The Culture

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The Vietnamese have been shaped by their history, which is littered with the scars of battles against enemies old and new. The Chinese have been the traditional threat and the proximity of this northern giant has cast a long shadow over Vietnam and its people. They respect but fear China, and in the context of 2000 years of history, the French and the Americans are but a niggling annoyance that were duly dispatched. The Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud and nationalistic, as they have earned their stripes in successive skirmishes with the world's mightiest powers. But that's the older generation, who remember every inch of the territory for which they fought and every bomb and bullet that rained upon them during the long, hard years. For the new generation, Vietnam is a different place: a place to succeed, a place to ignore the staid structures set in stone by the communists, and a place to go out and have some fun. While Uncle Ho (Chi Minh) is respected and revered down the generations for his dedication to the national cause, the young are more into Manchester United's latest signings than the party's latest pronouncements. It's not only young and old who are living a life apart, but also the urban and rural populations, and the rich and poor. Communism is dead; long live the one-party capitalist dictatorship, where survival of the fittest is the name of the game. Some have survived the transition better than others, and this has created strains in the shape of rural revolts and political backlash. One of the great ironies of the Vietnamese revolution is that it strove to impose a communist system on a people born with a commercial gene, a competitive instinct to do business and to do it at any hour of the day or night. To the Vietnamese, business, work, commerce - call it what you like - is life. The north-south divide lingers on. The war may be history, but prejudice is alive and well. Ask a southerner what they think of northerners and they'll say they have a 'hard face', that they take themselves too seriously and don't know how to have fun. Ask a northerner what they think of southerners and they will say they are too superficial, obsessed by business and, well, bling. Caricatures they may be, but they shed light on the very real differences between north and south that go beyond the language. Climate plays its part too; just think of the differences between northern and southern Europe and you have a snapshot of how one people can become two. Not forgetting that the north has lived with communism for more than half a century, while the south had more than two decades of freewheelin’ free-for-all with the Americans. For more on this, see The North-South Divide. Finally, don't forget 'face' - or more importantly the art of not making the locals lose face. Face is all in Asia, and in Vietnam it is above all. Having 'big face' is synonymous with prestige, and prestige is particularly important in Vietnam. All families, even poor ones, are expected to have big wedding parties and throw their money around like it is water in order to gain face. This is often ruinously expensive but far less important than 'losing face'. And it is for this reason that foreigners should never lose their tempers with the Vietnamese; this will bring unacceptable 'loss of face ' to the individual involved and end any chance of a sensible solution to the dispute.