Stepping into North Korea

Introduction

 South Korean guard standing on the 38th parallel, that divides North Korea from the South

On the 26th of October 2011, I had the opportunity to cross into North Korea, under the supervision of the South Korean and US military. I passed over the disputed 38th parallel in the demilitarized zone (DMZ) that has been the divider for the past sixty-seven years and is governed by the United Nations. This opening in the boundary is located in an elaborate shed with rectangular divisive tables used for supposed negotiations. As I observed this diplomatic battle ground, I thought it might be more advantageous to share a round table, making it more difficult to decipher the contested imaginary latitude line.

After the end of World War two and the collapse of Japanese occupation in Asia, a vacuum of power was left in Korea. It was decided to divide the country along this contested latitude line, the North temporally controlled by communist Russia and the South democratic America resulting in ten million citizens separated from their families after the split.  North Korea now has a population of twenty four million with an unknown GDP per capita, while South Korea has a forty nine million citizens earning an average income of $30,000.

Map of Korea divided along the demarcation line

The Conflict

The opportunity to see the border was on an organised demilitarized zone tour that has become a tourist attraction with bus loads making the 64km journey from Seoul everyday. Ironically, natives of South Korea need to wait at least three months to make this trip, that’s if they pass the security background check, as many in the past have tried to flee to the north to reunite with family members. All that was required of us was to send an email and we were transported to a war zone – literally. The tour is divided into several stops, beginning with the penultimate train station before the North Korean border, where it’s possible to buy fictitious train tickets to the North. Next is the itinerary is the ‘look out point’, one can view through binoculars the propaganda town of the North and it’s domineering national flag. After lunch and souvenir shopping, the tour moves onto the actual demilitarised zone where security is tight and tourists are required to dress smartly and conservatively for fear that North Korea take photos of you and make propaganda posters if you were a slovenly dressed westerner.

Tourists get a glimpse into North Korea

On the actual border, where we got the closest experience of North Korea, South Korean soldiers stood half way behind the buildings with one eye on the enemy, so that they could duck easily if an attack was made. I worried about the sanity of these young men, with one eye on the north and the challenge it must be to stay hopeful about the outcome of this tortuous war.

South Korean solders keep eye on North Korea

We travelled underground in a miner’s funicular into the tunnels that the North Koreans had secretly dug. I was saddened by the thought of those that had skirmished in this hellish hole, blasting through the granite, not fully understanding the purpose of the war. All hoping to achieve some sort of happiness, love and reward at the end of their sacrifice. It’s what we all dream about, right? But these ideals often gets forgotten in the confusion of conflict.

Tunnels dug out by North Korean Soldiers

Observing this DMZ, I wondered what was this the best solution for reconciliation of a conflict? It seems sometimes it’s easier to build up fortified barriers than explore imaginative alternatives that get people talking and overcoming the divergence history, status and superiority.  I thought when do people feel most equal? And had a frivolous idea, inspired by the Finnish tradition, to place a sauna building in the DMZ along side the plethora of other conflict related pavilions. Wouldn’t it be fun for the opposing sides to share a sauna, removing uniforms, dark glasses and weapons and possibly share a bottle of whiskey to the loosen the lips and get people laughing and talking again.

 Propaganda

After a bitterly fought Korean war between 1950-53 with two million killed overall, the South created a society of opportunities, individualism and a place to laugh smile and fall in love. Every country creates propaganda in order to maintain cohesiveness, making people believe that they are living the best possible life. Both North and South Korea are guilty of using propaganda, yet the North’s approach is considered more dangerous. In 1998 the Hyundai founder in the South sent one thousand cows into North Korea as gift for the poverty stricken citizens, simultaneously North Korea built a fake ‘perfect village’ with actors to be viewed from the South Korean platform.

Military Service

While sitting in Starbucks in Seoul I noticed a young man sitting beside me in his suit, typing on his laptop. I guessed he had probably already done his military service, stood on the fortress wall and wondered when he would be able to get on with his life. South Korean men are required to serve twenty-one months for their country, whereas North Korean men will serve ten years, generously reduced from thirteen. When so much of these young lives are wasted on defence, when is there time to be a husband, a father and be educated?

After the DMZ tour, I chatted with one of the US Soldiers called ‘Futch’. He was disappointed that he was serving his time in Korea, he would have preferred to be in Afghanistan and hoped to be stationed there next. He spoke dispassionately about the experience saying “This place feels really safe, you don’t feel like you’ve served your country, unless you’ve been to Iraq or Afghanistan, those guys are having all the fun out there”. He explained to me the benefits and attractiveness of joining the military that once your service is completed and if you survive the experience, you’re college tuition is paid for, you’re given an allowance for books and an allowance of $2000 a month. Futch said he probably won’t go college when he returns, but will get a job with the prison service and will even get a promotion for his military service. At the moment, the army is overrun with applications to ‘serve’ as there is good money to be made, compared to economic holocaust surrounding elsewhere, but the benefits and contribution to society require considerable more debate.

 Unchallenged US army soldiers strategically based in South Korea

South Korea talk confidently about the unification of their country and welcoming back it’s North Korean citizens. But less consideration has been given to how this will affect the economy and current supply chains. A large percentage of manufacturing for South Korean companies is done in North Korea where labour is only $100 a month which has risen from $50 when the companies first started to setting up there. If this trend continues, who would really benefit from the unification? The large corporations would make more profits and there would be fewer jobs for South Koreans.

Prosperous South Korea is booming

South Korea has built a train station on the most northerly point of the country with the hope that when unification happens, movement will move freely across it. One of the main motivations is to connect the railway to industrious China.  Storage sheds have been built on the border with the hope of it becoming a distribution hub, and ending it’s isolation as an effective island. It was a strange experience to stand in this station, with no trains, empty customs rooms, souvenir shops and with soldiers blocking the access to the turn styles. Will the day ever arrive when this space becomes a progressive interchange or will it remain an instrument of South Korea’s propaganda.

Propaganda map connecting South Korea to London and Paris

What now for North Korea?

China has adapted it’s communist ideology out of necessity, but Korea wants to remain loyal to it’s established roots, I wonder if this resistance is down to pride. North Korea has been shown up by it’s more successful brother across the border who has been successfully recognised on the world stage. I wondered if open communication was able to infiltrate North Korea, would anything change? The physical boundary would seem pointless, if people could speak to each other from their separate living rooms in the North and South of the country. If the citizens of North Korea could get an understanding of the world without the propaganda, they could then decide what kind of life they would like to live and create or join a nation around these ideals.

Can North Korean be condoned for their desperate attempts to tunnel under the border, could they really achieve a convincing attack sending young men under ground hungry and without any vehicles? Pride made them cover the granite tunnel with coal dust, yet I don’t believe South Korea should make a  tourist attraction out of another nations desperation.

In the past six months North Korea has been closely watched with it’s ascending new leader Kim Jong-un , it’s continuing disintegrating relationship with the South and more recently launching a shuttle into earths orbit. What could be the prognosis for this deeply divided territory, what is the economically most advantageous solution? and what will make the most sense for the ego’s and minds in control? I believe the conflict will remain as long as there is a propaganda machine to keep the animosity alive and be-little a nations pride.

Propaganda platform to view North Korea from South Korea
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Falling for Vietnam – Introduction

Vietnam has such a visceral mix of diversity, culture, pride, warmth and determination. As we’ve reflected on our journey through the country, we thought the best way to relay the experience, was to tell the story of getting to know ‘Vietnam’- ‘the person’ and how we pealed back the layers to understand her appetite, heart, soul, mind, physicality, experiences and memories. In the process, we also found ourselves falling for this long elegant country, it invited us into the intimacy of her home and revealed a few of it’s secrets, quietly. We also found ourselves infatuated at the beginning of this relationship, wanting to know everything and seeing difference with every unique encounter with her.

Our wonderful Vietnamese friends- Khoi and Anh

Getting to Vietnam

The decision to visit Vietnam was instigated by friendships we had formed with the six Vietnamese classmates during our MBA. Even outside of their home territory, they exuded a warmth and generosity of spirit that we wished to see the source off, as our understanding of Vietnam up to that point was of a war torn impoverished land.

Our journey to Vietnam started on the third day of our New Year 2012, leaving a crowded China on a cold train at 18:45, with just the two of us in our sleeper cabin, suggesting to us that this was not a popular route to enter Vietnam. Passport control to leave China punctuated the journey at 22:00, requiring us all to disembark from the train, scanning our bags with us ceremoniously getting back on the train in neat lines, in the dark. We entered Vietnam at midnight, off the train again, with a humorous role call of our passports when they had finally finished inputting all the required data, very slowly albeit (we began to wonder why this train was operating at night, and cynically thought it was to take advantage of double-time bonuses).  We were then woken four hours later having arrived at Hanoi the capital of Vietnam, in a station that felt like a provincial town on the Dublin to Galway train route. Mysteriously the crowds that piled onto the train in China had evaporated with only the foreigners left to wrestle with the barrage of taxi drivers at 05:00am. They all offered the same service and all equally tried to rip us off and get value from their early morning start. It’s unusual to feel jetlag from a train journey, but this route certainly left us feeling that way.

Key Facts

Map of Vietnam

For those that don’t know Vietnam that well, it has population of 85 million, increasing two-fold since the war, which by the way they call the ‘American War’ rather then the infamous ‘Vietnam’ one. Its GDP per capita is a mere $2,800, compared to the US, which is $46,400. The Country has been experiencing continuous growth since the late 90’s, with a slight speed bump during the financial crisis in 2008. The government’s main challenges are how to dampen the growing inflation of 15% a year. They have also imposed enormous taxes on cars, leaving the majority of people on motorbikes, probably sensible given the traffic jams we experienced. Life expectancy is only 71 years, with the result that parents but enormous pressure on their kids to start their families quickly, so that they can enjoy their grandchildren. There are also no pensions, so it’s necessary for children to look after their parents, with the daughter in law of the eldest son obliged to live and care for the family.

The reported unemployment rate is 4-6% (this could be questionable with the amount of men on street corners offering motorbike taxi service and the proliferation of street sellers making very little). The median age is thirty and is considered the golden age for Vietnam’s development. Private wages are lower than then the public sector, with state employees earning $200-280 a month. There is also increasing resentment to foreign companies, with protests at a Taiwan owned factory that were paying $89 per month. On paper, the Government denies citizens the right to practice religion, but spirituality is strong and ritual practices forming the corner stone of everyday life. Former Saigon, (although the locals continue to call it so) is known as Hoh Chi Minh City since the war ended, it receives 50,00 migrants a year and is congested with motorbikes, yet overflowing with vitality. I wondered if it’s really possible to label Vietnam a communist country in the ideological meaning or is it more a fusion of al a carte capitalist characteristics?

Mekong Delta
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Vietnam – Appetite

 

They say a way to a man’s heart is through his stomach, Vietnam tried to seduce us in every way possible way using this manner. The agricultural tradition and availability of fresh ingredients in Vietnam makes the food exceptionally good and tasty.

The Field

Although Vietnam has experienced enormous economic growth, working the land is still at the heart of daily life. The doubling of the population since the war has also meant further subdivision, requiring these small areas to be hand tended without machines. As we passed through the landscape, we saw jigsaws of fields, with bodies bent over, their hands dipping into the earth, there individuality removed by the trademark conical hat. The water buffalo, the sacred animal, makes this machine less work bearable, and provides companionship for the lonely worker. Our friend’s father told us stories of his childhood, lying on the back of his buffalo working the fields and also sleeping and reading on it. His buffalo was a female with one good and eye and much to the ridicule of the neighbour who was a male and twice the size. Agriculture accounts for 22% of the GDP and 60% of jobs, so this way of life is integral to the communist vision.

New crop of rice emerging in Hoi An

The soul of the market, women start early in both the selling and buying

The Market

The market is the corner stone of most villages and cities, operated by mostly women and open for business at 4.00 am, they sell fresh vegetables, herbs, spices, live animals, bread, fish, knick naks and flowers. Pigs are slaughtered at 1.00am with all their parts displayed artfully for the discerning customer. Buyers, mostly women will start their day in the market at 5.00am to get the best quality, while their men go to the cafes and drink iced coffee and smoke cigarettes.

Typical morning scene with men drinking coffee and smoking cigarettes, while the women keep the engine running

During our stay in Hoi An, we had the privilege to experience the amazing cooking classes given by Ms Trinh Diem Vy of the Morning Glory Cooking School. Ms Vy stressed the importance of fresh local ingredients and creating strong relationships with the suppliers. The class began with an insightful tour of the market, tasting a custard apple for the first time felt like a desert in itself. The papaya, banana and mango all come from the central region, grapes and watermelon from the Mekong delta in the south of Vietnam, oranges and grapefruit from Laos and Thailand and absurdly convenient seedless grapes from the USA. Next we sampled the roots that give the hearty flavour to marinades, the bigger ginger had a milder flavour, where as the smaller one was more potent and good for the throat, lemon grass sliced then pounded smelt divine. We were informed that the big chillies were from Saigon and the small potent ones from the central area, they use chillies to preserve food and stay warm in the winter.

We then passed through the slamming meat cleavers, with live chickens and ducks, the fish market sellers with it’s familiar odour, were chopping up huge mackerel. We were informed that the colour and cloudiness of the mackerel’s eyes indicates it’s freshness. There were kitchens (street stalls) in operations, with people sitting closely enjoying the chat. Woman work very hard in Vietnam and seem to maintain the backbone of the country, in the market they were on their mopeds gathering up all the ingredients for the Tet holiday, similar to the preparations that are required for Christmas.

Moving through the market, we arrived at the fresh herbs, with the woman sitting on the side of the road surrounded by them. The woman appeared arranged like something from a stage set. They sell the freshest most perfumed herbs you could ever imagine, lemon basil, coriander, mint, aniseed, fish leave, morning glory. Then back to the restaurant with our utensils and burners at the ready.

Morning Glory Cooking School

Shrimp and Cabbage Soup

First on the menu was Shrimp and Cabbage soup, Ms Vy told is that this was a must for any new wife to prepare for mother in law. Preparing this demonstrates her patience and her ability to maintain her husband. The shrimps are blended with egg white, cooked cabbage leaves are then use it to wrap the shrimp paste and it’s all tied together it with a scallion. Cabbage, carrot, fried shrimp and shallot oil are added to soup and cooked until broth is clear and cabbage is soft. Amazingly, this dish with lowly cabbage as it’s main ingredients, is surprisingly delicious.

Fresh Spring Rolls

There is no real dairy in Vietnam, no milk, calcium is extracted from greens and the shellfish and beef is only eaten on a special occasions. Next on the menu was fresh spring rolls, this is considered treat food and is beautifully wrapped so that it appears as much a delight to the eyes as to the taste buds. Dipping sauce is very important and is made of fish oil garlic, chilli and saffron oil.

Taste explosion of more herbs and flavors than I can remember

Marinated Chicken and Mango Salad

Chicken was marinated with an explosion of flavours – lemon grass, garlic, fish oil, saffron oil, chilli, sugar cane and fresh turmeric.  This was wrapped on a skewer and put between mesh and roasted on hot coals. I had seen the street chefs prepare this and was intrigued by the aromas; I slowly then began to understand the culture and loved it. To wrap up the cooking experience, we made mango salad, using a traditional peeler to create fine slivers of a juicy sweet mango then added pomelo, garlic dressing, sesame seeds and garnished with crispy shallots.

The Business of Eating

Hoi An is a town in central Vietnam that generates 80% of the employment from tourism. Ms Vy, our teacher at the Morning Glory cooking school, is a wonderful and inspiring businesswoman and extremely passionate about what she does. She is a the second generation of a family restaurant and employs 180 staff directly and multiples indirectly in four restaurants, a hotel, a cooking school and now a book. She went abroad and saw how much money westerners were spending on cakes and treats and saw it was a good way to make money and opened a patisserie for the tourists in Hoi An. When Vietnam fist opened their doors in 1992, Ms Vy said it was like North Korea is today. The only foreigners they saw were Soviet Uncles, so they presumed all the foreigners were Russians.

Ms Trinh Diem Vy, extraordinary business women and chef, whose passion for food is inspiring

Spaces to Eat

All the towns and cities contain warrens of small lanes and alleyways that change character throughout the day. During the morning, the breakfast ladies serve noodles, bread, tea and eggs; people sit on little stools under canopies enjoying the cheap and tasty snacks. Mid-morning, ladies sell fruit and gut fish, also providing shoes repairs or offering souvenirs for Tet. In the evening the young people sit in front of charcoal barbecues, roasting pork on a stick served with street beer or tea and pumpkins seeds as appetisers. The ritual of extracting what little the seeds offer is more rewarding than filling feeling of the snack.

The next generation, fun loving, engaged and snacking on the street

The Art of Eating

Eating in Vietnam is about community, sharing and not choosing individually what you want. Most of the base ingredients have a rice origin, but this is innovated and presented in different forms to dress up and make the most of a seemingly plain ingredient. Pho bo, is the loyal servant, made of rice noodle, bone marrow broth, shavings of beef and seasoned with mint coriander, fish oil, liquorice, bean sprouts, lime and chilli. Corn is available almost everywhere, boiling pots at the side of the road, or roasting on hot coals on the back of a bicycle. Desserts have always been considered a luxury and mostly consist of the indigenous coconut milk, jelly, green sweet corn and sugar cane.

The market and food stalls in Dalet -The ‘Paris’ of Vietnam

Ms Vy’s restaurant Cargo- tailoring wonderful Vietnamese food to the tourist’s tastes
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Vietnam – Heart and Soul

Spirituality

Although the government prohibits the practice of religions that may affect the stability of the communist party, there is a deep sense of ritual that continues regardless of the restraints. The majority of people are Buddhist, but in most cases a local hero, the female goddess, a past king, have supplanted the Buddha Iconography.  Most towns and villages have a Pagoda, where one of the above is worshiped. On one particular visit, four elderly locals who maintained the building invited us in for green tea and oranges. Of burning interest to them was how old we were and if we were married, this is a very important issue, which I will fill you in on later. The Vietnamese are extremely warm and curious people and will smile generously to compensate the barriers of verbal communication. There is also a strong catholic community in the south and central area emanating from the period when Vietnam was colonised by the French. On our journey to Dalat (in the central region), Virgin Mary’s were prominently located on the balconies and crosses dotted the mountainous terrain.

Catholic mass in Saigon, men wait outside while their women do the worshiping

The Funeral

During my stay in Hanoi, I witnessed the procession of a Christian funeral. Walking in front of the hearse/bus was a woman holding a cross, who was closely followed by a man holding a black and white picture of the deceased. A jubilant brass band in white uniforms was followed by the bus/hearse, which contained the large casket, with the family seated inside around the coffin. Mourners followed behind with white bands around their heads, dressed in the universal expression of grief. Another bus followed closely behind with extra space for the primary mourners. On witnessing this familiar ritual, I considered the human response to grief is both universal and all-consuming.

What is Tet?

Our journey to Vietnam coincided with the most significant celebration of the Vietnamese year -Tet. This marks the beginning of the lunar New Year and celebrates the beginning of spring. Decorations vary from north to south depending on the climate, but the spirit and meaning is consistent throughout. Similar to the Chinese New Year and our Christmas celebrations, this is the time for returning home to the family and enjoying the fruits of the land and gambling with lucky money.

Tet

What makes this celebration different is that the ancestors are at the heart of the festivities. Every house and business has a shrine honouring and remembering them, with their pictures hanging, incense burning and offerings of fruits and special gifts. Worshipping the ancestors occur every day, but for Tet, their graves are visited and cleaned and their invited to celebrate Tet with the family. Curiously, these tombs are located in the rice fields of farms, so as you pass through the landscape these tombs pop up through the horizontal watery plains of like mystical coffin boats.

Tet is differs from our Christmas celebrations, as people can enjoy extended time with their families, having picnics and bountiful fruits and the flowers of spring. They don’t experience the bare and sparse winters that we do, with the focus on the fire and the warmth of the hearth. Flowers lined the main streets of Saigon and citizens take hundreds of photos posing in a variety of practiced ways. The Vietnamese are not camera shy.

Offerings made to the ancestors a week before the Tet celebrations

Preparations for Tet

Clearing your debt and cleaning the home are key elements in the preparation, with the street sellers offering dusters made from chicken and rooster feathers in the run up; those with little means waste nothing. Unfortunately, we were also warned that there is also an increase in crime leading up to the event, people I guess desperate to provide the best for their families, but we personally didn’t experience any incidents and felt extremely safe. Homes in the North and central region are decorated with kumquat trees, and those of the South with yellow blossom trees.  Measuring four-foot these trees are mostly transported on the back of motorbikes, along with anything else that will fit; the wife, kids, granny, a computer and even a full carcass of a dead pig, certainly a variation of the Christmas tree sticking out the back of the car. The rice harvest in the north finishes a month or so before Tet, giving people time to enjoy the fruits of the field and doing the preparation for next years crop.

First Days of the New Year

Food plays a central role in the event and a special cake is prepared called ‘Bang Chung’, which is tightly packed sticky rice with meat or bean fillings wrapped in dong or banana leaves. According to folklore, the square-shaped cake represents the earth and the circular one the sun. The preparation can take several days and the stories of its meaning are told to the next generation as its cooked overnight.

The first day is devoted to the immediate family, with great significance placed on the first person to enter the home. This person will determine the family’s prosperity for the forthcoming year. In most cases the father fills this role. Visiting a temple is also required, incense is burned and offerings are made

One of the temples during Tet where offerings were made to the female goddess

Tet is a time for extended social exuberance, playing cards, gambling and relax in the warm days and nights. Even before the beginning of the Tet holidays, I witnessed the everyday social scene of street corners covered with people sitting down on stools, drinking tea and eating seeds. The air was filled buzz and chatter, this is the social life that the students can afford and relish.

During Tet, we tried to relax in a café in Dalat- known as the Paris of Vietnam. We wondered as we sat in a crowded café, adjacent to a busy road with horns beeping and music blaring, overlooking a manmade lake filled with swan shaped peddle boats, if the Vietnamese relish in the proximity and intimacy of being all together? In this chaotic atmosphere, we desired a quiet café with some gentle jazz in the background, maybe overlooking the diminishing light on a natural water of body.  The culture of community is certainly different to ours of individual serenity.

Not everyone is able to celebrate Tet to its fullest, everyone that served us during the festivities had drawn the short straw and were obliged to share the occasion with us – the outsiders. By far the hardest workers at this time are the Vietnamese women, with complicated meals to prepare and serve, relatives to be satisfied and all this after any day job that she might have. Although Communism liberates women by giving them seemingly equal opportunities, they are still required to fulfil the traditional role expected of Woman.

Not everyone relaxes during Tet, some work still has to be done – Woman in the Mekong Delta in the South of Vietnam cleaning clothes

Role of Women

In all my travels, by far the most tenacious group of people I have encountered are the Vietnamese Woman. Unfortunately, the male counter-parts eclipse their force. Women are prepared early in life for what will be expected of them. They help their mothers with the cooking and cleaning and serve their brother’s and father’s their meals. Sons are also more revered, with a man only achieving respect and place at the village top table once he has had a son. Having a son also means that there will be someone to look after you in your old age, as daughters are required to live with the husband’s family once married.

The pig was killed five hours before the photo was taken at 1am, it’s a long day for the market sellers

Marriage is extremely important and finding the right partner who will be approved by the family. It is best if the daughter finds a husband 5km from her home, but as she gets older (over 25) the radius increases, and if she gets to the age of 30, she can choose a man from anywhere, as long as she get’s married!

If the parents of a bride and groom are influential people, it’s extremely important that you accept an invitation to their wedding and give generously (cash only) in gifts. This information is all recorded and kept for consideration by the father for future reference.

During the war, woman played strategic roles, while posing as simple farming peasants during the day; by night they delivered ammunition, messages and supplies. Present day women are highly educated in the cities, well dressed, but still cling on as passengers on the back of their male driven mopeds, this image for me symbolizes their lack of control and obedience to the tradition.

It’s expected for women to start raising children in their late twenties as it is widely considered dangerous to do so after thirty. Another challenge for woman starting families so young, some are at the beginning of a burgeoning careers, is that paid childcare is mostly untrusted, with women expected to step back and prioritize their families, resulting in the slim possibility ever progressing to roles of seniority. Although communism allows equal rights to work, women are also expected to look good, get married in early, start a family before they’re thirty, look after they’re relatives and still have time to have a career!

Portraits of Women I Encountered

Even within these constraints, I encountered an extraordinary diverse range of women with the common ground of pride and hard work ethic.  The following are a few portraits.

1.     The Tea Grower

We drove down the small lane to her house; she curiously came to the gate, not recognizing our Vietnamese friend initially. When she realized the purpose of our visit, she linked our arms and led us into her home to sample the tea; she even gave me a pat on the bum to reinforce her appreciation of our visit. Tan Cuong is a small family run tea grower and seller north of Hanoi in the province of Thai Nguyen. Although we could not exchange words, she tried with her eyes and smile to express her warmth. When I asked could I take our photo, she proudly removed her headscarf, so as to look her best.

Enjoying wonderful green tea picked from just outside the door, the mother proudly removed her head scarf for the photo, her husband next to her had fought in the war with his certificates proudly placed on the wall

Drying the tea leaves requires a team effort, the dried leaves are placed into what could be considered a tumble dryer, but the heat is generated from burning in wood under a clay kiln, the tea leaves are placed in a metal drum and mother’s calibrated wise hand is placed in the drum monitoring the temperature and the speed, too hot and the leaves could burn and lose their flavour. This is the final stage drying; the tea has already gone through process of being handpicked, air-dried, crushed and kiln dried. It cost ten US dollars for half a kilo; it doesn’t seem much when you consider the amount of labour that’s required. This business does considerably better than other growers, as they have a good reputation and sell directly to the customer.

2.     The Street Seller

The street seller starts her day at 4 am, going to the market to buy the vegetables. She then walks the streets looking for willing buyers; a good day will finish at 4pm or 5pm but could go on till 7pm. In most cases, these women come from the countryside and share lodgings with ten other woman, earning maybe $20 in two weeks, some don’t pay much attention to who’s rich and poor, they are only focused on gathering enough money so that their children can have an education and a better life then them.

The street seller moves along the road oblivious to the chaos that surrounds her

3.     The Escort

The first day of the lunar New Year, I spent in the backpacker’s district across from ‘Alles Boo’ a club that was open throughout Tet. I woke at 4am to the loud lyrics of “find yourself, free yourself…boom boom” getting louder thinking I was in a middle of a rave. I went out to the balcony to see a mostly empty street, lone motorbikes taking wide circles on the corners. An old lady that was asking for money of the diners in the evening was still wandering the streets; her skinny frame suggesting she was without a family and home at this time of year. I remembered back to earlier in the evening and a woman who gave generously to her, she was possibly a professional companion, who was accompanied by middle-aged awkward looking client. She gave amply to all the lost souls looking for help, on this the first day of the lunar New Year. She vigorously ordered more beers and food much to her acquaintances disappointment, who was anxious to get on with the finale of the evenings arrangements. Her motives might have been that it wasn’t memorable at all, as she was without her family on this important first day of Tet.

When you stay in the same place for a longer duration, it reveals patterns of movements and the tragedy behind the insincere smiles. A few days later I saw the same woman nestled under the arm of another customer, drawing deeply into her cigarette, she smiled back at the large haggard unfamiliar face, with just her mouth.

4.     The Employee of the Year

The portrait on the wall, although looking like the first day of their marriage celebrated unbelievably twenty-fifth anniversary. It is a week before Tet and the couple had gone to the temple to pay off their debts, we had been invited by their daughter to share a nightcap. On meeting the couple in the flesh, the trials of life seemed more evident on their faces. We were the first westerners in their home, although they couldn’t communicate with us, they tightly shock our hands and offered to share with us their four-year old home fermented whiskey, made from corn and forest fruit. They robustly toasted us, encouraging us finish it in one gulp and wished us happiness and love and that we might have a successful marriage like them. The wife had recently won employee of the year and a bouquet of roses were proudly placed in the centre of the room. Her single daughter  (our host) had returned to Hanoi after seven years in Saigon, at the age of twenty-six, changes the subject of marriage, as her mother inquires at every opportunity on her progress.

Making these observations, I wondered were women any different on the other side of the world, in tropical heat, under different political systems, religions and histories? Do they still desire to be loved, admired and supported, worry about security, the dimpled skin on their thighs, the success of their children and the unspeakable, the condition of their teeth? Although we are in different contexts, the fundamentals for women don’t change very much.

Mekong Delta – The Home

On our trip to the Mekong Delta, south of Saigon, we choose to do a home stay, to get more insights into the rituals of daily life. We were picked up by moped travelled into the setting sun. When we stopped at the traffic lights with the sea of other bikes, people looked at me curiously, wondering what was my relationship to my rather elderly driver. As he increased speed on the less congested roads, the dust began flying into my face, requiring we to put on my sunglasses making the passenger ride in the darkness even more terrifying. I was not able to anticipate when the bumps were coming in the road, my driver laughing as I clutched tighter going over the bumps.

Daily life

We stayed in the little village of Thoung Thanh outside the city of Can Tho. After sunset, we wandered the intimate narrow bucolic streets, where everybody seemed to know everybody. The men were finishing their celebrations for Tet, rubbing their bellies, with a collection of crushed cans under their table. There was a shop full of old-fashioned video games, an Internet café and a room full of cartons of eggs, with a bare-chested man walking around them. The local philosopher was sitting on a bench and greeted us by saying ‘Bonjour’. The local market was just finishing it’s day, with the last remnants been sold at the edges. The local street chef was preparing tasty food on the corner while a pair of men gambled their winnings from Tet. Beating music rang from the men’s café and every household had a TV set flicking in the corner. We even heard the signature tune of ‘who wants to be a millionaire’, pretty easy in Vietnam, when you can buy a roll of bread for 5000. The women sat in groups and laughed and called out good morning to us, although it was pitch black outside.

Bustling market daily life

On a previous visit to another country farm, the Father of the house (who is a war veteran, now retired 10 years) says he’s bored and asks his nephew to get him a dartboard. His son is doing a PhD in South Korea and has sent him an electric blanket for the winter, but he doesn’t know how to use it, he finds it too cold to go outside, yet his wife of 70 was working the fields. They offered to kill a chicken and cook us dinner, we could have picked out the one we wanted to eat. Instead we fed them corn and grain; they preferred the corn and searched them out. Obviously, they don’t like to be picked up like pets, as they know the inevitable that follows.

 Picking out the best chicken for dinner

 

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Vietnam – Physical Attraction

When we got to know ‘Vietnam’, we encountered her long and elegant physique, but found her somewhat overworked and under resourced. She is fiercely individual and moves through the landscape in all means available to her – roads, trains, bikes, boats and mopeds. She speaks in a language that is a fusion of French and Chinese. Although she was renamed Ho Chi Minh City in 1975, following the reunification, she has never been fully accepted it, and continues to refer to herself as ‘Saigon’.

The Individual

Vietnam is an individual and uses every method available to express her uniqueness. From commencing the day with an individual coffee filter over her cup, every home expresses itself differently within the confines of the 4 metre wide plots. Curved balconies, bright colours, overhangs, different size windows within one façade, the expression is only limited by the amount of money you can inject and this can be done continually on a whim as there are little planning regulations. Given the prevalence of motorbikes, the accessories for these are highly customised, with helmets decorated in faux Burberry motif, pink with flowers and some mimicking a sun hat with a gap in the back for a ponytail. The face masks are equally as expressive, with patterns, faces and football team emblems (usually Manchester United). The moped seat also receives individual tagging, with shops offering every kind of fake leather fabric imaginable, tiger, crocodile and zebra skin. Although Vietnam has limited means, she finds every opportunity to express how she’s different and this in not just restricted to the women.

 Right: Individuality expressed in moped seats

What’s interesting about the streets in Vietnam is how they have been modified to accommodate the habits of the people. All the curbs are sloped out to the street to allow easy access to ramp the curbs on your motorbike to avoid traffic (because everyone is in a hurry) and park bikes. Management of parking is also organised, for a small fee they’re packed like sardines and fished out when required. Given the more recent introduction of the luxury car, infrastructure has not caught up yet to provide parking, so in the evening as drivers curb crawl looking for an elusive opening, men will offer spaces in illegal positions (on footpaths, in front of fire hydrants, on the corner of streets etc.), of course there is a another fee and it will be ‘minded’ for the evening. My Vietnamese friends informed me that it’s not only the tourists that get ripped off in these agreements.

During my time studying in Denmark, I took a course by Jan Gehl on ‘Life between buildings’. It attempted to give us a tool kit to understand how people interact in public space, but more importantly with each other. After experiencing these ‘un-designed’ spaces in Hanoi and other Vietnamese cities, with the alley way been the butcher shop, the market, the cobblers and romantic outdoor restaurant, I wondered could streets really be designed for the life that will occupy them or is the life created by society, political and economic factors?

There is also so much that design of public spaces can do to uplift its citizens and I wondered as I passed through congested Saigon, when the authorities would have the means and foresight to invest in these projects. During Tet, one of the main streets in Saigon is closed to traffic and is beautifully decorated with flower arrangements, creating a tranquil space to enjoy the commencement of the spring festival. This main street leads down to the river, which I expected to make a big gesture to address the water and history of boats and trade. But unfortunately there is a barrier of a four lane road to the river, which when you do manage to cross, with your heart in your mouth, is designated for car parking, a couple of pavilions and a broken and uneven footpath. Shanghai had a similar challenge along the famous waterfront ‘Bund’ but overcame this with good urban design that addresses the individual’s desire for relaxation beside water.

Learning to cross the road in Vietnam can be quite the challenge

The Landscape

It needs also to be mentioned that owing to the length of the country at approx. 1600km, we experienced distinctly different climates, landscapes and people with over fifty-four different ethnic minority groups. With so much diversity, the climate has a huge bearing on the traditions and customs. After leaving the relatively cold temperatures of the north, where the earth is not as fruitful, we arrived into the port town of Hoi An. It’s streets were painted a crimson yellow that have a fusion of influences from both their Chinese and French history. A 5km bike ride from the town, we encountered the most beautiful sandy beaches, with golden sand, lined with palm trees for shade. With the hot sunshine, cool breeze and humidity, we really felt we had arrived somewhere special. I took the cue from the poet Prufrock and rolled the bottoms of my trousers and dared to eat a peach (a mango in my case) and felt the refreshing ocean and the golden sand between my toes, the temperature not too much of a shock either. The beach Prufrock place of pleasure for the tourists only; you will rarely ever see Vietnamese sunbathing. To have tanned skin suggests that you of lower status in society and all attempts are made to keep the sunlight away. With so much time spent outdoors, women will wear long white gloves, toed socks with their flip-flops, hats, scarfs and glasses. This was an extraordinary sight to see as I was catching my breath and wiping my brow in 33 degrees humid heat.

The sun setting on majestic Halong Bay

On our journey through Vietnam, we have managed to experience almost every type of transportation, from trains, rip-off taxi’s, bikes, mopeds, buses, cruise boats, kayak, tuk tuk’s, cars, plane and one of the most dangerous of all, on foot.

The Road

The symbol of the road for me is represented by the overloaded telegraph poles with hundreds of cable, leaning to support the strain in the capital Hanoi. On arrival, our first challenge came with crossing the road, a simple task you would think, but with no requirements to stop at the pedestrian crossings or traffic lights, I felt I was embarking on a game of chicken. I had read in the guide-book not to make any sudden movements, as the moped drivers have trained themselves to swerve past pedestrians, so I learned to cross slowly, with purpose and determination and copied the locals with a hand gesture to slow them down. By the third day, I had built up a trust with the chaos of the road, to remain calm, as a river of noise beeps; engines, passengers, chickens and baskets passed me by.

Traveling along the roads in Vietnam, you will see an intoxicating mix of life been played out like a film real. In the south, roadside cafes have rows of hammocks like Starbucks has sofas, to get out of the scorching afternoon heat.

Kilns for baking bricks line the road, like ancient tombs, smouldering smoke for some sacred rite. A few moments later I saw a little boy peeing through a fence, just because he can. After the New Year’s celebrations have come and gone, fallen yellow petals of the Tet tree lie nostalgically like pine needles on the ground.

Everything gets transported on the moped, even the ‘Tet’ cumquat tree

At another moment, an unnaturally blonde haired boy is drinking a can like a king on a bare construction site, while next to him, the women are braced in un-lady like postures getting on with the heavy work of carrying loads of bricks on their backs. Cockerels are kept as pets and stand under circular bamboo cages, while another man is pets his prize-fighter affectionately. Shops are emblazoned with colour with glitzy yellow and pink gowns in the middle of a dishevelled street, people always need hope I guess for that special occasion. Women in the south tend to wear matching patterned trousers and tops that look like silk pyjamas to stay cool and covered. A man clutches a machete and slams down chopping coconut from the squatting position. Along the Mekong Delta, where the legs of the houses stand in the water, a shoal of eels are being fed at doorstep, they’re frenetic like piranhas. Two young men wrestle bare-chested at the heat of the day beside cartoon like propaganda on how to be a better citizen.

Street chef with her loyal customers

The roadside kitchens have all kinds of food laid out drying on the ground, while the cook chats on the phone with a bunch of noodles in the other hand. A toddler girl gives a hand in the street restaurant, sweeping the floor like her granny has shown her. The grandparents rare the children, like their parents reared their own. An outdoor church is created with public benches, adorned by ‘Mary the virgin, next to it, the secondary school has hundreds of bikes outside, waiting for the bell to toil. The barber is located on the street next to the coffee terrace, easy access for people to pull up on their mopeds without delay. Such a variety of shops along the road: electric fans, motorcycles and all their accessories, building materials, tiles pipes, recycled gates, toilets, cars driven into the tiled floors of reception lobby’s, bike repairs, large karaoke signs, while a coffin passes by on the back of a three-wheeled bicycle.

I have to keep reminding myself that I am in a tiny corner of the world, 14,000km from home. I can’t imagine how long that would take after experiencing an eight-hour trip by bus that only covered 300km. In the USA we were able to cover an enormous distance of 10,500km, owing to the excellent roads, navigation and the ease of stopping anywhere along route, with motels and diners of sorts.

Planes

The experience of flying- leaving Danang in the central Vietnam and within three minutes we were looking town at Hoi An, the small town that we had left, looking back at the little bridge and imagining all the women speeding over it with their food for Tet, trees been transported, hawkers, the pile of rubbish at the edge of the market, the cages of chickens who would meet their end within hours, their legs strapped to the back of the moped and there wings giving one last attempt to break free, all these images come to mind as we fly over in the context less sky.

Motorbikes

With almost everyone riding motorbikes it’s extraordinary to see people’s lives whizzing by. Observing what their wearing, how many children they have, if the lady decides to sit side saddle, the intimacy of the relationship between the driver and the passenger, does the girl hold on tightly or passively watch the world go by. These are all details that a car conceals behind fastened seat belts and makes other cities blander and more generic.

The slower pace of the Mekong Delta where life is connected by water ways and flooded forests

Bicycles

Nobody cycles for pleasure in Vietnam. All the more evident by the fact that after our 10km up and down hill cycle to the Langbian Mountain, ours were the only two bicycles in a sea of mopeds in the parking lot. We decided to make this journey as our friend’s father had kindly drawn a map to this destination and recommended bikes would be a nice way to experience the countryside. In my mind without asking too many questions, I thought I was going to Lac village, home to the ethnic minorities of the mountains. For me this sounded rather mystical and romantic, to observe another way of life, but sometimes it’s only a matter of opening your eyes a little wider to observe the differences and feel how different you are in this strange place.

The journey would have been more pleasant if the rented bikes were up to it, but as we really struggled up the hills, people smiled at us with both amusement and surprise. So many people calling out the ubiquitous ‘Hello! Where are you from?’ People’s friendliness is welcoming and warm, travelling through this landscape, I feel extremely special and honoured to be a visitor.

The unusual bicycle journey to Langbian Mountain

When we finally arrived at our destination, we weren’t sure what we were supposed to do next. There were buses, Vietnamese signs, and cowboys walking by with horse painted as zebras, markets and the roar of jeeps tearing down the hill. We recalled from our conversation the previous night that one could get a jeep to the top. Crowds huddle around a ticket booth. I looked up lost at the Vietnamese signs, my situation must have been written all over my face, as it got redder in the sunshine, after our exerting cycle. Straight away people tried to help me buy tickets and listen for our number to be called, as it would obviously be announced in Vietnamese.

We hoped into the back seat of the jeep as it charged up the mountain, the air blew in mixed with exhaust fumes and for a few minutes it felt very calming to be whisked up the hill. The journey ended at the top along with all the other local tourists and we were told we had one hour to take in the view and possible sample the BBQ that served ostrich, snake, crocodile, beef and chicken wings.

Most people were not dressed to be at the top of a mountain, sporting high heels flip flops and dinner jackets. As the majority of Vietnamese cower from the sun, we lashed on the sun cream and hoped that our skin would take on a golden brown colour. People associate darker skin with the life of the peasant farmer working outside. White skin is desired which indicates your all-important status in society.

The journey back to Dalat was just as difficult as the outward one, having to dismount from the bikes and pull the hunk of metal up the hill, this is the reason why people were looking at us so amused. With our exposed skin and our peasant’s form of transport, onlookers must have wondered why someone would make that journey for pleasure?

Ditching the bike for something faster
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Vietnam – Experience and Memories

The remnants of ‘The American War’ celebrated in a museum to war

Although not evident immediately when we met ‘Vietnam’ for the first time, you know the ‘War’ has deep seethed memories and you’re unsure how to find out more. You delicately tip toe around the subject until she’s ready to reveal some of the memories. As we probed further, we realized that the ‘Vietnam War’ was preceded by successful battles against the Chinese, the French and finally by the ‘Free world forces’. The Vietnamese are extremely proud of their country and how they managed to win it back.

Dynasties

Vietnam has suffered under the control of dynasties, China and colonial occupiers. Similar to China, the rise in communism coincided with the repulsion against the extravagant lives of the monarchy. In Hue, the original capital in the centre of Vietnam, the remnants of opulent tombs, palaces and a  ‘Forbidden City’ remain and remind to this day.

Posing in front of the remains of the Vietnamese fallen dynasty, it now belongs to the people

In Dalat, we walked though the last King’s summer palace set on the hillside amongst beautiful gardens and pine forests. I experienced the same energy here from the Vietnamese people, as I did walking through the Forbidden City of China. Both dynasties had fallen and the grounds had been returned to the people with the understanding that ‘this is yours, now enjoy it!’ My previous experience of visiting this type of cultural relic is that there are attendants asking you not to touch and keep back. There is usually a sense a reverence or respect, like as if you were a guest in someone’s home. But not in this situation, people posed in front of the mantelpiece, beyond the security lines, sat on the chairs and beds, as if they were imagining it as their own. I even saw a young man walk past the attendants with a lit cigarette is his hands, wander through the rooms, then stub the butt out on the floor, reminding me that Vietnam has a complicated history of governance and occupation.

 The Imperial City (a walled fortress for the Emperor) in Hue, the Former capital of Vietnam

The War

To really understand the war is beyond my scope at the moment without additional reading and analysis of the issues and the ideological conflicts. I have drawn together a bundle of fragments that give some snippets of the story. The

‘Vietnam War’ was the first to be televised with the reporting influencing the understanding of the issues and the mass protests that followed around the world. With the long duration of the war, I wonder was it fought over pride and identity, losing face is of tremendous importance in the Asian culture, but after the success of World War II, the Americans could not be seen as a lesser force either. The terrain of Vietnam was also extremely difficult for the American’s to strategize in – mountainous, swamps, monsoon and stifling heat. The Vietnamese were able to apply their traditional hunting skills and knowledge to an application of gorilla warfare. I also wondered was this a training ground for future wars undertaken by the US.

One of the main battlegrounds is 70km north of Saigon, in a jungle environment. The Viet Cong retreated underground and built secret tunnels with living quarters, kitchens and even schools. Ventilation stacks were disguised as termite mounds and the smell of stolen US army soap was spread around them to confuse the sniffer dogs. Today, it is possible to visit these tunnels and a type of war tourism has replaced an ideological battlefield. One can crawl through the stifling hot and claustrophobic spaces, view the booby traps used and be amazed at the inventive use of materials for weapons. I even considered if there was a relationship between the inventive food creations and how they dismantled and recycled unexploded bombs to use against their enemies.

To stretch out the tourist experience, given that you had travelled two hours to get there, for fifteen US dollars, it was possible to fire some AK47’s or whatever gun you’ve fantasized about. During the tour, there were continual gunshots in the distant; I suppose adding to the atmosphere of the battleground. The jungle has been completely replanted as the orange agent used to expose the battlefield destroyed all plant life.

The benign battleground of Britain and America (1777) in Saratoga, upstate New York

On my journey around the world, I have seen other battlefields, some now benign, hiding a repository of violence, noise and desperation. One of these was close to Saratoga in upstate New York, where a significant battle was fought against the British; one can drive through these tranquil battlefields and stop of at numbered locations, hearing re-enactments of the significant stages of the battle. In Hiroshima- Japan, where the first atomic bomb was dropped, I had the expectation of experiencing a desolate scared landscape, but instead is a vibrant, young city, whose mission has become to champion the diplomatic resolutions to conflicts. The De-militarized zone between North and South Korea has become another tourist curiosity, where visitors can take the proverbial ‘photos’ behind the tinted windows of the bus, protected by US soldiers for the added feeling of risk and adventure.

The demilitarized zone (DMZ) of North and South Korea where tourists can get a peak into the ‘unknown North’ and cross the border under military supervision

I wondered as I passed through these significant places of history, where will the future tourists sites be, that are now ravaged with destruction and hatred? The war veterans in Vietnam hold significant honour in society helping to create a free nation for their people. This is in stark contrast to the somewhat tainted view of US veterans hold. Looking at the abandoned war bunkers along China Beach in Danang on the east coast, there are now billboards advertising the developer’s visions of the luxurious life with a view, with the majority of investors being non-Vietnamese. One wonders if the war against capitalism was worth fighting? Although every town has built a memorial, least they forget the victory.

 War tourism, tourists get to experience the terror of the Cu Chi tunnels


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Vietnam – Her Mind

Hoi Chi Minh (The first President) lying in repose in his Mausoleum in the capital Hanoi

As we had got to know Vietnam through her appetite, individuality and spirituality, it was now necessary to get deeper into her thoughts and understand the control mechanisms that govern her daily life and decisions.

Politics

It’s difficult to label Vietnam simply ‘Communist’, without understanding how it came to this decision and political positioning. Having experienced oppression from their Chinese neighbours for a thousand years, Vietnamese dynasties, the French and briefly the Japanese, there was a vacuum of leadership like many of the Japanese occupied countries after World War II. The country was divided north and south similar to Korea, along a latitude line.  The North been influenced by communist Russia and South the democratic USA. Hoh Chi Minh, the first leader of the North, had spent decade’s abroad, learning the philosophies of Karl Marx and joining the debates in Paris in 1911. He returned to Vietnam enthused and determined to create an independent communist country, free of tyranny and apparent evils of capitalism.

Determined to unite the country, the Viet Cong, led by Hoh Chi Minh organized forces and launched a war on the South. After twenty years of fighting, hundreds of thousands dead, the landscape and heritage destroyed, the South reluctantly joined the North, while the Americans made a brisk exit. Hoh Chi Minh died during the war, but his efforts are seen as fundamental to creating this independent country. Although he wished to be cremated, his body lies now in repose, similar to Mao and Lenin as a constant reminder of the foundation of the country and more cynically I believe as a controlling symbol to maintain the power of the Communist Party.

Propaganda posters urging citizens to live better lives in-line with communist ideals

Hoh Chi Minh is knit into every fabric and molecule of living Vietnam, his face is on the currency and his picture even hangs over the ancestors on the family alters. He is affectionately known as uncle Ho Chi, and even appears on cartoon billboards requesting its citizens to be better communists. So while the original founders of communism in the Soviet Union have given up on the social experiment and China risks imploding with any major changes to the governance, the Vietnam Communist party still clings tightly to this archaic method of control. The Vietnamese people are fiercely proud of their country and what they have achieved with the national flag hanging proudly on every building, street corner and home, but this is also a requirement by the communist party, suggesting a sense of insecurity underlying the appearance of unification.

It’s difficult to ignore the control the Party has, with morning announcements in every town (at 6-7am), broadcasting through loudspeakers on the streets asking people to ‘work hard for the party and the party will work for you’, it’s disguised as a sort of public radio, but still acts as an instrument of propaganda. One morning, as we cycled through the countryside we heard the propaganda speakers preaching to an empty road with pictures and messages strapped to telephone poles on the best way to life and to how best to support the party. I wondered, after experiencing the dearly earned democracy of South Korea, is change inevitable? And what will be the catalyst that will initiate this? In South Korea, as citizens income increased, so did their desire to be governed in a fair and democratic way.

Corruption

One party governance has many flaws, lack of accountability and susceptibility to corruption been the main ones. The most recent scandal to be revealed, involved a government official accepting a bribe from a Japanese company. They were bidding for the high-speed railway that Japan was investing a billion US dollars in. This revelation resulted in Japan withdrawing it’s funding and leaving a vacuum in the already strained infrastructure.  Although the majority of business is done in the south in Saigon, the ‘old money’ is in Hanoi (the Capital), where officials accept other means to up lift their civil servant salary.

The post office built by the French in Saigon, with the ubiquitous picture of Hoi Chi Minh that presides over all public spaces.

It’s also worth considering if Saigon would have taken a different development path if the Americans had managed to help defeat the communists. Before the war, Saigon was a more thriving city then Singapore, with the latter now earning $56,000 GDP per capita and Vietnam a paltry $2000. Understandable there is growing concern in the communist party over Bloc ‘8406’, a pro-democracy dissident group formed from young educated professionals formed on the 8th of April ’06. From some of the conversations we had in Vietnam, there is a growing discontent with single party governance, but to express publicly this dissatisfaction could position you behind bars.

The waterfront of Singapore thriving with life and business in March 2012
So, what has communism achieved for Vietnam? In the early 80’s after the government had less than ten years to carry out it’s social experiment, Vietnam was impoverished and on the way to starvation and collapse. It had lost its ally after the collapse of USSR and was forced to mend fences with the long resented neighbour of China. In ’92 with three people required to do one job in the civil service, the country changed from a subsidized economy, open to foreign investment. Since this modification of communism, the country has made great strides to ‘modernize’ in our understanding of the definition. The Year 2000 was significant, after the embargo by the US was lifted and an attempt to normalize relationships, the first visit by a US president was made by Bill Clinton.

Economically, it’s considered the Asian Century, with an increased interest in the summits of Asean (the group of South East Asian States). Although not as organized as the EU (this could be seen as an advantage), everyone wants to sit in on the proceedings to see what’s going on.

Military

The relationship with the US is very good now and they’re willing to support Vietnam against the aggressive moves of China, but they also cannot appear to be too close to this previous enemy, for fear of aggravating the communist big brother. The people of Vietnam do not know what the government spends on the military, but I’m sure it’s too much.

 

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