Craig, Zach, and Ed’s Unique View of Vietnam

P1010004Bangkok I hate the Bangkok international airport.  It’s an overpriced mall with planes in the parking lot.  A cup of coffee can cost $3 to $4 bucks USD, and I’m stuck here for 8 hours on the cheap route from Hanoi to Delhi, so making the best of it.  Leaving a new country after an Organizers’ Forum trip it has become something of a tradition for me to list out the random notes about what made the country unique and special to answer the question my dad, Ed Rathke, used to ask me when I would see him after one of these trips and he would start the conversation by asking what I thought “he would most want to know” about the country.  My dad passed away a little me than two years ago, but his question never leaves me in the notes I scribble on these journeys.  Craig Robbins in Philadelphia and Zach Polett in Little Rock used to tell me that these were their favorite blogs, so to keep it light rather than tinged with the maudlin and morbid, we’ll answer my dad’s question by making it a “popular demand” blog from Craig and Zach.

  • The plane fares might be pricey, but once you are there Vietnam is way cheap.  Tell me the last time you could get a decent beer for a buck at a restaurant?  We bought beer at the Circle K next to the hotel in Ho Chi Minh City for about 70 cents.  I bought the popular Hanoi beer obviously in Hanoi on the street for 14 dong or about 75 cents in the tourist district.  In the hood I bet it’s 50 cents or less a beer.  It’s not the 99 cent six-pack special I remember for Jax beer over at the Times-Saver on Paris Avenue 40 years ago, but it’s damn close.  A special note for Rick Hall in Nairobi:  a Jameson’s on Ngo Huyen was about $1.25, book your ticket now.
  • If I could get the internet now ($8.50 for 60 minutes!) I would check but Vietnam is screaming to be a priority P1010005country project for the Bloomberg Foundation given their emphasis on reducing deaths from smoking and traffic.  People smoke everywhere and all the time, including in restaurants obviously.  There were 10000 traffic deaths last year according to some of the folks we met with.  Traffic is pretty wild, more scooters in Ho Chi Minh City and more cars in Hanoi.  Like India lives are saved largely by the fact that the traffic snarls up preventing folks from reach top speeds, though it is much faster moving in Vietnam than any Indian city.  The government decreed that motorcycle riders had to have helmets, and most complied with $2 plastic helmets similar to what a baseball player wears.  Better than nothing, but….
  • There was a small item in the Hanoi Daily News today (the English language paper) advertising for the government the need for 80,000 workers through the rest of the year, including part-time for the seasonal push.  It was a news story, but it would be one helluva want ad in anybody’s paper!
  • My other favorite item several days before was a long piece in the business section about the toothpick trade wars with China.  Toothpicks are on every table at every meal.  For years it seems the bamboo sticks were a Vietnamese specialty, but cheaper Chinese bamboo toothpicks in a variety of styles had flooded the market and were pushing Vietnamese toothpick purveyors out of business.  Serious stuff.
  • Here was a another Vietnamese puzzle:  real estate values were sky high in both Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City!  Small, new places of around 800 to 1000 square feet (though everything was meters) were running around $300000 USD.  With a $65/month minimum wage, cheap prices everywhere with low wages, how could afford those numbers and where was the demand coming from?  China?  Foreigners?  No, foreigners are not allowed to own property though there are 60-year leases and supposedly some ways around this, but still, who was buying the property that every source acknowledged was rising rapidly in value?  Some of our interpretors intimated that these were Party favorites and special business folks, but we never felt like we had a grip on this one.  A similar contradiction existed about hotel lodging rates which were extremely reasonable even though to buy a hotel property would be ridiculously expensive.  What kind of real estate bubble is this unsustainable?
  • All school children learn English now in primary school.  We met some excellent English speakers who had no experience outside of the Vietnamese school system, yet all of them spoke with a British accent.  Why?  Our impression was that just as work was a 6-day affair, so was school  Chaco and I tried to go see the Hanoi Botanical Gardens (closed for the 1000 year anniversary celebration and acting as a military bivouac) and saw a huge school across the street in full session and fury at 2:00 PM on a Saturday.
  • It’s impressive the number of women wearing short shorts.  I had never thought about this until reading something recently that detailed the exercise regimen of the woman start of HBO’s “True Blood” complaining about the short shorts the waitress at Merlotte’s wore.  In Vietnam it often seemed there were simply no fat people.  The population was not gaunt like one would find in Korogocho or Dharavi, but small, wiry, and healthy despite the beer and cigarettes.
  • Ice is the deal.  Beer is served with ice cubes.  Coffee is served three ways, but the most popular is with ice cubes and condensed milk.  You figure?  The coffee though is very strong and almost chocolate-y in Ho Chi Minh City and there it was made with an aluminum contraption that was offered an ingenuous way to make a stout cup of personalized brew.  (Yes, I bought 4 of these in various sizes to bring home!)
  • We heard a lot of talk about the “envelope” system which most seemed to relate to us in an unconcerned fashion as ubiquitous, but somehow livable because the sums tended to be fairly trivial.  It seemed commonplace that when interfacing with the government or other state managed businesses and bureaucracies that there was such an exchange.  Pay for government workers rarely made it past $100 per month, and the expectations were not harsh, but ever present.  We had our own experience with this system in amounts that were less trivial, but manageable as part of the price of doing business with the government.
  • Facebook is blocked from normal IP addresses, though surprisingly from some hotels it can be accessed if you got through a number of security codes (I finally got on late in my stay but failed the first security test on photo recognition because I didn’t spot the side of Sean O’Brien’s face until too late!).  Access to Google was blocked at the Moca Cafe, one our favorite hangouts in Hanoi.
  • The 1000 year celebration of the founding of the city of Tranh Long (Rising Dragon) or Hanoi was the real deal.  Coming back from Ha Long Bay on Sunday evening with Ignacio Carrillo, the last of my Organizer Forum delegation to head home with a plane to catch at 1130 PM, we were off loaded on the wrong side of the Lake in the center of the old quarter and right in the middle of the big celebration with people and scooters packed everywhere.  We had to struggle upstream against the crowd flow and it was like one of those wild chase movies where the cars are careening against traffic.  I’ve only been in such a scrum of humanity a couple of times like the one at the Durga Puja festival time in Kolkata with the Organizers’ Forum a couple of years ago and another time at the Puerto Rican Day Parade along Central Park with my family during the AFL-CIO convention when Sweeney was elected.  These are not things that I forget!  But, the crowd was mellow, and young!  With population increases more than tripling in the last 35 years since the end of the war, half of the country is below 20.
  • The older people are only let out on the streets of Hanoi for exercises at dawn on the Lake.  Even at 5AM this morning, there were hundreds and normally there are thousands doing tai chi, dancing, and walking.
  • The streets are blocked then because the trick quickly taught and learned for crossing the streets in the scooter traffic is to bull over without stopping while slightly waving your hand at the scooters and cars that you are coming through.  They are supposed to respond to the bluff by not killing you, and largely this worked while we were there, but god knows how.
  • My daughter once took a class in “industrial tourism” at Hampshire and loaned me her text book, which had a profound impact on me.  Cu Chi Tunnel and the tours to beautiful Ha Long Bay, both world UNESCO heritage sites, were classic examples of industrial tourism with a smile and a hustle, but nonetheless good value.  On Ha Long for $14 (admittedly Ignacio found us a good deal!) we got a $2 ticket to the boat and the caves and a great lunch with 50 cent beer on a 6 hour drive during a 13 hour day.  The tunnel was a half-day $10 trip with a snack.  It was well organized and in both cases there was no way that any of us individually could have duplicated the experience for a fraction of that price.
  • Tipping is not expected and often simply written into the service charges everywhere, which says something good about a “socialist market economy.”  The cab driver to the airport this morning refused even a nominal tip.  Ignacio was calculating that it would be cheaper to bring his whole family over to Vietnam for the holidays even given the pricey plane tickets than to fly more cheaply to Mexico for example and pay the higher “inclusive” costs of hotels, food, and transportation.  He has an excellent point once you do the math.  Both cities where great and huge (both in the 8 million range) but of the two, Hanoi is the older, more interesting, more authentic, less modern, and more attractive.
  • In the street at dawn every morning in Hanoi I would watch women washing clams. They were delicious.  So was the fresh fruit, including dragon fruit, which we all loved in China.  Passion fruit ice cream turns out to be one of the great treats of our time.
  • The bread survives as a vestige of the French period and every morning there are fresh baguettes for sale everywhere.
  • We never encountered any anti-Americanism though we were often asked where we were from and America was always warmly greeted.  Someone said this had to do with the dominant cultural impact of Buddhism and a more forgiving tradition.  That may be the case although the fact that we are in a whole different generation that the war generation I suspect has much to do with this as well.
  • I could go on, but my dad would be interested in the fact that we saw a lot of places where they buried people above ground, like they do in New Orleans, so I’ll end there.

I may never be back, but if, as Drummond Pike said, “someone sends me a ticket,” I’ll be there  in a minute.  Vietnam was an amazing country and for a change we caught it before the transition to its future is completed, when everything is moving and exciting, and still unsettled and puzzling.  This is a country worth watching.

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