Hoi An, Vietnam July 2010
It’s fascinating to look at economic development in a country where wireless internet comes before toilet paper. In the hotels and restaurants we have frequented so far, I’ve noticed how disparate, conflicting, dissonant the state of affairs seem to be. I often find myself trying to guess at the wealth of an establishment, or a family, but it’s almost impossible. This is because a restaurant’s seating area will be plush and luxurious, while its kitchen will look like something out of Fast Food Nation. Which is not to mention its bathroom, which may look like something out of a grotesque Diane Arbus photo. Another example is the country house I stopped at to answer to the call of nature on the delapidated road from Ho Chi Minh City to Mui Ne Beach. The female proprietor our driver spoke to was very gracious, and led me proudly through her carpeted living room, complete with flatscreen TV, DVD player, and comfortable looking easy chairs, straight through to the “bathroom” where she pushed the door open and pointed at the ground. My eyes searchingly followed her finger… but I couldn’t even find so much as a hole in the ground. After desperately scanning the room, looking for ANYTHING that might resemble even the most primitive toilet, I realized she was instructing me to pee in a small red bucket that I had previously seen employed merely as a child’s innocent toy in a sandbox or at the beach of Lake Anza. Aha. Well, here goes the violation of everything innocent…
But in all seriousness, it seems that the way development is happening here is somewhat reflective of a national mentality that strives to achieve Western-style capitalist luxury (air conditioning, motorbikes, wireless internet, sparkly shoes and jewelry) yet refuses to give in to the uniformity and gentrification of Westernized health and safety standards (street vendors, black markets, brand knockoffs, foodborne illness, occupational risk, dirty diesel fuel, etc.)… It all comes down to different priorities, one might think, which could help to explain why international negotiations can often be so difficult, and often fruitless. We’re trying to trade apples for oranges, when what they really want is DVDs. And for all of us, no matter our nationality, escape can sometimes seem better than looking our problems in the face, and we turn again and again to our televisions to transport us to the greener side of the hill.
But historically speaking, there may be another explanation for this warped picture of priorities. In “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places,” a quintessential read for understanding the Vietnam War through a woman’s perspective, Le Ly Hayslip explains that “the rubble and refugees were not the only byproducts of our war. Hundreds of thousands of tons of rice and countless motorbikes, luxury cars, TVs, stereos, refrigerators, air conditioners, and crates of cigarettes, liquir, and cosmetics were imported for the Vietnamese elite and the Americans who supported them.” Like in any culture, once the wealthy achieve material success, they immediately set the bar for others to strive for. Apparently, the war created “a new class of privileged people– wealthy young officers, officials, aned war profiteers– who supplanted the elderly as objects of veneration.” In fact, much of the current class system of wealth and ownership may be a nonsensical yet irreversible remnant from a war that turned an entire country on its head.
However, I haven’t really noticed a visible upper class, though I’m sure it must exist. So far, most of the people we’ve come in contact with are either extremely poor, or middle of the road merchants– literally. Granted, we’re backpackers and thus relying solely on budget accommodation, food, and transport. Perhaps the rich folks are remaining hidden in their private cars and centers of trade in the financial districts we haven’t bothered to seek out. Or, perhaps, we haven’t noticed them because, in fact, they look like us– with our expensive REI backpacks, ipods, and loaded coinpurses. Perhaps we are blind to manifestations of wealth and privilege because we are always looking out, rather than in.
In many ways, “They” are us, and “We” are them. Our interlocked histories make it a zero-sum game, yet we all win some and lose some. Money, and richness, I think, are entirely subjective and relative. Are we Americans as rich as they Vietnamese in culture, family, work ethic, spirit and simplicity? Are they as rich as we in choices, freedom and flexibility, formal education, and technologies? And of course, there is an endless spectrum of class diversity within both of our so-called societies.