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Vietnam - a tour of duty
Police Life Monthly - November 1996

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 else.

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 the family."

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 you."

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 life.

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 from.

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.


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