Happy New Year from Indochina!
I've spent the last month in Vietnam and it's been a wonderful place to travel in for many reasons; its a linear shape with the 2 big cities located conveniently at either end of the country meaning its easy to get in and out and whilst this also means its very popular with middle class, middle aged European tour groups who think they're going somewhere slightly edgy (its really not) its easy to look past that. Geographically its beautifully diverse and the culture and history of the country means there are plenty of ancient palaces and modern battlefields to see.
I started my time here in the Mekong Delta and its an enjoyably pedestrian place to start; the delta is split into loads of different islands so most people still get around by row boats and live much of their lives on the water (houses, markets, schools, hospitals etc). It was a bit of a calm before the storm of Saigon however, and the multipaced nature of life would be a very common feeling of my time here.
Vietnam is famous for it's roads and I would have to agree that crossing the road here is the most 'exciting' place I've ever done it, imagine crossing the road in Southern Italy then multiplying it by 10. If you've ever seen that episode of The Simpsons where Homer says to a piece of cake "I'm gonna start biting the air and if you get eaten it's your own fault", well that's the kind of attitude most Vietnamese drivers have. There is an absolute order on the roads according to your size of vehicle so cars will always make way for lorries, bikes for cars and so on. And they simply will not deviate from their chosen course, if you're a pedestrian it's your responsibility to just get out the way. In the major cities it's an amazing experience as hundreds of bikes file past you, you have to cross piecemeal v slowly and I would compare it to the pleasant experience of walking through a swarm of butterflies or the less pleasant experience of going past a colony of bats flying out of a cave. Because they've all grown up with it they're actually very good drivers but of course at some point their sonar will go wrong and several times I've seen minor accidents...which has led to seeing a similar number of confrontations between people.
Normally over nothing more than a broken winged mirror or tail light there's no insurance coverage here so someone has to pay for the damage, and as in the rest of the world it's always the other drivers fault. So the 2 drivers will start arguing and this leads to threats and then eventually a bit of shoving but rarely does it go much beyond that and that's due to the Asian concept of 'saving face'. This is the concept that in public at least you should always respect others (particularly those more senior than you and in your own circle) and similarly not accept the loss of your own respect. As in other Vietnamese communities around the world they simply don't trust the police as you have to pay them to do anything and so you hardly ever see them, therefore unless solutions are agreed to problems between people then things can get ugly quite quickly. In short this means you can really never get into a fight in this part of the world, even if they are only 5'6 and weigh 7 stone as the concept of 'you and your mates' is a bit different here. It would be more like 'you and your entire community' and minor incidents can quickly escalate into huge mass brawls and possibly onto more. The Philippines takes this idea to the extreme and it has the highest murder rate in the world for journalists and one of the highest for politicians (indeed, someone on this list's father in-law was a murdered Filipino city mayor) - basically as soon as a politician is publicly criticised or even associated with something negative in the papers then the journalist probably has it coming for them. In Vietnam it's not quite that bad but after hearing a couple of horror stories from fellow travelers involved in minor accidents or getting robbed then getting zero help from anyone, I'm delighted nothing has gone too wrong for me here.
After leaving Saigon I headed up into the central coastal area which is the oldest part of Vietnam and hosts much of the nations pre-colonial history. Many of my best memories of here involved renting an old fashioned 'sit up and beg' bicycle and pottering around the countryside looking at various palaces and tombs of the last Vietnamese Royalty. In a couple of towns they banned traffic and modern architecture from the city centre and amongst the pre-colonial buildings you almost feel like you've stepped back 150 years in time. I spent Christmas in the town of Hoi An and whilst Vietnam has around a 5% Catholic population thinly scattered, you really wouldn't know it was Xmas as everyone else just doesn't celebrate it. Much worse though was New Year in Hanoi; I decided to eschew various foreigners bars to be 'amongst the people' at midnight but this was a terrible mistake. Lots of people were gathered around a lake in the centre of town and whilst nobody was drinking I assumed this would be where the countdown/fireworks would happen. Not at all. Absolutely nothing happened whatsoever as the clock struck 12 and whilst Lunar New Year in a few weeks is the big one for Buddhists I thought there'd be at least some reaction to 2010 starting but no, nothing. So I wouldn't advise Hanoi for New Year or indeed any other time of year actually.
About 3am that night I got woken and had to break up an argument between a Swedish guy who'd got in late and the Vietnamese owner who simply couldn't understand the interest in New Year. He just kept asking for more money because the guy had come in late and it's an issue you have to face far too much in Vietnam.
Before coming here I'd been heavily warned by fellow travelers (and whilst here even by a few locals) about 'dealing' with the Vietnamese and unfortunately it's definitely been the worst thing about traveling in the country for me. As in most other countries in the region you have to haggle over the price of everything but unlike in Indonesia say where the locals are fairly easy going, the Vietnamese are notoriously upfront and even aggressive about it. I was shortchanged several times (accidentally of course, but always in their favour) and there were plenty of other times when people were just outright dishonest trying to scam you. From meeting a couple of English lads who had a machete pulled on them over a fare disagreement with a taxi driver and meeting a German bird who left after 4 days she found the people so hard to deal with, visitors/locals relations are some of the worst I can remember seeing anywhere. These issues couldn't be put down to 'cultural differences' or even lingering animosity over the war but always came back to (as one fellow backpacker put it) being in "the greediest society in the world". Money is the be all and end all here and at times it really gets you down having to deal with it all day every day.
Amongst many incidents I could pick that happened to me the most memorable was in Saigon when I went to pay for my hotel room as I was checking out. A very common way they try to rip you off is by quoting you a price in US Dollars then giving an exchange rate heavily weighted in their favor when you go to pay in the local dong. So as I went to pay the receptionist gave me the bill in dong, I already knew what the price should have been and so pointed out the correct exchange rate. She disagreed so I actually brought up the correct rate on XE.com showing her that I was right. Now in this situation most people would accept they'd been rumbled and silently accept the correct money but instead she decided to start aggressively screaming at me and start threatening not to give back my passport etc. Bearing in mind this was in front of about 10 fairly stunned people it was a bizarre move and despite being quite shocked I refused to give in. The situation only got resolved when a local guy staying at the hotel got involved and after I explained the situation to him he gave 'both barrels' to the receptionist and she sulkily had to accept the correct money. That's not to say I disliked the people full stop, meeting them on buses etc was great but virtually everyone I met involved in the tourist industry or who was 'economically interested in you could be fairly described as grasping which obviously isn't a memory you want to take away from somewhere.
A much more pleasant memory was the wondrous Halong Bay in the North East of the country. You've probably seen photos of it or seen it in Tomorrow Never Dies as its where thousands of jungle covered rock islands emerge out of the sea. Easy to get lost in, kayaking in the various lagoons and cave tunnels was my favourite activity there and visiting the floating villages in this incredible landscape will not be forgotten by me soon.
Neither of course will the sights from the Vietnam war- or just as accurately the American War as it's known here. From the incredible 16,000km of tunnels built by the VC and the vast DMZ (now just one vast rice paddy) to seeing Uncle Ho's embalmed corpse in Hanoi you're never far from the countries recent history. Unlike many of the post- colonial and Communist revolutions the Vietnam version is a genuinely heroic story. After being half destroyed by the French, under the inspirational Ho Chi Minh the Communists organised the resistance and of course the French quickly surrendered.
So the Americans stepped in to try to counter the 'Domino effect' in South East Asia. Whilst there are many examples to pick from (Grenada in '83 is my fave) Vietnam is of course the 'jewel in the crown' of American Cold War policy failures. Despite being heavily out resourced and outgunned for near 20 years, the northern based VC slowly won over the people and overthrew the US backed puppet government in the south to reunite the country in 1975.
Whilst the museums and propaganda here are obviously heavily biased about it the legacy of the war really has been terrible. There are some 50,000 disabled and deformed people due to the impacts of Agent Orange and its even nastier offspring 'Super Orange' and the various photo exhibitions, orphanages and disabled peoples homes you can visit really are very sad. Although with a brilliant degree of irony, the effects of Agent Orange did kill John Wayne and virtually the entire production team of The Green Berets. The US bombing raids designed to strip the vast forests of the whole country (as well as parts of Cambodia and especially Laos) trying to flush out the VC led the UN to invent the phrase 'ecocide' and has led the Mekong Delta to be one of the most at risk areas in the world from rising sea levels. Materially the war cost $165billion but it's affect on the spending power of Americans was rated as at least twice that and it's now agreed by economists that this was at least a contributory factor in the world economic slowdown that took place in the 10 years following the end of the war.
Beyond the above though, seeing all the battlegrounds and museums about it I couldn't stop thinking Why? Was it really worth all the bloodshed and other costs merely over the method of how a very poor country was going to try and improve the quality of life for its citizens. Obviously I'm writing this with the benefit of 35 years hindsight in a post-historical period but it seemed inconceivable how so much could be lost by so many over so little- there were no territory or resources being fought over, merely ideas and for that reason it's tragic legacies feel particularly pointless.
..And the Vietnamese appear to be doing pretty well in peacetime too. Whilst hundreds of books and thousands of articles have been written about the growth of its northern neighbour China, under the radar Vietnam has been absolutely booming in recent years. In 1987 the decision was made to open the economy up ala China and since then annual economic growth has regularly hit 8%+ and the people are beginning to have real spending power. Everywhere there are big construction projects and the country really is moving up, put it this way $10 no longer 'gets you everyting' (sic). Downtown Saigon for example is full of Louis Vuitton boutiques etc and feels more like Singapore than the images presented in Hollywood 'Nam movies would make you think possible. One of the major reasons for this is the incredible work ethic here. As someone who's never had a proper job let alone had to work hard for more than a couple of weeks at a stretch, all over Asia I've felt pretty ashamed at seeing quite how strong the work ethic is here. It's not unusual for people to work 15hr days, 7 days a week and the concept of unemployment simply doesn't exist- if you don't have a regular organised job then you make your own work up as the state won't cover you like it does elsewhere. It seems the only 2 things the people stop for are food and a dose of one of the 2 national lubricants, either the superb coffe drunk either iced or hot according to the location or the awesome local home brews which sell for a dangerous 10p on the street. Needless to say both became a joyously integral part of my daily routine almost from my first day. But then they go straight back to work and seeing countries like here or Thailand where they don't have that many resources but are effectively working themselves out of poverty (and in Singapore's case to developed world status) is really quite humbling and I can't help but simply admire this hardest working part of the world that I've seen. As Vietnam's domestic economy started to grow gradually the rest of the world started opening up trade with them and it's perhaps a sign of US foreign policy cynicism that as recently as this Summer the Obama administration said it will still not lift sanctions on Cuba (which has a population of 11M with little spending power) until it has free elections. However, in 2006 seeing how much trade China et al were doing they had to finally admit 'defeat' on Vietnam and opened up free trade agreements with Vietnam which with a population of 90m (with spending power) is the 13th biggest country in the world, and they have nothing like democracy here either.
What they do have is a strong sense of national identity and a culture which for the most part has been preserved from the worst excesses of Western influences. Having recently been in The Philippines where 50 yrs of American colonization left them with little more than chain restaurants, sex tourism and shopping malls, Vietnam in contrast shows an enjoyable lack of those and you can't help but feel winning the war also helped preserve their identity too. My final few days highlighted this quite nicely as I spent them in the town of Sapa which is home to many indigenous hill tribes. So there are plenty of tiny women wearing odd, brightly coloured outfits and the men look even better dressing in velvet tunics with lace cuffs and collars and silver chains. Each tribe wear slightly different designs and have fantastic names like the Red Baos and the Black Tzus, so its been a great place to end my time here. I also climbed Indochinas highest mountain and from the top I could see all the way to China to the North. However, I'll next be heading West down the snout of this dragon shaped country into Laos for a bit before flying to Myanmar so I probably won't write for a while. Can I just request that no matter your views on the situation in Myanmar or even me going there please don't write anything controversial as the internet is apparently monitored and with Eric Blair no longer being a policeman there I don't really fancy a chat in a Burmese cop shop. Hope you're enjoying the snow days...