A YOUNG PERSON’S OUTLOOK | Sharon Henry
“Sometimes people ask me, why do you smile at the Americans and the French, they’ve been here in the war, they did many bad things to your country? How can you still smile with them now?
“I say, because that is in the past. It’s better you forget it and move on. Otherwise you are angry and sad all the time. Life is too short.”
These are the words of 27 year old Vietnamese girl, Trang, or Emily as she is known to western visitors. We’ve struck up a friendship over the past week and we’re now stood chatting at the Hanoi Chic Hotel reception desk where she works. Having just returned from dinner I’m feeling the effects of the city’s namesake beer and a touch melancholy because our visit is drawing close.
Trang’s shift ends at 10 and she’s grateful for the company. Outside on the street, bowls clink and hooters drone over the chatter of late night diners.
“You Can Get Angry With Them.”
Trang is referring to Vietnam’s past oppression and atrocities suffered during the 100 year French occupation and the ‘Vietnam War’ with the US. “It’s easy, because we are young people; we only studied it in school and read about it on the internet.”
I have to admit, my own knowledge about the country before now stems purely from Hollywood movies. The Viet Cong was often portrayed as the bad guy.
“But,” continues Trang, “when I went to the museum in Ho Chi Minh city about the French and American wars and saw the pictures… I felt very…I don’t know how to say… very bad. You can get angry with them. Why did they do that? We are humans, but a different country. How can they do that to other people?” She swallows, her face turns a shade of red. “That time in the museum I got really angry. But, when I left I thought, okay that’s in the past,” she shrugs and smiles.
Her forward looking attitude is humbling.
“Also you have to think, maybe they didn’t want to do that but they had to, they were just following orders. Like still today boys here of age have to give compulsory military service, unless they go to university. They have to do it.”
Fireworks Over Hanoi
Over three million tourists visited Vietnam in the first five months of 2015. The majority are from Asian countries. The biggest western country sources are USA and France. Many of these visitors flow through Hanoi.
“There were some French people who came to find and visit children who might be related to them, left behind after the war,” she says. “They wanted to help and support them. They go there because they feel very bad about what happened and hope by doing so will make themselves feel better.”
The US war ended 40 years ago in 1975. We happened to be in Hanoi for the anniversary known as Reunification Day. The streets were decorated with festival lights and a fireworks display marked the occasion.
The conversation then lightens; I tell her about St Helena and we talk about music, food and travel.
Respect For The Older People Is Very Important
Trang has travelled to Thailand, Cambodia, Laos and Malaysia. “I did the trip with my boyfriend and a group of his friends and really enjoyed it. We walked, rode bicycles, hiked to the mountains in the Penang National Park in Malaysia…”
Originally from the coastal Thai Binh province, 115km from Hanoi, Trang has also seen a lot of Vietnam. “For me, you have to know about your own country so when you visit other places you can see what is different.
“The best thing I like about Vietnam culture is that younger people respect the older people. It’s changed a little now because many young people don’t respect their mother and father so they do things that is not good. Respect to the older people is very important.”
The noise of the street spills in as guests return from a night out, Trang hands over their key and bids them good night. We pick up the conversation.
“Family is important to me,” she says. “My parents stay in my hometown in the countryside. I stay here with my brother and sister in law. My six year old niece stays with my parents because we work and have no time to take care of her. So it’s better they take care of her. We visit regularly but really miss them. I just saw them last week and already today I want to go home!”
Vietnam Is Growing
To occupy her spare time Trang makes jewellery with shells collected from Thailand and Vietnam using macramé. “I also like having small parties with family and friends, we go to Karaoke to sing and relax. Karaoke is very popular with young people here. Am I good? Sometimes! When I sing with someone else!” she laughs.
I tell her I think it’s funny how everything in Vietnam is transported on a motorbike and that there are no restrictions on passenger age or numbers. “Not only in Vietnam also in Cambodia and Thailand!” she adds. “I didn’t ride a moped until I came to Hanoi to study four years ago. But I prefer to travel by public bus; it’s cheaper and safer than a motorbike.
“Now that more people are coming to Hanoi it’s making traffic more crazy,” she says. Another knock on effect is housing demand. “I like trees but now they are cutting them down from Hanoi’s streets to make way for houses and the sky train.” The city is in the process of building a train system similar to Bangkok’s BTS.
“The country is growing so you have to do that for the people,” she concedes. “But we need to grow more trees to keep the air clean, there’s too much pollution here.”
Speaking of which, face masks which come in all colours and designs seem to be more than just protection from pollution? “It is the fashion here!” she giggles, “I even wear them on the bus and I do have different masks to match my outfits!”
It’s coming to the end of her shift and we get to talking about people we’d like to meet, dead or alive. Mine is Prince, the singer. Hers is, “Uncle Ho,” Ho Chi Minh, the revered leader who led the country’s struggle against the French and the Americans.
“As Vietnamese we hear about him and many stories,” she explains. “He was very smart. I wonder how he had the power to do so many things for our country. Many people ask from where he came? I’ve been to his mausoleum a few times, although there’s not much time to stand and see him, it feels special. For every Vietnamese they feel like the Uncle is very close to them.”
The clock strikes 10 and Trang looks as fresh at the end of the long day as she did this morning. The same cannot be said of me. She gives me one of her handmade necklaces, rebuffing my attempts at payment. It’s beautiful and something I will treasure forever.
The saying; ‘travelling is the best education,’ is spot on. Speaking with Trang tonight has been an education