I would not want you to worry, Dear Reader, that your country-hopping correspondent had fallen foul of some mishap or tropical nasty, so I felt it appropriate to send you a small missive to assure you that all goes well with the Wellthisiswhatithink clan and to give you a brief and impressionistic report on Vietnam in 2014.
Not that, of course, one really has the faintest idea what the “real” Vietnam is like by swanning around from one five star resort to another, plunging into cool, soothing swimming pools and the occasional sweaty hour or two wandering from one bespoke tailor to the next to listen to their tales of woe about how if they reduce the price by just one more Dong for you Dear Sir then their twenty four children will not eat that night.
Nevertheless, your eagle-eyed reporter can share a few insights with you about this most recent Asian country to open up to the West and our holiday dollars.
It would be reprehensible if the first observation was not how exquisitely kindly and charming the Vietnamese are, and seemingly universally, too. They smile instantly your gaze alights on them, and the smiles are perfectly unforced and genuine. It hardly seems to matter whether one is begging for a free bottle of ice cold water (the tap stuff being somewhat dodgy by all accounts) or opening a conversation about buying their hotel for 10 bazillion trillion Dong or so. The smiles are immediate and delighted. Approximately 20% of the population is Buddhist, and to our eyes their karma is looking pretty good, right now.
Flying into Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, and still so, bizarrely, in its airport moniker of Sgn and in the masthead of the daily English language sheet The Saigon News) and thence into Da Nang on the east coast, a few glances out of the window reveal a nation rapidly becoming industrialised, but apparently not with the same levels of attendant smog, thank the Good Lord, as one finds everywhere in China.
Vast new manufacturing facilities sit cheek-by-jowl with fields of rice and other vegetables that look, presumably, much as they have for centuries. One delicious local crop is called “Morning Glory”, and is definitely an addition to next year’s veggie patch at home. Huge rivers snake lazily by, curiously absent the leisure craft that would fill them back home, and presumably will here in years to come, when the miracles of free market economics married to strict central government combine to create yet one more Asian tiger with the baying of its attendant and hungrily consumerist middle-class.
The newspaper proudly proclaims that a local satrap has reassured a visiting dignitary from Byelorussia or somesuch that Vietnam is now a totally free economy. This is instantly contradicted by the fact that the casino in our hotel is for the use of foreign passport holders only, but this seems a quibbling observation compared to the wild-east boom clearly going on down every street and around every corner. No pair of hands appear to lie idle, anywhere. Everyone is hammering, stitching, painting, building, driving, selling, hawking, writing, or phoning.
Crossing the road is a famously risky experience as one navigates an unbroken horde of scooters and mopeds hurtling towards you, seemingly unrestrained by anything resembling road rules, and all blowing their horns in a pneumatic symphony of breathtaking and ear-pounding proportions that seems to go on unbroken by night and day. There is simply no break in the traffic, so one has to consign oneself to staying permanently rooted and tooted to the spot on the tatty pavement outside the tiny cafe with the enchanting old couple and the wonderful iced coffee unless one is prepared to wager life and limb and simply start strolling slowly but with steely determination across the road, as the locals do. In the end, inspiration strikes, and one starts walking across about half a pace behind a pair of Vietnamese ladies burdened by their shopping and two children each. This is a stroke of genius, and one can now just see, from the centre of the road, how the onrushing traffic adjusts slightly if almost imperceptibly to flow around one like a stream around a rock. We reach the other side, accompanied by the giggles of our guides, and more smiles. It is, nevertheless, not a game for the faint of heart.
Many years ago, deep in the last Millennium, when first arriving in Australia to the then sleepy fishing village of Cairns, a newspaper article we penned described how, hopping onto a local skipper’s catamaran for a lazy sail around the islands, it was obvious that the brand new Hilton then being constructed on the waterfront was but the first harbinger of what was to come. The phrase we wrote then, “You cannot disguise a boom when it has decided to happen,” was a lament for the inevitable colonisation and commercialisation of beautiful places. The same crie de coeur could surely be applied to Vietnam today.
The first phase of resort building is done, and the local tourism industry is in about as full a swing as it would be possible to imagine a swinging thing to be. The drinks are becoming more expensive, and tiny, authentic local eateries are gradually being replaced by businesses priced to make the most of the many tourists. My favourite t-shirt thus far simply reads “Good morning, Vietnam!” accompanied by the ubiquitous yellow star, but when you see the same shirt on fifty or so pot-bellied Australian males the joke starts to pall and one feels a tinge of regret that the most popular shirt design sold to eager holidaymakers is a reflection of an American comedy drama and not something more authentically Viet. But such mutterings should not lead you to believe, Dear Reader, that holidaying in Vietnam is just Bognor Regis-by-the-China Sea. The place is still very affordable, the architecture is often unique and charming, (especially the homes and buildings that weren’t flattened by RPGs or B-52s, or which have been re-built in their original style), and we are yet to see the type of crass invasion of McDonald’s and Burger Kings and Starbucks and so on that now make other Asian cities look increasingly like nothing more than more humid versions of Chicago or Berlin.
Something has to pay for all those scooters, I guess. One can only hope the boom is managed a little more gracefully than elsewhere. If so, we will have much to thank what remains of Vietnamese communism for keeping matters held by some sort of rein.
I read somewhere that the Americans dropped more tonnage of bombs on Hanoi than the Allies and Axis forces managed to lob at each other in the whole of World War II. These uncomfortable factoids pop into one’s head when one notices that there are very few middle-aged people around. Some old people, plenty of young people, and surprisingly few in between.
The instinctive conviction that the West wiped out a generation of Vietnamese is hard to shake. For them now to greet us back with such obvious pleasure – sheer, unadulterated courtesy – is quite a miracle.
It starkly reveals what an insanity the anti-Communist (read, anti-nationalist) wars of the 50s, 60s and 70s really were, and Vietnam in particular. It is clear these people wanted nothing more nor less than the right to benefit from the wealth of their own land, and to be allowed to make their own decisions.
Once that was established, they have reintegrated with the family of nations at an astonishing rate, and with a good grace – sheer good-naturedness – that should put us to shame. They have embraced our way of doing things, and with a willpower and determination that needs to give us pause for thought. This is a people – a nation – that is busy making something, trying things, innovating and bargaining for all it is worth, and not just people rearranging the deck chairs on a ship of state that looks increasingly like the Titanic, which is what Western capitalism more and more resembles.
We have seen just one massive, majestic water buffalo.
It was not pulling a plough in a paddy field: it was tethered outside a new 6-star gated community of villas, peacefully mowing the lawn while its owners sold river trips to passing visitors.
Somehow, it seemed the perfect symbol of Vietnam today. As we rattled past in our bus, I could have sworn it winked at me.
And smiled, of course.