Before Police Life writer Nisar Keshvani was
called up for National Service, he spent two months as a student
on an attachment programme in Vietnam. During that stint, he was
involved with Saigon Mobile Radio Network Centre Keppel J-V. Here
he provides a first-hand personal account of his experiences - and
what they taught him about life.
I heard so many horrendous stories about Vietnam before I went
there. Some told me I would be kidnapped and held for ransom. Others
said hawkers would serve dog meat in the guise of chicken or fish.
Some others said my passport would be confiscated and I would become
a citizenless person in a foreign land.
Many thought I was just plain crazy going to a country that had
only recently recovered from a devastating war.
But I did go, for two whole months. I lived as close as I could
to the Vietnamese lifestyle and now in retrospect I can see that
it is been an enriching experience.
Although in essence Vietnam is an Asian country, tasks are accomplished
according to an unwritten set of codes.
At most meetings with Vietnamese, beyond the casual exchange of
pleasantries comes cha naam (green tea). It is absolutely essential,
exuding the atmosphere of bonding and homeliness. An offering of
cigarettes comes next. It does not matter if one does not smoke.
It is only pleasant courtesy to have at least one puff. Meetings
take longer than usual, like a reunion of old friends who have not
met for ears. A friendly and heartwarming occasion more than anything
Working with the Vietnamese was a wonderful experience. They are
very friendly and also curious about all foreigners. I was apprehensive
at first. Like any other Singaporean, I decided to say as little
as possible and test the waters first. This approach did not hold
for long, for before the end of my first day at the office, they
were all chatting with me. I became comfortable at once.
They would ask me many questions about the fast-paced life in Singapore.
Thankfully I had brought some postcards from Singapore, making my
task easier. At least they got a better idea of the country that
they had heard so much about.
In turn I pestered them about their culture and why they did things
the way they did. Along the way, I discovered many new things about
the Vietnamese and their way of life.
Soon I discovered the interesting workings of a married couple's
relationship. The husband takes the role of the breadwinner and
the wife that of the accountant. Every month the husband surrenders
his salary, leaving a little for his expenditure. The wife calculates
the monthly expenditure, school fees for the children, and other
necessities. The rest of the money is kept aside for a rainy day.
Naturally I was shocked and asked why. They simply said: "This
is a Vietnamese tradition. Besides, if the couple live in this way,
it is an indication that they are happy and there is harmony in
Living in the country needs some adjusting. For those who are used
to organised traffic, Vietnam's road will come as a shock. Motorcycles,
the main form of transport, flock the streets and riders never seem
to use their brakes, preferring to weave in and out of traffic and
narrowly missing pedestrians.
"Forget about look left, look right and look left again,"
a colleague told me. "Just cross the roads - they'll avoid
Vietnam, though a country of much beauty and charm, did give me
a fair share of shocks. I witnessed many cruel images in almost
every corner of the city that I ventured into, most of which I could
never have imagined, leading as I did, a very sheltered Singapore
Poverty cannot escape your eyes as you walk along the streets. You
see young child-beggars with siblings in their arms, even little
children hawking lottery tickets for a living. If such a sight is
pitiful, sadder it is to see the "submarines' as they are humourlessly
called - unfortunate souls with maimed or missing limbs who travel
around on little wheeled platforms braving the deadly traffic.
Almost all my colleagues had been affected one way or another by
the war. Some had served as soldiers and witnessed the traumas of
war. Others had lost family members or their homes and belongings,
or suffered hunger and deprivation. Yet the tragedy seemed to stiffen
their resolution rather than demoralise them, and they were determined
to put the past behind and catch up with the rest of the world.
Imagining the dire straits of war is the only thing one can do when
making a trip to Ho Chi Minh City's War Crimes Museum. It is definitely
a gloomy, shocking experience, with its pictures of war atrocities,
the effects of chemical warfare, deforestation, injured children,
and babies deformed at birth as a result of chemical weapons.
In the museum compound can be seen reconstructions of the notorious
tiger cages used by the South Vietnamese military to house the Viet
Cong on Cong Dao island.
Another equally bleak place is the infamous Cu Chi Tunnels, which
run for about 250 km underground and which once housed thousands
of Viet Cong soldiers.
Ironically, a large number of the tourists visiting these grim reminders
of war are Americans. And the Vietnamese appear to show no special
animosity towards their once dreaded enemies. They remain a friendly
people, ever willing to explain how things work in their country,
ready to learn about other people's culture, keen to learn English
and to better themselves through night classes and all available
forms of education.
One cannot help but realise how fortunate we are. In the rush to
make more money and achieve the 'Five C's', we may have forgotten
what is most important - survival. We need to remind ourselves when
we complain about life that we are barely two hours away from a
country where many still wonder where their next meal will come
I would say the most important thing I have learnt from the trip
has been respect and tolerance for other people's culture. I have
also learnt to admire Singaporeans who venture abroad to work in
totally different and demanding conditions, away from the safety
and comfort of their homes. These are the people who eventually
project the image of Singapore abroad. So next time a foreigner
speaks favourably about Singaporeans, realise that it is probably
not because our nation is well-known but because he has met Singaporeans
abroad who have made a lasting impression on him.