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Strange days in Vietnam

Thursday, April 02, 2020, 12:03 GMT+7
Strange days in Vietnam
A cyclo driver pedals through empty Ta Hien Street in Hanoi, Vietnam, April 1, 2020. Photo: Mai Thuong / Tuoi Tre

In the middle of surreal events, we shut down to other things happening around us. Sometimes that’s natural, although some willfully ignore less publicized events, too.

Sometimes I think that one of life’s lessons is learning to cope with unpredictability while continuing to personally grow within yourself and rise above the circumstances around you. And this is probably more relevant now than ever before.

Now that’s easy for me to say but harder to do. But it does help to look around and see what else is going on.

In just the last week or so, two separate drowning incidents occurred involving children in rural Vietnam. Southern Vietnam is battling one of the worst droughts in history, and at least two people I know in the Hoi An area have suffered personal tragedies recently.

Obviously this makes it harder for people to stay upbeat when it’s an endless series of reports of deteriorating conditions everywhere. But in strange times perhaps there are ways to cope or deal with ‘negative overload.'

The way I manage is by trying to see beyond the immediate negatives. It’s a way of thinking I’ve developed over decades during a lot of stressful events.

Firstly, I’ve noticed my own bad habits of reacting to negative thoughts and events, particularly in the mornings, by blowing them way out of proportion to their reality.

If I don’t shut down this stuff by refusing to react, just let the thoughts drift away – then the second problem becomes a nasty process of adding more problems to the first thoughts, even if they are unrelated, a sort of ‘layering’ negatives on top of each other. 

As my thoughts escalate in my head, I’m often brought back to earth by the Vietnamese wandering pass the coffee shop, the blind vendors peddling pens and tissues, the old ladies carrying kilos of veggies to the markets, or the young ‘ice boy’ delivering blocks of ice by 6:00 am around town.

So if the Vietnamese can trundle on so can us Westerners.

I asked the Vietnamese owner of a restaurant in Hoi An I frequently visit, "What do you think about the coronavirus?"

Her English isn’t good so she angled her arm as if she was describing an airplane slowly crashing downwards while saying "zero."

I think she summed up the situation well and still smiled as she spoke.

Her place is popular to expats and tourists: it’s simply decorated; the food is good and cheap; and the mum and dad, working a 12-hour day (and often longer), still give everyone a great smile.

As one of the few restaurants in her area alongside one of the main streets, she still got foreigners in for lunch and dinner although the numbers were dwindling fast until nationwide social distancing started this week.

Between sign language and a handful of phrases, we both agreed that most of her business would come from the stranded travelers still around.

Their son has been unemployed for a while despite speaking enough English to work in the hospitality industry.

He pointed out that the family has been through far worse difficulties over the years with a grin on his face.

It’s one of the more fascinating aspects of the Vietnamese character, the power of family in tough times, the shelter and support they can offer and the simple fact that life here is sometimes so hard that the coronavirus becomes indistinguishable from daily struggles.

This doesn’t mean the locals are ‘trusting to luck’ or simply accepting their fate. Folks do wear masks, stay away from crowds, and so on.

Perhaps the Vietnamese have a more tuned sense of realism than many of the visitors around town at the moment. 

I’m certainly still bamboozled by the number of young foreigners riding around on motorbikes without a face mask, helmet, T-shirt or decent shoes.

And they are hanging out in large groups at the beach, heck, parties even!

Quite a few of my Vietnamese friends are now hosting relatives out of work or downsizing businesses and scrambling for alternative incomes. They are adapting to changing economic conditions fast.

I do wonder if we in the West have lost the ability to accept change quickly – certainly there’s more to learn from our Asian neighbors than we think. In surreal times, maybe we have to get more real.

So whatever inconveniences we Westerners/tourists face, it’s nothing compared to the locals. Strange days indeed.

What’s the worst that can happen? No is not fatal.

How can I help or live the fact that I can’t help (at this time – you might be able to later…)

Look at how the Vietnamese cope with life

Our Western attitudes could do more harm than good

Shelter our kids from constant bad news

Make a plan even if it doesn’t work out immediately

Stivi Cooke / Tuoi Tre News Contributor


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