Vietnam was really the first place on our trip, where we were truly stumped in our ability to communicate with people. There have been many countries where we didn’t speak the local language (in fact, all of them with the exception of southern Africa where English is an official language in many countries), but in most places people know enough English that you can order a basic meal, get a bottle of water, or buy a bus ticket. In Vietnam, however, we regularly very challenged in getting even the most basic tasks completed (Meg to Jed on a 90 degree day: “well, I wasn’t that thirsty anyway, I probably don’t need a bottle of water now”).
In many ways, this lack of English was refreshing after being in some foreign towns that feel more like an English-speaking overseas possessions than anything else. And the lack of English speakers was a small sacrifice for not being constantly offered a ride in a tuk-tuk (or a t-shirt or postcards). But nonetheless given Vietnam’s history and what we’d heard about Vietnam from other travelers (how easy it was to get around, for example) we found it odd to have such little English being spoken. To be fair, we deliberately went to an area of Vietnam where most tourists do not go. The Central Highland towns of Kon Tum and Buon Ma Thuot provided beautiful scenery, incredibly friendly people, and a glimpse into the life of “the real Vietnam.”
This all changed, of course, when we got to Saigon where there was no shortage of English or tourists. However, it was hard to not fall in love with the city- once you recovered from the shock of an unfathomable number of motorbikes coming at you as you tried to cross the street:
With the charm of an old French colonial town and the warmth of the Vietnamese people and culture, Saigon is definitely a city you feel like you could live in. It also has a very western feel to it, which made us question how it really was the “Socialist Republic of Vietnam.” Despite all the Cold War era ideological battles, the economy is as capitalist as anywhere we have been.
Communism meets Capitalism
Given our confusion about what really was Communist about Vietnam, we asked questions of our guide at the Cu Chi tunnels (which were dug by the Viet Cong to hide from American soldiers during the war- so a fitting place to figure out how the economic system resulting from the war really works). His response was that while they had elections, it was a one party system and the elections are decided far in advance- “you can go to polls if you want, but your vote is already entered into the log book before you get there”. He said that government owns some of the major industries (oil, electricity, communications), but apart from that capitalism abounds. Meg then asked him if it was possible to write a newspaper article criticizing the government and our guide burst out laughing, said “if you want to go to jail” and continued his amused chuckling for several moments. (I guess there is some communism here after all.)
And, of course, no entry about Vietnam would be complete without some reflection on the role of United States military in the country. While most of the time Vietnam feels like other Asian countries, which aren’t burdened by such a well-known troubled history with America (though we did take significant military action in Laos and Cambodia too), there are moments when one certainly feels the weight of this history.
The official government sites, like the War Remnants Museum and the Cu Chi Tunnels, are obviously full of anti-American rhetoric. But while the images are certainly moving, the language is so overtly slanted that it almost diminishes the terror that was the war. However, authentic moments with the average Vietnamese person can be quite moving. For example, when we were chatting with a shopkeeper in Buon Ma Thuot, he turned toward the central square, pointing to the large statue of Vietnamese soldiers (surrounded by happy peasants), and said “today is a holiday to celebrate Americans leaving”- it was the 37th anniversary of US military’s departure from the country. A response other than “sorry about that” is a little hard to come up with at times like that.