Wednesday, June 15, 2005

Vivacious Vietnam

Influences of the Past, Thoughts on the Future

It has been nearly six years since my first and only visit to Vietnam in 1999. I had just finished grad school and was at the tail end of a two-month trip through Asia that was to celebrate my recent academic accomplishment and act as a milepost from which I would begin my new professional career. Vietnam was the last country on my exploration through Asia and it also presented the most mystery. I was joined on that final leg of my tour by my former girlfriend who had started her own journey in life back in Vietnam as an orphaned infant just as the North Vietnamese were closing in on Saigon in 1975.

That visit to Vietnam six years ago was two weeks of self-discovery, mysteries unveiled, and beauty revealed. It was a privilege to discover Vietnam through the eyes of a close friend who was seeing her birthplace for the very first time. Here was a woman who at that time had literally traveled so far in her young 26 year old life. She began as an orphaned Vietnamese infant who’s native country was ravaged by war and who’s city was the last outpost of democracy just as the shadow of communism looked to dim the lights on the hopes of millions. Through higher blessings and fate she was amongst the close to 3,000 Vietnamese children who were airlifted out of Saigon by a combined effort of American civilian and military volunteers just as the city was falling into the hands of the communist North Vietnamese Army, in what was to become known as Operation Babylift.

From war and despair she found herself newly adopted by a loving American family that raised the 1 ½ year old as their own. But this truly American Girl had a beginning, a culture, and a language which she was not familiar. A huge blind spot in her past from which she did not understand but yet by which she was so fascinated and curious. That trip in 1999 was an amazing experience and that is why I was so excited to make my first return trip back to Vietnam to see what had changed in the last six years, given that back then the entire country was just emerging from a 25 year malaise in which few remembered the persona of a country but rather solely its association with a war.

Present day Saigon was alive with vitality and opportunity as I began my 4-day business trip there. Construction cranes were visible at the airport adding a new terminal, which is a direct result of more regional airlines listing the city as a serviced destination. But as construction brought newness to the airport, bureaucracy ensured that one thing I recalled from my fist visit remained the same. Immigration was slow as ever. One slight change I noticed and heard discussed on this recent visit was that “overseas Vietnamese” or those who had fled Vietnam and were living in other countries, namely America, are now being welcomed back to the homeland with open and loving arms. Six years ago I knew of Vietnamese Americans who were scared or intimidated to go back for fear of being jailed or not let back out of the country. But today with Vietnam looking to re-mold itself as an emerging economy, overseas Vietnamese are seen as a catalyst that can come back with their dollars and invest in business development and property which spurs the creation of new jobs and an improved climate for business.

I found a new Saigon this time. Business appeared to be flourishing. Every street seemed to be jammed with small storefronts and shops. Amazingly adorable boutiques, which could easily fit in on NW 23rd Street in Portland, now line a long stretch of road near some of the international hotels. The sheer number of new hotels is another change in the city as well as the corresponding number of foreign tourists. Six years ago, I was an oddity that brought people out of their chairs to stare, but today I am one of a new wave who is coming to visit, do business, or invest.

Another sign of openness and progress, or the Apocalypse depending on your perspective, was the site of the fast food chain KFC. KFC is just one example of international brands from America, Japan, Europe, and Asia that dominate the line of sight in Saigon and are fighting for mindshare in this growing economy.

Quality of life has definitely changed for the better in the last six years for the local people. Traffic remains as before, but what is different is that rather than bicycles clogging up the roadway it is now motorbikes that take the honors. The number of cars on the road has increased as well, although still far outside the reach of almost all Vietnamese. Most intersections now have visibly new traffic signals and cross walk indicators, although I am not sure if the locals know when and where to obey them. One local expressed concern however on whether more cars is a good thing, given that Saigon’s roads are so narrow and small. “Something must be done to deal with anymore cars”, he exclaimed. Ah, the challenges of progress.

The Vietnamese people that I encountered remain curious, friendly, and full of hope. English language seems to be a bit more common in Saigon, but one of the most popular languages for young and business-minded Vietnamese to learn is Mandarin Chinese for obvious economical and geographical reasons.

I took a full day away from my business activities to see more of the city. I had a map and plenty of energy, so I struck out on my own. I found the heat not as oppressing thanks to the fact that it rains quite a bit more than what I have been experiencing in Singapore. The steady and predictable rains have a cooling effect which I love. Then again, it also could mean that I have become accustomed to tropical Southeast Asian weather as well.

You can still find French-inspired architecture in Saigon, although not as prevalent as in the capital city of Hanoi in the north. Buildings are brighter, cleaner, and in much better state of repair than what I recall from six years ago, which shows a great deal of pride and care on behalf of the locals. Along side the charm of colonial inspired buildings are the new structures that symbolize progress and promise. I was surprised to find a Catholic Church in the middle of the city that still draws numbers to its daily mass. Coming from Oregon, I have been called a tree-hugger a few times in my life, but I do love trees which are hard to find in most Asian cities. In Saigon however, the trees are numerous and grand and parks are sprinkled amongst cramped city streets.

There are certain reminders that Vietnam is still one of the world’s surviving communist countries. Propaganda posters are visible around the city and I have heard that these are more common in the South of Vietnam given its history and physical separation from the more entrenched party liners in the North. Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho, as he is affectionately referred to by loyalists, remains as an omni-present feature in this city that now bears his name.

One of the best stories of my trip began not too far from a poster of Uncle Ho. I was walking down a tree lined street when suddenly a middle-aged Vietnamese man on a motor bike shouted at me as I approached on foot. “Are you American”, he asked. Was it that obvious I wondered? I told him that I was and his face lit up like a kid who just got a new puppy. He immediately whipped out a book that contained a collection of old photos.

“I have friends that were Americans, I served with Americans, I killed Viet Cong with Americans. I knew you were American when I saw you walking down the street. You are a friend of me”, he said.

As I paged through this gentleman’s book of memories of which he was obviously so proud, I saw pictures of him in the prime of his life wearing a navy uniform and others posing with American soldiers. Everyone wore smiles in those photos which captured happier times during a dark period that brought together people from completely opposite sides of the world to combat a common enemy.

I have spoke with American Vietnam War veterans back home, but never in my life had I encountered a Vietnamese one. Today, this man is a motorbike taxi driver trying to scrape by on what he can, but you would never know it by the smile he wore on his face. He offered to take me to a market where I could see local goods and food. When I asked how much he would charge, he replied by saying that I can pay him whatever I want. Now I enjoy walking and I am quite effective with a map, and I had turned down several other motorbike taxi drivers previously, but there was a kinship with this gentleman so I took him up on his offer for a ride.

As we drove down the narrow streets choked with other motorbikes, my guide spoke to me in broken English as best as he could. He asked if I had seen the War Remnants Museum. I told him that I had when I was first here six years ago.

“War Remnants Museum is lies”, he said.

This I knew from my own experience six years ago after viewing the propaganda that was being passed off as history within its walls. Its one-sided and demonist portrayal of American soldiers during the war years was enough to make your blood boil, but then you realize that the young generation in Vietnam knows little to nothing about the war and could honestly care less. The past is just that and everyone I encountered in Vietnam wanted to focus on the future because that is where opportunity lies.

We arrived at the market which was a 4-storey complex devoted to clothing, handicrafts, shoes, and food. I asked my guide if we could find a place that served Pho (Vietnamese Noodle Soup). He seemed delighted that I wanted to try some and quickly ushered me to a counter-style restaurant where I was tasting the real thing within minutes. I asked if he was hungry and he declined, but I bought him a cola which he seemed to appreciate. We sat together at the counter and smiled as I took in the scene of the market. When it came time to settle the tab I found that I did not have enough Vietnamese money. When I asked my guide if there was an ATM nearby he just laughed. ATMs were much more prevalent today but not in this neighborhood. I pulled out an American $20 bill and asked if I could use this. My guide sat up and said that there was a vendor nearby that could exchange it for me and that he would personally do it for me so that I could just sit and enjoy my food.

Now in almost every situation imaginable I would never give someone money who I had just met to go exchange for me, but there was a level of trust between the two of us and I just knew he was an honest guy. Sometimes you just get these feelings about people and you are delighted when these feelings turn out correct. My guide soon returned with not only the exact exchange in Vietnamese currency, but also a receipt documenting the rate. Every penny was accounted for and the rate was actually competitive, as I had checked that morning before leaving the hotel. My guide drove me back to the hotel and pointed out additional things of interest along the way. I gave him some money for his superb service that afternoon and he thanked me verbally as well as with the smile on his face.

I left Vietnam wanting to soon return and not let six years come between me and this promising place. There are few excuses now, given that Saigon is only 1:45 minute flight from Singapore and is serviced by multiple budget carriers. Six years seems like a long time to wait to go back to a place that was once a mystery but provided so much draw and allure. Six years is nothing for some people who have waited their entire lives to visit and connect even in a small way with the land, the people, and the culture of which they are connected if only by birth.

This month many are celebrating the 30th anniversary of Operation Babylift. Once known as babies of hope during times of great darkness, these now grown adults are returning to see where their lives all began. Based now upon my two visits to this country, they will surely leave feeling that the future for this place is brighter and that they were lucky to have gotten the experience to know a country as opposed to a distant and remnant battlefield.


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