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Ridvan – and a Hanoi Tamale(?)

May 2, 2012 (Wednesday) – Still Wednesday: After our visit to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial, Zabine and I were taken to the home of a Vietnamese National Spiritual Assembly member (Duyen). Other Baha’is were gathering, and only after some time did we realize that the purpose was to pray in celebration of a Baha’i Holy Day: the 12th Day of Ridvan.

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Following prayers, delicious tea and desserts were served. Among them was what appeared, at first glance to be – a Vietnamese tamale! Remembering the name of this web journal, I had to know more.

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The name of this Vietnamese dish is something I never quite learned to pronounce or spell, so please forgive me for not trying. Perhaps it wasn’t literally a tamale. A tamale is a leaf-wrapped concoction of cornmeal (or some similar dough) with various fillings – meat, cheese, vegetables, fruit, or other treats. This was a banana-leaf-wrapped dessert consisting of sweetened coconut and other fillings, surrounded by a bean-based coating. Nevertheless, the structural similarity to tamales I’ve seen was unmistakable.

Later, back at our home-away-from-home, three young Vietnamese women came over by motorcycle to study the Baha’i Faith with Zabine. They were brimming with questions, which Zabine deftly answered using her Heart to Heart multimedia resource on the iPad. My best guess is that all three will soon be in a Book One study circle, or enrolled as Baha’is, or better yet both.

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Vietnam Wednesday

May 1-2, 2012 (Tuesday and Wednesday) – Tuesday, for me, was a blur. Part of the day I felt weak from what may have been heat exhaustion, or some bug, or adrenaline overdose. Who knows? I stayed home and slept it off while Zabine ran around Vietnam having adventures.

Felt great to unwind. But Wednesday morning, we again got into another busy day. One highlight was a visit to the Ho Chi Minh Memorial mausoleum. We were asked, however, not to take pictures of the building or its surroundings. But the adjacent buildings (including the late leader’s rather modest house, a nearby pagoda, a lavish museum, and other attractions, were a different matter.

Our guides for this part of the journey were the young son and daughter of Duyen, the National Spiritual Assembly member who watches over us like the Angel Gabriel. They could not have been more wonderful. They’re in the first photo below:

Vietnam Villages, Hanoi Hospitality

April 30, 2012 (Monday) — Today we traveled to two neighboring villages in the Vietnamese countryside, conducting home visits with the believers who live there. Lunch, served at the home of a Baha’i friend, consisted of delicacies I didn’t even try to identify. All I know is that it was lavish and delicious.

As we were leaving the village, our driver, Binh (Hanoi’s Auxiliary Board member), had to dismount his car to move a motorcycle someone had left in the middle of the street. Speculation was that it had run out of gas — but why leave it there? Anyone able to drive a motorcycle could easily roll it to the curb. Maybe cars don’t visit that village often and no need was seen.

The drive back to Hanoi was along a freeway that looked very Western, except less crowded. This surprised me, since I’m now used to the idea that Vietnamese traffic is much heavier than at home. Along the way, I took pictures of Hanoi’s skyline, where skyscrapers look very much as they would in any other major modern capital city. (The tall dark one below is owned, I’m told, by South Korea, and is the tallest in town.)

Later, dinner at Binh’s and a visit to the nearby home of his sister and brother-in-law.

Blending in in Vietnam

One faithful reader complains of difficulty in picking out my friend Zabine from the group photos posted here. The reason is that Zabine and I, as seasoned world travelers, have learned to blend into a crowd of Vietnamese.

Here’s a picture of the two of us blending in. Zabine, you’ll notice, does it better than I do. It takes special skill to fly under the radar when you tower over the folks with whom you’re blending. Still, don’t you agree I could do worse?

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Be that as it may, Zabine blends very well, height-wise. So long as she’s surrounded by really tall Vietnamese men. With women, maybe not quite so well. Note below the extent to which “Shorty” (as her friends know her) does or doesn’t blend with typical Vietnamese women. She’s in the center. Please disregard her friend Barbara, who, as a fellow-Westerner (on Zabine’s left), blends almost as well as I do.

Days Three-Four 172But unlike Barbara, Zabine and I face a further challenge in the blending sweepstakes: We not only are taller than our Vietnamese counterparts, we’re also (ahem!) significantly wider. After nearly two weeks of striding through packed crowds with my bird’s-eye view, I have yet to see a single overweight Vietnamese person. I’m told they exist, but cannot confirm this from observation. Width-wise, I blend in best in my own land, where two-thirds of us are overweight and one-third are obese.

Details, details. Here we are below, blending into the audience at Hanoi’s 20th anniversary celebration for the founding of its Baha’i community. Bet you’d never have spotted us if I hadn’t circled us in red, huh? Except maybe for the telltale white hair. Hmm. We might need to work on that in a nation where most everyone, young or old, has black hair (or near-black). Maybe some henna…

AudienceHuyen Speaking of black: Our young friend Huyen told me yesterday that her name in Vietnamese literally means “black” (referring to eyes and hair), and is therefore synonymous with “beautiful” since in that cultural context black is considered beautiful. Wow! Reminds me of the Sixties when our African-American friends fought to popularize that same truth with regard to dark skin. How wonderfully they succeeded! (And yet, how tragic that in that community — or too much of it — darker skin still is deemed aesthetically inferior to lighter.)

But my point… Let’s see, did I have a point? Oh, yes, something about blending. But I can’t write any more about that right now. It’s time to go practice my chopsticks, so that our Vietnamese hosts (and expert chopstick-wielders like Zabine) don’t have further need to stifle their laughter and make polite excuses next time the bite I’m fumbling with flies across the table and hits them in the forehead. For those of us who practice blending, the challenge is never-ending.

Hanoi: Baha”i 20th Anniversary Images

Hanoi: Baha’i 20th Anniversary

For Zabine Maryam (Linkins) Van Ness, this has been a journey of 20 years. For me, it only felt like one.

Hanoi-FlowersWe arrived Sunday morning at the hotel in Hanoi where the Baha’i community was gathering to celebrate the 20th anniversary of its founding. Stunning floral arrangements were everywhere. Many of these, I hear, were sent by the government, which recognized the Baha’i Faith here four years ago and with which the friends now have very good relations. Wishing to offer support, government officials were taken aback to discover that the Baha’is could not accept funding from outside sources. They therefore sent flowers as – I assume – did many other institutions and individuals.

Traditional Vietnamese costumes were much in evidence, alongside Western business attire. Throughout the day, Zabine was warmly greeted both by Vietnamese friends and by foreign dignitaries who remembered her humanitarian work in their respective countries.

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Days Three-Four 086 The new National Spiritual Assembly of the Baha’is of Vietnam, elected the day before at the annual national convention, was introduced. Among the members is Tahirih Hong Le (the only woman), daughter of Le Loc, a longtime friend of Zabine’s from the Old Days. Le Loc once served as chairman of the National Spiritual Assembly of South Vietnam , and later as chairman of the NSA of unified Vietnam.

Cameras were everywhere – traditional cameras, cell-phone cameras, you name it. They were snapping continuously. I mostly took photos of people I didn’t know in groupings I didn’t recognize. They all seemed to want Zabine in the picture. Occasionally they even wanted me, which was awkward since, willing though I was, I really preferred to be wield the camera. But of course I occasionally gave in and turned it over to one of the friendly volunteers who always stood ready. Thus I ended up in some very memorable photos.

It was impossible not to notice that iPhones and iPads were everywhere. More than once, I had occasion to try to type my name and e-mail address or web-link into someone else’s contact book. I say “try” because I kept tripping over an unfamiliar keyboard layout, and oddly accented characters would pop up at times for no apparent reason. The extraordinary customizability of Apple products is of course is one reason why iEverything permeates world markets iEverywhere. (But I digress.)

Some prominent government officials attended the celebration. They were of course treated with highest honors, befitting their high rank. Recognizing the Baha’i community as a force for social progress and stability, the government of Vietnam has been very supportive since granting official recognition in 2008.

No one introduced me to the officials in attendance, however, and I blush to confess that I’m not sure which (if any) of my group photos include them. At the time, I wasn’t even sure whether individuals of such high station would be comfortable having their photos taken by a visiting American. So for reasons of cultural sensitivity I exercised caution, only to hear later that that very caution might have been perceived as culturally insensitive. (Sigh!)

Baha’i Counselor George Soraya of Indonesia gave a rousing keynote speech. He emphasized Baha’i principles of obedience to government, peace, education, loyalty to government, the oneness of humanity, Baha’i non-participation in partisan politics, cooperation with government, non-violence, and obedience to government.

Days Three-Four 119 Another moving address was from a beautiful lady (Mrs. Tran Thi Bich) who was the second Hanoi Baha’i, having been enrolled 20 years ago by the first believer, Dr. Dao An Son. Sadly, the latter’s whereabouts are currently unknown, although the National Spiritual Assembly made every effort to find her during the lead-up to the celebration.

There were stage performances of various kinds – guitar, dance, vocal – all of them excellent. There was a beautiful slide show, highlighting the events that gave birth to the Hanoi Baha’i community, as well as its two decades of growth and progress since that time. The slides included several from the presentation prepared by Zabine (see the previous article on this web site).

At the appropriate point, Zabine herself was invited to stand and was introduced befittingly. As noted earlier, she can rightly be regarded as mother of the Hanoi Baha’i community, having enrolled that city’s first believer in 1992. (See previous article for details.) Although she received rousing applause from the audience, she was unable to address the convention: Her visa did not arrive in time for her to seek and obtain government clearance for such an address.

After the celebration, we found ourselves in a sea of tearful goodbyes. Language and culture aside, the high emotions would have been familiar to anyone who has experienced the close of any Baha’i school, conference, or other large gathering: No one wanted to go. But time moves on, and hotel rooms must be cleared for the next gathering.

We went for lunch, later, at a nice restaurant with a large group of celebration attendees. While I ate, Zabine mostly ignored her food in favor of negotiating Very Great Things with a prominent Thailand Baha’i. Her newfound friend, Rosalie Huibonhua, watched from across the table with growing concern and finally told me, “We have to make this woman eat!” I was like, “You think I can make Zabine do anything?”

Well, of course I can’t – and I’m pretty sure that’s the way things are supposed to be.

Vietnam: Hanoi Beginnings

April 29, 2012 (Sunday) – As I have explained, the stated reason Zabine Van Ness and I are in Vietnam is that the Hanoi Baha’i community, on the 20th anniversary of its founding, wanted to honor Zabine for her role in that seminal event.

That “stated” reason is of course their reason – and a good reason it is indeed. But it isn’t Zabine’s reason for accepting the invitation. She came here with the hope that she could assist and empower the Vietnamese friends today, perhaps even more than she did in the past. “The celebration is about the last 20 years,” she says. “It’s time to be working on the next 20.”

That’s what she has done, from the moment the plane touched down. More about that later. Zabine, however, has a passion for documenting history and has put together a fabulous slideshow about the events 20 years ago that launched the Hanoi community. She and her then-husband, the late J.T. Linkins, taught and enrolled the first Hanoi believer, Dr. Dao An Son. The circumstances were harrowing: J.T. almost died, under circumstances that might easily have triggered an international incident.

But he didn’t die, and all was well that ended well. Please click the image below to read the amazing story. It is in PDF format, and you will need the free Adobe Reader software (adobe.com) to view it. If you have it installed already, you should be able to view it in your browser window. (And please be patient – it’s a large file and may take a few minutes to download.)

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Historic, Healing Heartsongs

April 29, 2012 (Sunday) – Simple acts of kindness are miraculously effective at bridging deep divides. Among the many miracle workers we have met in Hanoi are Michael Orona; his wife, Selena; and their three children.

These beautiful Baha’i souls made history at the 20th Anniversary celebration of the founding of the Hanoi Baha’i community. There’s still a lot more other news and photography in the pipeline, so please stay tuned. But I could not wait to post the video below. The stage performance it depicts took my breath away because, as I was recording it, its significance suddenly struck home. “Has anything like this ever happened before?” I wondered.

I couldn’t think of anything. Neither, when we discussed it later, could Michael. Please bear with me while I explain:

Vietnam-iPhone First 069 Michael is a member of the U.S. diplomatic corps. He serves at the American embassy in Hanoi as the ambassador’s adviser on human rights and religious freedom in Vietnam. His heritage is Native American, his father being Apache. (He hails from Arizona, a state where — I was delighted to discover — we share close friends in Charles and Jeanette Coffey.) Anyone who meets Michael or his family will immediately sense their deep love for Vietnam, its people, its culture, its long and often painful history – and their hope for its future.

But what is historic about performing Baha’i music at a Baha’i celebration? Don’t people do this all the time, just about everywhere? Yes, of course we do. What in this video is different?

Probably you already see where I’m heading with this, but please consider two points that sharpen our focus:

First, after the unspeakably tragic events of the Sixties and Seventies, it would have been hard to imagine two governments further apart, diplomatically, than those of the United States and Vietnam. The rebuilding of trust has been slow, awkward, and painful. My sense is that much of that path remains to be traveled.

Second, although the celebration we attended was completely Vietnamese, its ramifications were national and even international, given the attendance. Scores of well-wishers came from other countries, including at least one from the diametrically opposite side of the planet. (That was me!) In Vietnam, anyone wishing to make a stage presentation at such an event must first seek and receive approval from the government. For example, Zabine did not address the gathering because she did not get her visa in time to submit the necessary application.

But back to the family of Michael Orona: As they sang of love and peace, it occurred to me that this might well be the first time (since the end of military engagement) that any American government official had performed onstage at a state-sanctioned national event in Vietnam. Of course, I understood that someone else might know of such an event where I wouldn’t. But Michael himself almost certainly would know, and he too could think of no previous instance.

I am therefore cautiously confident that this was indeed a historic “first”. One that should help bring our countries and our people closer together. It certainly exemplifies the Baha’i approach to unification and healing, heart to heart. Please enjoy and comment on the video:

Vietnam Rice Dance

April 29, 2012 (Sunday) — Today is the big day of our trip, the reason we came: the 20th anniversary celebration of the founding of Hanoi’s Baha’i community.

I have a lot of notes and photos to document this milestone and will upload them Any Day Now. But while I’m organizing, please enjoy this video of the performance which opened the celebration. It’s a traditional Vietnamese “rice dance”, performed by a group of young women that includes Huyen, one of the two who guided Zabine and me during our second-day outing.

This video found its way onto YouTube minutes after it was taken and while the celebration still was barely getting started. My impression is that it’s the very first video coming out of event, though not the last.

A Colorful Hanoi Drive

One of my striking impressions of Vietnam is how colorful everything is. This is no coincidence, nor is it just a fact about tropical nature. It extends to human artifacts of all kinds. This seems to reflect a deep national and cultural attraction to beauty.

There are many other counties where this is far less true. Places where, despite sometimes stunning natural beauty, people seem otherwise content with relatively bland surroundings. Having visited and lived in some of those places, I never understood why. Perhaps that’s why I’m feeling so at home here.

The photos below are mostly from a drive through Hanoi on Day Three — our destination being Zabine’s workshop on meaningful conversation. Although Hanoi’s streets almost always bustle with traffic, I’ve deliberately edited out most of the traffic to showcase the color and artistry of Vietnamese architecture.

Not everything in these photos is typical. The murals along highway walls, for example, are found primarily in and around the governmental sector. But the same principle holds in inner-city business districts, outlying villages, and everything in between: The Vietnamese people love color. You see it in their clothing, decorations, signs, architecture, cuisine, everywhere.

Please note in particular the last photo, which is not colorful but is important nonetheless. It’s the famous Ho Chi Minh Memorial, one of the most important must-see sights when visiting Vietnam.