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Saturday, June 15, 2024

A year of separation and hope, in perspective

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Editor’s note: Having lived and worked in Hanoi, the author of this article finds this past year a long time of separation because of Covid-19, which reminded him of poignant personal stories shared by his Vietnamese colleagues. At the same time, he also hopes that Vietnam will emerge even stronger than before, as she did from previous episodes of separation.

Covid-19 was, no doubt, the defining feature of the year 2020. As a totally new challenge, with devastating lethal power, it forced governments around the world to react swiftly to contain the loss of life while at the same time trying keep economies afloat.

On both the health front and the economic front, Vietnam did much better than most other countries, including the most advanced economies in the world. The initial lockdown was draconian but very effective, and in just a few weeks life was almost back to normal. The Government and citizens deserve much praise for such spectacular accomplishment.

A necessary component of this success was a strict closing of borders. In 2020, life was normal inside frontiers, but the international isolation was radical.  After decades of rapidly increasing global integration, traveling to Vietnam suddenly became almost impossible.

Gone are the millions of foreign tourists who used to wander around Hanoi, inevitably falling in love with Her. But the closing of the borders has also affected Vietnamese people, preventing them for months in a row from reuniting with loved ones who are abroad. In my case, it has been almost one year since I could last go back to Hanoi… and by now I am feeling sick of missing Her!

And yet, such long periods of isolation are not new to the Vietnamese people, and especially to Hanoians. Throughout recent history, the city has been cut from the outside world, in ways that hurt families, lovers and friends. Having lived and worked in Hanoi, this long year of separation has reminded me of poignant personal stories shared by my Vietnamese colleagues.

Many of my colleagues were born in times of war, when youth was mobilized to protect the country’s newly acquired independence. Back then, a young man would be subject to several years of military service and would only benefit from very short breaks to return home. To make things worse, travelling long distances was challenging in those years.

I remember my friend Viet telling me about his father serving in Sa Pa in the late 1950s and being granted just two days to see his young wife, whom he had to leave right after their wedding party. Viet’s father had no choice but to run (literally!) from Sa Pa to Lao Cai, from where he could catch a train, and then another train to his hometown in Thai Nguyen Province. Most of his two-day break was spent traveling, and only a few hours with his young wife.

My friend Quang, in turn, was among the many children evacuated from Hanoi during the final, brutal years of the war. Little Quang, his brother and his sister were taken by bicycle to a place near Son Tay, almost 40 kilometers away, where they spent an entire year. But his parents had to stay in Hanoi for work, and he missed them badly. During the bombing of Hanoi, in late 1972, Quang and his sibling could see and hear the explosions in the distance and were terrified about their parents’ safety.

Then came the subsidy period, when many talented young Vietnamese were sent to study in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe.  Most often they had to stay abroad many years in a row, without a chance to return to Vietnam. Many of them felt homesick and lonely.  But in the 1970s the rules were strict: Vietnamese students could not date, they could not party, and they could not mingle with locals. These bright young people could only handle their isolation in heavily controlled ways, such as attending concerts of visiting museums.

An unverified story is revealing of the extreme isolation these students faced. Apparently, a group of them in Saint Petersburg (then Leningrad) found consolation in visiting the Hermitage museum and admiring a stunning sculpture by French artist Auguste Rodin. Called Eternal Spring, it showed a naked man and a naked woman embracing passionately, in a poignant mix of eroticism and emotion.  That was too much, apparently, and the students were disciplined for their longing for love.

Rules were relaxed in the 1980s, when Vietnamese students abroad could move around more freely. Many of them were still feeling homesick, especially during the harsh winters, but breaking the long spells abroad at least once became possible.  Humorously called “Travel to Love,” the demanding journeys back home often involved more than one week traveling by train through Russia and China, before making it to spouses and lovers in Vietnam.

The Covid-19 outbreak Vietnam faced in 2020 has similarities with the wars and hardships the country endured in the 20th century.  But the cost has been substantially less this time, as much fewer lives have been lost and the economy continues growing steadily. Families, lovers and friends are still kept apart by border closings and travel restrictions, but the resulting separations are less painful because it is now possible for them to communicate through the internet.

If anything, the stories by my Vietnamese colleagues make me believe that Vietnam will emerge even stronger than before, as it did from previous episodes of separation. I am sure that Viet’s father completely forgot the exhaustion from his long journey from Sa Pa when he landed in the arms of his young, beloved wife. I know that little Quang and his siblings developed a tight bond with the peasant family that hosted them in Son Tay, where among other things they learned how to take care of ducks. And I have no doubt that so-called “Travel to Love” by Vietnamese students abroad led to deeply emotional reunions, forever cementing love among many couples.

Children born from such encounters, families and couples are bound to be wonderful, and that may be one of the reasons why Vietnam shines today. Unusual circumstances exposed my colleagues, their relatives and their friends to very difficult challenges, but they bravely confronted them, and along the way they learned what was really important in life.

As for me, I cannot promise that I will be as resilient and successful as my colleagues were.  But I hope that the long and painful separation from Hanoi brought about by Covid-19 will cement even further my amazing relationship with Her.

By Martin Rama(*)

(*)Martin Rama is the Chief Economist for Latin America and the Caribbean at the World Bank and a project director under the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences.  The views expressed in this article are strictly his own.

10 French films to be screened to celebrate Tet

The French Institute in Vietnam and BHD co-host Ciné Tet program on the theme “Watching New Film, Welcoming New Spring” from January 29 to February 28. During one month, audiences will enjoy 10 French films with Vietnamese subtitle on online film platforms free of charge such as VOD DANET, FPT Play and FPT Television. The 10 films include “Radin!”, “Tamara, C’est Quoi Cette Mamie?!” (Who’s That Granny?!), “Ange et Gabrielle” (Love at First Child), “Rupture Pour Tous” (Love is Dead), “Momo” (Finding Mom), “Le Petit Spirou” (Little Spirou), “Ni Une Ni Deux” (One Role for Two), “Tout Nous Sépare” (All That Divides Us), and “Alibi.com.”

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