Filed under: Getting on the Way to Peacemaking
From south to north Viet Nam is a nation of earth moving equipment, towering cranes, motor scooters/cycles and very lush green fields. Forests have been cut down; some have been reforested. Fields and crops teeter on the sides of mountains. Towns and cities are exploding
upward to seven stories and outward enveloping former rice fields. Industrial zones announce their presence with truck traffic and huge buildings. In the “pho” shops (the real fast food sector) noodles mixed with recipes of delicious stock honed over generations are served to lines of customers as they always have been.
My travelling partners rightfully became impatient with me as I struggled with the value of the currency when we paid for food and services. It took me about a week to get it through my head that a US dollar is worth 17,000 dongs and not 1700 dong. Even the cashiers at the shops and hotels had to help me sort things out and seamlessly reached into my billfold to speed up my faltering calculations when it came time to pay. How could a teacher live on $70 per month (that’s one million dong), drive a motor scooter and remain positive, I kept asking. Everyone has other ways of generating income, I was told.
The buses move a lot slower because of an apparent fear of police fines. When we told people how we use to live with military check points and fear on every road, a driver told us, “You lived with fear of check points and ambush and we live with fear of the traffic police.” When a taxi cyclist gave me a lift, usually for five to ten thousand dongs, he reached under his seat to pull out a helmet for me to borrow for the ride. Only twice in my month long visit did I see motor scooter riders daring the law and riding without helmets.
Several incidents reminded me that police conduct in Viet Nam today is not unlike many other places I have lived in the world. With enough money a fine can be made to disappear. One driver told us that bus and transport companies have informal prearranged protection schemes in place with authorities so that traffic violations including speeding tickets go away. These shades of the old pre unification Viet Nam remind me that change is hard, and tough regulation needs tough enforcement, a lesson that some over developed economies might learn as well.
There are roads to places I once only dreamed of going. In this land that President Johnson once made the poster child of terrorism no one spoke of a single terrorist. “This is one place that is safe for foreign travellers,” bragged a merchant who serves backpackers. Everything that is new in Viet Nam is built on the old Viet Nam – the national myth of invincibility, the traffic patterns of going with the flow like modern freeways but with scooters; sweeping statements of government mistakes, reliance on the great river systems, some street hustlers who apparently were trained in the old Viet Nam, and confidence in a future among the community of nations.
Church buildings, and pagodas are not the measure of a people’s spiritual life, but to the extent that rebuilding, polish and quantity are a tiny piece of some kind of test there is a lot happening. Some are being rebuilt with government support but many are the projects of communities and people seeking to connect to another side of themselves. These religious expressions are pushing out for more space. Recently in Hanoi, Catholics of the region gathered with candles and sustained prayers to support their church’s tough negotiations with government over land issues. As a result the disputed urban land is now becoming a park instead of a project site for developers. Unlike some places I know, people here wait in line to attend seminaries and Bible schools. Marxists in Viet Nam like post religious folks in the West turn to religious institutions as interesting expressions of art and creativity but generally devoid of spiritual meaning. In Viet Nam something else is happening.
When the four million Khmer people of the South, religious minorities or highland tribes demonstrate for more autonomy the Vietnamese answer sounds like the American response to Afghanistan’s growing conflict, “There needs to be better economic development.” One person told me “those people need to learn to work with us”, another person said the problem was “fired up and uncooperative leaders.” As I travelled the
highlands of central and northern Viet Nam I nervously viewed newly denuded forests on the mountainside, and the many more Vietnamese settlers interspersed between occasional highland tribal villages. My Vietnamese friends always described the highlanders as poor but the greater number of fields and terraces that hugged the mountains, and their handicrafts available everywhere suggested to me that these one time hunter gatherers had now been “settled down” and were in an irreversible stage of learning to do business the Vietnamese way.
I am still on a quest for answers to questions that gnaw at me, questions that may be fair or irrelevant. What happens when the graduates of the one or more Universities in each of the 60 or more provinces become restless, impatient or just don’t share the hope of this present generation? What happens when the bulldozers and construction cranes go silent because of the global depression? Without a Wall Street to blame who is left to shoulder the burden and heat?
There were moments of pure joy in returning to Viet Nam after an absence of 34 years since my last trip. The warmth that enters a situation when you communicate in a little Vietnamese moves things along as it always has. I felt a little pride that I may have been part of a movement that helped end the American war. Driving over the Ben Hai Bridge that once separated North Viet Nam from South Viet Nam was a vigorous reminder that things really do change even though they may not happen on my clock. Again and again I found myself asking what would this nation have been like if it had not been catapulted into extended wars that lasted for thirty years from 1945 to 1975? Would the reforested areas be more mature? Would Viet Nam be a cradle for renewal not only for its own people but for the region? Would the seven story buildings have grown into a renaissance of life and hope for people everywhere?
I wished I could have met my old Vietnamese colleagues and friends. Most are gone and I could not find those who remained. I couldn’t even find the houses I once lived in although some of them may have survived the seven story explosion as backyard storage areas or servants quarters. Everything in Viet Nam is old, and everything is new.
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