Stepping off the plane in Ho Chi Minh City I had a lot of complex feelings. The Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War) still has a fair bit of psychological weight on our national consciousness and I, as a product of that consciousness, feel it in me as well. When I mentioned we’d be going to Ho Chi Minh City a friend said to me before the trip began, “You mean SAIGON?!” He had spent three years fighting in the Vietnam War and the war was still very real in that singular moment, 35 years later.
Not only did I have this on my mind but I expected a backward Communist country that was still lost somewhere in the early 1970s, culturally lodged between Cambodia and North Korea. I had heard about how beautiful Vietnam was and that it has become somewhat of the tourist “flavor of the month” but that didn’t translate into anything substantive for me. I am not sure why this was but it was true nonetheless.
In the short week we were in this small SE Asian country a lot changed for me in respect to how I see Vietnam. Mist covered mountains, terraced rice patties spilling down rolling hills, wide sweeping beaches, honest smiles on friendly faces, robust capitalism at work everywhere, and signs of development and progress as far as you can see will do that. The sheer force of economic energy in the country is breathtaking. In Saigon (which the southerners still prefer to Ho Chi Minh City), I felt I could have been in any progressive, modern city. Walking through the cities of Saigon, Dalat and Nha Trang I felt very far from the Communism I expected to find. This country is communist in government, maybe. But capitalism reigns here and somehow they blend a communist political system with a capitalist economic system and believe me, it works. And like China they are coming into their own as an economic power (and thus political/global). They took a beating in the global downturn like everyone else but posted the fastest growing economy in the world in 2009. Make no mistake, Vietnam is on the global economic map and seems from my standpoint to be going nowhere but up. Infrastructure development is everywhere and the forward momentum there is palpable.
We spent a few days in Saigon and then hopped on a plane to Dalat in the central highlands. The city of Dalat is nestled in the mountain range that rises north of the Mekong Delta and runs northwards toward the southern plateaus of China. Dalat, simply put, has become one of our favorite places. Needless to say we fell in love with it and the vast farmland surrounding the city. We rented scooters one day and with full tanks of gas rode off deep into the countryside. We wound through valleys and over tree-lined ridges, making a long descent into an area renowned for its wine and vegetables. While riding around we stopped into a silk factory and watched how silk cocoons are unraveled and spun into spools of thin thread, then woven into cloth. It was fascinating to watch and my curiosity compelled me to poke through the large piles of silk grubs that had been evicted (by boiling, no less) from their expensive wrappings. We took our time getting back to Dalat and often stopped along the road to take pictures and soak it in.
I could write much more about our experiences and the moments that stand out. There were many. On our hearts is a real desire to return.
I left with a feeling that I felt much more comfortable in Vietnam than I ever realized I would. Even though I have traveled a fair bit internationally I still have a pretty simplistic view of the world, particularly the world outside of what we call the “developed” world. My perspective on what is “developed” and, say, “underdeveloped” is evolving into something I’m not sure of yet. I am not so convinced that these terms mean anything anymore. I’ve seen and experienced countries that are very advanced culturally and less so economically, and seen economically powerful countries become less developed culturally. I love my country but as I experience many other countries, cultures, frameworks and paradigms – and see how they live in the world better than my own – I feel concern for my country’s future. Much has been written on the decline of America and I see the beginnings of it through the lens of being “outside” during this trip. Unbridled consumerism, economic entitlement and disregard for the inalienable rights of other countries have robbed us of something vital to the good in our national consciousness. I see how too often we take pride in being the wealthiest nation (and doing all we can to sustain that distinction) far more than utilizing that wealth to be a force for good in the world. The wars we’ve fought in the last few decades have had little to do with what is right and more to do with what is politically or economically self-interested. A symptom of our state of affairs is the overall desire to return to “the way things were” before the economic crisis – rather than getting to the core issues of our collective failure to spend less than we make. The economic and social trajectory we are on is simply unsustainable. Being an American will have to become once again something more than a birthright to revel in indiscriminate consumerism and national self-aggrandizement. We will change or we will decline. I see no other way ahead.
Vietnam didn’t teach me this but it certainly made it more clear in my mind. America may have lost the Vietnam War in 1975 but in 2010 the American ideals of capitalism – and even the form of democracy that comes with consumer choice – have won, and won big. Even English is quickly becoming the second national language to foster this drive towards a unique type of democracy via a capitalism with a communist heart. And America may have things to learn from Vietnam as Vietnam navigates this transition towards a market economy that has built-in limits due to the ideals of the common good. How will these two countries, once at war and now almost kin, overcome their respective – yet related – challenges?