A few weeks ago, a young Vietnamese lady friend joined the swanky new California Fitness & Yoga Center here.
I learned this from her posting on Facebook.
I couldn’t help but tease her, typing out a comment asking if she’d become a “Vuppie”—a Vietnamese young urban professional.
These would be the spiritual descendant of America’s pioneering yuppies of the 1980s, who had raised conspicuous consumption to a new height.
“All Hải Phòng girls are Vuppies!”
A mutual friend, male, chimed in.
The banter was fun.
All considered, Vuppies are OK by me – just a natural consequence of an improving standard of living.
Membership in a fancy gym may or may not make a person healthier or happier – but then, the Vietnamese already have a reputation for being happier, more easy-going than most people.
Derek Milroy, my Tuoitrenews counterpart in Hồ Chí Minh City, discussed this in a recent column.
Actually, attitudes today may be less sunny than they were in late 2010, when a global survey ranked Việt Nam as the world’s “most optimistic” nation.
Young Vietnamese in Hà Nội hold the portrait of General Võ Nguyên Giáp at a candle-lighting event organized to honor the military legend on October 6, 2013
These are superficial judgments, of course, but something happened recently that scratched the cheerful Vietnamese veneer – the death of the extraordinary Gen. Võ Nguyên Giáp at age 103, the last of the close confidants of Hồ Chí Minh.
Cheerfulness was officially suspended.
It seemed fitting that we’d get a better appreciation of the official reaction during a visit to Hà Nội’s Royal City Vincom Mega Mall – Việt Nam’s newest cathedral of consumerism.
The ice skating rink, Việt Nam’s first, and the cinema had been shut down during the period of mourning.
Gen. Giáp’s death afforded a pause for reflection – not just for Vietnamese, but for people like me, trying to understand the culture and its contradictions.
One reason that travelers and surveys find the Vietnamese to be happy and optimistic, no doubt, is that the large majority of the population has no memory of the war years.
About 65% of the population were born after 1975 and have no personal memory of the war, and dwindling memories of the harsh post-war years.
The Vuppies have come of age with rising prosperity bringing a visceral vibrancy to the culture.
Much of Việt Nam remains impoverished, of course, but the World Bank credited it with moving, barely, into a “middle income” ranking among nations in 2010.
The hottest “ism” is consumerism.
Is this a good thing?
While Sài Gòn culture was famously materialistic, Hà Nội’s was sparse and frugal.
Last December, during a panel discussion after the screening of “The Little Girl of Hà Nội” at Cinematheque, one participant in the film that depicted the “Christmas bombings” of 1972 suggested that the Vietnamese people were nobler in the past, more willing to sacrifice, while today’s Vietnamese are more selfish.
On the way back from the Mega Mall, we were caught in the traffic of people gathering to pay their respects to Gen. Giáp.
The next night, out with a friend visiting from California, we were waylaid by the crowd of mourners, with a throng of blue-shirted members of the Youth Union helping with crowd control.
As we tried to explain what we knew about the Youth Union to our curious friend, I remembered how some members work with Project Restore in Quảng Trị Province, removing and disposing of unexploded ordnance.
Perhaps the rise of the Vuppie is overrated – and also a caricature.
The Mega Mall was not mobbed by Vuppies.
Most of the shoppers appeared to be families.
And the young Vietnamese lady who I teased as a Vuppie, a journalist, threw herself into the coverage of the mourning.
Her coverage included this quote from a 21-year-old Hà Nội student:
“I never heard guns or bombs but I know our history.
After Uncle Hồ and General Giáp, it would be hard to find anyone like them, who dedicate their lives to the country without thinking of their personal interest.”
And now people have the luxury to think of their personal interest.
By SCOTT HARRIS