October 13, 2008
There is this squatting thing that people do in this part of the world. Usually the person is steeped on a curb, feet on the edge, chilling the hell out. There is no muscle quiver, spasm or give. They can squat like this for hours. I see hundreds of people a day like this. Not impressed? Go ahead - try it. Stand in the middle of your room and squat, keeping your ass about one inch from the ground. Try it for ten minutes. Imagine staying like this for an hour. Then call Jenny Craig.
This is just one of a thousand differences I have found between Vietnam and America. There are no spinning classes or McDonalds or air conditioner repair shops. There are no public libraries or subways or Doppler weather forecasts. No gutters, barristas or professional clowns. Jobs that Westerners have created still serve no function here. I spent the better part of fifteen minutes trying to explain what a Dog Catcher was to a semi-English-speaking waitress who was fascinated with The American Way. "But why you want catch dog? Dog go when he ready."
In fact, the only universal thread I can seem to find (other than soccer) is video games. Internet stores are jammed from 4-6pm with kids desperate for an hour of dance simulation or first person murder. Video games. It seems that the only way to world communication maybe be between an online bullet battle between Nguyen in Sapa and Michael in Fort Wayne.
The most important job in Vietnam is not President or Oil Tycoon. It is Cook or Motorbike Repair Man. The jobs that are given value are the ones which actually keep society functioning. Bus Driver is high on the pyramid. Not only is this the main form of long-haul transport but it is an incredible challenge, given that the highways here are really just byways. You can count the number of daily domestic flights on two people's hands. You couldn't count the number of buses. Period.
Here are some things I have seen on my bus ride today: A family of four on one motorbike with a tarp over their heads (rainshower). Cows in the front yard of a one bedroom house. An overturned motorbike with a crowd and a body on the ground. A fifty year old crane pulling a piece of bridge into the air with what looked like silly string. A monkey in a cage. A wedding in a field. Foggy roads that go into the sky and come out the other side of heaven. This ain't even close to Kansas.
Vietnam gets a bad rap on the Southeast Asia travel circuit and it probably deserves it. There seems to be quite a bit of crime committed against tourists here - crime that the people would not commit on their own (mostly because it is not as lucrative). Drive-by pickpocketing is prevalent in Nha Trang, especially at night when the bars let out. Hanoi is scam city, with taxi drivers pulling shit that I have never even heard of before (and I once had a NYC cab driver masturbate while looking at me in the rear view mirror). The constant deluge of potential grubbing can get you down some days, especially if other travelers' stories begin to stack up.
The thing is, you just can't feel the hand of government here. There is not enough paper to push. Perhaps this why the country lags between so many social structures. Ho Chi Minh is revered everywhere as a communist who united the people against the French and Japanese. Yet capitalism is everywhere - it is just a matter of time before the Starbucks and Gaps come to town. It's this confusion that makes the government seem invisible. With no desperate need to show The Vietnamese Way as The Right Way, it is left to quietly do the basics of what government needs to do. Like build bridges, build schools and get the people through to next year.
Overall, enough is more. Chess on the ground suits most people in the evening. There is no dying wish for a trip to The Mall or a $200 bar bill at Chateau Marmont. Why? Because it would not even occur to the people as an option. The American Dream has become getting fired and paid out, in order to start a new life (where eventually we will long to be fired again). The Vietnamese dream, at least for now, continues to be just getting through one life, not three.
Some days I look around and try to comprehend that I am here. Right now I am only 50km from jungle that is laced with undetonated mines and fields that have still not recovered from napalm. I wonder how unearthly a place this was to fight a war and then wonder again if a desert is much better. I see orphaned kids with deformities and yet healthy kids with school uniforms and backpacks. The West is creeping into this country but from where I stand it still feels foreign and remote.
If I was a 'real' travel writer I would be trying to find a way to thread all of this together. Maybe some kind of Carrie Bradshaw voiceover that ties it all together. But this country isn't simply sewn up. Vietnam is teetering on the edge of two millenniums and I am lucky enough to be right here in the middle, at a cafe in Dalat.
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