The young man at the Vietnam Airlines check in at Ha Noi’s airport was “all business”.
He did not smile.
I was checking in for a flight to Da Nang (which in the event was delayed for two hours).
He asked “who is travelling with you?” I responded that I was alone.
“But what about your wife and family?” was his next question.
I countered by saying that I am not married and that I have no children.
He looked me in the face and said “I do not like that”.
I felt disrespected until today.
Part of my post Vietnam reading is “Vietnam Now” by David Lamb (Public Affairs, NY 2002).
Lamb was a war correspondent during the Vietnam War. Thirty years later he returned to Vietnam to “cover the peace”.
On a long rail trip from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City he chatted with a young Vietnamese man named Tinh who asked him “How many children do you have?”
Lamb said “none” and the young man said “then you are not married, you must be lonely”.
David Lamb replied that he was indeed married but that he and his wife didn't happen to have kids.
I quote from the book: “A look of sadness swept the young man’s face. He said ‘I am very sorry for you. That’s terrible. What happened?’”
Author David Lamb commented on this exchange. “... inquiring about the size of one’s family is a form of respect...for the Vietnamese attach sorrow – and sometimes bad luck – to anyone bereft of children. I think that it has something to do with loneliness. Vietnamese hate the idea of being alone, living alone, even eating alone”.
David Lamb was asked about his family so often that he eventually adopted a fictional family with two children – a boy named Sebastian and a girl named Aileen. His questioners would beam approval. “Ah,” they’d say. A boy and a girl. Perfect. You are very lucky”.
When I read this portion of “Vietnam Now” I understood why the Vietnam Airlines clerk in Hanoi said “I do not like that” when I told him that I was un-married and have no children.
He was not dissing me. He was expressing sadness.
"Living alone" is so common in western countries that we forget that such a lifestyle is an anomaly in much of the world.