Tuesday, January 18, 2011


A few reflections on this fascinating nation after a 650-mile bicycle ride through it

In addition to blogging each day, I journaled sporadically during a two-week, 650-mile bicycle ride from Ho Chi Minh City to Da Nang from which I just returned.  I’m not sure I expressed anything profound in those brief reflections; mostly, they were just short recollections after full days pedaling 100 km through tough, hilly terrain.  Once we were in the international terminal at the Ho Chi Minh City airport waiting for our flight to Seoul and on to LAX and Chicago O’Hare, I figured that was a good time to recollect some impressions.  Here they are:

POVERTY.  Once again, poverty is the prevailing reality that emerges on a cycling excursion in a developing nation.  This was the constant subtext of my 2007 ride through India.  While Vietnam, like India, is now one of the fastest growing economies in the world, its level of poverty—more starkly evident in rural areas than urban centers—stands in sharp contrast to norms and living standards in the USA.  Few drive vehicles; most—including entire families—ride motor bikes.  Why?  It’s what they can afford (and afford to fuel).  While there are notable exceptions and evidence of emerging wealth in this free-market economy (that’s right, it’s less controlled than France), the average annual income and purchasing power is a fraction of what citizens in Western nations enjoy.  Vietnam’s economic progress in the past 35 years is laudable, but the vast majority of its citizens continue to live in relative poverty.

PEOPLE ON THE MOVE.  While poverty is the prevailing norm, it is clear that the growing economy is lifting almost all boats.  We observed people in every village, town and city busy at work.  We saw markets bustling, even in the remotest locales.  We saw people shopping for motor bikes and vehicles.  The American-style shopping malls, which included a Wal-Mart-knock-off discount store (what I dubbed Big Lots on steroids), were packed with aggressive shoppers.  People all along the economic span are getting in on some of the action in some way.  They are apparently tired of barely getting along and feel that their ship has come in.  Construction is booming, roads are expanding and improving, and there is a general sense of economic promise from Ho Chi Minh City up through the Central Highlands to Da Nang.  Even as I observe this, I also observe that corporate control, amalgamation and ownership of large properties and industries is simultaneously occurring.  Lots of interesting paradoxes in a Communist Party-led country that has embraced free-market practices.

YOUTH.  Vietnam is a young nation.  At one point I commented to our cycling team that it seems like the country is being run by 15 year olds.  70% of the population has been born since 1975.  We saw children, teenagers and young adults everywhere and in large numbers.  At stores, hotels, restaurants, construction sites, etc., we observed young adults serving and managing--and managing well.  Schools are burgeoning with children.  I am not sure of the average age in Vietnam, but I would not be surprised if it is 36.

MEANING, SPIRITUALITY, VALUES.  The demographics of this youth movement would be interesting to study.  I surmise one would discover that they value education, have bought into a technology-based future, are economically upwardly mobile, and are less religious and more materialistically-minded and motivated than previous generations.  Generally, I saw little evidence of the impact of active formal religion of any sort among this youth group.  Whatever it is, it appears to tangential at the moment to the real values that are impacting and shaping the soul of this young nation.  Prosperity via technology is the biggest carrot this generation is chasing.  Everything else seems to be endured or justified or made to serve this commonly accepted goal.

CHALLENGE FOR PROTESTANT CHRISTIANITY.  While Roman Catholic Christianity is established and mainstream in Vietnam (we saw churches packed with worshipers), the Protestant branches of Christianity, perhaps because of their historic associations with Americans and Western ideologies, apparently have greater challenges.  I wonder if Vietnamese officials see in some Protestant groups some kind of lingering threat of an ideologically Western democratic movement.  Protestant churches find it difficult to officially register with the government, but I hope they will continue to try to do so.  Freedom of religion--like freedom of speech, freedom from want and freedom from fear--brings positive impact to any people anywhere.

RESILIENCE AMID DRAMATIC CULTURAL TRANSITION.  Like India, what will become of traditional values of family, thrift, and simplicity in the next 10-20 years in Vietnam is unknown.  The nation is in a transition like they have never before experienced.  The core culture cannot emerge unchanged.  But Vietnam has already proven its resilience, fortitude, and ability to fight and find a way forward amid chaos.  The fact that it has survived to begin to thrive after its infrastructure was all but destroyed by US bombs and 3,000,000 of its citizens from both south and north were casualties of the “American War” (as the Vietnamese call it) is a signal to the world and to themselves that incredible things are possible.

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