Monday, 13 April 2009

LETTER FROM VIETNAM Chapter 4

XIN CHAO VIETNAM Wednesday 4th March 2009 Click to return to Table of Contents We are poor planners. No, I would as far as to say we are not even planners. If we do have a sort of plan, it is more of a sketch, a few scratchings on a blank canvas that we will colour later. This is a great way to travel in the aesthetic sense but probably not all that great in the practical sense. Due to the extreme last minute-itis of our flight planning, we could not get the morning flight to Hanoi, and as such had some time to kill in HK and effectively lost a day. We meandered around the mall at Admiralty and then went to the airport to loiter with intent. After a series of culinary tossaways we opted for a safe tonkatsu at a ramen place, which was a good choice. After Steens left to wander around, I wrote, my thoughts interrupted by some Olympic slurping going on at the next table. I looked over at a hefty Chinese guy attacking his ramen. Slurp. Slurp. Smack. Smack. I briefly made eye contact and then averted my gaze. He looked at his girlfriend, said something, and I swear he upped the tempo and the volume for my benefit. You sir, gweilo, are playing away from home. Get used to it. Fair enough. At this vast airport, there are relatively few gweilos around. Could be credit crunch, I don't know, but I doubt it. I think it is more a matter of the sheer scale of the region. There are not only less gweilos, there are more Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Malaysians, Thais, Vietnamese, Filipinos, and Indonesians. The joint is still jumping. If in Western minds Asia used to be a backwater, the water is now flowing back....in goods, money, and activity. The source of the fire hose is now in the East, methinks. And amongst Asians, there is no reverence or even respect for the former top dogs, the Japanese. I think the Olympics may have been the catalyst, but the real water turbine now seems to be China. However, everyone in the region is in on the act. Our plane, Vietnam Airlines, is the only small sized (Airbus A320) in sight. Everything else is on a bigger scale. And of course no Boeings for this airline. This is after all, Vietnam we are going to. We arrive in Hanoi after a two hour flight, and if truth be known, I find myself back in Korea circa 1982. There is no kimchi smell, but under grey leaden skies everything is in the bit drab department. You know, flourescent lights, dirty marble floors, aluminium fixtures, bathrooms that don't quite work as advertised. There is none of the animosity or officiousness that for some reason I expected. The police/army (I could never figure out which was which) wear bright green uniforms that look more in place in some school play. Nothing quite fits. If it is tailored, it is tailoring by the blind. The hats are those Soviet style with the peak just ever so slightly too large. However, instead of being worn down over the face, which would give them an imposing authoritarian look, they are worn back, at a jaunty angle, which rob them of the intimidation factor. I have to keep reminding myself that we are in a communist country and a former arch enemy. However, increasingly as I meet more and more people and find out more about the country, I wonder to myself what the hell the US was playing at and what a monumental amount of lives, time, money and goodwill were squandered. I am reminded of Muhammed Ali's comment when he went to jail for refusing to serve: "I ain't got nothing against them little yellow people." Ditto that remark. In fact, when you see what they had to work with, the hardships people suffered ( and still suffer) and how after 80 years of struggle against the French, the Japanese, the Chinese, the Americans, the Cambodians (who haven't they fought?), they retain a very friendly manner. And this in the face of a life which is very difficult, make no mistake about it.

The North is an industrial wasteland which was bombed to smithereens, if not into submission, by the Americans during the war (more tonnage than WWII, 700 times the kilotonnage of Hiroshima). The war ended in 1975, and Nixon's last act before signing the Paris Peace Accord in 1973 was to throw in 2-3 weeks of intensive bombing just for good measure. Improve the negotiating stance and all that. The industrial base in the traditional sense was thus more or less destroyed. To keep on going, production had to be decentralised. Thus the normal things you would expect to see (factories near the port in industrial zones, infrastructure geared towards commerce, heavy goods vehicles and roads purpose built for them) are not there in size. (I say this, but you could see massive factories for Canon, and more to the point, for Yamaha and Suzuki.)

This lack of infrastructure, along with the fact that after the Americans left in 1975 the Vietnamese embarked upon another ten year military adventure from 1979-1989 in Cambodia (you can see posters for the "brotherhood" between the Socialist Republic of Vietnam and the Democratic Republic of Kampuchea) took a lot out of the country. The good news is that the Vietnamese booted out the Khmer Rouge, #1 on the hit list of the world's most brutal and disastrous regimes ever.

After ten years of their own imperialist venture, the Vietnamese left. What was important, however, is that all of these distractions: wars, reunification with the South, being a pariah state with limited trade with the some of the West, reliance on the Soviet Union as a pal and mentor, the exodus of the boat people, the imposition of a communist overlay on the capitalist and corrupt South--all of these diverted investment away from development and meant that the Vietnamese gave themselves quite a mountain to climb when the rest of the region-Korea, China et al. were going nuts on development. Everyone, it seems, had a head start on Vietnam.

So there is a very good reason why Hanoi is like it is, a slightly behind the times city en voie du developpement. So was this any reason not to like the place? Hell no, is the answer I came up with after three days there. And why? Because of the people, and that's why. And I don't mean the people we met, although there were a few worth mentioning. I mean the general attitude of how they seemed to make the place work. Let us start with the traffic, which is mind blowing. We had one taxi driver (of only a few, since we walked most places) but really the only one who had enough of a command of English to answer questions. He said that there are about 7 million people in Hanoi, and that there are 4 million motorcycles. You read that right: 4 million. This helps explain the aforementioned Yamaha and Suzuki factories. What you can't probably imagine, however, is how that translates into reality. At certain times of the day, I am willing to be, all 4 million are on the road. And the streets are not that wide. Some wisacre should do a time and motion study of this daily choreography, because somehow there seemed to be relatively few traffic jams, and at least as far as we could see in the limited time there, not too many accidents given the circumstances. The first question upon witnessing this daily moving mob scene is How?

Let's go back to the people. In stark contrast to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon, or HCMC for short), there seemed to be very few hotrodders, and no hotheads. Everyone was willing to roll along at a modest speed to keep the whole thing turning over. Stoplights were only a general guide, not a steadfast rule. The same could be said for the little green men lights at pedestrian crossings. I don't know what the admonition is that Hanoi mothers give their children before crossing the road, but I am willing to bet it is NOT: Look Both Ways. Looking both ways while crossing the street in Hanoi will most likely get you run over, if not killed only because the motos are going 10mph. It is more likely to be: Look all around...Start...No hasty movements...Keep dodging. If the Spanish were to look outside their country for potential bullfighters, Hanoi is not a bad place to start. Your typical Hanoi resident is adept at the sidestep-before-disaster manoeuvre almost everytime he/she crosses the street. The only thing missing is the cape, the flourish, and the Ole! Steens cottoned on to the technique almost immediately, and I invariable saw her already on the other side of the road while I was still crabwalking across. It took me a while to be able to go with the flow, and not to tense up like a deer caught in the headlights. The motorcycle and the bicycle in Hanoi are the equivalent of a Wild West cowboy's trusty steed. In other words, they are indispensable. I saw innumerable examples of documentary proof, but unfortunately was not quick enough on the trigger to get them captured on film. One fellow had two very large bundles of plastic pipes (20 feet long) balanced on either side of his cycle. I thought of a knight in a jousting tournament, and what effect these poles might have on pedestrians (or cars or other motos) should things get out of hand. OSHA? You must be joking. I saw several examples of women riding side saddle, legs crossed and high heeled shoes protruding. No points for safety or originality, but plenty of points for style. A duo in Hanoi (two women) won the style points with both driver and passenger dressed to the nines amidst the mist and the mud. They were both smiling. A girl in Saigon behind her boyfriend (see picture) did not look too happy about the whole thing, but it was eight in the morning. In Ho Chi Minh City I also saw a gentleman taking his afternoon siesta, perched on his bike with his head hanging off the back against a wall. We also saw a girl doing her homework as her father ferried her to school. Riding double, triple, or even quadruple was not such a strange sight either. Whole families, with baby on the front, was also the norm. Why buy a pram when you can use your moto? Anyway, strolling along the sidewalks is not really any easier with broken pavements or people littered about. Ah the sidewalks (or pavements or trottoirs, if you wish). In the West, these are places for people to promenade, do a bit of window shopping, or more likely , just to get from A to B. In Hanoi, the pavement is a combination salon, workshop, parking lot, kitchen and dining room, and junkyard. Shops do not stop at their front door; they continue anon and spill out into the street. Walking along you constantly have to be on the lookout for bodies, objects, broken paving stones, mud, impromptu meals. The street food is prepared in front of your eyes. The vendor sets up a little mobile kitchen (I watched a woman preparing an omelette at the behest of a shopgirl). There are also little mini moving restaurants, with four or five people squatting on their haunches or perched , at Steens said, on Mrs. Gales's nursery chairs (Mrs. Gales was our son's nursery teacher.) Even if we felt like it, which given the fact that it was wet and muddy and generally did not smell too fragrant or look too hygenic, we would have a hell of a time eating at one of those portable restaurants. On a sunny day, perhaps, or if we knew where there was a good chiropractor. As street theatre, however, walking around the pavements of the Old Quarter is extremely interesting, if not relaxing. Xin Chao, Vietnam. Can't wait to get stuck in. Go to Chapter 5 Click to return to Table of Contents

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