Saturday, June 19, 2004

Items from the past. Vietnam, late June 1994. (Actually written in Bangkok, just after we left Vietnam.)

I didn’t write much while we were in Vietnam because of a minor fear that, upon leaving the country, customs would be looking for materials detrimental to the image of the Socialist Republic. A completely groundless fear, as it turned out. In fact, customs didn’t even want to know how much money we exchanged in the country, which I thought more likely.

Saigon seemed every bit as busy as Bangkok, just not as developed, and (thank God) not as many cars. But you do see, in just about every urban setting, vendors, motorcycles balancing whole families, bicycles, tricycle rickshaws, kids kicking balls, people carrying coolie loads, idlers, beggars, dogs, roosters, and motorized thingamabobs.

Staggering poverty on display every day, not quite at every turn, but enough to justify what Bob R. told us before we came: “Save your beggar change for Vietnam.” Yes. True. We saw mangled war vets (presumably), young woman missing legs, legless people with sandals on their hands pushing themselves on wheeled boards, girls with diseased babies, skinny but otherwise able-bodied beggars, and child beggars. The next step up the ladder were the hawkers -- who sold, among other things, t-shirts, “war-era” Zippos, maps, gum, pastries, toys, shoe shines, postcards, and English newspapers, magazines and books (I was offered The Quiet American several times).

Things may be even worse in the countryside. Down in the Mekong Delta, we reached a roadless place, an island whose main industry was a cocoanut candy factory, which we visited. At least there was a factory of some sort, and some of the houses on the island looked well built, but of course without any evidence of electricity or plumbing. At the candy factory, I had occasion to use the WC, a construction of wooden planks sporting a partially enclosed seat, all overhanging one of the canals crisscrossing the island. I have no doubt that the canal water is used for everything else, too.

Not all was abject poverty, and you did see flashes of wealth, or perhaps relative prosperity. The guesthouse we stayed was modest by First World standards, but it did represent a thriving business for the owner. I was certain of that because his Japanese entertainment center, complete with stereo sound and biggish TV, would have been at home almost anywhere in the developed world.


Post a Comment

<< Home