“You buy something from me, Madam? Very cheap!”
So begins every excursion in capitalist…er, communist, Vietnam. Rice paddy hats, dragon fruits, war paraphernalia, rip-off North Face gear, even donuts are aggressively peddled wherever you go. Think you’re safe at dinner? No way! Teenagers selling photocopies of Lonely Planet Vietnam and war memoirs follow you in, begging you to buy a pack of gum, if not a book. Duck into a bar, and you’re blind-sided by an MTV-style, table-dancing three-year-old. After he gyrates and booty-grinds in the middle of the bar, he busts out the watches and Zippo lighters that his mom outside is trying to sell. Plying down a Mekong River byway in a wooden canoe, you are passed by endless empty tourist boats whose paddling captains hold out their hands and ask, “Tip money, Madam?” Even in the middle of Ha Long Bay, on your own private junk, miles away from the nearest floating village let alone the shore, as you’re about to dive off the roof and swim ashore to a deserted spit-of-sand beach, a four-foot-tall woman comes rowing a ten-foot-long raft loaded with all the worldly goods you could possibly imagine–crackers, beer, rain ponchos, fake Crocs, Jim Beam. And as she frantically paddles in place so as to be within earshot of your boat, she orders you, “You buy something from me! Very cheap! My beer cheaper than boat.” And when you ignore her sales pitch and dive head first into the South China Sea, you swear you can hear her uttering Vietnamese expletives at you while she paddles furiously onwards to find the next foreigner-filled and dollar-blessed junk.
Man, were my notions about Vietnam all wrong. Intellectually, I knew that Vietnam was one of Southeast Asia’s tiger economies. But romantically, that’s not what I pictured. After all, my visa took weeks to process and came back proudly stamped: Vietnam Socialist Republic. In my warped vision of Vietnam, I pictured Soviet-style propaganda plastered across the country, bucolic rice paddies, and newly opened cities where Ross and I were among a handful of intrepid travelers. I imagined countless war memorials; I imagined strolling through empty towns looking for just one tailor who spoke English to make me a suit; I imagined street vendors selling fresh spring rolls and unidentifiable local delicacies; I imagined girls walking through the market in their ao dai carrying baskets of exotic foods. Really, I imagined some fantastical, romanticized, country that one might see in a movie. The country I thought I was visiting bore little resemblance to the country I spent two weeks traveling through. Man, was I embarrassingly out of touch.
On the surface, of course, some of my ridiculous notions were catered to. In every city, there were war memorials and tailors and street vendors and ao dai-clad girls and Soviet-era billboards. But the hammer-and-sickle posters proudly celebrating the farm worker and ordering families to have two children sat side-by-side with Toyota and Nokia billboards. The girls in ao dai were not wandering the markets (those girls wore jeans and American t-shirts) but wearing the requisite traditional garb at their jobs in the tourist industry. And the exotic-food street vendors? Nope. Baguette stands, slathering their ham sandwiches in imported Laughing Cow cheese, were more plentiful even than noodle and spring roll shops.
But I was especially wrong when in came to the empty towns and the hunt for English-speaking locals. To give myself some credit, I was helped along in this notion by a friend of ours who spent the summer learning Vietnamese here in Madison. When he heard we were spending two weeks in Vietnam not knowing a lick of the language, he gaped at us. Clearly we were crazy. And so at 11pm the night before our 6am flight, Jeff came over with a Vietnamese phrase book and gave us a crash course in the six tones denoted by various little squiggly lines over words with other sounds marked by various squiggly lines. As we sleepily fumbled to repeat after him, he shook his head hopelessly. On his way out the door, he turned to us and oh-so-seriously wished, “Good luck.” After that desperate language lesson and somber farewell, I was sure we were heading into an unknown jungle.
So imagine our surprise when we stepped off the bus at the dock of Ha Long Bay–thinking we were headed on some isolated, peaceful, remote three-day cruise–and were greeted by hundreds of junks and hundreds of thousands of tourists. This was high season, baby, and the Europeans were there in full force. We’ve got Cancun, they’ve got Vietnam! That phrase book Jeff so nervously supplied us with? The only time we opened it was when we returned home, trying to translate a note he left us. We did learn how to say thank you in Vietnamese, but our attempts to say, “Cam on,” were usually met with a giggle and a perfect English, “You’re welcome.” The bucolic rice paddies? The quiet byways of the Mekong? The jade islands of Ha Long Bay? All seemed to have been Disneyfied for the benefit of tourists. Somewhere out there was the real Vietnam, but it bore little resemblance to either my romanticized images or the Disney-like reality.
This most hit home in Hoi An, a town whose primary delights are an architecturally stunning old town and getting clothes custom-made by a local tailor. My imaginings: a quiet city center with beautiful buildings, quiet Vietnamese restaurants, and a handful of ancient, non-Anglophone tailors. The reality: The entire city center is a museum you need a ticket to enter. Still peaceful and beautiful, but certainly globalized: hip bars, French bakeries, and endless souvenir shops. And those handfuls of tailors are actually blocks and blocks of over 200 different tailoring shops, with prices and quality to meet a variety of travelers’ budgets. The tailors boast signs, in every language imaginable, declaring the worth of their wares. They have suits copied out of GQ, party dresses straight out of Cosmo, and tailor-made shoes that could pass for Campers. The tailor we ended up with was Miss Yum Yum, a thirty-year-old single Vietnamese woman who just bought the shop from her retiring boss. While measuring us and periodically slapping my butt (which is significantly larger than most Vietnamese butts, and so undoubtedly a novelty), she grilled Ross about his single friends at home and whether there were any that were rich and would like to marry her. Not the English-challenged, back-alley, old-man tailor I was picturing. Then again, nothing about Vietnam was quite as I pictured it.
Just about the only thing I got right were the war memorials. Certainly, they were plentiful: The memorial of the My Lai massacre. The War Remnants Museum. Cu Chi Tunnels. The Fallen American Aircraft display. The Hanoi Hilton. And as I imagined, they were difficult to stomach, largely because they didn’t back away from describing and showing the horrors committed during the Vietnam War. But they were hard to stomach for another reason I hadn’t imagined. Although Vietnam and America are once again diplomatically involved–and the tourist industry is quite eager for us to spend our dollars–the memorials and museums commemorating the “War of American Aggression” were laden with anti-American sentiment and propaganda. This is obviously to be expected and pretty understandable–horrific crimes were committed, and in the end the North, the current government, prevailed. But still, it was unsettling: In Hanoi, Ross’s moto driver forced him to take valiant pictures astride bombed-down American aircraft. At the War Remnants Museum, galleries documented the horrors of war perpetrated solely by the “American Imperialists and their lackeys,” while another gallery displayed how the entire rest of the world (including those countries who had soldiers fighting alongside the Americans) completely supported Vietnam’s liberation struggle against the Americans. And at Cu Chi, a 1950s-style documentary reordered the timeline of war as it argued that the Americans, “like crazy devils, bombed our pots and pans for no reason.” Never mind that war is a sticky, messy, two-sided affair (or that the Cu Chi Tunnels were built to ward off the French long before America entered the ‘quagmire’): as the losing aggressors, we were repeatedly painted in disturbing terms that left me simultaneously ashamed and indignant, and that made me wonder if, as Americans, we were actually welcome in Vietnam.
But like most everything else in Vietnam, the official Communist party line is at great odds with real life. Ostensibly, this is a socialist republic, but actually it’s the most capitalist country I’ve ever visited. Basic government services and responsibilities–school, garbage, taxes–have been handed over to free market competition. And the anti-American war propaganda? Well, in Hoi An, we decided it was important to visit the My Lai memorial, a relatively short distance away. When I inquired at the hotel desk about hiring a driver for the trip, the receptionist (about my age), smiled and said, “But it is so far away…at least an hour.” I persisted: “We think it’s important to visit.” She nodded; apparently many Americans want to visit My Lai. I asked again about a car, and she looked up at me, still resisting: “That was a very long time ago. A long time ago.” Whatever need Ross and I felt to pay homage or respect or penance clearly was not shared by this woman. Whatever anti-American sentiment I felt at government-run institutions and museums was not shared by the countless warm Vietnamese we met who helped us along our journey.
On one level, Vietnam is an outpost of Soviet-style communism. But on another, it is a noisy, globalized, capitalist country that has mastered the art of the sale, while still keeping some level of that communist ethos alive. In Hanoi, for example, we were followed for an afternoon by a woman selling Vietnamese communist caps. Each time I said no or ignored her, she lowered the price. She eventually got down to a quarter, but still, I wasn’t interested. At this point, she grabbed my arm and yelled, “Madam, you are rich! I am poor! My hat is very cheap! You buy!”
And the Cu Chi Tunnels, where the “American Imperialists” were trounced? Well, if you’re not satisfied with walking through the underground network, watching documentaries, or seeing first-hand the craters left by B52 bombers, then you can buy a round of ammo to shoot off in your very own AK-47. Yep, there’s a pay-per-bullet shooting gallery in the middle of the tunnel museum complex.
I think Uncle Ho would be proud.
While living in Mexico, I joked that speaking Spanish forced me to be far more Zen about life: Since I could only speak in the present tense, I was forced to just live in that present tense.
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