Since I spent most of the last year in Vietnam I guess I should write about it on my blog and post the pics. The pics can now all be found in my photo gallery. Here are some comments and observations on my time there.
I had intended to do a lot more writing about what I saw while in Vietnam while I was actually there but for some reason that never happened. I had the opportunity to travel from Can Tho in the southern Mekong Delta all the way up to the provinces north of Hanoi. I paddled a native canoe in the Mekong and took pictures in front of Ho Chi Minh's tomb in Hanoi. I was there for the 30th anniversary of the victory of the Communist North over the Republic of South Vietnam as well as for Tet also known as the lunar new year or "Chinese New Year".
Overall it was quite an experience.
People always say "How was Vietnam?" and all I can say is that it was "different". The thinking of Vietnamese and the way they live is so different from the way we live in the US that there is no easy way to explain it. The people in general were quite friendly. The countryside is quite beautiful. The weather is very hot and humid. 100F and 100% humidity. The rainy season is wet but the rain is warm and the lightning is beautiful.
Nobody drives cars in Vietnam. I met many people in Vietnam and only one of them (a multi-millionaire family) was rich enough to own a car. They were some sort of rich communist government head-honcho family. The average Vietnamese earns a dollar a day and a car there costs three times what it costs here in the US due to import taxes among other things. So unless you are super rich, a taxi driver, or a delivery truck driver, everyone there drives 100cc motorcycles or scooters. But you don't really want a car there anyway. The traffic is so congested that it is much faster to get around the city on a far more maneuverable motorcycle. Many of the roads and alleyways and other spaces you have to drive in will not fit a car. I bought a Yamaha Nouvo bike for transportation and put over 2000km on it. It was quite fun actually. I might have to get a bike to drive here in the US. A bigger one of course.
Being a socialist country, nobody owns land there. The government owns all of the land. Theoretically "the people" own the land and they are embodied by the government but we know how that works out in reality. I do not understand how building codes work in Vietnam but the government seems to mandate that you build your house in the silliest way possible. That is to say that they do not have ranch-style homes like we do. Or even duplexes or apartments. They must build their homes in a long very narrow rectangle which is not very big which requires them to build up instead of out. The narrowness of the plot results in requiring a very steep narrow winding stair going up to the next level. Very different from anything else I have seen in the world. The city blocks consist of many alley ways which go deep into the interior of the block where they intersect with other alleyways where many more houses are built. Few houses actually face an actual street in the city. Any street facing property is used for retail space with families living above and behind. Nobody has a yard or a driveway. It is very difficult to estimate how old any building there might be. Some are ancient, others are only 10 years old but look ancient. The weather is hard on everything there.
It is very difficult to navigate in the city. Since you can generally never see past the end of the block due to being in a narrow street with 4 story buildings on each side there are no landmarks visible from far away. Here in San Diego we have the mountains on the east, ocean on the west, and freeways that run north and south and plenty of room to look out upon the horizon to orient ourselves with. In Vietnam every narrow brick building looks the same if you aren't very good at reading Vietnamese. There are few streetsigns. There are innumerable nondescript alley ways which one must inevitably travel. Vietnamese seem to have no idea which way North, South, East, or West are. You can't buy a compass anywhere and you have to go to a tourist bookstore to get a map. They have lived there all their lives and never need to give or take directions. By the end of my time there I was able to navigate somewhat reliably without a map but it took months.
Many Americans seem to still think there is a war on over there. There is not. The Communists have been at relative peace over there since 1975.
Yes, they eat many things that are strange to our western tongues in Vietnam. Yes, they eat dog. Yes, I tried it. No, it's not half bad. Dog meat, barbecued dog, dog soup, it's all actually pretty good. I had barbecued iguana too. Turns out they don't eat barbecued iguana in Mexico a la 'I wish I was in Tijuana eating barbecued iguana' from that song "Mexican Radio". It does taste like chicken. I also tried this stuff which is literally "bug juice" on a sort of vietnamese noodle. I don't recommend it. And that's not the half of all of the crazy foods I have seen or eaten in Vietnam. They do have some really good fruits that we do not have in the US like chom chom and mang cut. Unfortunately I don't know the english names for them.
I studied Vietnamese for a few months at the local university a block away from my office in Saigon Trade Center. It is a very interesting language. They use many small worlds put together to form concepts. Every word is single syllable. Very difficult to pronounce. It is a tonal language. I really like how verb conjugation works in Vietnamese. To conjugate something for past tense you just put a word in front of the verb that means "in the past". Similar for the future and various other tenses. No irregular verbs or exceptions or all of the other quirks that Spanish and English have in verb conjugation.
The Vietnamese bathroom is somewhat different from a western bathroom. Only a few times did I ever see the traditional "squat" toilets. Most have the western style toilets now. But there is no bath tub or shower. Not once did I see one. Instead the bathroom is always tiled from floor to ceiling and there is a shower head on the wall. You just shower right there in the middle of the bathroom floor. Don't put anything in the bathroom that cannot stand to get wet. Also, there is what looks like a kitchen sink dish sprayer beside the toilet. That is to wash your ass. They generally don't use much toilet paper. They consider the western habit of using toilet paper to smear it around repulsive and unclean.
I visited many Buddhist temples and learned much about Buddhism. Some of the pagodas were easy to get to being right in the middle of the city. But for others I had to climb mountains, row up rivers, and descend into caves to find. The Vietnamese are a very superstitious people. Far more superstitious than even the Mexican Catholics. Like the Chinese, they believe that red is a very lucky color. You must plan important events such as weddings, opening of businesses, etc. on "fortuitous" days which basically comes down to numerology. Around 10% or so of the people there consider themselves Catholic. But they still worship their ancestors and do other things that the Pope would definitely not approve of.
The question of the war inevitably comes up and whether Vietnamese hate Americans. In Vietnam it is known as the "American War". The government still seems to slightly encourage dislike of Americans (mainly because they still need some enemy to rally against) but they want our money also. It is apparent that like much of the failing Socialist world they are torn between their political aims and their need for money. Most seem to have lost their belief in Communism (but never say so for fear of being branded a traitor to the country) but the rich want to stay rich so they don't want things to change and happily continue to support nationalism and brainwashing. Relations between the US and Vietnam were normalized in 1995 and several trade agreements opened the Vietnamese economy to US and other investors although there are still many restrictions on doing business. Everyone was very nice to me and not once did I see any sign of dislike of Americans.
But I was very surprised to find that Vietnamese in general do not know anything about the history of the war. They only know the little bit their government wants them to know. Information about anything else was destroyed or they are forbidden access. They think the US wanted to annex Vietnam and kill Vietnamese. And that is all. Period. That simple. They do not understand the cold war, the domino effect, the threat of nuclear weapons, the complication of the Soviets, etc. They do not know about the Cuban Missile Crisis. They do not know that the Viet Cong were just as ruthless in trying to win the war as anyone else. Most have no idea what the rest of the world is like. Most can't even see it on television or in the movies because they can't afford those things.
There is a huge difference between the traditionally anti-Communist Vietnamese that we have living here in the US and a Vietnamese who grew up and lives in Vietnam. I would hesitate to even say that they are the same people or culture. Being the only country on the planet who speaks the Vietnamese language and a government that censors really isolates them from the rest of the world. After having to worship their idol Ho Chi Minh daily in school and take many classes preaching his greatness and that of Socialism one could say that they are quite well brainwashed. They are taught that they have freedom but are also taught that there are many things which they must not do such as speak freely. Many are masters of Orwellian double-think. The few Vietnamese who know much of the outside world readily admit (although in somewhat hushed voices) that Socialism has been a failure and realize that they are slowly making their way towards becoming a republic and having a healthy free economy. But it will be many years before this happens. A whole change of culture must happen first.
So there you go. I would be happy to return as I had a great time meeting the people and learning about life there. The hardest part of living in Vietnam for me was that I can't get a carne asada burrito anywhere! More on Vietnam to come...