Western and Eastern values vary tremendously. There are enormous cultural differences some of which might seem strange to foreign eyes. However when the Vietnamese get it right, they really do get it right. A straw poll among expats saw the same subjects coming up over and over again. Here are five of the things that expats singled out as positives in the Vietnamese way of life.
1. Family Values
This was far and away the single most repeated subject. I have to say that I too would single this out as an extremely positive side of Vietnamese life. The Vietnamese family unit is a very strong unit indeed. From the minute a child comes into the world, it will be cosseted and nurtured not just by the mother and father, but also by the whole extended family. In fact more often than not, the grandmother takes an even more active role than the mother. New birth mothers get to recover surrounded by family members. More often than not several generations of a family will already be living together anyway. This love and support is extended towards the elderly in a way that, quite frankly, puts the West to shame. Old people live with their young family members, not for them the retirement home. Vietnamese in general show a deference and respect to older people all the time.
Siblings will help each other out all the time in a way that is both admirable and sensible. It is not uncommon to see a brother or a sister giving up portions of their weekly income to support a sibling who is less well off. On a recent Facebook post, one young girl wrote that when she is married and working at the same time, she would expect to give 50% to her family budget, 30% to her parents budget and keep 20% for her own needs. Boy! The West could learn a lot from these people. Pay it forward?
2. Teachers are held in Higher Esteem
The roll of a schoolteacher is quite possibly the most vital one in the world. People will cite doctors, nurses and top scientists, but without the role of their educators, we would have none of them. I count many schoolteachers amongst my friends; dozens in the UK and many more here in Saigon. The ones in the UK feel under valued, under pressure and under the hammer at all times. Teachers are leaving the profession in the UK in alarming numbers. The average length of time a teacher stays in education in the USA is now 5 years. This appalling neglect of our teaching staff is embarrassing and dangerous. In many US schools they now have permanently armed police officers on duty. In Britain attacks on teachers are commonplace.
However here in Asia it is quite the reverse. All my teacher friends here love the job. The politeness of the pupils towards their teachers is admirable and borne out of both a respect for authority and a respect for the fact that they are getting an education. Asian children are simply thankful to get an education, whereas in the West a large number don’t even want one. I was recently at an event on Vietnamese Teachers Appreciation Day, what a concept! Speaking to the teachers afterwards they were quite emotional at the level of appreciation they had been shown by their pupils and their parents.
Children are encouraged to engage with adults here in a way that has been almost abandoned in the West. The paranoia around paedophilia has put paid to that. Despite the fact that sex crimes are no different nowadays than they were a hundred years ago, parents are over protective of their children to the detriment of their development.
3. Road Etiquette and general Manners
Road rage almost doesn’t exist here. It is amazing at times. The roads are crazy, everyone seems to do what they wish and yet, arguments are extremely rare. In the West a car horn is used as a signal of aggression, drivers sound their horns in anger and shout and scream behind the wheel. In Vietnam, the horn is simply an “I’m here be careful” sort of a device. I quite like the underlying anarchy of Vietnam. It implies that you have a certain amount of responsibility for your own actions. If you trip over a paving stone in the West, it’s lawyering time, in Asia its “Why didn’t you watch where you were going” time. That carries on into the ‘highway code’ here. Yes, you are likely to meet someone coming in the opposite direction on the wrong side of the road carrying a settee on a motorbike, but if you crash into him, it’s as much your fault as his.
The traffic moves at a very slow pace here, but that simply means you get where you are going quicker in the long run. Everyone weaves about and struggles through the traffic, there are after all approximately 37 million motorbikes here, but tempers rarely get raised. I would hazard to guess that if you put 37 million motorbikes on British roads the resulting carnage would rival a war. Vietnamese also have a smile for everyone, walk down a street here and almost everyone you pass, will smile at you.
4 Recycling and Green Issues
It is amazing in a country that is supposed to be behind the world’s big countries, but recycling in Vietnam puts most of the world to shame. It has to be said that in many cases it is done out of a financial need rather than a commitment to the green cause, but nonetheless, conditions are put in place to ensure that just about everything gets recycled. It is incredible, to see the lack of household waste going into landfill. In fact I haven’t seen a landfill site here in Vietnam. Every household separates plastic, paper, cardboard, cans and any number of other things to recycle. I live in a Vietnamese household on a housing estate in District 2. On the street there is one normal sized dustbin for about every 50 houses. It is quite simply, incredible. If you have something that is of no use to you anymore, you just put it outside your door and it will be gone in an hour or so.
There is also a lot of common sense that goes into house building. Houses are tall and narrow and often have a kind of atrium running through the floors taking excess heat out through the roof. People are also incredibly industrious and make the most beautiful things from items that we in the West would simply toss. I’ve seen handbags, artificial flowers, and even items of jewelry and clothing made from throwaway stuff. And I don’t think anyone EVER throws clothes away. Throw out a shirt and you are likely to see it being worn by one of the Xe Om (motorbike taxi) guys the day after. Opulence it seems really is the biggest threat to green issues.
5. National Pride without Nationalism
The Vietnamese have an inner strength and resilience that is to be admired. They have been attacked numerous times in the past. They’ve been colonised and had many attempts to destroy their sovereignty. Every time they have eventually come out as the victors. Yet they are humble and magnanimous in victory. They are passionately proud of their country. At Tet, on National Independence Day and other holidays the Vietnamese flag is everywhere to be seen. It lines many streets and flies from every taxicab. Yet it never seems to cross over into that awful flag waving negative type of nationalism. I still feel uneasy when I see the flag of St George; such was the level of my sense of it being hijacked by the far right in the 70s and 80s. Many English people wave their national flag in anger and hatred of others. The Vietnamese wave it purely just to say, I am Vietnamese and proud. There is an enormous difference. When any national team is playing on TV it seems that the whole country watches.
Vietnam is not perfect by any stretch of the imagination, but on these subjects I think they have much to teach us in the West. By all means let me know if you disagree or indeed if you have other subjects which you feel I should have included.