Like most journeys that I have taken, this one won’t end. The relationships I’ve started, the memories I’ve created, and culture that has changed me will continue to impact my life going forward. So while this will likely be my last post, it isn’t the end of the trip.
However, my scrapes from jumping off boats and slipping on rocks have healed, my sunburn has peeled and stopped hurting, my butt has finally molded to the shape of the narrow motorcycle seats here, and I have colored my hair – it’s time to go home.
Yes, I indulged myself yesterday afternoon and went to go get my haircut before I head back. And as my luck would have it, no one spoke any English. But somehow that just made it more fun as they tried their intro class English and I tried my phrasebook Vietnamese. And somehow, they convinced me that I just didn’t need my hair cut, I also needed a scalp massage, a facial massage, a manicure, hair color, ear cleaning, and foot massage. So for a total of $10, I walked out a new man and the stylist’s name and phone number. She kept saying “I love you” and that she was single and 30. Maybe it was the hair color….
Two days later:
I’m back in the world of cars, expensive food, and underwear, going through a little bit of reverse culture shock, and getting used to having sugar in my diet again. I couldn’t help but smile today as I picked up my motorcycle from the shop and went for a quick ride into the mountains. It’s been a wet spring here, so the hills are still green, the wildflowers are awesome, and the ride was incredible under clear blue skies and perfect temperatures. It took me a while to get used to my now seemingly huge motorcycle, and to be truthful, I kind of miss the small motos of Vietnam. However, I’m sitting here plugged into a fast internet connection, comfortable in my t-shirt and shorts without a fan or A/C, rested after a night without mosquitoes, and listening to my music on iTunes. I’m happy except for a bit of jet-lag.
When I started this last post in Saigon, I had many things left to post in terms of my experiences. Such as my impressions of the environment, politics, the legacy of the American War, and where I think Vietnam is going. However, as usual, my thoughts get jumbled after I’m removed from the environment and so this just may be a bit ugly!
Environment: Like most developing countries, Vietnam is struggling to protect what is left of its environment. The wars (including with Cambodia and China after the American War) and the debilitating poverty until doi moi in the late 80s left a legacy that is horrendous. Not much is left of the native forests and jungles as they have become prey for the land and wood starved population of Vietnam. The government is trying to protect what is left and create a culture of environmentalism that will attract more tourists, but they have a long way to go. Corruption and poverty continue to derail even the most ambitious efforts of the government and NGOs such as WWFand UNESCO. An example is a “trek” I took through a forest between two waterfalls.
The government built the path through an area that they wanted to turn into a local park, but the path only opened the area for rural farmers to move in and cut down trees in what was earlier a hard-to-access area. So I hiked for 4 km in a zone that looked what napalmed areas must have used to look like (see photo). Basically burned and dead trees surrounded by volcanic rock. It was a dreary sad trip. The next photo shows a tree that was inexplicably left during a recent slash and burn clearing for farmland, and it shows the drastically different scale of vegetation. It’s tough to apply a developed nation’s standard of ecology on a population that is very poor, and my hope is that as the economy continues to improve and the population growth slows (they have a limited child policy that encourages smaller families), they’ll be able to preserve and/or recover some of the natural beauty that makes Vietnam special.
The relocation of Northerners to the South continues, with this photo showing a village recently (3 years ago) created around a dam. The government provided the land, the dam, and the coffee trees, and after a couple of more years of income the government will bring in electricity. This continues in the central highlands and other areas. One of the sad legacies of the war is that many of the hill tribes from this area that left to avoid either the battles or the Northern takeover in 75 came back after years in refugee camps only to find their lands confiscated and given to others. Much like the South in the US after our Civil War, there still exists an animosity between Northerners and Southerners despite the rhetoric coming from Hanoi about unity.
Many folks talked openly about their distaste for the current government, some of it quite vehement. And even though it was an unscientific sample, this was much more common in the South. Like other places, as people become more affluent they become more interested in a less regulated society that is less autocratic. Eventually they’ll end up with a more democratic government but that is a least a generation away. Like most power structures, it is the older generation that prefers the current status quot, as they’ve paid their dues and now want to enjoy being at the top of the heap. They want to avoid the implosions of some of the Eastern European governments, and the oft repeated phrase is that they are around 10 years behind China in economic development and even with them on government reform.
The economy is dynamic and is having money poured into the country by foreign firms. For example, the dutch have financed and developed the flower industry around Da Lat that is now starting to challenge the more established powers of Colombia and some areas in Africa. The photo shows the many green houses that dot the landscape around Da Lat. The Japanese developed some lemon grass plantations, the Koreans are providing heavy industry factories and materials (almost all the heavy trucks and large buses are Hyundai or Daewoo). The US seems to be developing Vietnam’s IT sector and recent articles are comparing it to a young India in terms of the talent/cost ratio. However, development continues to be hampered by corruption, lack of transparency in the accounting systems, and lack of intellectual property rights, all common problems in developing countries. The intellectual property right issue sometimes is very humorous, as the Vietnamese culture thrives on using established names without a second thought. The early success of Sinh Cafe in Saigon regarding tourist travel has spawned hundreds of other Sinh Cafes or agencies claiming affiliation with it. And the most humorous regarding an American brand is the bathroom accessories that state: “made to the American Standard.“ With the “made to the” in small print, all you see is American Standard, a popular brand here in the US. Just like Korea a few years back, they’ll have to understand that companies don’t want you ripping off their logos and they don’t want to do business with you until you protect their brand equity. However, given the incredible natural resources and the cultural emphasis on education, I think Vietnam is going to be a dynamo in Asia after another 10-15 years.
The war is something that haunted me the whole way. Being raised as an Army brat and being indoctrinated at an early age that North Vietnamese are the enemy and are bad, it was weird being in Hanoi and seeing the flag all over the place. I didn’t find anyone that admitted any ill-will to me because I was American, and everyone pretty much leaves it as history. While most of the military camps and installations are gone, there are plenty of reminders of the war. Land mines and unexploded ordinance are still an issue in outlying ares, and people are aware of what Agent Orange (and White/Blue/etc.) have done to the environment and to people living in those areas. There are still the war memorials and various plaques commemorating various aspects of the war, all with an interesting slant such as the plaque regarding the B-52 ruins in Hanoi. These biases are slowly changing as the regime tries to attract more tourists and investors from countries that were involved in the war. However, they are still adamantly nationalistic and are very proud of their country and their country’s history.
As for myself, as I reflect on this trip, it was definitely an incredible adventure that was a great blend of independence and spending time with people. Traveling by yourself always has the ying/yang balance of having many opportunities of meeting new people vs. having times of loneliness. However, as my previous post expounded, I met some great people and the other times were wonderful for reflecting on what the next step will be in my life. As of 7:30 last night when I landed, I have no plans going forward. I do have some ideas, and it is likely I’ll be back in the corporate world for a year or two to replenish funds and sanity before heading to a variety of options that I’ll be researching, including a doctorate or working for an NGO.
If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading. My goal for this blog was three-fold: 1) to force myself to journal, 2) to keep people who worry about me informed as to the what/where/whys of the trip and 3) to hopefully recruit folks for my next adventure…. Anyone interested?
Postscript: You can find all the pictures of my trip at: http://www.fototime.com/inv/310CFCB60FE5476