Monday, March 07, 2005

Sing Chao from Saigon!

After a prolonged absence from the blog, I’ll be updating it almost daily with observations and insights gleaned from my travels in Southeast Asia, where I will be from March 7 to March 27.

The following covers my first two days in Southeast Asia, in Ho Chi Minh City, aka Saigon.

This has really been a wild transition. The jet lag was really nothing, since I slept much of the way here. So when we arrived in the morning, it felt like morning to me anyway. I will try to give you a recap of my activities and some observations.

First, Saigon (or Ho Chi Minh City, as it has officially been called since reunification) is a large and fairly dirty city. It's about 7 million people and, along with Hanoi in the north, is one of the two most desirable cities in Vietnam, in terms of educational and economic opportunities in Vietnam. EVERYONE drives a motorcycle/scooter and it's very chaotic. I'm amazed that there aren't more wrecks. People steer right into large streams of bikes to get where they're going. Adhering to traffic signals seems optional. It's very polluted. From the top of our hotel, where the pool is, we can look out over the city. A haze seems to separate us from the streets and walking a few blocks in any direction makes you feel like you've smoked a pack of cigarettes.

This is a socialist country in name only. In 1986, the government finally confronted one of the inevitable shortcomings of communism, which is that equally distributed wealth destroys individual initiative, thus killing productivity and efficiency. So people own property and operate businesses (often in the same place). Growth has been fairly fast. Gross Domestic Product growth has averaged 7-8% over the past few years, which is 2 or 3 times the US rate. In keeping with communism, the government is a totalitarian, one-party regime and corruption is an issue. That said, corruption that amounts to over $100,000 is punishable by death by firing squad.

We hit the ground running yesterday, having lunch at a wonderful restaurant that served atomically spicy beef, wonderful pho and other delights. We visited the War Remnants Museum, which is dedicated to the "American War." Mostly it was a lot of old photos as well as several preserved US tanks, artillery and fighter jets. But it was still pretty moving. It's amazing the side of the war that we are shielded from in US history classes. While 58,000 US soldiers died in the war, about 3 million Vietnamese died in the war, of which 2 million were civilians. The effects of Agent Orange and fire bombings can still be seen on the bodies of street people here. It can be quite appalling and, sadly in several cases, revolting. Amazingly, this country has proved willing to move on. Everyone we’ve encountered has been very eager to interact with Americans, although we are incredibly rich in their eyes, so some skepticism is warranted.

The older generation remains very bitter, a guide told me, but people our age, who have grown up in a period of rapid, Western-style economic advancement, have tuned our their parents’ grumblings about Americans amid optimism about their future as a country. The country remains quite impoverished in many areas and we were a bit incredulous at a guide’s claim that Vietnam would be one of the world’s richest countries in 10-15 years. I was very interested in her observation that the single most valuable set of skills a young person could develop in Vietnam was language skills. Foreign direct investment is critical in this country and, because foreigners cannot buy property directly here, liaisons fluent in other languages are critical players. The challenge is that, as in America, pay for teachers is quite low and there’s a lot of incentive to work in other fields, even in factories, because of the better pay.

We spent most of today in the Mekong Delta, which is really like nothing I’ve ever seen in my life. This muddy river is to Vietnam what the Mississippi was to the US and the Nile is to Egypt. Much of Southeast Asia’s agricultural activity and its rice production in particular, is based in this region. Whole cities cluster along the river as long-tailed motor boats sputter up and down it. Farmers come into town to sell their wares at various markets. Families take their boats out and indicate what they seek to purchase by hanging, for example, a watermelon, from tall bamboo shoots off the bows of their boats. There’s no bartering; everyone uses cash, but the American dollar is accepted everywhere. I bought a military-style sun hat for $1. This is known as the “floating market” in that hundreds of boats putter along the Mekong and its tributaries to buy and sell all kinds of textile and agricultural goods, as well as many cheaply produced goods and illicitly delivered downstream from Cambodia, where labor rates are incredibly low. Anything from cigarettes and cosmetics to narcotics can flow from this route. What’s also interesting is the story behind the boats. Men with fortuitous, auspicious-sounding names are chosen to paint eyes on the bows of boats. These eyes are meant to scare off crocodiles.

We had tea and lunch deep in the delta at a beautiful garden restaurant/home. The first course was elephant ear fish, a large fish about the size and shape of an elephant’s ear, fried so deeply that it didn’t need to be scaled. The entire fish, head to tail, was presented to each table and guests took turns plucking the meet off of the fish and onto rice paper, which they rolled like tortillas and ate. Along with tea, they served what they call whisky, but which is actually very fortified rice wine (about 45% alcohol). Now, I’m not gonna lie to you; this is where things get a little weird. Snake is a big part of the diet here and, as I mentioned, one of its perceived benefits is virility in men and fertility in women. Indeed, snakes are wildly abundant in the delta region. So, it naturally follows that in a region that supplies rice to all of Vietnam and to much of Asia, snake wine would be very common here – like the local moonshine. We were introduced to a proprietor who drinks two bottles of it a day. In markets, it was very easy to find bottles that contained large snakes, many of them cobras, steeping in the rice wine/whisky. One that we sampled came from a bottle containing a cobra with a large scorpion in its mouth. After lunch several of us were brave enough to sample a shot of snake wine that had been distilled with snake blood. It tasted like bad tequila, but I felt strangely empowered by the libation, so much so that I had a second round at a subsequent stop.

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