Vietnam: hard-working culture not homogeneous

fishing

Last in a series.

The Vietnam Museum of Ethnology, Hanoi, shows how wrong it is to presume the country’s culture is homogeneous. Although Viet people make up nearly 86 percent of the population, 53 other ethnic groups call this home.

That includes the Hmong, who tend to farm in steep, northern highlands. Nuances in dialect, customs and clothing further distinguish this ethnic group as White Hmong, Blue Hmong, Flowered Hmong and Black Hmong. Production of fabric with vibrant batik patterns and weavings is a generations-old specialty.

Nearly 300,000 Hmong live in the U.S. today, fleeing here after their wartime alliance with Americans compromised their safety at home. Wisconsin has the nation’s third largest Hmong population, after California and Minnesota.

On Hanoi’s ethnology museum grounds are a Hmong house of wide wooden planks, very different from the Tay house on stilts, a communal Bahnar house for 42 villagers and several other types of housing that help distinguish Vietnam’s residents.

A nonprofit museum shop (craftlink.com.vn) sells the country’s handicraft specialties, handmade paper to embroidered clothing.

At Hong Ngoc Humanity Centre, between Hanoi and Ha Long Bay, disabled people use photos and paintings as templates to weave scenes of life with yarn. The building is one part job training center and one part shopping center. Some workers are disabled because of Agent Orange use.

The Marble Mountains near Da Nang are considered sacred because of points of spiritual pilgrimage, and a tourist draw because of businesses that carve figurines for shadow boxes and statues for yards and estates. Women who sand these items by hand, eight hours per day, say they earn $4.50 for a day’s labor.

Elsewhere, a day’s work means rolling 3,000 incense sticks by hand. The work of lacquerware artists involves 20 stages and at least 100 days per wall hanging. Woodworkers at Kim Bong, a village known for its master carvers, chip and sand, then add mother of pearl inlays in pocket mirrors to furniture.

The most common occupation in Vietnam is farming, and most work vegetable patches, rice paddies or rubber plantations without machinery. Inland fishermen lower and lift huge nets by hand daily, or throw and retrieve smaller nets over and over.

The country’s average wage, overall, is less than $200 per month. The addition of tourism brings the hope of raising that standard.

Inside Vietnam are eight UNESCO World Heritage Sites. My favorites: Hoi An, a well-preserved trading port from the 15th to 19th centuries, and Ha Long Bay, whose jagged limestone pillars dominate an archipelago of at least 1,600 islands in the Gulf of Tonkin.

Within the Hoi An historic district is a ferry dock, lively open market, religious pagodas and tight rows of wooden houses and shops along narrow streets. The area is known for quick and fine tailoring, and for brightening streets with many paper or fabric lanterns after dark.

Most Ha Long Bay islands are uninhabited, and wooden boat cruises to the area last at least one-half day, with at least one cave exploration. For us, that meant getting acquainted with Dong Thien Cung – Heavenly Palace Cave, whose underground formations are magnified by dramatic and colorful, strategic lighting.

For more: whc.unesco.org/en/statesparties/vn and vietnamtourism.com.

An Eau Claire veteran who served in Da Nang in 1971 asks: Would you go with the same tour company again? Would you travel at another time of year due to the heat? What was the approximate total cost, roundtrip, to Wisconsin? Would you ever consider doing a trip there by yourself/with a friend?

I like using Gate 1 Travel (gate1travel.com, 800-682-3333), based in Pennsylvania, for group excursions to destinations that I don’t want to navigate on my own. (We also saw South Africa with Gate 1.) These trips are remarkable because of the occasional deep discounts. One price includes basic excursions, with the option to add other tours or use leisure time to rest or explore independently. We don’t stay at the fanciest places, but they are clean and often centrally located.

Total cost for my recent Vietnam trip was under $2,500 per person, a bargain for a 12-day trip to Asia.

About $2,000 covered all transportation (international flights, two domestic flights in Vietnam and ground transport), lodging, tours (basic and optional) and most meals. To get a 5 percent discount, pay Gate 1 by check instead of a credit card.

An additional $500 paid for travel insurance (through Travel Guard International, based in Stevens Point, travelguard.com), the required travel visa ($160), miscellaneous meals, gratuities and souvenirs.

I would not travel to Vietnam independently. Traffic is a nightmare: Motorists miraculously make it work while largely ignoring crosswalks, traffic lights and one-way lanes (sometimes even on highways). Just walking around Hanoi was stressful enough.

I also don’t know the Vietnamese language and did not encounter many people who spoke extensive English. I can’t speak highly enough about our excellent Gate 1 guide – Pham Xuan Truong – and his savvy advice, helpfulness, patience and good humor. He deserves a raise, especially because of the grace in which he handled unusual circumstances beyond his control.

Vietnam is a fascinating country. Although sweltering hot in late October – near the end of the rainy season – we luckily stayed dry. That meant no slippery stone stairways without handrails or soggy walks of one or more miles.

Visiting during this time of year would be less hot and humid, but the price is significantly higher. So it’s a trade-off.