Friday, July 09, 2004

Life and Reality in Vietnam

I'm fresh off the plane from a Vietnam (Saigon-Dalat-Nha Trang-Hue) trip just a few hours ago. There is no better reason than this to (finally!) become a blogger before my varied feelings about Vietnam fade away into a hazy memory.

24 hours before I was due to leave Saigon (old name sounds a lot more romantic than Ho Chi Minh City), the tune "back to life, back to reality" kept resounding in my head. Back to a clean, modern and efficient reality for me. But for the people of Vietnam, their life and reality is a vastly different one.

I've tried to name the elements which add up to create that particular Saigon buzz:

Manic energy: From the streets filled with morning joggers at 4am in the morning, the constant tooting of horns from the swarms of motorcycles, the shops that seem to open at sunrise (5am) and stay open till the wee hours of the morning with the same smiling shopkeeper!

Despair: Little bare-footed street kids, barely toddlers, with hair caked stiff by dust hound you for a note or two. Slightly older kids who ought to have been in school at that time, tug at your sleeves and trek a block with you to persuade you to buy a stick of chewing gum. People with stumps for legs (victims of the effects of Agent Orange) trawl the streets with their slipper-shod hands, begging.

Oxymorons: For a country with so many people struggling to eke out a living, there is an astounding amount of art. Art flourishes everywhere. Art galleries mushroom from dusty streets and dirty alleys, hawking excellent reproductions of every masterpiece imaginable, from the works of Renoir, Monet, Van Gogh, Dali, Toulouse Lautrec to Andy Warhol and Roy Lichenstein, etc. etc. Stop to marvel at the artists at work in the galleries. Also available is the Vietnamese traditional rice paper paintings and silkscreen embroidery which I much rather preferred to western rip-offs (excellent though they may be).

Miracles: This is a country which rarely has respect for traffic lights or pedestrian crossings. Typical scenario when trying to get across a street: 200 motorcycles coming at you at at least 80km/h and blasting their horns unapolegetically. Yet, it is usually possible to get across the road in one piece. Think Pac-man trying to avoid the monsters (but multiply monsters by 50 times) do it real slooowww and steeady.

That indescribable feeling: the feel of a country on the cusp of development. Of the people's resolve to work as hard as need be, 4am to midnight schedules notwithstanding.

In 20 years or so, the doi moi reforms will probably have catapulted Saigon into a cookie-cutter Asian city. The couple of shopping malls in downtown Saigon bears testament to the shape of things to come. But for now, I love it for all its on-the-brink energy.

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