Thoughts on Today’s Vietnam

 

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.

There are 25 comments.

Become a member to join the conversation. Or sign in if you're already a member.
  1. She Reagan
    She
    @She

    Seawriter: 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 US as their bulwark against China. Part of it is Americans are friendlier than Chinese. But they do like us.

    This is really interesting. And heartening. 

    • #1
  2. ST Member
    ST
    @SimonTemplar

    Hoi An is worth a visit (or 2).

     

     

    • #2
  3. harrisventures Coolidge
    harrisventures
    @harrisventures

    What a great report. Most of my interactions with the ‘boat people’ who made it to the USA are also very entrepreneurial…

    • 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.

    Looking forward to updates…

    • #3
  4. La Tapada Member
    La Tapada
    @LaTapada

    Best wishes to your son and his fiancee, Seawriter. What a heartening report on culture and family.

    • #4
  5. Douglas Pratt Coolidge
    Douglas Pratt
    @DouglasPratt

    Thank you for being perceptive and willing to share your perceptions. Fascinating stuff.

    • #5
  6. PHCheese Member
    PHCheese
    @PHCheese

    I missed LBJ’s party in the 1960’s. I served my Army time in another third world country, Augusta Ga.

    • #6
  7. Bryan G. Stephens Thatcher
    Bryan G. Stephens
    @BryanGStephens

    Douglas Pratt (View Comment):

    Thank you for being perceptive and willing to share your perceptions. Fascinating stuff.

    Ditto

    • #7
  8. RyanFalcone Member
    RyanFalcone
    @RyanFalcone

    Your tales of driving in Vietnam sound like tales I’ve heard from South America and India. I think most of the world has a very different idea of what street signals and markings represent. We owe a lot to our English heritage.

    • #8
  9. JoelB Member
    JoelB
    @JoelB

    Did we lose the war and win the peace?

    • #9
  10. David Foster Member
    David Foster
    @DavidFoster

    A manufacturing consultant remarked that from what he’d seen, the spirit in Vietnamese factories was very different from that in Chinese factories…more cheerful, more collaborative.

    • #10
  11. Front Seat Cat Member
    Front Seat Cat
    @FrontSeatCat

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Did we lose the war and win the peace?

    Good question – and forgive my ignorance, but how is the country run these days? I scanned Wikipedia and it said they are now called The Socialist Republic of Vietnam – so it’s a country now united and socialist? The inspiration to be self-employed and have a strong identity is a good sign – a great story, and good to hear that they lean toward US and away from communism.  Look forward to the next installment (and congrats on gaining a daughter soon).

    • #11
  12. Henry Racette Contributor
    Henry Racette
    @HenryRacette

    Thanks for a great post.

    It’s been 18 years since my two trips to Vietnam, both to adopt children. Your description matches my recollection quite well, though I think the capitalist rebirth was really just beginning at the turn of this century, and I remember it as poorer than your impression suggests. (Then again, I spent almost all the time there in the poorest northern parts of the country.) But the hustling busyness, a quality I still associate with Asia and which my three Asian children have done nothing to dispel, sounds exactly right.

    I remember seeing two young men on a scooter like you describe, the one in the back holding a large sheet of glass between his outstretched hands. I can’t imagine what a Vietnamese emergency room is like. (When I was there, conventional wisdom was that there were perhaps two hospitals in the entire country which a Westerner would deem safe, and even that might have been a stretch.)

    Thanks for the memories, Seawriter.

    • #12
  13. Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo… Thatcher
    Gumby Mark (R-Meth Lab of Demo…
    @GumbyMark
    • 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.

    This resonates with what I’ve seen and heard during many business trips in Latin America and Asia.  People are very proud to be nationalistic and patriotic but are also very friendly to Americans.  On the other hand, they sometimes encounter Americans and Western Europeans who are not patriotic about their own countries.  As some have confided to me, they simply don’t understand why an American would not be proud of their own country; because, to paraphrase your words, “that is what people are supposed to do”.

    • #13
  14. Aaron Miller Member
    Aaron Miller
    @AaronMiller

    Only 15 or so years ago, a college classmate from Vietnam told me her parents did not want her to come home because there was more opportunity in America. 

    Incidentally, a third of that Houston college’s students at the time were from Asia. Gulf Coast cities host many people of Vietnamese heritage particularly.

    • #14
  15. JamesSalerno Coolidge
    JamesSalerno
    @JamesSalerno

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Did we lose the war and win the peace?

    Good question – and forgive my ignorance, but how is the country run these days? I scanned Wikipedia and it said they are now called The Socialist Republic of Vietnam – so it’s a country now united and socialist? The inspiration to be self-employed and have a strong identity is a good sign – a great story, and good to hear that they lean toward US and away from communism. Look forward to the next installment (and congrats on gaining a daughter soon).

    AFAIK the socialism/communist aspect is currently targeted more towards freedom of expression and political ideology. Vietnam made large steps towards economic freedom in the late 80’s but I would also be curious to hear the OP’s thoughts.

    And I’ll agree with everyone else, this was a great read!

    • #15
  16. Valiuth Inactive
    Valiuth
    @Valiuth

    Seawriter: They know where their food comes from, and do not understand why folks in the US treat food animals as pets.

    That’s cause we don’t eat dogs… 

    The question I have is if Vietnam is striving to be a rule of law country. I think we have seen with China that you can have vast economic transformations, but no real social and political change. I don’t think I’ve ever met any Chinese people who weren’t friendly and nice people regardless of where they hailed from (Taiwan, Hong Kong, or PRC). I think most people most of the time are always quite genial. And basic human decency has rather strong universal roots, and a good time in one culture will I think generally also translate to a good time in another. Everyone likes drinking beers, and eating fat salty things. 

    • #16
  17. aardo vozz Member
    aardo vozz
    @aardovozz

    She (View Comment):

    Seawriter: 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 US as their bulwark against China. Part of it is Americans are friendlier than Chinese. But they do like us.

    This is really interesting. And heartening.

    And probably worth the subject of a book, not just a post🙂

    • #17
  18. Boss Mongo Member
    Boss Mongo
    @BossMongo

    Outstanding.  Thank you.

    • #18
  19. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    Folks, I just landed at Atlanta and am waiting for my flight to Houston. I was awake for most of the flight, because we were arriving at Houston near my normal bedtime. So, when I do get home, I plan to sleep. I will respond to comments tomorrow.

    • #19
  20. iWe Coolidge
    iWe
    @iWe

    Just one comment: don’t ignore or underestimate the corruption in the country. My company was openly asked for bribes to conduct normal business. That, too, is part of the culture, and it obstructs good decision-making.

    • #20
  21. Seawriter Contributor
    Seawriter
    @Seawriter

    RyanFalcone (View Comment):
    Your tales of driving in Vietnam sound like tales I’ve heard from South America and India.

    Greece was/is the same the same way. I was there in the 1960s and my middle son a few years back. Neither of us drove, and we both agreed passengers would find peril-sensitive glasses useful.

    JoelB (View Comment):

    Did we lose the war and win the peace?

    It seems that way. Remember we did not lose militarily, even the South Vietnamese. We lost because Democrats in Congress cut off funding to South Vietnam to prevent Republicans from winning a war Kennedy and Johnson could not. The Vietnamese know that, and even those supporting the government respect our military and want it on their side next time.

    Front Seat Cat (View Comment):
    . . . how is the country run these days?

    It is still a Communist dictatorship, with everything that implies. (I’ll talk about that after my D-I-L has her exit visa and is in the US.)

    Henry Racette (View Comment):
    I remember seeing two young men on a scooter like you describe, the one in the back holding a large sheet of glass between his outstretched hands.

    My son saw that, too. He mentioned it after I blanched seeing a man on a scooter hauling an eight-foot  log tied crosswise on the back of his scooter down the main highway between Nha Trang and Dien Than. (The log was about 18 inches across.) The scooter is the Model-T of Vietnam. You see all sorts of cargo conversions.

    Valiuth (View Comment):
    The question I have is if Vietnam is striving to be a rule of law country.  . . . Everyone likes drinking beers, and eating fat salty things. 

    It is hard to say. My perspective was one of an honored guest who is a member of the family. I  became a member of  the clan by coming and being a good sport about things. I suspect the Vietnamese take advantage of dumb foreigners in the normal course, because every time Vietlady wanted to buy something she would signal us to to stay out of sight, so she would pay the local price and not the tourist price.

    Drinking beers and eating fat salty things is Vietnam. So is smoking.  I was frequently offered cigarettes, but turned them down. No hard feelings about that, especially since I made no objection to others smoking.

    iWe (View Comment):
    Just one comment: don’t ignore or underestimate the corruption in the country.

    See my response to Front Seat Cat.

    • #21
  22. ST Member
    ST
    @SimonTemplar

    Seawriter (View Comment):
    It is still a Communist dictatorship, with everything that implies. (I’ll talk about that after my D-I-L has her exit visa and is in the US.)

    Yep but one night in Hoi An…

    • #22
  23. ST Member
    ST
    @SimonTemplar

    The driving in southeast Asia is a bloodbath.  I may do a post about it sometime.  Many more tourists die and are injured than you can imagine.  They do not understand the ‘no rules rule.’

    • #23
  24. Susan Quinn Contributor
    Susan Quinn
    @SusanQuinn

    A wonderful portrait, @seawriter. Thank you! And best wishes to your son and soon-to-be bride.

    • #24
  25. Jailer Member
    Jailer
    @Jailer

    I recently spent 3 years in Hanoi doing diplomatic work. Your portrait is pretty consistent with what I know about the place (including, tragically, your observations on Vietnamese traffic and motorbikes, as I ended up spending a couple of weeks in the hospital recovering from a motorbike accident).

    Vietnamese do very much like Americans, and aside from their museums (some of which are appalling, Cold-war era propaganda houses) have almost completely left the war behind. They have gone back to their thousand-year tradition of loathing and fearing China, and we are geopolitically aligned on that score.

    I also spent quite a bit of time in Nha Trang. One of the weird features of my time there was the planeloads (chartered) of Russian tourists who would frequent the town. The proximity of Cam Ranh port (from which the Russians operated for a couple of decades after the war) has something to do with this, though only indirectly at this stage. My sense was that this is a dying phenomenon, as the tourists would ebb and flow with he fortunes of the Russian economy. Even so, Russian-language signs were not uncommon, and I was mistaken for a Russian once or twice.

    You mentioned a middle class. Yes, but there is a caveat. Vietnam’s state-owned enterprises do not lightly suffer competition, so it is rare for small businesses to grow to medium-to-large businesses. Vietnam’s elites (including its Communist Party governing class) remain firmly entrenched, trying to figure out how to ride the wave of capitalism while still retaining their monopoly on state power (and access to the benefits that come from the same). This is one of the great ingrained contradictions of Vietnam … a Communist country that does not practice communism.

    • #25

Comments are closed because this post is more than six months old. Please write a new post if you would like to continue this conversation.