Tuesday, August 18, 2009

Viet Nam Diary ... 1

The first thing I learnt about Viet Nam after coming here is that the country is not called Vietnam; it is Viet Nam – two separate words of one syllable each. Most words in Vietnamese – sorry, Viet Namese (Should it be Viet Nam ese? I must ask somebody.) are monosyllabic. Like Ha Noi, Sai Gon or Ho Chi Minh. In this exercise, they go great lengths, it seems, because Café become Ca phe and Hotel becomes Ho tel in Viet Namese. (I will be lucky if at the end of my two-month stay here, I do not become Raj Ag Oph Al Anh!)

Another is that the spelling may not have much to do with the way the word is pronunced. The name Trang is pronounced Chung (u as in umbrella) and Dung is pronounced Yung (u as in pull). The road we stay in is called Ngu Yen Hong. The first ng is also pronounced as the ng in young.

Quite often, the last letter is not pronounced. Thus, though Buon Me Thuot, the town we are in, is spelt varyingly (including Ban Ma Thot), it is pronounced Bo Ma Tho. (We’ll call it BMT, though, for convenience.) This is true not just of Viet Namese words, but of other languages. Like ‘peanut’ is ‘peanah’. And passport is 'pah po'. The language has no script. They use the English alphabet in conjunction with several signs like ^ ~ . ` - ? and '. Some of these accents placed above, some below and a few across them (sometimes in conjuntion) to indicate the intonation.

BMT, located 450 metres above sea level, is the capital of Dak Lak Province in the Central Highlands. With a population of 400,000, it is the fifth largest town in Viet Nam. There are hardly any old buildings because the Americans had razed the entire city to ground before they left in 1975. It looks like a planned city. Though most of the buildings are new, there are no condominiums.

The roads are really broad. At each intersection, there are road signs. They indicate not just the names of the roads, but the widths of the road, the footpath on either side and the median if the road has one. There is strict hierarchy in the placement of the signs at crossings: the one indicating the name of the broader, more important path is always on top.

Hardly anyone speaks English, but they are very friendly towards foreigners. With our arrival, the population of foreigners in BMT has doubled. (Foreigners, mind you, not Indians.) All of a sudden, we have become head-turners and traffic-stoppers!

Dac Lac is coffee country – and it shows! Each lane can boast of a café (Ooops! I should have said Ca phe) if not more. Main roads have several of them, at times two of them sharing a wall. Hari says (He works for a coffee company and should know) that before 8 am every day, 60,000 cups of coffee are sold through these outlets. Radhika says the drawing rooms of several houses have been converted by enterprising housewives into eateries.

Viet Nam being on the eastern cost, day breaks very early. By quarter past five, fitness freaks are out on the roads heading for parks, playgrounds and gyms. There are several parks and joggers’ tracks all over the city. Plus well-appointed badminton courts, football grounds and indoor stadia maintained by the government. These can be used by the general public practically free of payment. What strikes one is the care with which the public uses these facilities.

The indoor stadium closest to where Hari lives has seven shuttlecock courts and doubles as a football ground after eight in the night. The shuttlecock players start leaving by quarter to eight. They do not linger on and delay the football. Five minutes to eight, and one caretaker removes the nets, rolls the poles from the centre to the sides while another pushes the goal posts from the sides to the extreme ends and by eight, the ground is ready for football!

In the city square, we saw a gleaming steel structure surrounded by a few huge bonsai trees. (You read it right, huge bonsai trees.) It had two doors and looked like a telephone booth. Something was written in the local language on its wall. It intrigued us, but we could not ask anyone. It took us three days to discover that it was a free public toilet! A far cry from the toilets we can smell from a hundred metres.

Perhaps because most people own two-wheelers and use them for local travel, city buses are hard to come by. Though the roads are wide and in excellent condition, they drive at moderate speed and with great consideration for the pedestrian.

. . . . . .

I realise have not said anything about the people yet. Watch this space.


Santanu Sinha Chaudhuri said...

Everyone sees the world through his or her own eyes. For example, for many small kids, the world is a huge plate of food: whatever can be touched has to be eaten, or at least, tasted!

So I am not surprised that you begin to understand Viet Nam through Phonetics and their way of spelling. But the important thing is that you have taken us close to the place. Will look forward to the next installments.

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

the lanuage has no asript??!! that's news - thought it was an ancient tradtional culture with rich litt. just shows how little i know of this world, of a place which dominated my imagination in the 60s!but then there was no net those days and also i was only interested in seeing the place as a tragic symbol of imperialism,

not ponouncing the last consonant -looks like french influence. in french terminally placed consonants are pronounced only if followed by a vowel.

not phonetic eh? guess this doesnt worry a person who has mastered the engish language.

when you say words are broken into into its monsyllabic constituents, you mean only when written, i guess? no pauses between syllables in utterance, right?

kochuthresiamma p .j said...

btw, good piece - would be a good idea to send a weekly 'letter from vietnam' to an indian daily

wannabe said...

Santanu: Thanks for that interesting perspective.

KPJ: The Viet Namese language is very interesting. I promise a post on it as soon as I get to know more about it.

Ashok Menath said...

It is interesting to read about the Viet Nam ese language.

I know that Thakazhi's CHEMMEEN was translated to Vietnamese. I wonder how Thakazhi, Karuthamma, Pareekutty, Chembankunju et al might have been received by the friendly Vietnamese.