For a Communist Country, There is Sure A Lot of Capitalism Going on Out Here – Vietnam

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.

Ha Long Bay, Vietnam

If it is not on your bucket list, it should be added to it. Ha Long Bay is one of the most beautiful places I have ever been. I have liked it so much that when I was given an opportunity to make it back there again, I jumped on that chance. It was just as amazing as it was the first time, and I am glad to have had the opportunity to go back.

Ha Long Bay is an expanse of water coming out of northern Vietnam over 600 square miles in area. The main feature of the bay is the collection of islands. I am told that there are 1963 of these limestone giants jutting out all over the bay. Some of them are large, and hold caves that you can explore; whereas others as tiny little rocks that could hold maybe ten people if you were lucky enough to put that many folks on one of them. Each of them is a marvel to look at which makes this one of the places that many people travel to every year.

There are many different way to enjoy the bay. You can hang out in the city along the shore, relaxing on one of the beaches, but you are better off getting on a boat. There are many different kinds of cruises that you can take. Their is a one day cruise that will show you some beautiful places, but won’t get you very far into the bay. You can also take a large boat with fifty cabins that will take you far through the islands, and provide a variety of activities to enjoy. They also have smaller boats that have eight cabins per boat that will allow you to plan your trip with the people running the ship. Both of the cruises can take place either with two or three nights.

The first time I went out, I enjoy a two night cruise and it was one of the most memorable experiences of my life. This time, I just did the one day cruise. It was still a lot of fun, but I did not get to see a lot of the bay. I was taken to a cave close to shore that I got to explore with a bunch of other people.

We also got to get out on kayaks for about an hour. This is a must do if you find yourself in Ha Long Bay. This is the only way to explore some of the more exciting islands. It will take you under caves, and around tight corners that the bigger boats will never be able to make it around.

It only scratched the surface of what can be done in this bay. I would recommend spending the money to stay a couple of nights out there, but if you can only stay for one afternoon, the day cruises are still a wonderful way to experience the bay. I am glad that I have gotten to experience this place twice in my lifetime, and if given the opportunity to go back, I will easily take it. I hope you do the same.

Until next time, keep on having those experiences.

Building a House – Mai Chau, Vietnam

Some of the schools I have worked in have always had a program where students collected money to help a poor family in a part of the world by providing them a home. The great thing about it is that they don’t just buy these people a brand new home, but they also travel to that part of the world so they can build that home for them. The program is named many different kinds of things such as Habitat for Humanity or ETR Educational Travel, but the goal is the same thing, bring people together through kindness.

It is a different kind of charity. Instead of just recognizing a problem in the world, and then collecting money so a person can throw that money at the problem and then go to sleep at night thinking that they have done some good in the world, it forces people to go an experience the people who are actually affected by the problem, and do something to fix the problem.

But it is not only meeting the people in the world who you are helping out, but it also taught me the hard work that goes into building a traditional house in Vietnam. Though there were a couple of power tools on the sight, we were not given access to these tools. The material also came from the hills of Mia Chau, so the family whose house we built could have fresh bamboo floors and a roof of palm leaves. I worked mainly with a rusty machete and a block of wood that became a club to unfurl bamboo to eventually turn it into a floor.

I still got to witness the progress as we went and added to many aspects of building the house. I also got to interact with the people of this small village as they showed their appreciation for what we were doing for one of their community. They gave back to us as much as they could, cooking sticky rice for us, and giving us advice when we needed to adjust the way we were building the house.

It was amazed at the progress we made in such a short amount of time as well. We only worked on the house for a couple of days before the family that was going to be living in it could make it their home. Every time I made it up the path from where I was working on the floors, I could take pride in that progress.

And after a couple of days hard work, we were excited to gift the house to the new family. To be fair, the house was not completed, there were a couple of things that needed to take a longer time to finish such as the wood used for the walls, and the stairs which take skilled labors to do correctly, but the structure, the frame, the floors, and the roofs were completed by my students and me. It was an intensive couple of days of labor, but the final product was worth it. I enjoyed the fact that I was able to contribute positively to the world by doing something like this rather than just contributing to charity. If everybody took time out of their busy days to contribute in such a fashion than we would quickly make the world the better place that we are always hoping to live in.

Until next time, keep on living those experiences.

A Place in the Valley – Mai Chau, Vietnam

I have been told that Vietnam is a developing country, and it is hard to see that aspect of the country when visiting one of the bigger cities. Sure, they do things a little differently than I am used to growing up in the United States, and life may be lived simply, but it is still comfortable. I thought that when I got out of the cities I would be able to see what people were talking about. Going a little over a hundred kilometers to northwest district, traveling through the windy, mountain roads, I arrived at the more rural part of the country and the town of Mai Chau.

I thought I was going to leave the comforts of big city life, and the throng of the tourists by coming out here. When I saw all of the views, I started to think that I had found some hidden gem in the country side of Vietnam where I could experience the more traditional way of living. I did find that in this valley, but I was foolish to think that I was the only person outside of Vietnam that I had found this place.

The natural beauty of the valley brings the tourists here as well. Among its farm houses and fields of rice there is a charm that makes for the perfect place to wander around, either walking or biking, with a camera, capturing the beauty to take back with you. It is not overrun like the touristy places in the cities, but there are enough visitors out here that it does not feel like you are the only person outside of southeast Asia to have visited this place in years. Still there is enough space in this valley where you can get the true feel for the place.

It is a small little village in the middle of rice fields, and I was able to get off the beaten path rather quickly to find that moment of peace. The people I did encounter who are from this little village were always welcoming with a friendly smile, and as long as I stayed to the beaten paths through the rice fields, I could wander anywhere I would like.

Though those paths were windy, I never lost my way back to my home stay. These are the perfect places to stay at when visiting the smaller communities in Vietnam. They have comfortable rooms and wonderful common spaces. They fed me both breakfast, and dinner every day, and the meals were large and varied. It was the perfect home base on my three days that I stayed here. I hope to come back some day with a larger group because it is the perfect place for that kind of vacation.