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Vietnam: No Fools Country

Posted on May 04 2015

VIETNAM NOTES JAN 2012

[NOTE: Vietnam is changing rapidly and what might have been true in 2012 does not mean it even exists in 2015 as economic growth tends to make things more pleasant for everyone.]

Poverty makes anxiety.

People are Not the same.  Not the same in the same town, province, house.  But still, you can generalize.  Americans and Irish people are smily, friendly people.  Germans and Russians do not smile even if they work the front desk.  Thais smile and laugh easily, but they are from a nation of peace and plenty;  the Vietnamese have 1000 years of occupation preventing trust of anyone, and a deep need to empty your pockets of as much as they can in the effort to fill theirs.  Anything goes.

They will happily take a 100,000 note pretending they saw a 10,000 dong note, or switch the notes to say you cheated them, sell you tea leaves and pretend it is marijuana, take a $100 deposit at your hotel and 'forget', only returning it when YOU remind them...  In other words, they will rob you standing up or lying down. As the Chinese idiom attests, "a fool and his money are soon parted," and the Chinese have left the most lasting legacy, occupying Vietnam for 800 plus years.

Do not be offended.  Really. Your survival genes were put on hold with your first Christmas Lego set, when you were given an allowance growing up, a government ensuring sidewalks and parks, I mean, how can years of peace prepare your for the real streets of struggle?  Your innocence will certainly work against you.

That is not to say you shouldn't venture out of your asceptic home and experience the new Vietnam -- you should.  This is a hard scrabble nation that is finally moving up after a millenium of occupation, of crushing political ideologies, unsentimental generals and hardened leaders, and the new generation deserves the promise of an easier life. You can help.

There is nothing like tourism to bring mostly positive change.  Tourism allows cultural exchanges - where you learn from and about them -- and they learn about your world -- the sunglasses to protect pale eyes, suncream, tech toys, and most importantly, the lesson that sometimes hard-earned (what, it exists!!) savings is worth spending on travel, which returns little more than memories and a few knick-knacks.

Yet, we travel to enlighten the mind, to enlighten the heart, to make life worth living, knowing what you have, what you don't and appreciating those diferenences. Travel should warm your heart towards others, but getting bugged verbatim by vendors disturbs your peace.

Leave me alone when I'm eating please.  Isn't it enough to sell me taxi rides, shoe shines, massages, sunglasses, yesterday's IHT, when I'm walking along the clogged sidewalks? Do you really have to come inside the restaurant to hold out the latest DVDs of Hollywood while I'm talking to my friend? Restauranteur, kick them out, even if you do sympathize and know it won't affect your food bill.  It is not acceptable in my culture.  And please stop when I say "no thank you" the first time and not the fifth when I must cross the street and dodge life-threatening traffic to put distance between us.

Beggars belong on the sidewalks, and preferably in a homeless shelter paid for by my taxes.  Is your government collecting them?  I should hope so, cause you've added 10% VAT to my bill, even though you only accept cash and your cashier works from hand-written rolls...

Maybe I am just a spoiled traveler, but since I travel throughout Asia every month, visiting in a year, Hong Kong, Singapore, Shanghai, Bali, KL, Seoul, Sydney, Vientiane, and live in Bangkok, I imagine it gives me a diferent perspective on generalizing about people.

The Thais truly are the friendliest people in Asia, and probablu why my parents remain  in Bangkok after nearly 50 years, and stayed beyond their initial 2 year contract.  While you may remain a 'farang' for life, at least you are treated well, and probably why Thailand enjoys an unusual 50% return rate amongst visitors, with 1 of 2 travelers due to come back again.

I went to Vienna, Praque, Warsaw, Berlin, Philadelphia and Cairo: once is enough.  KL, Jakarta, Manila, Mumbai, ditto. Singapore, HK, Beijing, have enough human, cultural, and commercial interest to warrant an additional visit a few years later.  But Bangkok has the added pleasure of making you feel good, of being welcomed, even important.  That's rare.

When you get down to it, cultural sites are important, but not the main reason you visit.  While fantastic stone carvings are impressive, they project the warmth of a 50 story building, so it is the people on the ground that make the difference to your trip.

I heard that the Korean government had a campaign to prepare Koreans to smile for the Xxxx Olympics, but a fake smile is almost as scary as no smile. It's not their fault.  Just like my college roommate was from a bad part of LA, and in his neighborhood, the boy with the loudest stereo would win out over lesser systems, my community favored earphones over distrubing their neighbor.  Needless to say, a few visits from the campus police, and a donation of headphones from his dorm-mates, altered his behavior.  We do want to fit in after all.

The Austrailians call it the "tall poppies" syndrome.  The tallest poppie gets more wind, gets picked first, is disturbed first by movement through the shrubs, reducing its lifespan, so it is better not to stand out for survival.

Anxiety is a natural reflex of being fearful, and the more uncertain your life is, the more fearful you will be.  Although it is generalizing, perhaps the Thais are so friendly because over the centuries they have had fewer natural disasters and milder monsoons, less war,and  have been able to produce enough food to feed everyone.  Even the national anthem reflects this, saying "in the fields there is rice, in the sea there is fish."

Curtousy must be taught, like queing, or opening the door for another, and whereas Bangkok is noisy from all the traffic and motocycles, you don't hear that modern curse as in India and Vietnam, the horn. Considered rude to honk in Thailand (flashing lights is preferred), the constant blarring of the horn elsewhere is, well, constant.

Hanoi is much more charming than the business hub of Saigon, with shophouses sprouting sometimes two or three stories higher than their colonial foundations, so they appear a bit like plants which have outgrown their pots, spreading out across the way.

It is all about how far they have come.  Hanoi is still a frontier town, finding its way in a new world, pockets of resistance to change and the watering holes only the dangerous feel comfortable in.

Arriving at night is even more disconcerting and your taxi moves from rice fields to the shanty town outskirts which morph into the mix of narrow single width shophouses, some with crumbling facades eaten by vines and age, and others showing the glipse of beautiful French corniches and window sills, but the mist and winter cold shrounds the land in mysterious light, with streetlamps barely piercing the thick fog-soup of the exotic landscsape, akin to the tight crowded alleyways of Katmandu, but closer to lake level, the defining landscape of old Hanoi.

Hanoi is a vivid reminder of the past colonial powers, from the Chinese shrines, the French bagette stuffed with duck pate and fresh cucumbers, of blue Halal shops a remnant of the Cham empire, and the strain of Communism apparent on every block, with little redflags jutting near shop signage or from it.

But like the eldest sister trotted out for potential suitors before the younger, it is best to visit Vietnam before Thailand.

For while Pho is indeed tasty, it lacks the dual-textured noodles and the depth of flavors its Khao Soy cousin in Chiangmai enjoys, having been exposed to the Pagan-Indian curries, as well as Chinese and Khmer influences. And like our erst-while bride, she is more interesting before you have meet her easy-going, fun-loving sister.

While Thailand does not have as many colonial-era buildings, and the streets are more dirty and sidewalks pathetic foot traps laced with vendors, stray dogs, and potholes to swallow errant heels and toes, she remains the easier and more pleasant trip, because on the average the people are friendlier, and a good smile counts for a lot when you come from a country where smiles are reserved for family and friends.   

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