There was an article a couple of days ago in the newspaper Dân Trí about the Vietnamese fetish for hearing foreigners say that they love Vietnam.
Apparently when Manchester City played in Vietnam recently, someone tried to get some of the players to say “Hello Vietnam” and “I love Vietnam,” but the players ignored these requests. This bothered some Vietnamese, but it led the author of this article to question why it is that Vietnamese have a need to hear foreigners say that they love Vietnam.
Indeed, foreign visitors having been getting asked questions like “Why do you love Vietnam?” or “What is it that you love about Vietnam?” for years, as if their mere physical presence in the country is proof of their love of a nation.
And while countless foreigners have by now publically stated their love for the nation of Vietnam, and while Vietnamese have by now basically become culturally programmed to expect to hear foreigners to say that they love Vietnam, the author of this article in Dân Trí argues that love of Vietnam is not something that Vietnamese should expect from foreigners, but that they themselves should earn.
This is an interesting point, but I’m more interested in the history of this need to hear foreigners say that they love Vietnam, and I’m increasingly coming to see it as part of the perseverance of what I would call “Cold War culture” in Vietnam.
With the fall of the Berlin Wall, the collapse of the Soviet Union and the move towards a market economy in Vietnam in the decades following the implementation of the Đổi Mới policy, the Cold War to a large extent came to an end.
However, there are aspects of the Cold War that still survive in places like Vietnam.
The aspects of the Cold War that survive are elements of the culture of the Cold War era, and getting foreigners to say that they love Vietnam is, I would argue, one such cultural aspect.
During the Cold War, the Soviet Union and the US competed to win over allies to their side. The discourse that the US used at that time to talk about its allies emphasized that they were all “freedom loving,” whereas in the Soviet Bloc the idea of a “Socialist brotherhood” was important.
And when delegations from the countries of the Soviet Bloc met with each other, they met in large rooms with tables arranged in a rectangle and surrounded by big, heavy chairs where one person spoke at a time.
After their meeting, the delegates from brotherly Socialist nations would then go to eat together, and there they would raise glass after glass of vodka in toasts to “the friendship between our peoples/nations” and for “peace on earth.”
Today in much of the world face-to-face meetings take place in rooms with round or oval tables that allow for free conversation, and if the people meeting decide to eat together afterwards, they are more likely than not to raise their mugs of beer together and say “cheers.”
Vietnam, however, is different. The practice of placing tables in rectangles and surrounding them with big, heavy chairs still dominates in meeting rooms, and foreigners are still expected to declare that they love Vietnam.
Like the tables and chairs in Vietnamese meeting rooms, I see this expectation as a relic of the Cold War era. It stems from a time when the Vietnamese needed to demonstrate, like the other countries in the Soviet Bloc, that they were the partners of other countries. It is also, I would argue, a relic of the Vietnam/American War-era need to showcase the support of foreigners for the North.
As for the rectangular tables and big, heavy chairs, explaining their continued use would lead to a long discussion, and would lead me into a topic that I don’t know a lot about, but which I can nonetheless sense.
Many years ago I read some of the works of historical anthropologists John and Jean Comaroff. In their writings about African societies during the colonial era, the Comaroffs demonstrated how the changes that took place at that time included things like changes in body posture and body movements.
More specifically, certain African villagers went from sitting on the ground and eating with their hands, to sitting in chairs around tables and eating with forks and spoons, etc.
The Cold War brought similar changes to the countries of the Soviet Bloc. The ability, and need, to sit in big, heavy chairs around tables arranged in a rectangle and to move (or not move) one’s body in certain ways, and to wait one’s turn to talk, were all learned at that time.
And they are still practiced today, as is the practice of asking foreigners why they love Vietnam.
My sense is that there are many more such aspects of what we today see as “Vietnamese” culture that are the product of the Cold War era. Hopefully some energetic anthropologist will research and write about this topic sometime soon.