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Other occupations, including the growing of other crops, were seen merely as sidelines - as things that could be done when one was not growing rice. The cobbler, the hatmaker, and the silk weaver also grew rice, or rather they were rice farmers who also made shoes or clothes.

- Frances FitzGerald

 
Viet Nam: A Summary



Understanding a country and culture from the outside is always a difficult proposition. But for us to accomplish our mission as an organization we need to try to familiarize ourselves with the history, both past and present, of this complex place. Those who choose to support us will also be curious about the country and culture of Viet Nam.

The country has really only just reopened itself to the West, and Americans in particular have long held it at arms length. Most countries are not what they appear to be when seen only long distance. But there have been so few photographs, and so little outside observation of Viet Nam in the past several decades that for those of us in the United States, well, we have a lot of catching up to do.

We will begin with the sections on this page and talk a little about the different aspects of Vietnam. Gradually, over the next few weeks and months, we will go into them in more detail.

Needs Analysis: Click here for some of the demographic and statistical information on Viet Nam.
 
Road Map For Vietnam's Libraries

On May 4, 2007 The Vietnamese Government released their new strategy for development of Vietnam’s libraries thru 2020. We have an overview of the highlights of their new policies, and how the Vietnam Library Association might fit into the future development of libraries in Vietnam. CLICK HERE for the complete overview...

 
People

One of the biggest surprises we had when arriving in the country was seeing how western the clothes were. It actually made the differences stand out even more, like the dust masks, and the Áo Dàis (the traditional long tunic and pants seen in so many images of Viet Nam). You see them now primarily worn for special occasions, by government or business officials, and on high school girls in their freshman year. The dust masks were a simple practicality, but they are worn more by women to partially protect from dust, but also to protect from the sun since paler skin is seen as preferable and they don’t want to tan. They often wear matching gloves at the same time.

The two piece pajama outfits have become more like jumpsuits that are emblazoned with Abercrombie and Fitch, Calvin Klein, and Bebe logos.

Most natives didn’t wear shorts or tank tops, except in Ho Chi Minh city where all bets were off.

Without exception, the people in the areas we stayed were incredibly friendly and generous. The community is so well-connected that within a day people we passed would comment, “That’s the oldest daughter of Kim Trac and the American.” Well, to be fair, I was the first Caucasian to visit the area in over 15 years and I caused quite a stir.

There are a great deal of entrepreneurs in Viet Nam and we intend to tap into that culture for the libraries. We will contract out our café and provide free rent in exchange for a percentage of the profit. Many things are moved about by couriers on motorbikes, and for the libraries without phones or internet, we will exchange books between them via this sort of service on a weekly basis. It is in our interest to involve as many people as possible in the life of the libraries to help integrate them into the community.

I’ve tried to show a selection of photos that give some insight into the daily lives of the Vietnamese.

CLICK HERE for picture gallery

Architecture

This is a country remarkably resistant to outside influence despite their history. There were three major groups of architecture we saw in the south: traditional wood and grass huts, colonial buildings, which have a strong resemblance to the traditional homes, and the newest buildings which have a distinctive American Southwest or Spanish feel to them.

The new buildings are quite different from either of the preceding generation of homes; and purposefully so. People want to be seen as “modern”. The new homes have high ceilings and are long rectangles going far back onto the lots. Generally there is a front room, a long hall with bedrooms off of it, and a rear kitchen with bathrooms attached. Many houses still have “squat” toilets, but more and more are adopting the western style toilets.

We have drawn on the influence of the preceding two generations of building styles in designing our libraries. Many of the features of these homes lend themselves well to a public building and we’ve tried to be sensitive to the practical reasons to build the way they have in the past, and the cultural reasons to tie the libraries into their architectural heritage. But we also want these structures to be distinctive. It’s important that patrons feel welcome, but are aware that they’re in a community space.

The photos we’ve chosen to show are certainly not every picture we took, and unfortunately we were unable to get many interior shots, but they do provide a good selection of what you see in the south.

CLICK HERE for picture gallery

Flora & Fauna

Every home had a garden and there were potted plants everywhere. I kept staring at many of the caudiciforms which in the US would cost $3,000 apiece if you were lucky enough to even find them. Damn the export laws!

For most people the plants were not decorative and it was seen as a sign of prosperity if you could afford to keep plants which were only decorative. People were proud to point out that they had plants which were simply beautiful to look at.

Much of what I saw in Viet Nam was unfamiliar. The language barrier didn’t help with identification, and probably wouldn’t have been much use as the locals, similar to most places, referred to the plants by common name and not latin names. I hope to get some help on identification from my pictures and perhaps on our next trip back.

Large planters were often used in the south particularly since the soil is so wet and has a high clay content. Many plants suffocate in the dirt if they aren’t meant to grow in it. Mounding of beds is used to help dry it out, but generally people grow plants that can handle the conditions.

CLICK HERE for picture gallery

Food

Southern Vietnamese cooking differs from Northern in two important ways. It involves many more fresh herbs and greens, that grow more abundantly, year round, and in great quantities in the south. They also eat a great deal more seafood and usually don’t consume beef. Their cooking is usually described as being light and very flavorful. With the exception of clay-pot fish which is pungent and richly flavored; but a perfect accompaniment to the lighter dishes.

Rice is served with every meal and is the main starch in the form of grain rice, rice flower, and rice noodles.

Meals are frequent and I felt like I was never given a chance to feel hungry. If you’re not eating a meal, you’re snacking and “snacks” can consist of a bowl of shrimp and crabs, fruit, or soup.

It is impossible to overstate how wonderful the fruit selection and quality is in southern Viet Nam. We ate fruit I’ve never even heard of. My favorite was a giant soursop which tasted like a sweet kiwi and was the size of a football. Hao’s favorite was jackfruit, which is the size of a watermelon. We ate at a logan fruit farm and the fresh logan fruits were sold in large bags and tasted nothing like the ones you occasionally find in this country.

Unfortunately for us, since the greens are washed in the local water, we couldn’t eat them unless they were cooked, and it was the greatest tragedy of our time there.

CLICK HERE for picture gallery

Landscape

Viet Nam is beautiful, and we saw relatively little of it on our visit. The south had many more trees and wooded areas than I expected. Although it is flat and primarily agricultural it does not feel like Kansas or northern Ohio; states that look like giant lawns when seen from a plane.

Water is everywhere. Most land exists as narrow strips woven through the ponds and rivers of the Mekong Delta region. Inland areas which might normally be dry are dug out and flooded to serve as shrimp farms which reduces the actual land even further.

Only recently have motorbikes and cars replaced boats as the primary method for getting around in southern Viet Nam. But there are still many areas where you cannot reach them without a boat.

CLICK HERE for picture gallery


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