This is the longest I’ve been in one country this year. I didn’t intend to and it certainly didn’t feel like it, but I did enjoy it. As with every country, I learned a lot while I was here that I couldn’t have imagined.
While I knew of more recent wars against the French and Americans for independence, I was unaware of the thousand years of Chinese rule for the first millennium or so. Chinese style writing can still be seen in weddings and luck related matters or on historical buildings. The language was translated by a Portuguese missionary hundreds of years ago before the French got here, so the current writing system is some complex system of accents I have not seen anywhere else. The five tones of Vietnam are a struggle even knowing the four tones of Mandarin. Vietnam has a fear of the Chinese still and everyone in the country of either sex has mandatory training for a few weeks to learn to fire guns and throw grenades. The short length of training makes me wonder how good their aim is. Meanwhile they have a bigger brother complex with Cambodia. Some old rivalries do not end so quickly. Once I got to the south end, I did not realize that there were more cultural influences than just the ethnic minority hill tribes. There were whole empires here before, and loads of Chinese and Khmer people from when different regions ruled the area.
My first country of the region was Laos, the most laidback of this subcontinent. I loved it and I worried about what I had heard about Vietnam. It was the scam-iest and pushiest country! I already found Luang Prabang a tad touristy and pushy and couldn’t imagine it getting worse. It really did. There is a tourist trail in this country, it is all the stops you see on an “Open Tour” bus ticket. The tourist areas of these towns are awful. People will not take no for an answer and I’ve had people follow me down whole streets trying to sell me huge pieces of art when I’m carrying a backpack. It just makes no sense. After generations of oppression, I do feel like there is a feeling of watch out for your own first and screw everyone else, not just tourists but everyone, over. However I feel like knowing there is a constant stream of new, one time tourists encourages this behavior as well. Part of me wants to slap every tourist who happily agrees to the pushy people happily handing them usually more than twice as much money. Stop encouraging that awful behavior! Vietnam does not have the constant repeat almost expat like tourists of Thailand and their pushy touts take advantage to make sure they never will.
There is a system of double prices here, harkening back to the days of American GIs and their wildly inflated salaries relative to local prices. It is perpetuated by all of us as we do not know the real prices of anything, it just seems “cheap compared to home!” While the local salaries are quite low (about $100 a month for the poor), I think this attitude of looking at foreigners as “you can afford it” is damaging when carelessly done. My first impression of the country was the airport, where there were posted prices for the bus like vans into town. An information booth had notified us of a slightly higher (by 25 cents) foreigner price but the signs around the vans had only a single price. We tried to inform someone in our van arguing with the fare collector of this and got cursed at for a bit. This would’ve been easily avoidable without a van full of cranky just arrived tourists with a simple change to the sign. Often, I also visibly see locals pay less and then the vendor laughs, or the vendor’s tone is snide as she laughs and says things to others around her in Vietnamese. We may not understand the language but everyone understands body language and no one likes feeling ripped off.
That being said, there is real poverty here. The economic boon of the 2000′s did bring about lots of positive change for the people but many still are in need. The fast growing economy also caused ridiculous inflation. Often I’d look at prices from five or six years ago and realized they’d tripled. Bus ticket prices posted online a few months ago were already 10% off of the posted prices at stations. This was a mere few cents or dollars to me, but I can’t imagine how this affects those living here. It looks like there is already a bust occuring: The End of the Vietnamese Miracle.
Like in other Asian countries, there seems to be a lack of caring about the surrounding environment by most people. This meant all local beaches were covered in discarded trash and broken glass. The roads were of odd quality, some fantastic and new, others so well used I was afraid to drive on them or ruined by weather.
I had so many friends tell me that this was their least favorite country that I didn’t know what to expect. I knew I came here to eat but I found so much more. In places where no one should’ve spoken English, I met so many friendly people just happy to talk to me and try to help. I expected some residual anger about what they call the American War (and what we call the Vietnam War). I found only helpful, smiling people and explanations in English. The government run museums were propaganda like, but what can one expect? One owner of a homestay told me his family had people join both sides, and that they still can’t figure out now who was more right. It may also be because of how young this country is. I heard a statistic somewhere that 2/3 of this country is under 30. They were all born long after the war, it is history now. Part of their economic growth has been based on how young they are. They’ve implemented a two child policy to try to limit an explosion of too many youngsters forming an unsustainable economy. Although the fine for another child is a whopping $12, painful to even the poorest families only for a bit I imagine.
One of the most inspiring things I’ve run into in the south are the English cafes run by 20 somethings. I ran into more than one of these, where they recognized that speaking English opened up doors and opportunities for them. In an effort to help others gain a foothold, these cafes encourage everyone to only speak English and do things like hold happy hours where native English speakers can talk to locals. The two I found also happened to have lots of live acoustic music, often singing English songs. While I don’t think English is the only answer, I really like that they were creating a community to foster growth opportunities.
One of the common questions I get is where would I live of the places I’ve been. I spend at least half my time seeking out the middle of nowhere, which is not really part of the plan for when I return to living in a city somewhere. However I can say after months in China and Vietnam that I would not openly choose either of those countries just because I would enjoy living there. There is a general wariness I have in these two in particular, a difficulty because there is a general lack of trust. I have made great friends in both countries however it does not override the feeling I have that I constantly have to be on guard. While in America, the police and government may try to screw me over, it feels like here most people feel like they always will be. I’d like to be able to enjoy the delicious feasts and wonderful sights of these countries without the careful eye that it is my responsibility to not be ripped off or given the correct change on purpose. While I don’t need to trust these strangers with my life, I’d like to not always have to keep one eye on everyone with negative thoughts that everyone has only themselves and close family in mind. There is a priority on appearances of everything being OK, without regard for anything holding up to the slightest wind behind that facade, often in these countries meaning lots of corruption and shoddily made things. I could barely stand growing up with that as traditional family values, I don’t think I could voluntarily live in it.
One more country in the rear view with pleasant memories. It has not been the easiest country but it really added more character. I am grateful for the adventure that it has been, one I could not have expected when I set out on my journey. Kind of like everywhere I’ve been.