Don’t buy lingerie for your fairer half in Vietnam, as Nishiraj A. Baruah learns the hard way. Instead, learn the lingo of forgiveness in this Buddhist nation trying to make a point in English
Buying undergarments is not on my agenda, but when I step into this lane in the crowded markets of Old Quarter, my eyes sparkle impishly. The fluorescent and psychedelic sweet nothings – nighties, negligees, stockings, bikinis, swimming costumes, G Strings, the works – are a feast for the eyes. In florals and frills, laces and lycra, these tiny tributes to women dangle from hooks like mutton in a butcher’s shop or strapped around naked mannequins. But isn’t this a bit odd? There is not a single male in this lane lined with make-shift stalls. The women sales-force eye me curiously, then with disapproval, while a few teenage girls giggle. I feel awkward, unwelcome. Not daring to ask for adult wear, I opt for a safer question: “Do you have panties for little girls?” My 6 year old will certainly love some in Doraemon, Spiderman or Hello Kitty prints. “What!” the matronly woman barks, “no English.” So I point my finger at a girl playing with hula hoops and make a circular gesture around my waist to indicate what I mean. “Noh, noh, noh!” she tells me, visibly angry now. I look around hopelessly. No one comes forward to translate. Never mind the money, but I guess Vietnamese culture finds the idea of man buying lingerie for the fairer gender revolting. I quickly retreat, hostile eyes following my back.
I am in Hanoi, Vietnam’s lush-green Capital, as part of a delegation with Leh based His Holiness The Gyalwang Drukpa, head of the thousand year old Drukpa Order in the Himalayas. With millions of followers worldwide, he has been invited as a state guest by the Communist government of Vietnam to take part in Vesak, a festival that commemorates the birth of Buddha, his enlightenment and his passing away. In fact, the UN General Assembly recognises Vesak as the day most sacred to Buddhists.
“Make way! Give way,” the cops hollar on a megaphone, sticking out their batons from the car windows to bang furiously on the sides of any busses or cars that dare to stray into the path of our convoy. Going with The Drukpa – accorded VVIP treatment – has certain perks. I can’t help feeling self-important as we speed up towards the festival venue, Ninh Binh province, three hours from Hanoi. The convoy of 32 Lexus GX460 SUVs – big and black – is being led and followed by police escort vehicles, sirens blazing, red light flashing. Soon the countryside reveals itself in glorious greens. The ubiquitous stainless-steel rooftop water tanks shine brilliantly in the sun. The paddy fields – Vietnam is the rice bowl of the world – on either side of the highway are balm for the eyes. And yet, this quiet, serene and peace loving country was once a war zone, sarin gas and bombs unleashed on its people by the French and the Americans for no fault of theirs. Drukpa followers along the smooth road wave their hands at HH’s cavalcade. “Why can’t Indian govt. build roads like this,” asks the Drukpa.
Bai Dinh Temple complex, where the event is taking place, is buzzing with excitement. Shaven-headed monks in maroon have descended from over 100 nations to celebrate this festival that apart from serving as a spiritual, cultural, academic, diplomatic and economic connect with the world also promotes tourism in Vietnam. The international press is there in full force. “Are you from the media?” I ask a tall Egyptian woman with a camera. “No,” she says, “I have come to pick up Buddhist techniques for a therapy clinic I run in Cairo.” Meanwhile, our holiness in John Lennon glasses gets a rock star’s welcome. Followers who want to touch him almost mob him, before he manages seat himself in the VVIP front row. Vietnam’s deputy PM and various state ministers come to meet and greet the Drukpa. What did they talk? I ask HH later. “Oh, these are politicians, you know. They all want only one thing – more power. ” A lovely dance-drama opens the event followed by a series of long speeches. I stifle a yawn and realise I am not the only one. Even monks are falling asleep in each other’s shoulders.
I step out with my photographer friend to soak in the wet outdoors. What we see is spectacular. Bai Dinh Temple complex is very sacred for Buddhists worldwide. Three large copper Buddha statues, each weighing fifty tons, stand imposingly. The panoramic Tam Coc mountain complex is so pretty that my friend, a conflict-zone photographer, whose offices more often happens to be Kashmir or Kabul, Baghdad or Beirut, exclaims: “I so needed this break!”. “Covering these conflicts kills a part of you. You cannot remain untouched when you see children and women being tortured and killed right in front of your eyes. You feel the worlds is an ugly place. You forget that the world can also be as pretty as this,” he says, taking in lungful of fresh air.
The day long celebrations will continue but we would be better off exploring other sights and sounds of Hanoi. Off we take our Lexus and head straight to Ho Chi Minh memorial at the centre of the city. The revolutionary is to Vietnam what Gandhi is to Indians. Despite the humid heat, it was full of tourists. We check out the touristy stalls and the shops at the French Quarter, an area that looks exactly like Paris, but for reasonably priced shopping the Old Quarter markets are the place. “Where is the Old Quarter?” I ask a man nibbling on snacks by the sidewalk. The question startles him. He gets defensive as if I am a salesman trying to sale him something. “Noh, noh, noh!” he says shooing me away and turning his back. Blame his behaviour on language. Most Vietnamese you meet in the streets speak not a word of English.
Old Quarter is a thriving, buzzing market. Its narrow lanes are chaotic like Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, crowded by women in scooters and men in mopeds. Because of the slow traffic, people avoid motorcycles and bikes. Each lane specialises in only one commodity: Shoe lane, bag lane, a lane for eateries, a lane for eyewear, and so on. By night, the place is lit by red neons – the colour of Communism. I stumble upon a beer lane where huddled in small groups, college students and tourists seat by the roadside on low stools. The locally brewed beer and dirt-cheap prices attract all and sundry. But just when we are making ourselves comfortable, a very agitated woman barks us out of the place. What happens? Well, a police van is its on way and the owners will be fined for encroaching into the street.
Encroachment is just about all the crime that take place in Hanoi that sees no murders, no muggings, no rapes, no break-ins, no road rage. Women walk free without fear at the weekend night market. Selling Chinese products, there is no end to the endless rows of stalls. I can’t resist splurging a few millions. A traditional Vietnamese hat – so symbolic of Vietnam – costs me 5 million. Come rain or sunshine, these straw hats have survived the plastic onslaught and continue to grace the Vietnamese heads. I also buy a two-wheeler helmet styled after the Vietnamese army. That cost me 10 million! Several other shops sell artifacts and posters from the wars, but my wallet is left with just about a million or two now. It is nice to be a millionaire, of course, never mind that there is a difference between a dollar millionaire and a Dong millionaire. Rs 200 makes 1 million Dongs.
Walking past an ancient opera house, a girl hands over a pamphlet for a musical. Her English is fluent – at last I meet someone local to strike up a conversation. “Your accent is very American? Did you study in the US?” I ask. “Is it bad?” she asks me, suddenly self conscious. “No, no,”I say, “You speak very good English. It is the best I have heard so far in Vietnam.” She breaks into an elastic smile, touches her heart with a bow and gushes: “This is the biggest compliment I have ever received.” With a liberal communist government throwing open the country for international investments and tourism, English-speaking skills are much sought after. But not everyone has mastered the lingo. Communication deadlock is common and often lands me in unpredictable situations. Sample the following incidents.
Late one night, I decide to take a two-wheeler taxi. “Sheraton hotel. Going?” I ask. The man pauses and thinks like Karl Marx, as if I am seeking answer for a profound existential dilemma. Then quietly goes and consults his colleagues by the sidewalk. He returns, and soon I am off riding pillion on his Suzuki scooty. He races and zig zags his way ahead. My heart stops as I hold tight. My ceramic tea set will break for sure. After 15-odd minutes he screeches to a halt by a skyscraper. “Your hotel!” he grandly says. I look up to find a big ‘S’ sign on the rooftop. But this isn’t my hotel! “This is Sofitel, not Sheraton,” I tell the guy. “Oh ho!” he says, barks out something that sounds like abuses and bullets up again, past the neon-lit Karaoke bars, to stop in front of another tower with another ‘S’ neon sign on its rooftop. Right, this is the Sheraton Hanoi. “Vely sorry. Vely sorry. Vely sorry. Vely vely sorry. Vely sorry!” Yes, that many times he repeats the word and bows.
Communication chaos also strikes next morning. Before we set off for Ha Long Bay, I dial the hotel’s housekeeping department for a shoe shiner and a dentel kit. A girl comes to deliver, but no shoe shiner.
“Shoe polish? ” I ask.
“I p it up,” she says.
“I p it up,” she repeats.
What on earth is she is saying? So I point out my pair of shoes and start air-polishing.
“U wan me to p it up??” she says, picking the pair from the rack and preparing to leave.
“No, it is fine, ” I give up. “I will do it myself.”
Sometimes, mis-communications can have you in splits. While returning from an outing, I ask our guide, “Will Sun be there at the hotel when we are back?”
“Sun? Noh. Noh sun. It will be black. Dark,” he says. I look at my friend, puzzled. And then I realise.
“Oh, not that sun,” I say, pointing to the crimson ball in the horizon. “We mean SUN, your colleague! The guy who works with you?”
“Oh, he is not Sun!”
“Is he a moon then?” my friend mutters under his breath.
“He is Saun!” the guide corrects us, stressing on the right pronunciation.
But at least they are trying. On the way we stop at a craft factory where orphaned and specially abled children churn out incredible pieces of paintings and sculptures in fine embroidery, limestone and lacquer. A salesgirl follows me around. “You like this? U wan to buy?” she asks. But she seems more keen on conversing with me than selling. After all, there are not enough people around to practice her English with. “How to speak good English?” she asks finally. “You already speak better than others,” I tell her. She is flattered and rewards me with a wide, self-conscious smile. Still I advise her to watch and listen to English news and serials on TV. “You can also practice by talking to your reflection in front of a mirror,” I suggest. This sounds so silly to her that she doubles up in a laughing fit.
We are soon at Ha Long Bay, one of the seven wonders of the natural world. We climb into an empty 100 seater ferry. “Where are the other passengers?” I ask. “There are none. It’s for just the two of you!” says our guide. This is unbelievable – we have the entire boat to ourself! The perks of being in the Drukpa entourage! Oysters, lobsters, fish, prawns, beer and wine are served, as we enjoy the astounding spectacle of more than two thousand hillocks working as beauty spots on the blue-emerald face of the South China sea. Hundreds of pleasure boats trail the sea. And in the house boats, families and honeymooners stay overnight. We dock our boat at one of limestone islands and climb 100 steps to enter a cave made of stalagmites and other mites lit. Creative lighting illuminate its cornices and crevices. The guide shoots a laser beam to point out the forms: That looks like a nude woman, that one like a tortoise (hence the money on it), and that looks like a horse, dragon or a cobra. Who has thought of these comparisons? The guides themselves. “This makes the cave more interesting to tourists,” he says. These caves were accidentally discovered by a fisherman taking shelter in the island during a storm. Another island has been developed into a resort complex. Post lunch, the cook unfolds a tray full of of pearls. She wears them herself like a shy bride and says, “Thek. For wife.” I don’t but regret later when wife mentions that Ha Long Bay pearls are one of the best in the world.
Finally we drive back to the hotel. The sun slowly sinks behind the sprawling paddy fields – the stainless-steel water tanks on the roofs now basks in its orange glow. Small towns pass by. The speedometre needle is at 130 kmph. That’s a lot more speed than traffic rules allow. “This car is VIP car, you VIPs. Police no stop us,” says our guide, pointing to the fluttering VIP flags on the bonnet. No sooner than he said this, a cop springs out from behind a bush (much like our own traffic cops) and flags us down. Our driver has a word with the cop. The cops salute us. We are off again, now passing several neon lit signs advertising “Karaoke Bars. People love singing here it seems. “No sing, no sing,” guide says. “It is just see and taah (touch) gals (girls).” Is it? Calls for a visit.
The language problem continues to dog us till the end. On our way to the international airport, we decide to stop at a landmark attraction we have heard about. An American war helicopter has been preserved just the way it had crashed on a lake. We try to explain to our driver by making our hands fly complete with sound FX of the ride and the subsequent crash. “Dhoom!” I say. Is it on the way? He cannot make any sense of our words, but dials a number on his iPhone, talks to somebody and passes the phone to me. This leads to more confusion. Forget it, we are just wasting our time. We will get late. “Ok, no helicopter. No lake. Airport! Airport!” He gets this bit and accelerates.
However, language issue has never stopped the tourists, mostly Americans – many of whom come here to see the country where their dads and granddads fought. So do they harbour any grudges against them? “Not at all,” says our guide. “Buddhism teaches us to forget and forgive.”
“And that’s the language, not English, that a nation needs to communicate with the world,” signs of Gyalwang Drukpa.
The Drukpa Buddhists
The Drukpa Buddhists follow the Mahayana Buddhist tradition in philosophy, i.e. the philosophy of “getting enlightened for the benefit of others” and the methods are based on the Tantrayana teachings passed down from the great Indian saint Naropa, born in 1016. “Druk” means “Dragon” and it also refers to the sound of thunder. In 1206, the first Gyalwang Drukpa, Naropa’s reincarnation, saw nine dragons fly up into the sky from the ground of Namdruk, and he named his lineage “Drukpa” or “lineage of the Dragons” after this auspicious event. Today, the Drukpa Lineage sprawls over major parts of the Himalayas, especially in Ladakh, Kinnaur and Lahaul-Spiti in India, as well as Bhutan and Nepal. Bhutan, also known as “Druk Yul” or “Land of Thunder Dragons”, honours the Drukpa Lineage as its state religion. The lineage is also widely practiced in many countries throughout the world, especially Vietnam, another nation deeply influenced by the legends of “Dragons”. For more information, visit: www.drukpacouncil.org