Culturally speaking

Published on 22nd June, 2011 in Global Bloggers by Scott Shelton

Hanoi has been a complicated place, culturally speaking, for me. The fact that everything revolves around the Vietnamese lunar calendar is probably the biggest hurdle. It is truly what makes Vietnam a different place, in my opinion, and unless you have a clear idea of how it affects people’s lives here, it can all seem quite mysterious.

Knowing Vietnamese well enough to take part in the cultural side of life seems essential, and if you don’t have that, like me, you might never feel you have access to the deeper cultural side of life here. If you make an effort, people will try to explain things to you in English, although at times translation doesn’t seem to be enough. I’ve learned things from my students, however, and there is lot going on.

While Hanoi might not come across as a particularly spiritual place, living here for the past two years, I’ve noticed quite a few temples being refurbished and they are popular places to go on the first and 15th day of each lunar month. People pray for good luck and money mostly, from what I’ve been told, but my guess is that there may be more to it than that.

Funerals are another event startling to foreigners as they can happen at any time and without any notice. People generally set up a canopy along the street, and a band playing a special brand of traditional music plays. It sounds to me like a sort of jazz, and is usually quite loud. Those involved wear a white headband and as at other wakes, food is served, but here they can last for days. As with all things cultural here, there are loads of traditions with an immense amount of detail that isn’t obvious to the casual observer, with everything done for a reason and in a particular way.

The biggest cultural extravaganza is of course the Vietnamese lunar New Year, or Tết. Months are spent preparing for this and people fill their houses with all manner of flowers, plants, branches and trees to celebrate the coming of Spring. Tết celebrations are all family-oriented: meals, visits, and ancestor worship among them. The big deal for the youngsters is the red envelope containing ‘lucky money’. Apparently, some don’t get to keep it, as it often ends up in their parents’ pockets to help balance the costs of the Tết budget! Prices rise at this time of year, and people generally spend a fortune.

Socially, Hanoians can take a while to warm up to you. As anywhere, there are people who might like you for who you are, and others for what you can do for them. People here are always up to something, this is a busy, busy city, and it seems that one thing or another is always either being built or destroyed. There seems to be a Vietnamese version of the ‘siesta’ and especially in the hot months, traffic thins out and people disappear after the noon meal and don’t reappear until around three. Then it all starts again with a fury of activity.

Culturally, it is easy to miss out if you don’t make a real effort to connect with the people and the language. So, if it’s culture you’re after, you’ll have to get into the thick of things, culturally speaking, of course, or it may all just pass you by.

Until next week,