Saturday, November 18, 2006
"Good Morning Vietnam" or "What Vietnam did"
An Open letter to Vietnam:
Dear Vietnam, Great country you've got there but there are some concerns I would love to address. First off, let me acknowledge that poverty is a language spoken all over the world and your country is far from an exception (in fact, Vietnam has the poorest people this Canadian has ever seen). Notwithstanding this context I still wonder about the following things:
I know cars are impractically expensive for the people of Vietnam and you've done very well by picking the scooter as the primary means of transport. They take up less space, they are cheap, they are easily modified for work purposes and they are very economical on petroleum. I learned while I was visiting your fine nation that the ratio of scooters to cars is about 90 to 1. Why though, have you summarily given the finger to all notions of traffic laws? I saw a total of 0 (zero) stop signs on the crowded streets and most traffic lights do not work. Intersections in Hanoi display the kind of chaos usually reserved for race riots and fires in crowded buildings. I'm doubly impressed that said scooters are frequently loaded with up to 6 people. Holding your infants up in the air whilst driving is a keen way to save space on the bike that could be used for cargo (plus it gives the little tykes a chance to learn the streets of Hanoi and maybe grab a breath of air outside the choking smog). Crossing the street (any street at all) involves staring into a flowing sea of scooters and just stepping out in front of them with the faint hope they will want to avoid hitting you as much as you want to avoid being hit. A challenge every time but maybe controlled stops would be a good idea and might reduce fatalities.
Next up: Catering to foreign backpackers. Vietnam is not having a hard time attracting them. Guest houses and hostels are always a bustle with people, most of them on a tour of southeast Asia. Yet unlike Thailand, Cambodia and Laos, yours is the only country that manages to make tourists sure they will never spend the money to come back. Maybe this is part of the plan but if not, I have good news. Changes can be made. Example: When westerners are eating in your otherwise empty restaurant, it'd be a plus if you did not allow beggers to flow in from the street and beg from us relentlessly while you look on in ambivalence. Also: Western people like things to be clean. Im sure the Vietnamese do too but if you want westerners to hand over their money in exchange for a meal, don't berate your children for killing the visible cockroaches. In fact, maybe even kill them and clean the place up so as not to attract them before the westerners come through your door. Again, I know poverty is the name of the game there but removing garbage from the floor costs nothing and I refuse to believe filth is a part of your culture. That would be racist, and tempt me as you might, I am not going down that path. As much as it is exciting and very much part of the travel experience, is it really necessary for all of your neighbourhoods to have distinct pungent stenches? Seriously. If my dog smelled as bad as the streets of Nha Trang or Saigon, I would have him put down.
Most importantly: Honesty. Well what can I say about this? I mean In my nearly two weeks in Vietnam, I don't believe I met one honest (English speaking) Vietnamese person. It seems anyone that can speak English uses it to lie to, cheat and steal from western tourists. Travel agents in Vietnam make Lawyers and Politicians look honest as the day is long. Some of my favourites include: "I'm sorry, there are no train tickets available for tonight. You must stay in my hotel and leave tomorrow." to which I responded with "Seriously, Has that ever actually worked in all the years you have been trying it?" (we later went to a travel agent next door that sold us tickets at double the price and lied to us about the class of ticket it was. Another is "No I'm sorry, the price of a bus ticket is not what it says in your 2005 edition of Lonely Planet. This is an old edition (bald face lie) and the price has gone up to the tune of %300)" anyhow, similar insults to intelligence happen with hotel workers, restaurant workers and so on. I never once felt as though I was on a level playing field during any of my financial transactions. The hookers that pickpocketed me and escaped on a waiting scooter were really just a more blatant form of what had been happening on a daily basis. Also, it makes both your police and yourselves look bad when someone witnesses the incident introduces himself as a police officer that can help and then collects the now empty wallet and asks for a reward. I'll let you dwell on that for a moment. His reward was pocket change that he had to pick up off the ground.
Anyhow, I must conclude. Though I had many unforgettable and wonderful experiences in your country, I will have no choice but to first mention the negative things there when people ask how Vietnam was. Perhaps it is not a priority for you. Perhaps it is but somehow it remains out of your grasp. Whatever the case, I deem Vietnam a failure as a nation. I'm sorry our relationship cannot be closer.