Tuesday, March 26, 2013

Understanding Vietnam

Visitors to Vietnam have given me mixed reviews of their experiences from pure hatred by famous travel bloggers such as Matt Kepnes to adoration.  (I lean towards the latter).  Despite all personal experiences, the generalization of North and South being very different holds some water from the short time I've spent here.  My thoughts are the ones who hate Vietnam do so because of their Westernized expectations from the locals.  They feel that by paying money to visit as a tourist, they are entitled to fair treatment by not getting ripped off and being treated nicely.  They compare Vietnam to Thailand, for example.

This is unfair.  Vietnam, firstly, is communist, albeit a conservative communism.  The people have also experienced a lot by way of domination by the Chinese, French and the United States. Visitors also have to remember Vietnam is predominantly Buddhist and believe in karma.  To be fair, the USA pillaged, raped and bombed the country for 10 years without very clear objectives other than victory as the Presidency shifted to LBJ and Nixon.  This may have led the Vietnamese to feel they have no obligation to cater to tourists due to previous unfair treatment.  Additionally, the communist mindset doesn't necessarily provide them with the perspective of a capitalism where tourism is an industry to be fed.  Rather, it is an opportunistic way to supplement their simple lifestyles.

Hanoi is lined with areas dedicated by zones to appliances, art, books, tires and the like,  For a niche product, it seems you have to go to a very specific area and choose among numerous shops selling the same products at the same price, going against the capitalistic mindset of fierce competition.  Rather, it leans towards socialism.  The Vietnamese seem quite content to set prices and leave everyone to benefit equally.  The nationalism is obvious, so foreigners are a means to gain a personal advantage, and frankly we should be okay with that given their roots in communism.  Accepting that has allow my experience in Vietnam to be much more bearable than if I had come here with a democratic hat, expecting equal treatment as the locals.

By misunderstanding this, a Westerner's experience can be a horrid one.  The US in the war failed to prevail despite having superior weaponry, money and military support because the Vietnamese were so strongly nationalistic and united to defy our understanding while we were protesting and forgetting why we even entered the war.

Communism by repression, oppression, aggression and censorship limits freedom and usually fails to remain sustainable (i.e. the Khmer Rogue in Cambodia, former Soviet Union, East Germany), although North Korea still stands.  This extremism isn't obvious here.  Communism is usually written off too quickly by the West because we think of the oppressive examples, but Vietnam appears to have achieved a healthy balance.