When I was 17 and I sat for the written part of my drivers license, one of the questions was: You use your car horn on what occasion? One of the multiple choice options, clearly a throw-away, was: “To announce to others, ‘hey I’m here so get out of my way’.” It was such a ridiculous answer that I still remember it. But when I landed in Ho Chi Minh City, I came to see that there are parts of the world for which the car horn is used exclusively for that reason.
How to encapsulate Vietnam, a country of contrasts, defined by hope and hypocrisy, lush beauty and congested cities? In a country of 69 million people, 35 million motorbikes, and zero road rules, the streets and roadways are a riot of moving vehicles and honking horns. To say it is chaotic is a massive understatement. Cars, motor bikes, regular bikes, rickshaws and pedestrians all share the road, approaching intersections from all directions, proceeding at will, without a single light or sign orchestrating traffic, a cacophony of blaring horns the only warning of on-coming traffic. Contrasting the mayhem, which would have most westerners spinning with road rage, there is a calm tranquility among the people in their driving style. It’s not personal. Everyone is just trying to find their way. And if you can hold on tight and jump right in to life in Vietnam, you will experience spectacular natural beauty just beyond these harried city streets.
Two hours from Ho Chi Minh City we traveled to the Mekong River Delta, a series of tributaries that brings this great river from it’s origin in Tibet, out to sea and one of the biggest rice growing regions of the world. We took a relic of a boat from the main land to Turtle and Coconut Islands, where we found a dense landscape of papaya, pineapple, banana, jack fruit and coconut trees. Chickens run wild and orchids bloom from empty coconut shells. The Mekong Delta It is so lush, it’s hard to imagine that this paradise was once decimated by napalm bombs and agent orange during the Vietnam war, leveling the jungle to better spot the VietCong. The long term impact of these agents of war has been heartbreaking teratogenic effects that have killed off or maimed the future generations of many of the families that lived in this area. Severely compromised physically and emotionally, these children are lingering painful reminders of the war.
Now though, as you take a rowboat ride through some of the narrow waterways that holds the jungle so close on either side you can reach out and touch it, it is impossible to imagine such violence amongst so much beauty. What a vibrant reminder of nature’s power and ability to revitalize itself! It took ten years for the Mekong Delta to reinvigorate itself after the war, and to look at it now one would never guess that it was ever anything less than a natural wonder.
We found an equal but different form of beauty further north, in the beach town of Hoi An, whose architecture reminds me of an Asian Key West. Low hung, ancient homes designed to whether the climate close to the water and protected by UNESCO as cultural sites, the old section of town comes to vivid life at night as lanterns ignite in every restaurant, shop, bar, home and street corner. This constellation of colorful silk lanterns make Hoi An sparkle with life.
The beauty o f these areas can almost make you forget you are in a communist country, but then you see it. Shanty towns that exist along the waterway closer to the cities, pervasive poverty just meters from extravagant displays of wealth, where the well-to-do live and tourists converge. I asked my tour guide how it is possible that in a communist country, where the premise is”equality,” you see such blatant disparities of resources and the his answer is clear: corruption. There is only equality for those in the communist party and that brand of equality enjoys some of the country’s greatest wealth. If anyone in your family history was ever catholic, you can not join the communist party and hence, can not enjoy the benefits they do. I do not believe the same applies to Buddhists and I don’t think there are many Jews in this part of the world, but damn you to poverty hell if anyone in your family tree ever uttered the Hail Mary.
Hanoi, where 80% of the population has no religious affiliation, is dictated to instead by a communist party that no one will admit to being a part of. As we pulled into town the propaganda machine was spewing communist rhetoric over public speakers on the street that was like white noise….always there but completely unnoticed by the locals. I asked my tour guide about the popularity of communism and he said that most of the people do not participate in the communist party, choosing instead to “enjoy their lives,” hoping for a better future. They also pay taxes on any income beyond 2 million Vietnam Dong, which is about $200 (what my tour guide makes a month. He is also responsible for his own health insurance). Commerce thrives and people are allowed to worship as they wish, but if so, can’t participate in the national party. So it appears, in many ways, Vietnam is communist in theory and ideology only, the younger set moving towards a seemingly more capitalistic mindset.
As for the food, up and down Vietnam I found examples of wonderful, fresh, delicious food. Based on lean meats, vegetables and rice based starches, I found the cuisine the perfect counterpoint to the extreme heat. If we had been offered anything other than lightly sautéed morning glory (like leafy spinach) with rice and fresh spring rolls, I doubt we would have been able to stomach it in 95 degree heat and 100% humidity. While there were some examples of deep fried food (like the whole deep fried fish in the Mekong Delta slathered in a tomato based sauce that had us all a little uneasy for a day afterwards), for the most part everything was clean and allowed for sustained and comfortable energy levels and easy digestion. My favorite was having chicken Pho for breakfast… lean chicken, light clear broth and rice noodles flavored with scallions, chili’s, lime and cilantro.. the perfect amount of fuel to last until our early dinners.
Vietnam surprised and enthralled me. What I saw displaced many of the images I had long held in my mind… newsreels of a war zone I was too young to understand. Now when I think of Vietnam it will be with appreciation and fondness for demonstrating how nature and humanity both always strive to re-establish itself.