Thursday, November 27, 2008

Leaving Vietnam; politics

I'm back in Japan after three very enjoyable weeks in Vietnam! And I'm happy to see Itsumi and to settle back into life here. Meanwhile, here are some of my last notes from Vietnam, which I wrote a few days ago.

Today is my second to last day in Vietnam. Although I've enjoyed it here, I'm looking forward to getting away from Hanoi's constant honking of horns, the loudspeaker at 5 a.m. lecturing the locals with propaganda that I can't understand, and the continuous cries from motorcycle taxi and bicycle taxi drivers of "motorbike" and "where are you going," and the hawkers' calls of "madame," "buy from me," and "very cheap." When they really want to make a sale they warm me up first with the friendly local questions: "where are you from?" "what's your name?" and "how old are you?"

No doubt I'll miss this constant noise when I'm back in Japan where everything is quiet and clean and orderly, and people on the subway speak in a whisper out of courtesy to others!

I catch myself speaking the local Vietnamese pidgin English, and expecting to hear someone say

"same same but different" at least once a day. For some reason, that's the national saying here, and it's even on T-shirts.

I've become a real pro at crossing the street. It goes like this:

1. Look both ways. You aren't looking for a break in traffic, as there won't be one. You want to step out in front of motorbikes and bicycles, that can weave around you, rather than buses and trucks.

2. Take a deep breath, and step into traffic. Make your way across the street slowly and deliberately. Most importantly, don't stop, and don't run. The motorbikes expect you to walk at a slow and steady pace, and they will weave accordingly.

3. Be aware of oncoming traffic to the extent possible, but don't worry too much about it because you can't watch everything. Don't be surprised if some motorbikes are driving the wrong direction on the wrong side of the street. As one local said, "in some countries they drive on the right side. In other countries they drive on the left side. In Vietnam, we drive on both sides."

4. Breathe a sigh of relief when you make it to the other side!

The drivers don't follow any rules, but they are polite, and they will try hard not to hit you. It's the same on highways. The highway to Ninh Binh is a divided highway, two lanes on each side divided by a median. I was cruising along in a bus, in the left lane, when suddenly a line of trucks and other vehicles came straight toward us, in our lane! The bus driver quickly moved into the right land, and soon we saw that we had encountered an unannounced detour. The oncoming traffic was in our lane because the other side of the highway was closed for road construction, but there was absolutely no warning of this!

You've just got to watch this video of the traffic in Hanoi!

I am getting used to the language here. Where everything looked and sounded the same at first, I can now recognize different words. My guesthouse in Hanoi is called the Tam Thuong Guesthouse, near Hang Manh Street. I can remember that now, without thinking of it as the Tom Thumb Guesthouse near Hangman Street!
English is the lingua franca here, and all the tourists speak it in order to get by, whether they are from France, Germany, the U.S. or Japan. A young Spanish woman enviously said to me "but you speak the language here!" (meaning English). Maybe because there are so many languages in Asia, few foreign travelers in Vietnam speak any Vietnamese, and so the Vietnamese people learn English out of economic necessity. I am especially amazed by the H'mong girls who, although they do not go to school at all, speak English very very well learning only from talking with tourists.

I'm learning how to tell the difference between real and fake products, such as pirated books for tourists and North Face pants and backpacks. (Hint: everything here is fake!)
I've seen sex tourism in action. There is an intersection in Hanoi's old quarter that has become an outdoor tourist bar. The little corner stores have placed plastic chairs in the street, facing the intersection, and tourists can drink thirty cent draft beers while sitting in the intersection and watching the crazy traffic. While I sat in this intersection and chatted with Tobias, a male traveller from Sweden, a young man approached Tobias and said, "you want lady massage?" To clarify, he added "you want bang bang?" Tobias, who is traveling alone, told me that this happens to him all the time, and that in Thailand he was approached even as he exited the airport.
And I've met locals who have eaten dogs and cats. I saw a photograph that an Australian tourist took of dog parts for sale at the market. I clearly saw the head and the legs. I have no desire to try eating this myself.

I am still trying to figure out what I think about Vietnam's political situation. I recently read "The Girl in the Picture," a book about the life of the young girl who was photographed running naked from a Napalm bomb dropped by the South Vietnamese with coordination from the U.S. during the Vietnam/American war.

The book describes the horrors that the girl's family experienced during the war, and the terrible things that happened to them under the subsequent communist regime. They lost their home and their family business, they had to burn all of their books, and they suffered extreme poverty.

The girl, Kim Phuc, was used as a propaganda tool by the communist government, which forced her to give many censored interviews and to tell foreign media that she was a student when in actuality the government had prevented her from continuing her schooling. Some of her friends were jailed for practicing their religion, and Kim and her family lived in extreme poverty for many years while the government kept donations that foreigners sent for them.

Before the communist takeover, Kim's family had been middle class peasants in the south of Vietnam. After many years of suffering, Kim escaped to Canada and received political asylum.

It seems like, in contrast to Cuba, Vietnam never got the just parts of socialism such as jobs for everyone, a livable wage for everyone, free health care and free university education for all.

Even entrance to Lenin Park in Hanoi is not free. Instead, Vietnam got censorship, loss of freedoms, complete government control over the population and mass poverty and starvation.

Other countries in the region did not fare much better. The communist Khmer Rouge takeover in 1975 in Cambodia began with one of the world's most bloody revolutions and during Pol Pot's four years of power the regime tortured to death or executed the vast majority of the country's educated people. Thousands were systematically killed for wearing eyeglasses or for their ability to speak foreign languages, supposed symbols of the bourgeoise. Pol Pot was never brought to justice, and died in 1998.

The Laos Socialist government also has a history of brutal suppression of its people, particularly the H'mong minority tribes. Since the 1980s Laos has softened its socialism to allow for private enterprise and foreign investment. But the human rights abuses continue. Human Rights Watch provides information about Laos' recent abuse of the H'mong people.

Vietnam, too, has softened whatever socialist ideals it once had. One Vietnamese man told me that Vietnam is "a capitalist country with a socialist face." Wikipedia says "Vietnam is a socialist republic controlled by the Communist Party for whom ideological orthodoxy is less important than economic development."

Although it's still called The People's Republic of Vietnam, I see a thriving capitalist country under a one-party Communist government with no evidence of socialist ideals such as state care for the people. It seems that there is no social safety net. There is a small pension for certain office workers, but peasants must work until they die. There is no free health care and many rural children do not attend school at all. The poorest of the poor work in cities as street vendors, earning at best 75 US cents per day.

I learned from an exhibit on street vendors at the Women's Museum in Hanoi that most of the vendors are women peasants who cannot make a living on their small plots of land in the countryside and so they migrate to Hanoi to sell anything they can.

The average Vietnamese city dweller earns U.S. $2,000 per year, while the average person in the countryside earns half that. However, I see far fewer people begging on the street in Vietnam than in Bolivia, for example.

According to Human Rights Watch, Vietnam has current problems with censorship, religious persecution and the jailing of dissidents who have criticized the government via the internet. (Notice I post this after I've left Vietnam). Vietnam currently is detaining many political prisoners.

As a tourist, it's hard for me to appraise the human rights situation in Vietnam, but I did ask one local business owner who spoke English well and who I had gotten to know over a few days. He told me that the government is very controlling of the people and that if someone writes something that the government doesn't like, they will likely be jailed. He said that, in contrast to Cuba, Vietnam is not really a socialist country.

All this leaves me wondering why we fought in the Vietnam war anyway, and thinking about how many of our human rights we lost during the Bush regime. I am hopeful for the future. A young Vietnamese woman told me that she is happy that Obama won because "he has black skin, and it's more fair." The whole world is hopeful!

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