Friday, January 30, 2015

Aligning the Flag of Five Elements

30 January 2015

 We've seen these flags around Vietnam, and I finally did a little research.  These are the flags of five elements, varying colors of concentric rectangles with flame-shape edges, and are usually hung outside temples, palaces, and such.  The five colors represent earth (yellow), water (green), fire (red), air (white), and space (blue).  Balancing these elements externally brings harmony to the environment.  Balancing these elements internally brings health to the body and mind.

My mind is holding up.  My body is sick - pneumonia.  Early stage, but it turns out my bacteria is mean and nasty and resistant to most antibiotics.  Our doctor, a nice man from the Toronto area, has been giving me mass IV antibiotics and checking my CBC, hoping we can blast out the bacteria while waiting for culture results.  The treat and test and hope to cure method of doctoring, which we all saw Dr. House use so skillfully.  (My doctor is nicer than Dr. House, but not as cute as Hugh Laurie.)

So the good news is that now we have a pretty good idea of the bacteria.  Bad news is it looks like the only antibiotic is IV.  Ugh.  So I'm trying to internalize and align the elements and bring about healing.  

The two options were to either do an outpatient thing, hanging around the medical center twice a day, getting my IV.  Or I could be checked into the center and stay there for the weekend.  Yeah, not happening.  We're doing outpatient.

It's a lovely medical center, with several treatment rooms (one with a special soft bed which I love!), very nice staff, and the people who insert the needles (ugh) are very good and gentle and have accepted that I have child-size veins.

Plus they bring cups of water or tea.  And today provided a menu from the deli across the street, who delivered our lunch.  Which wasn't on our bill, confusing us quite a bit.  (We need to check on this, but maybe this is their way of feeding patients?)

Anyway, when it isn't too busy the staff are chatty, and it's always interesting to ask our questions about the country we're visiting.  Usually our time talking to local people tends to be within the whole service or tourism industry, for obvious reasons.  Though we do strike up conversations with random people in cafés and such.

But it's interesting talking with the nursing and technician staff at this place, to get their perceptions of their country.  One young man worked with overseas doctors on a special project.  Today's conversation was about living standards in Vietnam, and the pursuit of education by lower-income people in the developing world.  As I said, interesting conversations.

Richard has mostly been either hanging out with me in the treatment room, or in the lobby which has much better chairs.  So he gets to meet and talk with other patients.  Today we met two nice young Danish travellers.  Medical centers are never where one hopes to end up while travelling, but at least we found a good spot for the situation.  And while this is not the situation we'd choose, well, we need to get me over this pneumonia thing, so we're just doing that and not worrying about anything else.  (Frustrating?  Of course.  Expensive, since we pay up front
and get reimbursed by insurance later?  Of course.  Worth getting upset about that?  Nah.  We're in Vietnam, it's way cool, and, well, this will be over soon.  Or eventually.)

Our side trip has been postponed for a few weeks (it's a cruise of Ha Long Bay, which is said to be phenomenal and absolutely worth the trek).  We'll book a few extra nights at a hotel, either this one or the one we'd be moving to after the cruise.  And that's about it.  We're catching up on email, writing, blogging, and lots of reading.  Not much else to do, with now twice daily visits to the med center.  (Plus I'm drinking tons of lemon tea, and trying to rest up.  You know, standard doctor's orders.  Chicken pho helps.)

Okay, so the photos are from the day I walked to the Vietnamese Women's Museum - I noticed this ceramics vendor that morning, and it was just wonderful watching her sell items as the cars and scooters zoomed around her.  Hanoi is getting ready for Tet, with new flowers being added to the flowerbeds around Hoan Kiem Lake.  There are all kinds of decorations being put up on light posts and over the streets - on the way to our medical place, they have baskets that look like they're made from red roses, with hanging greenery and red flowers.  Just lovely!  It's all very interesting, and decorative, and just pretty.

I really liked the big piles of fake yellow flowers - workers were putting them up around some posh department store or mall, and there were huge piles of giant yellow pompom sort of flowers (chrysanthemums maybe?) - but people were walking by, or driving by, and no one seemed to notice this wonderful and crazy scene.  They looked like drifts of cheerful yellow feathers blown up against the building.  I'll try to get back to get a photo of the finished decoration.

Another things we see often - abandoned flowers.  I nearly picked up these beautiful stargazer lilies - while I can see that they're beyond their prime, I think these flowers have several good days left.  I wouldn't toss them out in the street just because one or two have wilted; I'd deadhead those one or two, and continue enjoying the blossoms.  But we see this, flowers tossed as garbage, because they're no longer, well, perfect maybe?  We don't know.  I guess there are cultural differences in what floral perfection is, or why flowers are used.  All I can think is that if the flowers are on a shrine or at a temple, maybe they're supposed to be perfect.  Can't be anything less or it might be an affront to the deities and/or ancestors.  Thus maybe when flowers hit a certain point of beginning to wilt, they are replaced.  Sooner than we might replace them in our house.  (Only rationale I could come up with, since I haven't asked anyone yet.)

In a similar manner, the flowers around the lake are periodically pulled out and replaced.  It was fascinating to watch this crew of women hidden under their conical hats, replacing the flowers with poinsettias.  For Tet.  I'm not sure if poinsettias are a flower for Tet, or if they're used because of the deep red color which seems to be featured in the Tet decorations, or what.  Just, lots of red.  And then the small red flowers amongst all the greenery in the barely blue bags - just wonderful!
We'll hang out in Hanoi, finishing up the medical stuff.  Seeing more sites once I'm cleared to go out in public.  Eventually we'll get out to Ha Long Bay.

And I'll keep reporting in!


Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Wife and Husband are as Inseparable as a Pair of Chopsticks

27 January 2015


Today I visited the Vietnam Women’s Museum.  It was AMAZING!  Richard went to the Museum of the Revolution, and he thought it was quite interesting.  But I LOVED the Women’s Museum – absolutely fascinating!  It's a gem of a museum that is often overlooked by both men and women, for all kinds of cultural reasons where we dismiss women's contributions to the world.  Anyway......

Here’s their website: 

And if you get to Hanoi, go to this museum!

The building has four or five floors – the elevator has four buttons inside, but the directory says five. Anyway, the center of each floor has a hole, all lined up, like a stack of donuts spaced out.  Hanging in the center is a wonderful mobile made of the conical hats women wear, two hats put together to make a diamond shape, and painted in various designs – all strung together and hanging down four or five floors.  Each floor has its own unique view of this mobile, which is beautiful and whimsical and slightly frivolous.  And definitely Vietnamese in style. 

The top floor featured a few modern pieces, and what I think were children’s experiments or interpretations in the style of the artwork.  Nothing was labeled, but having been an art teacher, well, we just recognize children’s art.  Some of it related to items in the exhibit, and this is a fairly standard way to teach art – show art by “famous artists” and then have the students do their own interpretation in the style, with similar materials.

Next floor down – Fashion and Motif Art – or, everything a Fashionista or fabric artist would want to learn about Vietnamese women’s clothing as an art form!!!!!  And yes, I loved this exhibit as much as my friends and family can imagine.  It was fabulous!

There were entire outfits from different ethnic groups, featuring the particular fabric arts of that group.  Each one was more gorgeous than the next, and I’d have happily worn most of them!  Black was often the background color, with ikat weaving, appliqué, or embroidery usually in reds and white.  Absolutely sounds like my travel wardrobe!  I was in ethnic fashion heaven!

Instead of trying to remember everything, I took photos of the information placards, so here’s some of the information:

“Cotton is the most popular fabric for Vietnam’s 54 ethnic groups, with natural silk reserved for appliqué and festive costumes.  Hmong women use fabric woven from hemp which is then dyed with indigo.  The Pathen, Flower Lolo, and the Flower Hmong have very colorful clothing.  Ethnic garments often incorportate many complex sewing techniques.  The Yao and the Phula favor embroidery; the Lolo and the Pupeo appliqué, the Hmong and the Yao Tien batik; the Thai and the Khmer ikat and the Muong, the Tay and the various populations of the High Plateau prefer woven patterns.  Everything is hand made and in the past only natural materials were used.  Patterns and motifs reflect each population’s identity and its environment.  Sewing skills are passed from generation to generation.  They illustrate women’s creativity, their sense of aesthetics and many hours of work.  Clothing styles have evolved over time and through external contact.  Fashion exists even in the most remote regions.  “Today change is accelerating especially in the northern Hmong and Yao communities where synthetic fabrics, wool, and chemical dyes are now in wide use.”

I was already familiar with the Hmong reverse appliqué, which is similar to the molas made by the Kuna people of Panama.  Having done some fabric art projects, especially appliqué, this was the part I wanted to see.  And the exhibit didn’t disappoint.

“In appliqué, small pieces of colored fabric are sewn onto a background to create patterns.  Various colored fabrics are cut into geometrical forms and sewn onto the fabric while the threads are hidden behind the appliqué.  This technique is used by some populations in the northern mountains.  Each group has its own specific patterns.  The Lolo and the Pupeo use triangular shapes to make patterns.  The Hmong use a very elaborate technique called reverse appliqué.  The top fabric layer is cut into patterns revealing the color of the backing fabric.”

There was also one area where people could follow the directions on how to wrap a head turban in the style of one of the ethnic groups.  With beautiful scarves with embroidery or weaving in the various ethnic styles.  Of course I had to try this.  Didn’t quite get it, but close.  And then, as with women in a dressing room anywhere, several women chatted with me as they tried it, we gave each other helpful comments, and did some tweaking of the turban on each other to try to get it right.  Womanly bonding, with clothing as our catalyst.

The rest of the museum was a little confusing, because the floors sort of split – to the left of one half flight of stairs would be one exhibit, and then down another half flight of stairs would be another exhibit.  Sort of split level exhibits.  Rather than talk about which floor the exhibits were on (especially since the elevator buttons didn’t match the directory outside), I’ll just explain the exhibits.

Remember when we were in Danang, and I wrote a little about the Cham people worshipping the Mother Goddess?  Apparently this is not only a Cham thing, many of the other ethnic groups in this country also have a Mother Goddess  as their primary deity.  Makes sense, given all the Lady Buddha statues we’ve seen across the country.

So there was a GORGEOUS Mother Goddess Altar, full of ceramics and flowers and candles and offerings, and three statues representing three of the Mother Goddesses.  (Which was confusing, because the information talked about the Mother Goddesses representing four parts of nature or the universe or elements.)

Information from the displays: 

“Worshipping Mother Goddess:  Pure Heart – Beauty – Joy 

“Worship of the Mother Goodess is a purely Vietnamese folk belief.  It has a long history and has adapted to social changes.  Today this belief is widely practices throughout Vietnam and in Vietnamese communities overseas.  Worship of the Mother Goddess addresses the concerns. Of daily life and desires for good health and good fortune.  Worshippers find great emotional support in their belief and it attracts followers from all strata of society.  

“This exhibition introduces the key values of Mother Goddess worship through the voices and experiences of worshippers in Hanoi and some northern provinces so that visitors might better understand this typical folk belief of the Vietnamese. 

“Mother Goddess Altar – The mother goddesses reside on the altar where followers come to ask the mother for blessings.  The altar is always kept clean and carefully arranged.  Spirit mediums perform hau dong, the central ritual of mother goddess worship, on a platform in front of the altar.  In anticipation of a ritual the altar is beautifully prepared with many trays full of offerings, votive paper, and enormous vases of flowers.

“The four Mother Goddesses [and in some ways women themselves] represent the four elements:  Heaven; Water; Earth; and Mountains and Forests.”

“Vietnam’s Mother Goddess belief is part of our culture.  We perform legendary stodies of deities who have served the country and the people.  They are worshipped at temples and palaces built over many generations.  Mediums manifest the shadows of deities fighting in battlefields against invaders.  We reproduce them for our children and grandchildren to understand the origin of those deities.”

“Mother Goddess worship is wonderful.  It teaches us to remember the source when drinking the water.  It also venerates our ancestors and educates everyone to do good things.  Worshipping the Mother Goddess, I pray for the happiness of my family.”

“In Mother Goddess worship, women are the center of the universe, looking after all the four regions:  heaven, earth, water, and mountains and forests.  Unlike other religious beliefs, worshippers find their expected desires and happiness right here in their current life.  By following the Mother Goddess, their spiritual needs are satisfied.”

“The Mother Goddess is a spiritual mother who protects us in our lives.    Whenever I wish for something, I go to a temple to ask for the Mother Goddess’s support to make my business more favorable.”

“The Mother Goddess is a spiritual mother.  Whenever we are happy and joyful, we come to Her and whenever we feel sad, we talk and share with Her.  Whenever we face difficulties, we look for Her to find Her support and protection.  The Mother means everything.”

“People always worship Mother Goddess as their own Mother.  We are all children and grandchildren under the Mother Goddess.  Whenever I think of the Mother, I visit her temple to ask for good fortune, good health, and favorable business.”

I should add that there was a guide taking two tourists through, and I asked a question that has been bothering me.  The ceramic items on shrines, temples, etc. all seem to be in white with blue designs, and I wondered if there was some reason for this.  She said no, that’s the way they do things, it has been that way all her life and she never thought to question it.  So, there may be a reason, or maybe there isn’t.  I received one of those non-answer answers.

Anyway, offerings on shrines often are edible items – packs of cookies or crackers or candy bars, whole fruits, cans of drinks.  These are referred to as “favor offerings” and I’ve always been curious about them.  So here’s the museum’s information.

“For worshippers, the term loc – divine favor or blessing – is understood in many ways:  health, well-being, good fortune, business opportunities, and prosperity.  Offerings accepted by deities and distributed to worshippers are also called loc.  

“The receivers of this material loc believe it is invested with the deities’ favor and will bring good fortune to themselves and their families.  They try to bring as much loc home as possible.”

“When I receive loc, if it is money I keep it; if it is candies, cookies, or fruit I distribute them to others to get more good fortune.”

“It doesn’t matter whether one receives more or less loc.  The important thing is that we feel happy and free from worry.  When I receive loc as money I spent a little on votive paper for my ancestors at home and I keep the rest because I consider it something special.  If I receive fruit, after offering it to my ancestors, I give it to the children.”

Yes, I seriously wondered about this.  We see entire watermelons sitting on a shrine in a business, and I couldn’t figure out what happens to that melon.  Does it sit there until it goes bad?  Does the family take it home and eat it?  So yes, they take it home and eat it.  Share it with the children.  According to my friend Rai in Bali, this is part of one’s continuing relationship with the ancestors, kind of sharing a meal but sequentially, I guess.

And the votive paper – I don’t know if these items are burned or not, but these are huge and fancy items made out of paper, designed and constructed by special artists, and used as part of the offerings at shrines and temples.

There was a huge role on women’s role in the defense of the country, beginning with the Trung sisters in 40 CE, on through to the Vietnam War.  The posters were interesting as works of art, both in style and composition, as well as showing women in the clothing of various ethnic groups doing their normal daily stuff, with the occasional woman and gun.  I just enjoyed the art and tried not to get too depressed.  But there was a huge (and sad) exhibit about the Heroic Vietnamese Mothers, women who lost more than two children, or an only child, or a husband and children, in the Vietnamese War.  Or women who died in service to their country during the war.  Nearly 50,000 women received such status, some posthumously.  Just, horrendously sad.   

“Women have always played an important role in the defense of the Vietnamese nation.  In 40 Common Era the Trung sisters led the battle for independence against the Han Chinese.  Trung Troc proclaimed herself Queen and made Me Linh the capito.  In the 3rd century, 23 year old Trieu Thi Trinh of Thanh Hoa fought against the oppression of the Wu Chinese.  King Quang Trung’s female General Commander-in-Chief of the elephant-mounted troops, Bui Thi Xuan, contributed to a victory against 290,000 Qing Chinese invaders in 1789.”

Just to insert a note – we stayed on a street named Hai Ba Trung in Saigon, and there’s a street of the same name in Hanoi.  It means The Trung Sisters.  Yup, the same ones who led the battle against the Chinese!  Okay, continuing:

“In the 10th century, the Regent Empress Duong Van Nga sacrificed her lineage in the national interest by handing over power to the General Commander-in-Chief, Le Hoan, who founded the Le Dynasty.  He won a decisive victory against the Song Chinese in 981.  King Ly Thanh Tong’s wife and Regent Y Lan governed in favor of the people.  She developed a plantation of mulberry trees for silk manufacturing and she liberated women from the harem.  Nguyen Thi Due disguised herself as a man to take part in royal examinations in 1593.  She became the first laureate and thus the first woman doctor.    Other honored women writers and poets included Ho Xuon Huong, Doan Thi Diem, and Ba Huyen Thanh Quan.”

There was an entire floor dedicated to the roles women play in daily life in Vietnam, differentiated by ethnic group.  I skipped the part of childbirth, I’ll leave that to my sister who is a doula.  The information about childrearing was interesting, and of course the pictures of the little kids were wonderful.  One thing that amazes me are the major chubby cheeks on the babies and toddlers – Vietnamese in general are very small people, not tall and very slim, with tiny bones.  But the babies have some of the chubbiest cheeks I’ve seen on little ones!  Just adorable, and my grandparents would have enjoyed pinching every baby around here!  (Apologies to the photographers, their names didn't show well on my photos of their images so I haven't been able to add them here.  But thank you for capturing scenes around Vietnam that we travellers often don't get to see!)

The little kid clothing was cute, as it always is in every culture – the hats were especially lovely, with little pom poms all over.  We saw many Hmong people in Thailand, and the babies always had wonderful ethnic hats.

And baby carriers – most developing countries have various baby carriers, and it often seems only those of us in developed nations stick babies in carriages or baskets to move them around.  My sister the doula calls it “wearing your baby.”  So there was a wonderful exhibit of baby carriers, similar to some of the snuggly fabric carriers that have become more acceptable and trendy.  Except these were embellished with embroidery and weaving, and were works of art.


This is the best quotation: 

“Wife and husband are as inseparable as a pair of chopsticks.”

There were exhibits showing various wedding clothing and traditions, which differ between the ethnic groups.  One couple under a gorgeous umbrella matched the photo opp board out in front, you know, the picture with cutouts so you can stand in back and take a photo with your face in the picture.  Those wonderful hokie photo opp boards.  Anyway, the clothing of course was beautiful, the fabric arts were wonderful, and the customs interesting.  Despite the Mother Goddess worship, many of the ethnic groups practice patrilineal descent, and everything seems to be up to the man’s family.

“In Vietnam, patrilineal family structures are practiced by the Viet, Yao, Thai, Sinhmun, Bru-Van Kieu, Taoi, Ma, and Hoa populations.  Men plan an important role in the nuclear family.  In the past families were quite large but the birth rate has declines.  Male descendants are privileged in patrilineal societies.  Children are called after their father and only sons, and in particular the eldest, have the right to inherit.  While monogamy is now usual, in the past many people practiced polygamy.

“In wedding rituals, the groom’s family plays the most important role.  Marriage rituals center on three main occasions:  engagement, wedding, and the first visit of the young couple to the bride’s family.  The boy’s family chooses one or two mediators and in many regions also consult fortune tellers to determine the most auspicious date and time for the rituals.  The fortune teller commits herself also to bring the gifts requested by the future bride’s family.  The wedding takes place at the groom’s house where the bride will live from then on.”

“On her wedding day, the bride wears a traditional dress and a red fabric headdress on a bamboo frame with a veil of fabric embroidered with special patterns to hide her face.  She is accompanied by a ritual master, musicians, her parents, siblings, and relatives on the ceremonial visit to the bridegroom.  Because of the distance, they have to wait in a temporary shelter until the favorable hour.  The next day the bride washes her hands with water consecrated by the ritual master, then enters the house across a basin of cleansing embers for rituals with the groom and both families.  From then on, she is a member of the groom’s family.”

Just a note - red is often a color worn by the bride in Asia, as it is seen as a color of youth.  White is more likely to be worn at funerals.  However, in Vietnam we've seen several brides in yellow ao dai so I'm not sure if that's a Vietnamese tradition or not.

“In Black Thai houses, bedrooms are bordered by mosquito nets and curtains.  The couple’s belongings include blankets, a mattress, pillows, jewelry boxes, costumes, and fabrics.  The fabrics owned by a family display the women’s skills.”

So that gives you just a taste of the museum, and what life it like for women in Vietnam.  Well, life is different in the modern cities, but these are the traditions in the small towns and villages, and amongst the people who hold on to their cultures.  I suspect that many of the city dwellers continue with the traditional practices but modified to fit into a modern lifestyle.  For example, Tet.  Tet is the Lunar New Year, and things are gearing up for this huge holiday and festival.  It’s both religious and celebratory, and many of the celebrations include family events.  So just like major holidays in the Western world, where we travel “home” for the holidays, people do that here.  Trains and flights are booked weeks in advance, hotels are booked, restaurants close, and everyone spends the week with their families.  One of those things that seems to be universal, world-wide.

I know, this is a long long blog, but the place was just so interesting!  And I have a ton of photos of the rest of my day, since I walked there and back, but I’ll save that for a general urban blog.