I knew I was in a different country when I was riding in the bus from the airport to my hotel, and our tour guide started to point out some of the landmarks that give the people of this country great pride. The first was the grave sight of Ho Chi Minh, sitting behind a large field of grass where he first declared independence of his people from their oppressors, the French. The second one was a statue of Lenin as he proudly strode out to bring the people of this world the idea that would once and for all destroy the class system that kept people in poverty all around the world. I was no longer in the Capitalistic societies of the West. I was in Vietnam, the bastion of the Communist people that would eventually topple other great Democracies of the East. Or at least that was the lesson I learned when I was back in high school. I am wondering if that is that same story holds up today.
Those lessons always had me picturing a war torn country filled with grimy streets, and hot treks through dangerous jungles. It was a place that nobody in their right mind would want to go to visit. There was some truth to those images that I conjured up in my mind during my high school days. Vietnam had been ravaged by war for over 50 years, and at that time was just getting over a conflict with China in order to maintain their independence. It was in economic ruin, and had a long way to build back the country that got displaced during these conflicts.
But the Vietnamese people are resilient, and they put together a plan to put their country back on track. It involved a Communist view of the world around them that was closer to what China was doing rather than the Soviet Union, even though they built their country with the help of both of these superpowers. It meant returning to a simpler kind of life, but one where the people were in control of their destiny, and not some foreign government making bigger decisions for this smaller country. It didn’t look impressive at first, but it was a move in the right direction.
Vietnam also had a rich traditional history to fall back on. Though this is rooted in the principles of Confucianism, it has its own take on it. The deep rooted belief in Buddhism was repressed during these years, but hints of it can still be found around the country, and the practice is starting to appear again in the more remote parts of the country.
And let’s not forget about the food. I was sitting in a meeting once, and somebody who never had eaten the food before was trying to describe it. They claimed that it was very similar to Chinese food, and that is not at all correct. Though it does have this feel, there is a big French influence to it as well. And then it uses these spices that you cannot really find anywhere else in the world. It creates its own cuisine that you can only find in Vietnam, and its influence is spreading to many places around the world. It is becoming almost as ubiquitous as Thai, or Korean food, and it just adds to another choice for those of us who love meals from this part of the world.
All of these things combined together to punch a hole in the philosophical understand that guided the economic vision of this developing country, and opened them up for the wonderful world of tourism. And for those of us who have traveled anywhere in the world, it is impossible to prevent Capitalism sneaking into the mix when a place is opened up for tourism. There are sights that need to charge people to visit them. There are stores that need to sell souvenirs for those visitors to take back home with them. There are restaurants needed to feed them, and transportation experts to get them to all of these things. This only can run on the principles of Capitalism.
But it has also created one of the most beautiful destinations in the world. There is so much to see and so much to do in Vietnam that it is taking over as the number one destination sight in southeast Asia. Even the small villages are taking advantage of this fact by creating homestays where visitors can find a comfortable place to lay their head, eat wonderful home-cooked meals, and enjoy some of the local traditions. The last time I was in Vietnam, I went to one of these homestays where I was given a bed hidden by a curtain, and asked to join the family’s evening ramen meal. They have since grown into more elaborate experiences where it gets harder and harder to book during the busy tourist months because of the increased desire to stay there.
There are also natural wonders to explore. The one that attracts more visitors is Ha Long Bay in the north. In this cove among the various islands, people can be found enjoying cruises, hiking to the top of the islands, exploring caves, fishing for squid, and kayaking between the islands. They also harvest pearls in specific locations, and have many docks built so people can stop by to enjoy a quick bite to eat, or find a souvenir to bring back home with them. Even though this is a natural wonder, there is always a place where you can see money be exchanged.
It is in the heart of the cities that this really becomes evident. The last time I was in Hanoi, tourists flocked to the Old Quarter to learn about the history of the country at one of the various museums there, and to eat while sitting on a small plastic stool at one of the many restaurants that inhabited its labyrinth. The Old Quarter is still at the heart of Hanoi, but after coming back, those restaurants have upgraded their furniture, and raised their prices. Some of them have even extended their offerings by teaching visitors how to make some of Vietnam’s signature dishes by offering cooking classes. All they ask is that those tourist bring their money so they can enjoy these experiences.
Vietnam is still a developing country, and is still run by a Communist government. It is pulling from the spirit of its people, and a rich cultural heritage to pull itself into the realm of being a developed first world country, and I do believe that it will happen in my lifetime. I think back to those history lessons of my youth that talked about the dangers of Communism, and how it would eventually bring about the destruction of the world. My teachers told me the story about how the United States involvement in Vietnam was key to making sure that this did not happen though they do not like to admit that we lost the war. Communism won, but it did not spread to the rest of the world like it had been predicted. At the same time, I do not believe that the growth of Vietnam is dependent on Communism. It is its bizarre blend of economic policies between Communism and Capitalism that has turned it into the country that it is today. It is this strange blend that will allow it to continue to grow into what it will eventually become. I can’t wait for my next visit out here to see what that will look like.
Until next time, keep on finding those experiences.