The Inner Voice of Who Knows What

the pilgrimage: Henri Nouwen and my own topsy-turvy little heart

Into the Country

From my journal on May 17:

“I love contrast.

Yesterday I spend much of the day walking around the busy, humid, and very very warm streets of Hanoi – riding on a motorbike downtown in rush hour, where we ran into entire streets roped off for pagoda anniversary celebrations, eating in a little hole-in-the-wall pho place that would be shut down immediately if seen by an American health inspector.

Now, we find ourselves in Sapa, possibly the most gorgeous mountain town I will ever encounter. The scenery is absolutely lush, the culture is traditional Hmong, the women are beautiful across their agespan, and the fog makes things so much cooler. I can’t wait to see the mountains when it lifts.”

Getting to Sapa after some crazy Hanoi times was certainly an experience of contrast… the difference between urban and rural Vietnam is immeasurable. But beyond the obvious contrast in weather and setting, time in the rural areas, especially in the Thanh Thuy District, gave us insight into an entirely different way of life. I wonder how different the definition of “community” would be between the two ways of life…

In Hanoi, it seems that community is defined by whose homes and businesses you find yourself next to – all the shoesellers are friends perhaps. In the rural areas the framework of community may be defined partly by locale, but the connection would have to stretch farther than one’s next door neighbors. The immense rice paddies make it a little difficult to visit a friend by simply walking down the street – I wonder if that makes for a more meaningful relationship when a muddy trek is necessary for interaction.

The way the communes are set up provides a foundation for connecting at least the leaders of each village or small unit of people. It’s interesting to see the different ways that political participation happens in the urban and rural areas – although Communism is very much an influencing factor in both areas, it takes a different form for each. In the city, clean-cut official-looking skyscrapers mark the places where politics happen… in the country, the official buildings were much more user-friendly, down-to-earth, and in tune with the surrounding simplistic rural areas. Ho Chi Minh is everywhere, in every place… But in the commune areas, his bust is placed at the front of each official building and gathering place, reminding the people continually of how the political system operates on a level that directly affects their day-to-day life.

Rural life is always slower to change than urban life… Maybe the fashions hit Hanoi and become plastered over each billboard the next day, while the same trend goes virtually unknown in Thanh Thuy. But the presence of young people will inevitably be a variable for change. As more young people in the rural areas take notice that there is a different world out there beyond their rice paddies and water buffalo, the change begins to happen. Sometimes it is demanded. I wonder what that looks like – young people abandoning the communes for city life and leaving the communes to their traditional ways… or the ideas and desires of a younger generation seeping into the rural communities and changing them from the inside.

The contrast is telling, and thought-provoking, and exquisite.

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