by Trung Hieu
My friend Minh Ngoc believes that in the past, when most urban families were still poor, people were closer with others and treated each other with more warmth.
As the country's economy has developed, most urban families have become well-off. But many city dwellers seem to give each other the cold shoulder and keep their distance from others.
Perhaps when material conditions improved, the sentiments between people fell and they began to find it difficult to share their joys and tears with each other.
Ngoc says her lane in Kim Giang residential area, Thanh Xuan District was a slum 20 years ago, with many families of poor public employees and workers living in poorly maintained houses.
In the late afternoons, her lane was always animated with children playing and laughing. Women shared what little food, fish sauce and onions they had with other families. They often made enough soup to share with their neighbours. Men gathered to chat about the news and football.
Today, like many other places in Ha Noi, that lane is full of villas. In the afternoons and evenings, the lane is almost deserted. The doors of all the houses are closed around the clock.
"Neighbours only see each other when they bring their household rubbish to the collecting places from 4-5pm. They give each other cool looks and occasionally nod their heads in acknowledgement.
"They treat their neighbours as if they were strangers in a railway station," says Ngoc.
In the past, when a local returned home from a foreign business trip, he or she would always present gifts to all the neighbours, she says.
"Though the presents were small, like pens or cigarettes, the gesture made us all very happy."
With the rise in living standards, perhaps human sentiments have gone down, she argues.
I think one of the reasons many urban dwellers treat each other with such coolness is because many of them came from different provinces to settle in Ha Noi, so they have different origins and cultures.
Another reason is because doors are closed all day and night for security reasons, making homes feel like fortresses.
Ha Noi has grown into a very large city, with more than 6.5 million residents. Many of its current residents come from other provinces.
Criminal activities have grown with the rising population, so most people try to remain vigilant.
For safety, some people stay in their self-contained flats, using them as strongholds. With doors closed tight, the sentiments between humans remain closed.
There is an ancient Vietnamese saying: "Ban anh em xa, mua lang gieng gan" which means "When your brothers live far from you, they may not be able to help you, so you should have a good relationship with your neighbours."
In developed countries like the US, France and Japan, many people are lonely, even when they live in busy towns.
Anh Cong, who studied for several years in France, says there are old couples who live in luxury Parisian flats. Though they have material wealth, they have little connection with their children, who are also adults and don't live nearby. Some of these elders stand in their doorways to wait for others to pass by, just to say hello and chat a bit. Each week they wait for the day when someone from the social insurance agency comes to visit them and take them grocery shopping.
Once, I read a story in the newspaper about an old woman who lived alone in a London apartment block. One day, an electrician knocked on her door to do an inspection but discovered her body on the floor. She had died four days before but no one knew. So terrible!
It seems that as society develops, people tend to "hide" in their own house, in their own world.
Our Vietnamese society is developing, so we are becoming richer, but have we also developed into a materialistic society, where each house is its own island?
Individual liberty is replacing the traditional Vietnamese way of living and eating together.
Each member of many urban families, even the children, have their own rooms. Grandparents and parents do not enter the children's room without knocking first.
Some defend this by explaining: "This is to respect my individual liberty and rights."
Vietnamese writer Di Li, who studies the human condition to find material for her stories, says: "In the past, when we had a subsidised economy, people lived and treated others as if they were in a village, living a countryside lifestyle, so they could easily share issues with each other. Today, as society develops, many people are very busy and have few opportunities to meet up with neighbours. This is an obvious trend.
"Thanks to modern technology, such as mobile phones and the internet, people do not need to meet each other directly," she says.
A cultural researcher who has conducted many studies about the living conditions in Ha Noi, Vu The Long, says "In previous decades, society was very poor, but people lived collectively so they were easily able to share their joys and sorrows.
"Today, though society has more money, moral values have degraded. People are more selfish. Many people only think of money in their relationship with others. All of this has caused a lot of struggles and many of society's traditional values have vanished.
"To be happy, we should be balanced. We should not only consider material wealth, we should also have a foundation in humanity and morals," he says.
In my opinion, though society may develop and make us all very rich, we still need help and sharing from our neighbours. As a Vietnamese saying goes, Toi lua tat den co nhau (Neighbours are beside you when you face troubles)". — VNS