Dorchester, the neighbohood we live in Boston is a true ethnic melting pot. Irish, Cape Verdeans, Haitians, Polish, Hispanics, Blacks and a sizable population of Vietnamese live in the largest neighbohood in “Beantown”. Most of the Vietnamese came from the South. That migration started after the communist party took control of the country at the end of the war. Today it is easy to see the signs of Vietnam all over Dorchester. It was nice to come to a country where some of its culture was all around us. However the opportunity to have a deeper contact with a community in their own country was completely different story.
Perhaps after the two World Wars, the Vietnam conflict was the most emblematic war of the last century. A visit here was a lesson to understand how all that played out on the world stage. Two economic philosophies and the world divided. Every single country, no matter how small, was important in the game the US and Soviet Union were playing. Unfortunately the price was very high and millions of innocent people died because of the governments and politicians hunger of power. The war is over and the country seems to be doing amazingly well 37 years after the war ended. A sign of the resilience of a people who are known by their neighbors as extremely hardworking.
It is no news that the communist party maintains an iron fist on the country’s organization and is no surprise that resonates badly with a lot of the people we talked to during the trip. Facebook and certain sites were not even allowed in certain places and the comments about corruption were widespread. Despite that, the sight of a country without civil liberties like we think a communist country is, was overshadow by the people’s entrepreneurship. We’ve noticed that the Vietnamese are always ready to make some business. So, instead of the big chains that are the hallmark of a typical capitalist society, Vietnam has a lot of small and family business that make a big chunk of its economy. We were wondering what is best for the people: work in your own business or for a state-owned corporation? Take a pick, but it seemed to us, the Vietnamese were doing pretty well.
All the 91 million of Vietnamese form a very homogenous community and this is true even though they were occupied by different nations not only recently but also in the past. Today along with Thailand they are one of the most powerful countries in the region and its economy forms a new group of countries that are bound to grow even higher than the known BRIC (Brazil, Russia, India and China). The prospects are good and although we saw a lot of poverty, it was less than what we saw in Laos and Cambodia.
Before coming here we were advised to be careful because the Vietnamese were often trying to rip you off. However this attitude was not any different from other places we have been. Everything is negotiable and bargaining is a must. Fortunately the farther you get from touristic areas the nicer and friendlier are the people . This is roughly true in almost every single place we have been. So when visiting a place, we will tried to also go to more distant areas where you can have a “real feel” of a city or country.
As soon as we got here something caught our attention. Most of the women worn pants, long sleeve shirts, hats, facemasks and sometimes even gloves. Even though the temperature reaches 90-100 degrees at times with humidity, women are all covered up. At the beach they are all dressed up as well. Was this a religious reason? No! They just don’t want to get dark. It is interesting to see ads and the huge amount of whitening skin products available in drugstores and grocery stores. Meanwhile western people are going to the beach, use tanning booths and tanning lotions to become darker. I guess people are never happy with whom they are…
Buddhism is also the main religion, although we noticed that is seems to be more subdued than in its neighbors, Thailand especially. Business frequently have small shrines where offerings and candles are placed but the amount of monks walking around like in Thailand, Laos and Cambodia is minimal. We have the feeling that there were less Buddhist temples around and more temples of different religions like Taoism, Confucianism and Cao-Dao. 10% of the population is catholic and it is no surprise that concentrates in the south, around Saigon.
As for natural beauty, we think Vietnam beats Laos and is the most beautiful country we visited in the region. This is because Vietnam has pretty much everything Laos has (mountains, caves, waterfalls, rice-paddy fields) and on top of that has a stunning and unique coastline that can make any vacation a real paradise on Earth. Transportation has its deficiencies. Roads are great, but we’ve heard a lot about accidents. The buses are not very comfortable. Trains are reasonable but it is nothing compared to US or European standards. Planes are a good option and can be cheap specially if one buys tickets in advance.
The food in Vietnam was also a good surprise. We were only used to have the famous Pho (noodle soup) and fresh spring rolls in Boston. But there is so much more to try. And the fun part was to take advantage of the different regional cuisines as we cruised along the country. The unusual dishes with frog, chicken feet, baby duck egg , pork intestines, pigeon soup and dog (WE DID NOT EAT DOG) were more eccentric. However the main noodles dishes, barbecued pork, beef stews and the fresh noodle dishes were absolutely amazing and we cannot wait to explore the Vietnamese restaurants in our neighborhood when we get back.
The country’s currency is called dong and 1 US$ is valued at 20,000 dongs. It is strange to go to the ATM and leave as a millionaire with several millions dongs in your pocket. A bottle of the local beer is usually around US$ 1. A meal during lunch or dinner can be bought easily for US$ 3 and a budget hotel room is usually between US$ 15-20.
Vietnam was the last major country we visited. We are glad we ended our trip here. Why? Because this country is a true picture of what Asia is all about. Walking on the streets with people wearing their iconic conic hats and carrying the huge “scale” selling their products was a unforgetable site we will never forget. Now is time to revive our Vietnamese experiences in our local area. How lucky are we?
The next post, our return to the US