Temple Streets

On Friday, what was supposed to be a leisurely walk through Hanoi’s old town, became an inadvertent tour of old Hanoi’s vast catalog of small Buddhist temples. Accompanied by a new friend from Luxembourg, we wandered the twisting maze of streets and alleys, each of which seemed to have a shrine hidden behind a gate.

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This came as no small surprise to me. Over the last couple of years, I have taken a keen interest in Chinese religion and the Chinese government’s policies and regulations to control it. Though religious freedom is certainly growing in China, the process for officially registering places of worship (for any of the five government-reconized religions) tends to ensure that temples, churches and mosques are both large and relatively few (with notable exceptions). My understanding of the religious freedom situation in Vietnam - mostly derived from some quick google searches and a US State Department report suggested to me that it was not much different. That is, like China, Vietnam maintains government agencies with administrative control of organized religious activity, including the licensing of places of worship.

But if downtown/old Hanoi is any indication, the Vietnamese authorities have taken a less restrictive approach to the licensing of Buddhist temples, at least, than what is found in China. As we wandered in and out of small temple after small temple (often more than one on a single strret), mostly ignored by the (mostly) elderly women who seem to live and work in them, I found myself reminded of the relatively welcoming attitudes expressed in Mumbaia’s Hindu and Buddhist temples. Maybe, even, more welcoming than the Indians.

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A couple of additional points. My friend, who had never before visited a temple in Asia, was immediately struck by the continuity between life in the temples and the streets outside. Clothes washing, eating, and even business occurred within the temples, and typically within meters of worshippers kneeling before an elaborate shrine. In one case, we found the shrine pressed up against the sidewalk itself. For different reasons, this situation is impossible to imagine in China, and (again, for much, much different reasons), in Europe and North America. Of course, I am not the first to note that developing countries often tend to have a more intimate, day-to-day relationship with religious activity, but I did find interesting to encounter the phenomenon in a country with a history of regulating, and repressing, religious activity.

Finally, we managed to find ourselves inside of what appeared to be a Buddhist preschool in an old French colonial building that must have been a theater at one time. The structure was open to the street, and the only occupant at the time was an ambivalent construction worker. Children’s toys and photos were scattered around a very modest shrine. In China, where open, organized religious education is still rare and very tightly controlled, such a situation would be impossible.

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Hanoi English

Though I’ve only been in Vietnam – and Hanoi – for a few days, I am struck by the English language ability of its residents – especially as compared to that found in China’s biggest cities. Whereas in Shanghai or Beijing, an English-speaking taxi driver – even one who can barely discuss the fare – is a rarity worth celebrating in the expatriate community, in Hanoi it seems to be commonplace (again, I’ve only been here a few days!). Similarly, among shopkeepers. Let me be clear: I’m not suggesting fluency. Instead, I notice a few English words, here and there, and much more than in Shanghai.

But how and why?

Vietnam opened its economy and borders to foreigners only in the last twenty years. I know nothing of the education system here, but I can’t imagine that English-language instruction is any better – or more comprehensive – than China’s (where English is compulsory through high school). Neither can one point to an English colonial influence on the locals (I haven’t encountered much in the way of French in Hanoi).

Perhaps one possible reason for the phenomenon is the romanization of the Vietnamese language. In fact, the only place I’ve spotted Vietnamese characters is on temples and graves. In contrast, in China, romanization (the pinyin system, currently) tends to happen parallel to the use of characters and, in the countryside, not at all. I’m sure somebody, somewhere, has looked into whether romanization has a postive influence upon the adoption of Romance languages in Asia – and if anybody could point me to the relevant papers or studies, I’d be deeply appreciative.