty lad and protectively draws him into a hug, looking at me with a smile. Even not knowing a word of Vietnamese, one can understand the message – well, he is a nudnik, may be even a shmuck, an old granny seems to say, but he is our nudnik and our shmuck and we love him no matter what. Vietnamese people were generous in splashing this warm family feeling on complete strangers. I suspect this is why it does not leave you while you are there – and it only partially has to do with warm climate. One cannot feel any malice, resentment or anger towards foreigners in Vietnam only the feeling of benign solicitude and friendly protectiveness. It is quite usual to touch a stranger on the arm or give him a pat on the back, smiling and looking straight into the eyes. The eye to eye contact is reciprocated as warmly and openly as you will manage to make yours so. Even in places frequented by Western tourists this smile is genuine, desire for a tip notwithstanding, or every local deserves an Oscar for a superb acting ability. The further you going south the more smiles you encounter, more children are up to some mischief, knowing full well that even if caught they will not be reprimanded too harshly. Vietnamese children – I wish my words could convey the irrepressibly dynamic energy of a childhood combined with the freedom from stranger danger and a total conviction that any child has every right to seek help, if necessary, from anybody, anywhere, anytime in total safety. The most striking feature about Vietnamese children is their ingrained sense of propriety – I have not observed a single instance of irritability, loud crying, and demanding behaviour. Even the long flight in the aircraft full of children did not produce any disturbance of the public peace.

During the national dress day the streets of Hanoi overflow with young and not so young women, wearing brightly coloured ao dai. It is a simple but elegant and feminine combination of free flowing trousers with the ankle length buttoned up at the throat tunic, which is slit on both sides up to waist level. The trick is to leave a tiny triangle of the visible skin on both sides where the apex of the long slit almost meets up a trouser belt. Almost but not quite. The overall impression is one of an elegant and impeccable propriety with just a hint of a little devil, hiding at the bottom of a still and decorous pond. Small and large groups of giggling girls were congregating, smiling, dancing and, sometimes, singing, obviously enjoying themselves, turning ordinary street scenes into a celebration of youth, beauty and happiness.

Early morning Hanoi streets and parks are filled with young and old people doing tai chi, callisthenics, dancing rumba(or was it samba?) , taking a walk around the block or around the beautiful Lake of the Returned Sword, playing badminton, meditating , looking out at the slightly foggy surface of the lake. If one wishes to join in (as we did) a group readily accepts you with a friendly smile and gentle laughter. The good cheer lasts for the reminder of the day and the exquisite croissants with jet black Vietnamese coffee taste even better.

The Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon bring one close to the realities of war Vietnamese people have lived with for generations. I was looking at the display of homemade weapons fashioned from scraps and oddments, being no less lethal for the enemy in the jungle. The personalised viciousness of jagged pieces of metal opening up inside soldiers’ bodies, tearing, crunching and mincing the live tissue, bringing the pain beyond any imaginable limits of human ability to cope with sent a shiver down my spine. To think that some of those bodies belonged to Aussie soldiers younger than my own children made me physically sick. Our Vietnamese hosts, being homespun psychologists, understood the need for a balance between the revulsion towards the war’s horrors and the redeeming power rush. They give you the chance to feel invincible at the end. One could buy (literally) as many live bullets as you could afford and use American, Russian or German assault rifles and machine guns to shoot these bullets at the fixed paper targets. Somehow, shooting these powerful weapons wipes out the bitter bile in one’s throat after seeing homemade instruments of war. It should not, I know, but it does.

For a nominally Communist State, Vietnam has its share of a tired and faded wall propaganda displays with ubiquitous hammer, sickle and a star. Nobody pays the slightest attention and it is business as usual. I expected a heavy police presence and a high proportion of a military on the street. I was wrong – the military and the police, except traffic cops and customs officers, are almost as though they do not exist. It appears that the Vietnamese leaders, having compared Gorbachev’s and Deng Xiaopin’s models of restructuring of their moribund societies decided to adopt the diminutive Chinese leader’s pragmatic maxim: ”It does not matter what colour a cat, whether it is black or white, as long as it catches mice it is a good cat”. It does looks like the Vietnamese cat is catching mice without going through the traumatic changes of colour and associated misery of its people. The high number of children and pregnant women seem to confirm the wisdom of such an approach


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