Vietnam: slow change in an ancient land

CUTLINE: These “stores” in Vietnam may seem unduly small and dirty, but they line Highway 1 from Saigon to Xuan Loc, 30 miles of little shops. They normally supply one kind of item and provide a living to the entrepreneurs running them. (Jerry Wadian photo)



CUTLINE: These “stores” in Vietnam may seem unduly small and dirty, but they line Highway 1 from Saigon to Xuan Loc, 30 miles of little shops. They normally supply one kind of item and provide a living to the entrepreneurs running them. (Jerry Wadian photo)


Vietnam: slow change in an ancient land

By Jerry Wadian
Contributing Writer


A month ago I took off for a two-week tour of Vietnam, courtesy of a Faculty International Grant (FIG) from Upper Iowa University. I went with Dr. Don McComb associate professor of graphic design.

It’s been 40 years since I was there. Much has changed, yet much is still the same; in fact some things are about the same as they were 100 or more years ago.

The people are much the same – friendly, courteous, and easy to talk to. We saw no animosity toward us because of the war. Of course since most of the population is under the age of 27, they have no memory of the long conflicts that eventually united the country.

A big difference today is that it’s obviously safer – no one was shooting at me. Other than traffic, Vietnam is rated by some travel guides as one of the six safest places in the world to visit – as long as you stay out of the jungle.

I took almost 4400 photos, and some of them could have been from 40 – or even 100 or 400 – years ago.

The rural areas look much the same with the rice paddies, rubber plantations and the general look of a Third-World nation.

Even in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon, and still referred to by that name by many Vietnamese) the old French hotels are as resplendent as ever, and there are many high-end stores. 

There is still a crazy-quilt traffic pattern (to be covered more next week), and the Cholon District and market areas remain, visually, much the same – only now the shop owners all own calculators and cell phones.

However, there is a lot that has changed. 

America was in South Vietnam, for less than 20 years while France had all of Vietnam as a colony for 100 years. When I was there the first time, most people were trilingual, speaking Vietnamese, French and English.

There are still physical traces of French colonization and its military presence.

There is very little physical trace of the U.S. presence. Long Binh (east of Saigon) was once the biggest U.S. military base in the world – miles and miles of concrete. Now, it is completely gone. About the only military remnants I saw were some old revetments that protected U.S. airplanes in Danang – and some of those now have MIG jets or helicopters in them.

However, there is little evidence of the French language. English is everywhere. All the signage is in Vietnamese and English. Wherever we went, some people, even in Hanoi, spoke enough English for us to communicate.

We were on a two-day boat ride through Halong Bay, north of Hanoi (more on that in a future column). There were a German and a Japanese couple onboard, and another boat had a Russian couple. Yet all the Vietnamese staff spoke English throughout the trip.

And this was true in Taiwan, Hong Kong and Macao.

It would seem that the U.S’sbiggest impact on the world is not our democracy, but our language – which should be food for thought in dealing with the future.

Another change was economic. Gone are Shell Oil, Texaco, signs of French industry, and abject poverty.

With the North winning the war, socialism became the system of the day. It’s a nice theory, but no one has been able to make it work effectively. 

In the mid-1980s Vietnam turned to a free-market economy in what was called a “Doi Moi” reform period.  In effect, it is socialistic capitalism – or, if you’re a super-patriot, “America Über Alles” – capitalistic socialism.

It sounds weird, but the Viets are making it work. Vietnam is the second-largest exporter of rice in Asia and second in the world in the growing of coffee beans. It also produces rubber, cotton, tea, cashews, peanuts, bananas, sugar cane, fish and seafood.

With capitalism, there is a tremendous gap between the very wealthy and the masses. Many of the Vietnamese people make only $100 a month. However, there are some things in the economy that are working.

A farmer does not own the land, thus no property payments. The government gives him a hectare of land (about 2.471 acres). There is no property tax, education is free through 12th grade, and there is free health insurance. The farmer keeps whatever crops he can grow (a hectare will raise around six tons of rice!) and keeps all of the profits. He won’t be wealthy, but he is doing okay financially. 

And the literacy rate in Vietnam is 93 percent – the envy of some places like Louisiana and Mississippi?

There is some industry. The biggest employer for years was Nike; now it is second to Intel! I have shoes from Merrill and Columbia that have been made in Vietnam, as was the heavy-duty winter coat I bought from Cabela’s. Ironic isn’t it that a 90-degree, 90-percent humidity country making winter coats with real fur around the hood!  

Also, the backpack in which I carried all my camera equipment around was designed in California by professional photographers, but made in Vietnam.

Vietnam has, however, become an entrepreneur’s paradise. There are innumerable tiny shops with people selling something. Highway 1 to Xuan Loc was rural when I was there in 1969-70. Now it’s a 30-mile line of small shops. Each shop sells something different, but usually only one type of product. There is a   shop selling food, or drink, or furniture, or some form of hardware, or whatever. 

Every mile or so, there is a shop with the photocopy sign – someone has a Xerox machine and will make copies. And every so often, there is a shop selling some very high-end clothing, or a wedding photographer – nothing but miles and miles of stores. No one is getting super-wealthy, but the overall economy is doing pretty well.

Vietnam certainly isn’t perfect, but seems to be a lot better than 40 years ago, which is actually miraculous considering the train wreck the country was in when the war ended.

Next week- Saigon: Scooter Heaven!


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