Thursday, June 27, 2013

Southern Vietnam

Good Morning Vietnam
Perhaps we're just moving slow enough to notice them, but I swear the sunrises and sunsets are prettier in Vietnam. Grabbed this pic on an early morning flight to Saigon (renamed Ho Chi Minh City after the war), the commercial center of Vietnam that is driving the growth of country. The political grip is less tight than in the north and the people we spoke to were very well informed. We learned that the majority of people make around $200 per month. Public school is only half-day, so those who can't afford private school ($1,000 per month and full-day) often sit idle. We learned that people can't speak out against the government, that people have the right to vote but there is only one political party, and that if you don't show your support for the government you won't be eligible for any good jobs. We learned that corruption is built into every societal system; though Vietnamese have the right to start businesses, the government expects bribes on a continuing basis, making this prohibitive for most people; and usually only high ranking government officials have enough money to do anything. Officials often send their children to school in the U.S., then when they come back to Vietnam, they inherit money, assume power, and perpetuate the cycle. It's unlikely this is what Ho Chi Minh had intended. Regardless, it was uplifting to hear perspectives that voiced such thorough understanding of Vietnam's situation and that many Vietnamese do desire to live in a democracy. For now, with all the political power vested in Hanoi, Saigon seems to be doing a darn good job working with what it's got.

A Self-made Man in Vietnam
Yes, unbelievably, the massive elephant tusks are real. After the war, rebuilding in Southern Vietnam was difficult. The majority of U.S. bombing had occurred around Saigon and those that had opposed communism during the war were essentially left behind. For ten years nothing happened in the south. Finally, legislation passed that allowed private enterprises to operate. The man in the photo is Than Phan who envisioned Vietnam as a travel destination before there was a tourist industry. He runs the only 100% privately owned travel agency in Vietnam (the rest are owned by foreigners or international travel conglomerates) and our trip would not have been the same without him. Heck of a guy.

Remnants of the American War
The American War Remnant Museum is a horrifying place to visit. As an American, it would be difficult to walk out of here not feeling ashamed. Anti-U.S. propaganda aside, it's difficult to deny the overt belligerence of the U.S. government before and during the war. The unfortunate reality is that most people were opposed to the U.S. aggression but were not in favor of a communist government. Pro-Vietnam, anti-communist. Pro-independence, anti the U.S. decimating the population with chemical weapons (dioxin/Agent Orange). An estimated two million Vietnamese were killed between 1965 - 1975. But attitude is everything. No one we spoke to showed an ounce of resentment or held a grudge. One man, whose family was literally split in half during the war, told us in his newly acquired American aphorism "it's water under the bridge," and he wished the Vietnam government would loosen control and ally itself closer to the U.S. He said this was the majority opinion in Vietnam. This sentiment was echoed by others we spoke to. At this point in each conversation, people brought up the threat they feel from China. We learned that Chinese regularly kill Vietnamese fisherman, abduct women (to compensate for the 50/50 male/female offset), are rude and agressive tourists (our tour guides refused to even serve Chinese), produce cheap copies of goods, and sell poisonous milk and plastic rice. The Chinese also dammed the Mekong River for hydroelectric power and salt water has backed up 100km into the delta destroying agriculture and fish populations. The Vietnamese government is complacent.

Partners (on Paper)
I don't think either country is able to provide significant assistance to the other.

Motorbike Mania
Just as in Hanoi, there are motorbikes everywhere. Hundreds of thousands of them. This is just one intersection after hours.

Welcome to the "Rice Bowl" of Vietnam
Straight east of Saigon is the Mekong River Delta which is responsible for feeding the majority the country. Busy canals spider like arteries through the green mazes of rice paddies, palm tree farms, and dragon fruit orchards. It is undoubtedly gorgeous, but like Vietnam in general, the Delta is complicated. It is intensively farmed and home to the most densely populated area in the country. Floating by, you can't help but notice the huge 1980s television set you used to watch Nick at Nite reruns on in your living room, the burned out light bulb you threw away in the trash, the shoes you donated after the fad came and went, the old tires that disappear at the corner GoodYear, and the plastic bags from the grocery store. They also call this river home. The huge agricultural expansion and population pressures are definitely taking its toll here. Despite this, beauty and a sense of community can be found everywhere you look.

Homes back up to countless small tributary canals. Until several years ago, the houses were only accessible by boat and bicycle. The old-school monkey bridges (usually a felled palm tree with a solo rickety support banister) are mostly gone and have been replaced with concrete bridges that can support a motorbike.
The crane barges to do the heavy lifting.
Every boat has eyes to scare the river monsters away.
Bridge on the Mekong. Ivo Andric's sequel.

Zen Bonsai Garden
A good place to get some thinking done.