Ho Chi Minh City (or Saigon as the locals still call it) features a seemingly unrelentless onslaught of urban pressure. Hustle, bustle, traffic, horns honking without rest. Did I mention the motorbikes? Then we stumbled into this little parkette, an oasis offering not just a welcome bit of green, but also a selection of exercise equipment.
While I was wandering about, taking a few photos, Tuffy P learned how to use this piece of equipment from a fearlessly fashionable Japanese tourist. We learned this fellow will be visiting Canada soon. These days Vietnam attracts tourists from all over the place, but this is the only person we met from Japan.
Vietnam is very welcoming to tourists these days and some places, like Hoi An for instance, have become tourist towns. Tourist money must go a long way to make lives better for people in this country. I can imagine how difficult it must have been to rebuild Vietnam after the “American War”.
I read Trinh Diem Vy’s Taste Vietnam – The Morning Glory Cookbook. In 1992, she was running the only restaurant in Hoi An, catering to locals for breakfast and lunch. That was when the first tourists she had ever seen showed up, speaking English, trying to make a reservation for dinner. That was 1992, not that long ago. It’s amazing to see how much tourism has grown in Vietnam.
Not all is rosy. The high-speed train from Hanoi to Halong Bay should have been completed a couple years ago but only parts of the route are done. In fact the city of Halong Bay looks like it is perpetually unfinished. Parts of the city look falling down and other parts look half built. Development sprawls, seemingly without planning.
Plastic waste is a big problem. On an overnight boat trip in Halong Bay, one of the most spectacularly beautiful landscapes I’ve ever been in, we saw all kinds of plastic waste floating in the water. This can only come from so many places – locals living on the inhabited islands, people living in the floating fishing villages, or the overnight boats. There doesn’t seem to be a sense of urgency to get this cleaned up, even thought Halong Bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The plastic waste problem is worse in the south. Near Can Tho, motoring along the river to the floating market, we saw alarming amounts of plastic garbage along the shore.
You can see the garbage on the shore in the picture above. The guy wading in the river is busy diving for snails. There is something very wrong with this picture.
The tour guides know where to stop. Our guide, Kien, referred to bathrooms as “happy houses”, giving new meaning to the pursuit of happiness. Clean toilets, western toilets, free toilets, attract tour buses. There are some you have to pay a couple thousand dong to visit which are not what we are used to here in Canada.
As a tourist, I’m not sure what I expected, visiting what Kien called “a socialist country governed by the Communist Party”. What exactly does that mean? For sure it means elections are uninteresting since all the candidates run for the same party. It isn’t clear to me what kind of freedoms people have or don’t have in Vietnam. It appears they have access to information, and it is much cheaper for them to access the internet than it is for Canadians. What happens if you criticize the government? I don’t really know.
I thought they would have free education but that isn’t the case. People have to pay for education and there is a two-tiered system. The public system is heavily subsidized. The private system apparently has better access to foreign English teachers and people who go through that system emerge with the advantage of English in a growing tourist economy. The same thing goes for their medical system. They have a subsidized public system but again a two tiered system is in place. People can pay more to get enhanced medical care.
The government has been encouraging private business since the mid-80s and right now in Vietnam lots and lots of people go into business for themselves. Sometimes the businesses are very simple, like a street food stall selling one dish or someone on a bicycle selling fresh fruit. Some of those businesses seem marginal from a Western point of view but on the other hand some people such as restaurant owner Mrs Vy, as she is known, have done very well for themselves. At the right place at the right time in Hoi An, she now runs something like 5 restaurants. We were told she also has a hotel and a place in Australia.
The tailor business has blossomed in Hoi An, and there are numerous outfits open in the old town, providing quality work at great prices. It’s pretty amazing really. These folks can copy anything, and they can make clothes for you in 24 or 48 hours, made to measure. Some people bring them photos of the clothes they want and a couple days later leave Hoi An with the goods.
In the photo above, I was at a fitting for a leather jacket. I had ordered it the night before. A minor adjustment was needed. In front of me, there was a camera and the tailor was looking at me live from another building. The salesperson was on the phone with the tailor. She had me move around in different ways at the tailor’s instructions. These folks have this business down pat. When I was measured for the jacket, they filmed my body against a grid from different directions and generated a foam Eugene torso. How cool is that? When I paid for the jacket, the nice person collecting my money reminded me they keep my measurements on file in case I need more clothes later on. Shipping to Canada is no problem.
Vietnam is a fantastic place to visit. It’s full of contradictions I suppose and maybe that is part of the draw. Here in Canada, you wouldn’t go to a street food vendor to get the best food, but in some cases, hole in the wall stalls, with customers enjoying the only dish on the menu sitting on what I can only describe as kiddie furniture, serve up some of the tastiest food you can imagine. Vietnamese food is sophisticated and fantastic. At the same time, if you’re looking for a fridge at any of these street food stalls, forget it. Everything is fresh. It sells fast and when it’s gone the street vendors pack up the kiddie furniture for the day. But if the lack of refrigeration freaks you out, you’re in the wrong place.
In the short time we had in Vietnam we just dipped our toes in. We tried to take in all we could, and learn as much as possible along the way. I really liked the Vietnamese people we met. It seemed like everyone is open and welcoming and happy to talk, even when language barriers present a bit of a challenge. I hope one day we have a chance to go back again.