The husband/boyfriend stared at me with the look that one reserves for discovering dogpoop on your shoes, and launched into a tirade in rapid fire Russian. The finer details were beyond my elementary Russian, but I caught the gist.Мы приказал чая без Пакети. We ordered tea without the bags. Byez pakety. This was clearly some sort of major transgression, and the bags offended them both. What a trumped-up asshole, I thought to myself. I nodded and said: я понимаю. I understand, and whisked away the teapot. I walked over to the waitresses' station where Dung stood. "The guy doesn't like teabags," I said, making a signal to take them out of the pot and return the pot to him. I winked, and repeated my thought out loud for her benefit. "What an asshole." Byez Pakety, indeed. I also rented a bike for ($2 for two days) and pedalled 6km up the coast to the village of Mui Ne at the end of the Mui Ne beach (kind of putting the cart before the horse....er....Welcome to Mui Ne.....not yet.) On the way I saw the famous red dunes, which looked like...well....red dunes. I then stood on the promontory overlooking the village and the fleet at anchor in the harbour. My solitude was enlivened by a minibus of Russians who descended, fired off a few volleys (snapshots, not guns), and then departed. One of the photos was of a peroxided middle aged women posed seductively in front of a palm tree. They were friendly enough (at least she was....she offered to take a pic of me in front of said tree). I thought to myself how similar the Russkis were to the American tourists, only more arrogant towards the local people. That attitude always pisses me off. It is so unnecessary.
On the way back I passed by a village on the outskirts of Mui Ne and caught an overwhelming whiff of the pungent fish sauce, which no doubt would peel paint. I got off my bike in front of a small factory (by small I mean mini, really...no larger than a corner store) which manufactures the stuff. I asked the owner (hand gestures) if I could snap some photos of the process, to which he agreed, so I did. This was a cottage industry not unlike winemaking, only subsituting rotten shrimp for the grapes. There were progressively smaller vats for crushing, fermenting, filtering, blending, bottling, capping, and packaging. Amazing that the whole thing was done on such a small scale. I thought of the contest between production here and say in a La Choy soy sauce factory. Everything destined for the Western markets is based on economies of scale. Here they are producing the same cheap goods but in relativley minor quantities and no doubt not making all that much. And did I say working their asses off to do it. It was fascinating to watch though.The fish sauce example helps explain how a country of 85 million hardworking people has a relatively small GDP. Capitalism is about large scale production, distribution, and consumption. That is why Walmart sells Chinese goods to Americans. Big stores, big highways, big trucks, big people. Transporting plastic pipes on motorbikes, or hand crafting basket fishing boats, or distilling a few hundred bottles of fish sauce at a time are not going to cut on the world stage. A system where a seven year old has to work in a factory in order for the family to survive is harsh, and surely not right. However, cheap labour is an advantage in attracting industry and tourists as well, and gradually development happens. You can't escape economics. It is what drives us all, just like the painting of the Buddhist and the fractured soul trapped between the lines of the material world. We may want to live in the world of the spirit, the heart, and the ties of love which bind us all, but we have to deal with the harsh realities of earning a crust. And you could do a lot worse by observing the people on or around the beach at Mui Ne to see a microcosm of economic life: the fishermen, the beach workers (clam diggers, trinket hawkers), the tourist workers (beach rakers, waitresses, pool boys, masseuses, chambermaids, kite surfing instructors) and the consumers (big fat Russians attracted by the South China Sea and sun instead of the Black Sea), backpackers attracted by cheap prices, and folk like me. Beneath this moving theatre of people are two economic systems moving in uneasy tandem with each other, one reluctantly dependent upon the other. On the one hand you have tourists thinking not in Dong, but in dollars or roubles, and remarking on how a massage seems impossibly cheap compared to the £45 pounds you would have to pay in London. On the flip side are the Vietnamese, for whom the Dong is impossibly high and who have to work their butts off in order to maintain a subsistence level. There is such a divide between the two systems that in the near term it is unbridgeable in economic terms. In human terms, there is much less of a divide. As I was standing early in the morning in the airport in Ho Chi Minh City, having passed at dawn through already crowded streets, I chatted with the girl at the check out counter. The modern airport ( in stark contrast to Hanoi's) was deserted. "So how do you get to work?" I asked her. "I come on my scooter." "Oh yeah? How long does that take?" I was mindful of the five mile long rugger scrum of motorbikes we had just come through once we got anywhere near HCMC. "Oh, not that long," she said. "Really? What about the traffic jams?" She shrugged. "Oh, there are times when the traffic is not so bad." Her colleague next to her, eavesdropping on our exchange, started to snigger. "Oh yeah?" I asked. "When would that be?" She laughed. "At midnight......for about five minutes." Chuckles all around. So let me return to my original impression of Vietnam. It is a land of the easy smile, a land where the people you meet will make you want to come back, and will replace the prejudices or confused images in your brain with pleasant memories and a smile of your own. Click to return to Table of Contents