Thoughts from Vietnam

Mid-way through a visit to Hanoi and eager to share some “first” impressions. I say “first” with qualification because I was in Vietnam before, in Dec ’69-Jan ’70, in the US Army during what people here call The American War. That time (40 years ago) and place (remote countryside not far south of The Demilitarized Zone in then South Vietnam) was very different from contemporary Hanoi. No-one here, by the way, seems to much care about that fact. The war is now largely historical artifact and most of the people (this is a very young country) were born after that conflict came to an end. I’m told that the official history taught in schools is that Americans were evil aggressors, but that nobody takes that very seriously. There is, again I’m told, nearly universal apathy about political ideology. Politicians are seen as venal if not corrupt and everybody seems to be in a gigantic hustle to enjoy greater participation in western culture and first world prosperity.

Still, the people are patriotic and proud of their accomplishments (ousting the French and then the Americans in the space of a two decades) in achieving a unified and independent country. Ho Chi Minh is revered as a combination of the father of his country and a saint (temples have statues of him next to Buddha and prayers and burned incense are offered to him as well); but the fact that the political regime is formally one of the few remaining Communist vestiges (if “vestige” is a word that could apply to China) seems largely beside the point.

On a considerably more mundane level, here are a few travel advisory notes:

  • It’s better to come here when it’s not grey and constantly raining, I’m sure. One of the premier side-excursions, to Halong Bay, was pointless with the current weather.
  • Don’t freak-out trying to cross the road or wait for the traffic to stop. It won’t…just do as the Vietnamese and walk right into it; the drivers are watching you and if you walk smoothly and directly, they’ll make their way around you. Our guide yesterday explained that everyone drives slowly, watching out for other drivers (mostly motorbikes) and people on foot. If you run, they don’t know how to guage your progress and, worse, you might fall; but if you just walk, they’ll manage around you. It’s scary at first, but it works.
  • As many in America already know from the many Vietnamese restaurants now in the US, the food is great! You’ll encounter some vegetables, fruit, and seafood items you may never have seen before; go ahead be daring.
  • The art scene is worth getting to know. Still relatively inexpensive and some unique applications (lacquer works using paint, mother of pearl, metallic leaf, and duck egg shells). Penelope and I have bought 4 items (so far) without spending a great deal of money.
  • About the money: the denominations are so big (about 17000 Dong/dollar) that most places price, and transact, in dollars. But you won’t have to spend a whole lot in any event. Lunch for 2, with drinks: $15; silk ties, $8.
  • The people are getting richer, but are still poor (per capita income: $1,100/yr), so tip generously. We’ve had tour guides during the last 2 days who speak good English (they apologize, however, indicating that they speak much better Russian…remember, while it is pretty irrelevant today, Vietnam was a Russian client state for years while many here were going to school and Russian was the key foreign language on offer for the bright and ambitious). Guiding tourists is a quite respectable occupation here. For example, our guide today has as his day job working in the Ministry of Health’s Bureau of Tropical Diseases, specializing in malaria. He studied biology for 4 years in St. Petersburg. He agreed that we needed to take malarone when we got to Cambodia, but “you’re OK anywhere in Vietnam…except in the jungle, of course”.

More, soon

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