So I’ve been thinking. When something doesn’t set quite right with me, I do that. And Vietnam doesn’t set quite right with me. It’s time to set the record straight and finally put into words how I feel.
I said before that I thought Vietnam had nothing for the locals. That it was lack of culture (which I took back and made exceptions for as soon as I had said it). That everyone was after my money. And I said that it had a completely different feel than any other place I had been to.
So let’s try to figure out why. Vietnam is a country that has fought off imperialism for thousands of years. First it was China, then the French, then Japan, then the French again, then America and the Soviet Union. How does this affect a country, a culture and a people? How does this affect Vietnam’s place in the world order?
I first compare this with China. When you go through China, you see temples, palaces, statues, monuments to people, restaurants and cultural icons – a fair proportion of which are sometimes hundreds of years old. Sometimes even thousands. They have books from Confucious (Cong Zi in Chinese) and a unique writing system.
And in China, they will bargain. When they give you an exhorbitant price, you give an equally rediculous price on the low end and you meet them somewhere below half. If you grind on them and they wont budge, you have found their bottom line. Here in Vietnam, they give you a price and if you aren’t happy they will walk away calling you a bad person about 80% of the time. And that’s only if you are smiling and joking. If you are serious, that number jumps up to 95%.
So how does all this fit into what and how Vietnam is?
When you drive around Vietnam, you see beautiful French architecture. You see a western-like alphabet system. You see pictures of Ho Chi Mihn and the communist flag everywhere you go. Nothing here seems to be more than 100 years old. There are no cultural icons here (from my superficial viewpoint) other than Ho Chi Mihn (again, this is from the past 100 years) and it’s almost like everything started over after it became communist. That’s my theory. People just keep coming along and resetting Vietnam. China occupied this place and there were constant squirmishes. You see Japanese bunkers in the hillsides here in Vung Tao (where I’m staying with my mom and stepdad right now). This place was bombed until it looked like the moon not 30 years ago. And it’s poor and all its government is corrupt.
So as you walk around, of course it feels different. It’s one of the strangest things you’ve ever seen. About 10 years ago I saw this Oprah episode where she was talking with these kids that had this disease that caused them to look about 60 years old when they were really only 7. Here it’s the opposite. You walk around saying, “Where’s all the old stuff?” It seems like everyone is after you because they really have no other options. They are trying to make some money. I’m sure that if a person could find something much more intellectually stimulating than sitting around and asking people if they want to sit on the back of his motorbike so that he can take them down the street, they would. A woman charged my mom 3 bucks to use the bathroom at the boat terminal. I’m sure that made her day but you would never have that happen to you in New Zealand. The person wouldn’t be able to live with herself. Socrates once said that it is nearly impossible for a poor man to be a completely honest one. What if you needed to steal bread for food so as not to starve to death?
The effect is that you walk around Vietnam feeling like the culture has been muted. Instead of the loud and resonating culture you see everywhere in China, you instead feel like someone is screaming at you from beneath a pillow, which is muffling their voice.
Compound this with a poor education to begin with and you have a bunch of people in poverty without the means to escape it. I talked to a man at my hostel who said the place across the street charged him 7000 dong for a 7-up and the place down the road charged him only 4000. “I will never go back to that guy again. Doesn’t he realize that???” No, he doesn’t. Hungry and ignorant people don’t look that far ahead. It’s all about the here and now and day by day. Only once one is secure can he afford to even consider looking ahead.
But I still don’t get the no-bargaining policy. I wanted to get weighed on this electronic scale people cart around here and the guy wanted 5000 dong. It should only be 2000 and so I offered him 1000. He said no and wouldn’t budge on the price: 5000 dong for me. So I walked away. We were both left with nothing. Why not just give me the local’s price? Something tells me this guy isn’t driving home in a BMW. People tell me (and believe me, I’ve asked a lot of people) that maybe he just didn’t need the money. I find that highly doubtful. And if that is indeed the case, then I speculate that he will remain poor for the rest of his life. In China, they would come after you saying “okay okay okay! 2000!” when they saw that you were leaving. Let’s keep in mind that in 100 years, we will probably all be speaking Chinese.
Visible aspects of Vietnam’s culture have long since been bombed away. I’m sure the people aspects still remain and of course, have all been influenced by abroad – but it’s important to keep in mind the fact that this is true for any culture. Even the respectively culturally devoid America (itself only 300 years old). Everyone is influenced by everyone and with the prevelance of the Internet and satellite TV, this propagation of (especially American) culture happens at break-neck speed.
Food for thought, eh?