Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Vietnam Diary

I confess that I was initially a little unenthusiastic when our Vietnamese friends first proposed a trip to Vietnam. Vietnam? I donno. Isn’t it just Thailand without the Grand Palace? Our friends had planned a pretty elaborate tip, flying to Hue near the center of the country and then working our way down south to Nha Trang and then back to Ho Chi Minh City. In the end I decided to go along, and I’m glad I did. Vietnam has more than a few attractions, and it was fascinating to see the new Vietnam after leaving it 40 years ago.

The first thing one encounters in Ho Chi Minh City is the swarms of motorbikes. I’d seen pictures of this, but nothing quite prepares you to spectacle of thousands of the little scooters flowing along the streets and even sidewalks like an endless river of traffic. By some estimates there are five million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, a city of about 8 million, which works out to one for practically every able-bodied adult in the city. I used to ride motorbikes in Thailand but it was nothing like this

You take your life in hand – literally – just crossing the street. According to a magazine I picked up in the hotel, nearly 200 people have died in the past two years after being run over by a motorbike. Cross walks are painted but ignored by riders, as are regulations that driver’s must yield to pedestrians. The basic technique seems to be to wait for a small break in the traffic flow and then boldly step out, trusting that the highly mobile bikers will drive around you. Prayer is advised.

I was also surprised at the Vietnamese currency, known as dong. The exchange rate is 21,000 to the dollar, so even small purchases and run in the hundreds to thousands of dong. These figures are the kind one usually associates with countries undergoing hyperinflation, but I wasn’t aware that Vietnam was suffering from any unusual inflation.

Making a purchase in Danang, I fumble through my dong looking for the right denominations among a dozen or so, while mentally counting the zeros so that I don’t confuse a 20,000 note with a 200,000 note. The sales woman gets impatient and snatches the money out of my hands, deftly extracts the correct amount (I hope) and then returns the wad to me.

To be fair Vietnam isn’t the only country in Asia using currency with large denominations. The dollar exchange rate for Indonesian rupiah is nearly the same as that for the dong. But I can’t help but wonder if it costs a million dong for one night in a three-star hotel, what is the national budget? Anyone know the Vietnamese word for quintillion?

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of communism and global capitalism in Ho Chi Minh. Of course, Vietnam has had its own version of China’s market socialism, known as doi moi for many years. And the city scape is lighted up in the evening with plenty of signs for Sony, Samsung, Lucky Goldstar and so on. It has the requisite luxury shops selling expensive watches and hand bags along fashionable Dong Khoi Street.

Yet posters sporting the likeness of Ho Chi Minh are ubiquitous in the city of his name. Bac Ho’s portrait, as he is generally called, is everywhere, usually surrounded by children, as the Vietnamese like to cultivate an image of him being everybody’s avuncular uncle. Of course, no leader could have led his country successfully against first the French and then the Americans if he wasn’t essentially ruthless. Every public building sports two flags. The national flag with its red field and single yellow star is communistic enough but they also have one with a yellow hammer and cycle. I don’t think they do that even in China.

Our hotel in Ho Chi Minh, the Rex is, I understand owned by the Saigon Tourism Authority, which means it is essentially a state-owned enterprise. Yet the quality of service is certainly higher than what one would expect from such an enterprise. The hotel was famous as the location for the American commands’ daily press briefings derisively labeled the “Five-o’clock Follies by the reporters.

You can buy a Cartier watch or a Salvadore Ferragamo handbag in the hotel’s extensive arcade, but you can’t buy a newspaper, in any language. The same was true of the other hotels we stayed in during the trip. The management does provide its foreign guests with a paper called the Viet Nam News, which has all the the earmarks of a state-run media, namely emphasis on development and trade. Front-page lead story: President Encourages Belarus Business ties.

I happen to know from other sources, that Vietnam was adopting a new constitution while we were in the country. Indeed, the National Assembly approved it the day we were leaving Danang. One might think that was rather news worthy, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Viet Nam News, which, as far as I can remember did not mention the story at all.

I’m not sure whether it was a subject of the national television news. Flicking through the television channels, I linger at televised proceedings of the National Assembly in Hanoi, although I couldn’t understand what the deputies were debating – if in fact they were debating anything and not simply listening to a government minister giving then their marching orders.

I’ve been puzzled by this institution even before coming to Vietnam. This being a communist country, one assumes that the assembly simply rubber-stamps government edicts. Yet, the body showed some amazing independence a couple years ago when it killed as too expensive a high speed train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City that the Japanese were eager to sell. When was the last time China’s National People’s Congress did something like that?

Speaking of selling, the Japanese and Russians are competing to sell Vietnam its first nuclear power station just south of Nha Trang. Judging from the swarms of Russians in that city, one could easily assume that they already own this part of Vietnam. Often on this trip we have been almost the only people at the early morning hotel breakfast buffet. Here every table is taken by Russians, eager, no doubt to get on sampling the city’s beaches, food stalls and markets and other attractions.

For a couple years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Russians had a naval base at nearby Cam Ran Bay, although they closed it as straining the defense budget and having very little strategic value. I’m not sure, whether Russian sailors “discovered” Nha Trang and brought back tales of the exotic east. Of course, there is no reason why Russians might not choose Vietnam as a winter vacation place, especially as Egypt is getting too dangerous. Nobody has to worry about terrorists here, but look out for motorbikes.





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