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I am returning from Vietnam today, after a visit that stretched from Saturday through Tuesday. Literally. The flight arrived at midnight Friday, and the flight out departed at 2:00 am on Wednesday. I am writing this at the Transient Lounge in Seoul Airport, an amenity deserving a post of its own. My flight for the U.S. departs after a nine hour layover here.
I was in Vietnam visiting the family of my middle son’s fiancee, they had the engagement ceremony over the weekend. Since most of her family will not be able to visit the U.S. when she and my son get married, the engagement ceremony was done in lieu of the wedding for the Vietnamese relatives. To protect their privacy, I will hereafter refer to her as Vietlady and my middle son as Pipeliner (since he designs oil and gas pipelines).
Vietlady has enough aunts, sisters, nieces and female cousins to fill out a Gilbert and Sullivan female chorus and enough brothers, uncles, nephews and male cousins for the male chorus. It seemed to me all of them came. (Except the two siblings currently living in the U.S.) I was the only member of the groom’s family there. (Several male cousins ended up as honorary members of the groom’s family to carry the gifts to be presented by the groom’s father to demonstrate that the new bride will be valued.) I will write about that later, too, in a separate post. In this one, I would like to share some bullet point impressions of Vietnam.
I flew into Nha Trang (which some older Ricochet members may have memories of from the 1960s) and spent most of my time in a town west of Nha Trang called Dien Than. Na Trang can be thought of as a Vietnamese Galveston. It is an important commercial harbor and is reinventing itself as a tourist spot, and it has the scenery and amenities to pull it off. Dien Than is a smaller, inland town that serves as an agricultural hub and light manufacturing area.
That said here are my impressions:
- Vietnam is not a rich country, but it cannot be said to be a poor country. People today are well-clothed, well-fed, and mostly employed. They live in small, but substantial houses. There are lots of late-model vehicles on the road and relatively few old ones. While there are some desperately poor people, there is also a thriving middle class (which includes blue collar middle class).
- It is the most entrepreneurial place I have ever visited, beating Texas by a country mile. The place is filled with small businesses, street vendors, and manufacturing shops employing 10 or fewer people. Everyone seems to have a hustle or a side hustle (that they run in addition to their day job) or both.
- There is a middle class. Vietgirl’s family included the following: a district manager for a pharmaceutical company that covers much of central Vietnam, a used car salesman, a long haul trucker (drives 18 and 22 wheelers), an IT technician, several teachers, and a minister.
- If you were to ask for an analog, I would say Vietnam reminds me a lot of what the US was like between 1890 and 1910. There are major companies, but most people seem to aspire to become a boss/business owner rather than an employee. There are lots of small-holders and lots of people living in small houses or townhouses.
- Everything is built on a smaller scale than the U.S. A typical house is three story with two (or maybe three) rooms per floor. I stayed at a 12-story hotel which had three or four guest rooms per floor. Streets and highways are narrower than in the US. A four lane roadway is a major artery.
- The place is walled up. Virtually every place I visited, business or residential, had a fence around the property. Not the six-foot privacy fences you see in Texas, either. These were repel-the-borders barriers. There was a gate or grating that would be pulled across the entryway. Steel barriers, folks. When I asked why, they said it was because of crime, even though none of the people I talked to had been victims of crime. All of them related tales told to them by friends about crimes against friends of theirs. But no one knew of a victim of a crime personally. The attitude is not really much different than Texans who keep firearms in their homes to protect themselves from crime. The proactive approach discourages crime, keeping crime rates low enough that outsiders think the locals appear a tad paranoid.
- The Vietnamese live closer to the sources of their food than do Americans. Lots of people in towns raise chickens for meat. There are rice fields and sugarcane fields intermixed with the town. (The fields are typically small, five acres or less.) I even saw cattle grazing by the roadside in towns. They know where their food comes from, and do not understand why folks in the US treat food animals as pets.
- Transportation is a zoo. Vietnam’s roads are traveled by everything from 22-wheelers (an 18-wheeler with a third axle on the trailer) down to bicycles and bicycle-powered pushcarts (the back half of a bicycle attached to two-wheel carts). And they all travel down the same roads at the same time, and view traffic rules as strictly advisory. It is not unusual to see vehicles on the wrong side of the road. It is also pretty typical to see everyone ignoring lane markings. Once I saw three automobiles and three motorscooters abreast on a two lane road! Peril sensitive glasses are recommended for passengers.
- The most ubiquitous vehicle on Vietnam’s streets is step-though motorcycles – the old “you meet the nicest people on a Honda” scooter, with floorboards, lots of sheet metal on the body, and normally a seat that lifts up for storage. Everyone seems to have one (although the rebels have standard motorcycles). You can store your groceries on the floorboard for the trip home. A common sight is three to five people on a single scooter, with the first two adult passengers riding pillion behind the driver and the first kid standing on the floorboard ahead of dad, and a second on the handlebars. Another common sight is Madam Librarian on a scooter – an obviously professional woman with perfect posture, back straight, arms held just right, and her feet sensibly flat on the floorboards,
- Vietnam has rednecks, Bubbas, and good-ol’-boys. They look a little different than their American counterparts but behave virtually identically. Vietgirl’s trucker uncle is the spitting image of the US trucker. He smokes like a chimney, drinks beer on his days off, and if he likes you, you are his best friend forever. When I went into a cafe with Vietgirl’s father, there were a bunch of factory workers having refreshments after their shift (beer, tea, coffee) – just like US good ol’ boys. (They too, were smoking, ignoring a “no smoking” sign. When we walked in, they wanted to talk with us, because I was obviously a foreigner. Each one shook my hand asking where I was from. Texas? Houston? They were delighted. They ribbed me about being Buddha (because of my belly), and when I slapped my belly, agreeing, they became friends for life. I am comforted by the thought that there are so little real differences between cultures.
- I should also note the Vietnamese are friendly, friendly people.
- Donald Trump is popular in Vietnam. They love the slogan “Make America Great Again” because that is what leaders are supposed to do. They thought “Stronger together” was the type of slogan a lying bureaucrat would use.
- The Vietnamese also love Americans, and clothing with US themes is popular. I often saw Vietnamese wearing US patriotic clothing (These Colors Don’t Run) or anything with English slogans on it. Part of it is they respect us as fighters and see a strong United States as their bulwark against China. Part of it is Americans are friendlier than Chinese. But they do like us.
- The Vietnam War has achieved the same stage of nostalgia in today’s Vietnam as the U.S. Civil War had reached by 1900. Vietgirl’s family had members participate on both sides. Today it is more something they reminisce about than fight over.
That is it for now. It was a fun and fascinating trip.