Wednesday, September 27, 2006
You know its a small world when the old, half toothless, Vietnamese man in the internet cafe next to you is cruising style.com and downloading images for local tailors to copy. Market research in communist vietnam! It is the combination of Vietnamese drive, independence, and flexibility (with help from decent language skills) that has allowed them to reinvent their country over the past 7 plus years. And I know, because that was the last time I was here. I remember crossing from Vietnam into China and being impressed by the modernity, the feeling of development. Now its the reverse. Although China is billed as the next economic superpower, in many ways it feels as if Vietnam has advanced more rapidly to a modern economy. The buildings are modern and stylish, the air is clean, and English is as common as Vietnamese.
Crossing the border was our first adventure. Both of our passports were issued the same year from the same NY passport agency. But mine is much more weathered, having been to Asia and Africa in the interim, as well as fallen in a river and the washing machine. The chinese border guards were convinced that one of our passports was a fake. They studied mine with magnifying glasses, they tried to lift off Kim's picture, convinced that it was too new and shiny compared with my tattered passport. After being detained for about two hours in a holding room, while our Bangladeshi traveling companion sailed through customs, they let us go onwards to Vietnam. Visions of an intense Chinese interrogation passed through our imaginations, but instead the border guards entertained us by singing "Take Me Home West Virginia" and serving us water. We've watched one too many "24" episodes.
Our first stop in Vietnam was Sapa, where 7 years ago the town was just a provincial capital filled with hilltribes, whose people were uninterested or too shy to interact with you. Now they are still dressed in their traditional garb, but they are aggressively selling their wares to tourists and hanging out in bars challenging you to a game of pool.
In Hanoi, every corner is filled with young Vietnamese in stylish clothes on their cellphones. Bicycles were the Hanoi of the past. Now motorbikes rule the road in Vietnam. Cars are few and far between, and crossing the street with thousands of roaring motorbikes and few traffic laws is a significant challenge. We grew frustrated with the challenge of walking, and decided to join them on our own motorbike.
The streets are also filled with a plentiful bounty of Vietnamese food, built on the combination of fresh herbs - mint, cilantro, lemongrass - garlic, and chili. Its a refreshing cuisine after a month of greasy food in China. So much so that we took a lesson in local cuisine. Our grandmotherly chef took us too the local market where we bought all sorts of goodies, and then went back to her kitchen where we learned to cook three dishes: beef spring rolls, honey chicken, and a fish dish. Vietnam is a former french colony, and aside from leaving behind grand boulevards, quaint french colonial buildings, and a love for art, they also influenced local cuisine. This was evident as both our fish and chicken were buried in thick butter and wine based sauces. But still delicious.
All of these changes is involved with what I perceive as the Disneyification of Vietnam -- DisneyNam. There seems to be a diversity of industry here, but there is no business like the tourism business and everyone is working hard to earn your francs, pounds, shekels, and dollars. That makes it a much more pleasant place to travel than China as people actually want to serve you and sell to you. Children are continually shouting Hello, and occasionally What is your name? as we pass them in the streets. Whereas in China, you would be hardpressed to find an English speaker, almost everyone we encounter speaks English in Vietnam.
Its hard to believe that only 30+ years ago war ripped this country apart. There is no evident ill feelings toward Americans. In fact, as our tailor Hong told us, the Vietnamese love Bill Clinton, almost as much as Ho Chi Minh. His visit in 1995 that opened trade and ended sanctions is widely known to have increased Vietnamese development momentum, and lifted the country out of devastating poverty. We took a tour of the DMZ (demilitarized zone) around the 17th parallel that divided the communist north from the pro American south. This area was where some of the fiercest battles took place, but not much remains. Bald hilltops from deforestation remind us of the damage of American napalm bombs and agent orange. The famous battle ground of Kahn Se, where the bloodiest battle of the war took place, now houses a museum, left-behind American helicopters and a few bunkers. We visited one of the underground tunnels the northern Vietnamese used to hide and transport goods during the war. Its hard to imagine they lived in these tunnels, as we could barely walk through the caves, they were so small, dank and dark. There were even 17 births in the 'maternity room', 15 meters underground!
We are now in the small quaint town of Hoi An, where there are more foreigners than locals, and everything here is done 'your way'. The food and lodging are great, as the barrage of thousands of foreigners have given them many opportunities to improve their offerings. Every street is packed with tailors who know the latest fashions and will copy them for you, straight from the latest magazine pages to the sewing machine, to your back, for a fraction of the cost. We've bought two suits, two shorts and three shirts for Kim, and two jackets and two pants for me. They all fit perfectly!
In Hoi An we've had the luck to have good weather for a change. Several days of sun have given us time to explore a local fishing & pottery village with our friend Mr. Trung, ride our motorbike down to the beach for massages and fresh seafood with our new American friends Erin and Ben, and have another cooking class (this time the dishes were traditional vietnamese food, fish in banana leaf, chicken with lemongrass and chili, and spring rolls). Now we are getting ready to leave, and just in time. A typhoon is heading here from the Phillipines and should make landfall within a day. So off we go to Ho Chi Minh city (Saigon was renamed after reunification in 1975).
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