Vietnam: two different ways of seeing a world

Written by admin on December 13, 2012 – 5:51 pm -

This wasn’t my first trip to Vietnam. Actually, it was my seventh or eighth. But it was completely different from my other visits because my travel partner, Pierre, had never been there before, is an urban planner. Although we spent all of our time together, following our itinerary from our Vietnam-based travel agent, Exotissimo, his Vietnam and mine could have been a thousand miles apart.

Two different realities
Many of the things I loved about the country during prior trips were gone. Progress was the culprit, I guess, but I was automatically making comparisons between what I had seen in the past and what was in front of me now. Some of it I didn’t like. Like many travelers, I get lazy and tend to gravitate to favorite haunts. For me, it’s always been Hanoi with all its maze-like tiny streets that are a warren where people can get lost and lost some more.

I kept looking for familiar places that were no longer. What happened to my tailor? Why had everything become so homogeneous? Was it because of the onslaught of tourism? Or, is it the fact that as people become more prosperous, they lose some of their uniqueness — or is that quaintness?

I imagine it must be to some extent Vietnam’s comparative prosperity. Per capita income has risen to $3,000 a year, a small fraction of ours in the States or France, but incomparably more than ten years ago. It is, of course, the Chinese-model, cowboy capitalism blended with Communist governance. The results are government-gray drab and somewhat dismaying. As is frequently the case in emerging economies, there is rampant inflation and a huge rich-and-poor dichotomy.

Pierre’s focus during our travels was completely different. He was experiencing the country for the first time without memories or any case of nostalgia. He had also been reading Vietnamese history, saying to me, “It’s the only way you can understand how a place has become what it is now.”

The importance of history
Vietnam was controlled by the Chinese for more than 1,000 years, occupied by the French and went through a war with the French and the Americans for more than twenty years. India had a strong influence in some areas of the country, as well, for an equally long time; the Champa people, essentially a colony of India until the nineteenth century, reflect this in their faces and material culture. “In essence, throughout its history, Vietnam has been controlled or occupied by different countries, which has kept it from developing a unique culture,” Pierre explained.

Pierre spent time surveying the country on Google Earth and saw details I’d never considered. He insisted on sitting by the window each time we took a plane — three times during this whirlwind trip. We also traveled by train twice and spent two nights on boats in different parts of the country.

Pierre studied topography and urban street patterns. I looked for bakeries and restaurants. We agreed the bread in Vietnam is so much better than what’s found in the U.S. Could it be the water? Or, that the French left the baking legacy?

Pierre viewed things that were foreign to me as I kept commenting on stores that had come and gone, hotels that have sprouted up, how many more coffee shops had opened and the number of restaurants that served Italian food. Pierre, observed and commented on Vietnam’s new roads, cranes on urban horizons and the fact that ever-growing traffic is going to affect so much of its development.

Pierre spent time studying the roads, the terrain and the country’s infrastructure. In his role as an urban planner, whose work has taken him all over the world, he also likes to see places by helicopter. Listening to his insights was fascinating.

The Chinese influence and growing prosperity
The north of Vietnam has been indelibly stamped by China. During one of our many drives, we found ourselves standing on a bridge linking Vietnam and China at the border of Lo Cai. Our guide explained that she’d been to China once. But it wasn’t easy for the Vietnamese to get visas. And, yes, the bargain shopper in me asked, “Do electronics cost substantially less on the Chinese side of the border?” The answer: yes.

On each flight we took from the south to the north and finally returning to Ho Chi Minh City, we were nearly the only tourists. Because we were traveling during the Lunar New Year, everyone in the country seemed to be in transit. This made it almost impossible to reserve flights. So it was not surprising that there were many Chinese and Asian tourists in Vietnam. This compensated for the fact that fewer Europeans and Americans were traveling because of the downturn in their economies.

I must admit I was busy people-watching and was very aware that many of our fellow passengers had never been on a plane before this trip. They would stand when they were supposed to sit, even though announcements were made in Vietnamese. This indicated a new mobility and prosperity. Plus, many people were going to bigger cities where more jobs exist. Besides, in the old days, very few Vietnamese could afford plane tickets.

We both noticed country’s architecture, which varies radically depending on where you are, and its wealth. We both marveled at so much of its physical beauty and we were both engrossed by Vietnam’s economic and vital statistics, so we had a couple of common denominators even if our interests and reactions were different.

Even though I am a seasoned traveler, my perspective was altered by Pierre’s observations; I think for the better. And, perhaps his way of seeing Vietnam was influenced somewhat by mine. Another pair of eyes can always been useful and interesting — not a bad way to travel. We saw the same country, the same sights, the same hotels, the same roads, the same airports and the same cities, but differently.

Am I the only person who’s had a reality check such as this? I so love Vietnam, perhaps the “old” Vietnam. My next trip to Asia will include Burma too.

Photo: From prospectjournal.ucsd.edu


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