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Copyright © 1998-2014 Vietnam Venture Group, Inc. All rights reserved.  1998; Updated March 2, 2004

In the Background
By Terry Hartley

Reprinted with the kind and generous permission of Viet Nam News. From Issue No. 2140,  page 24, Sunday, 26 April 1998

BACKGROUND NOTE:  What follows is the last in a long series of weekly columns published by the State Owned Viet Nam News, but written by an Australian journalist living in Hanoi.

Many commentators write about Vietnam. Few, if any, who don't live there, can truly understand a culture and people so different from their own as are the Vietnamese from almost every other culture of the world.  Many foreigners who do live here are ensconced in foreign enclaves.  These "internationals" work in offices where they see but rarely interact in meaningful ways with locals. They also eat in foreign restaurants when their housekeepers can't cook foreign foods. They party in expat bars and clubs, attend or hold foreign-style cocktail receptions, dinner parties and charity balls; play tennis and golf in foreign-oriented locations; and take weekend holidays in hotels built and designed for foreigners.   They rarely enjoy their time with the local people.  They are often heard to complain about the domestic locals, who are excluded if not shunned from the intimate experiences of their time here. These are the people who, more likely than not, cite the problems over the virtues of Vietnam.

Many of these people married former citizens from Vietnam or are themselves former citizens of Vietnam. They came to Vietnam believing they have a greater knowledge about, and therefore entry to success within, Vietnam. Their employers back in the home country have the same belief in the presumptive strengths of such expat. Perhaps that is part of the problem. These well intentioned folks don't know how much they don't know. They are truly foreigners in a foreign land.

Then there is the presence of the rare Terry Hartneys. These folks, born and raised elsewhere are able to embrace the Vietnam of today and see their way to the Vietnam of tomorrow. Terry, an Australian living, writing from Hanoi for many years, is one of those people. His imposed or self-imposed balancing of interest has allowed a breath of fresh air to circulate in a rather sterile corridor of otherwise homogeneous media babble.

Because his insight is important, and his perspective uncommon (although very similar to my own), I feel potential investors will gain much by reading Terry's final, always back-page column.  We who also know the Vietnam of which Terry writes, stay precisely for the reasons he writes about here. There are also many more reasons that we both stay and continue to encourage others to invest in this land.

Each Sunday for more than four years, I struggled to read the entire paper before getting to his column. On those occasions he was on holiday, I learned to glance to the back page to insure I would not be disappointed if the column should have "gone missing." On the occasion of his last column, I noted quickly that it filled the entire page. Undaunted, I read the paper first and then, only then, read the following. Peter N. Sheridan, founder- Vietnam Venture Group, Inc.

NOTE: Update: March 1999 - He's back!   We must have missed the announcement, but after nearly a year's absence, this same column returned on an inside page.  But that does not detract from the interest of his "final" article.

This is a hard column to write -- my final column before returning to my native Australia to live.

It has been a pleasure to share some wonderful feelings about being a foreigner living in your midst. It has been a wonderful roller-coaster ride of discovery; mainly self-discovery.

It has also been an honor to realize that both Vietnamese and foreigners have sometimes enjoyed reading it, and I have also been led to believe it is the first regular column by a foreigner published in the Hanoi media at least since 1954.

So, I will always feel very privileged to have been given such an opportunity of trust to be the first to do so during a period when Vietnam began opening its doors wider to the rest of the world . Terry Hartney.


Saturday forays out into the Song Hong (Red River) Delta on a motorbike have been a tonic for such a desk-bound Hanoi foreigner.

Whiling away the day at open-air tea stalls surrounded by rice paddy and the open-hearted and uninhibited directness of rural people has bee the best place on earth to be. It has helped me keep my bearings on the maelstrom that is Vietnam, and the never-ending debate and rhetoric about change that often seems so far removed from what is actually happening on the ground.

It also has to do with being a farm boy myself, and even though I've always lived in cities around the world ever since leaving my family farm when 18 years old, cities have always seemed a little superfluous with their complexities, complicates, pettiness, and even irrelevancy, in the way things are done.

Vietnam has been the longest place I've stayed in since leaving the farm, and its is proving the hardest place to leave.  Trying to explain why will probably pre-occupy my thoughts for a long time, but I know that somewhere along the line it has been rural Vietnam that has got under my skin.

There is one image that has snapped frozen in my mind; about three years ago, leaving the Central Highlands, riding in a bus with my son from Pleiku to Quy Nhon city on the central coast. As we reached the low-lands near dusk, the winter-spring rice harvest was in full swing.  The fields, roads and villages we passed through were crowded with busy people, all engaged in some form of productive activity. Sunlight bathed the green and yellow of the fields in an orange light.

When we reached Quy Nhon later that night, we found ourselves being hassled by touts, prostitutes and beggars as we searched for a hotel.


It was a contrast, an imbalance, that underscores many of the problems that this country has been facing since deciding to face the outside world.  Vietnam's largest cities, particularly Hanoi itself, remain basically agrarian at heart.

Vietnam is a giant farm, with little comparative secondary industry, setting out to be a modernized industrialized nation all within the blink of an eye. The year 2020 is the magical figure officially put forward as to when Vietnam will become a newly industrialized nation. The gulf between what the powers-that-be are saying and wanting the people to do, and what the vast bulk of the population are thinking and doing, appears almost unbridgeable at the moment.

Yet there is something in the core of agrarian Vietnamese culture that suggest there is a chance that this country, if it can get its act together, can throw up something genuinely different and workable in the 21st century.


Practical vs. codified justice. While I hear how there is a need to set up a codified and enforceable legal system, I see all around me a functioning tradition of street justice that a lawyer-driven culture like my own, or that of the USA, could well spend some time studying themselves.

Local police are loathe to intervene in a situation where the on-the-spot crowd is busily working out who should pay whom, what. If it is a traffic accident, the person with the lowest form of apparent visible means of support gets listened to sympathetically. Arbitrary [justice] it may well be, but generally in the wash-up, the aggrieved person gets some satisfaction on the spot, and the person judged to be at fault gets dealt with there and then.

The tough, fighting-cock exterior of the Vietnamese male, will "stake it all" in a moment of pique, no matter what the long term consequences may be. However, this is always closely underwritten by his earthy, rustic sense of humor. Vietnamese people are easily able to poke fun at themselves, and yet have full sympathy with their own frailty, and frailty of their fellow Vietnamese.

Charlie Chaplin and Mr. Bean go down very well in rural Vietnam, because those very, very serious, straight-laced foreigners are poking fun at their own foibles. Isolated as they have been from the world for so long, the Vietnamese people can identify with this characteristic.


Clash of ideology with practicality. For a culture that, for so many generations has had a secular and hard-nosed veneer and official ideology (Confucian and Marxist), the country is alive with mystery and romance through the belief in ghosts and the supernatural world. Very few business, private and social events take place without consulting the supernatural world, first.

While the public address system cranks up early every morning in the streets of Vietnam [filling the morning mist with local propaganda and some local news], the population-at-large is often out there sniffing the wind to see what heaven might blow through their lives that day - - no matter what the loud speaker are blaring out at them.

Vietnamese people just want to get on with their daily lives, unencumbered by what other people perceive as being in their best interests. This also makes me sympathetic with the lot of the genuine and honest, state-crafter politician trying to ensure everyone gets a fair chance at making a decent living.


Energy, growth, struggle. What I think I will miss most however is the intrinsic restlessness, the on-going in-fighting, that nearly everyone in Vietnam seems locked into. Too often you hear foreigners complaining that no-one really cares about their interests, or what they have to offer. In reality, Vietnamese culture is engaged in such an on-going internal struggle that hardly have any time to see a foreigner, let alone sit down and talk turkey with him or her.

The energy is startling, and is particularly noticed by foreigners who do the short hop across to sleepy laid-back Vientiane, then return to step back into the immediate buzz of the streets of Ho Chi Minh City or Hanoi. Sometimes that energetic buzz appears as if it has a life of its own, no matter what else is happening in the world.

I return to a culture much more sedentary and predictable. I don't know if I'll ever sufficiently recover from my Vietnam days, do as much to the culture I will leave and a number of enduring friendships I've established here.

I have been cocooned and looked after by my work colleges (both at Vietnam News and at Radio Voice of Vietnam), by my personal friends, and Hanoians at large. I've been among friends.

I have been fortunate enough to travel to all parts of Vietnam (save, alas, for the Mekong River Delta), and it would take a book to recount some of the highlights of those travels. I have been taught much by many people, and I have attempted to put much of those perspectives both in this column and in Dragon Tales [a tongue-in-cheek weekly column, recently expanded to thrice weekly], with my work colleagues being wonderful teachers compiling the latter column in the daily pages of Viet Nam News.

I know I'll be back in some form or other -- I feel I'm part of your family now. Thanks, Vietnam.

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