by John Rember
In the fall of 2010, it’s still possible to buy two round-trip plane tickets from the west coast of the United States to Vietnam for two thousand dollars. Once there, it’s cheaper than staying home. A clean hotel room with a shower and toilet costs two people fifteen to twenty-five dollars and includes breakfast. Lunch can be locally-grown fruit, and it’s hard to eat a dollar’s worth. A lavish dinner for two costs ten dollars. Beer is cheap and good. Wine is expensive and not good.
Of course, a lot of times a beer sounds good with lunch. Beer doesn’t go with mangos or papaya or pineapples or bananas. It goes with curry, or a seafood hot-pot, or braised pork ribs, or prawns in tamarind sauce. Sometimes you get hungry near a tall hotel, with a rooftop restaurant where menu prices are in dollars, the tables have bouquets, and even the chairs wear tablecloths.
So you can spend money as if you were a rich American tourist. Even with Vietnamese inflation running at twelve percent in 2010, being a rich American in Vietnam isn’t nearly as expensive as being a rich American in Venice or London. But if you are a Vietnamese farmer, in the fall of 2010 you’re paying more for basic necessities such as food and fuel than you were in 2009, and a lot more than you were in 2008, because inflation in 2009 was twenty-four percent.
The reason for this inflation has been an invasion of foreign capital, some brought in by tourists, but most brought in by people building infrastructure for more tourists. Earlier rounds of inflation have come with the sweatshops and electronics factories built when the Vietnamese government opened its human resources to international capitalism.
The government doesn’t call it capitalism. They call it enhanced communism, and sure enough, the government takes a generous cut from the new factory builders and the new factory workers and anyone else who wants to invest in Vietnamese land or resources.
But tourism is regarded as the real cash cow. Neighboring Thailand has made an art form of tourism, building whole cities of hotels on islands that once held only rubber and coconut plantations. The Vietnamese are following their example. They too want eight-hundred-dollar hotel rooms and sex tourists and people who will order Armani suits from people not named Armani. They ignore signs that Thailand’s tourist industry has been overbuilt, with half-empty hotels lining its beaches even before the crash of 2008.
People hoping to get in on the ground floor of the Next Best Place are waving their money, and the government admits anyone with the price of admission. Vietnam is like Thailand, only its beaches aren’t as crowded with tourists. That’s a good thing, at least in the eyes of tourists, who can be a self-loathing species.
But not all tourists are looking for the perfect deserted beach, the most primitive trek, or the best curry dish in the world. Not all of them are looking for low-priced art or antiques. Not all of them are looking to lie drunk on a sun-drenched beach chair for two weeks. Some of them are looking for their youth, and in Vietnam, some of them can pinpoint the spot where they saw it last.
I didn’t take the first chance I had to go to Vietnam. That was in May of 1968, when I graduated from high school. Some of my classmates had joined the Marines that spring, and they went from commencement to boot camp. As a college student, I didn’t have to worry about going to war until my junior year, when a draft lottery was instituted.
The night of the lottery, my college roommate and I purchased a six-pack of Rolling Rock, a bag of Doritos, and two cans of bean dip. A party.
Our lives were tied to the numbers that were picked for us, but we didn’t understand that. We each opened a beer, scooped up gobs of bean dip with our Doritos, and turned on the radio. The lottery started. The second date called was my roommate’s birthday. His draft number was two. The party was over.
My roommate enlisted rather than be drafted into the infantry, and ended up going to language school and learning Japanese. He spent his war on Okinawa, eavesdropping on Japanese military communications. Once out of the Army, he became an auto mechanic in Philadelphia, probably the only auto mechanic in Philadelphia capable of reading Toyota shop manuals in their original language.
My own number was 117. Selective Service drafted to 113 that year.
Vietnam didn’t teach me Japanese, but it shaped me. It gave me a deep distrust of the powerful and demented old men of my government. It derailed my plans to go to law school and become wealthy and live in a gated subdivision and learn to play golf and eventually become one of those old men.
I couldn’t articulate those thoughts at eighteen, but I did sense that Vietnam pulled my life out of its ordained path and made it more alienated and thoughtful than it should have been. Though invisible, it was always there, always exerting a genetic influence. It was like discovering that you were adopted, and that your real parents were Vietnamese. Who knew?
Julie and I fly into Saigon from Boise on November 17, 2010. It’s a twenty-three hour trip. We are jet-lagged and confused.
We get ripped off right away by a taxi scam. It costs us thirty-five dollars to be delivered to the wrong hotel. It should have cost us ten to be delivered to the right one. It’s our first encounter with Vietnamese economic policy. It will remain in our minds during all subsequent transactions in Vietnam.
The good news is that over the next two months we will save far more than the twenty-five dollars we lose to the taxi-scammer. Paranoids make hard bargainers, and we refuse to be good-willed American tourists, free with our dollars and excited about mailing souvenirs home. Instead we look for the next person who might trick us and take our money. I take the lead in this matter, refusing offers for treks and tours and motorcycle taxi rides to the best hotel in town. “We’re not rich American tourists,” I say. “We’re poor American tourists.”
There is no way to translate “poor American tourist” into Vietnamese. American tourists get to Vietnam on jet planes, from a country that lets its citizens leave and then return. They have carbon footprints that Paul Bunyan can’t match. They have cards that pull wads of money from ATM machines.
When a poll was taken of young people in Southeast Asia, asking them what they most desired in life, the majority wanted an ATM card.
So we walk instead of ride around Saigon. We do not take a tour. For reasons of claustrophobia, we do not visit the Cu Chi tunnels, used to shelter a Viet Cong battalion during the war. We consult the guidebook and walk around our crowded neighborhood. We visit the Museum of Fine Arts and the war rooms under the presidential palace of the defunct Republic of South Vietnam. We find some good restaurants and once, an air-conditioned coffee shop where even the prices are modeled on Starbucks.
Saigon is a city of seven or eight or nine million. Motorcycles are the preferred form of transport. Most intersections lack traffic lights. Five or six streams of traffic, fifty motorcycles wide, will move through each other without as many collisions as you’d expect. The decibel level is in the hearing-damage range.
Our hotel is comfortable and in a neighborhood of restaurants and shops, but the size of Saigon, its traffic, its noise, the beggars displaying Agent-Orange-mutated children, and the warnings in our guidebook of motorcycle thieves make us want to go south, through the Mekong Delta to the island of Phu Quoc.
Life on Phu Quoc: up at dawn, watch the sunrise off the balcony. Walk down to the restaurant, have a coffee, have another coffee. Walk a mile along the beach or until you pass one hundred thousand lost flip-flops, whichever comes first. Walk back. Have lunch. Start a new book on the Kindle. Feed the tan. Swim in the crashing surf. Have a beer. Have dinner. Finish the new book on the Kindle.
Watch the evening thunderstorm march across the water on legs of lightning. When the rain hits, head for the suite for the night. Go to sleep to thunder. Dream of war.
We stay at a small boutique hotel on a secluded southern beach of the island. Our suite is all teak and marble and beveled glass. It would be luxurious except there is no electricity after 10 p.m. No television anytime. No hot water, even though our bathroom has a jacuzzi tub inset into its marble surfaces. Not much water pressure. It would take all day to fill the tub. But the shower dribbles enough cool water to wash off the salt after a day at the beach.
Julie and I don’t normally stay at boutique hotels, but our hotel wasn’t planned to be boutique. It was supposed to be much larger, with a dozen or so bungalows built out behind the hotel. Our suite, I decide, is the owner’s intended residence.
The common areas, the kitchen, the restaurant and gift shop are all built for the crowds that will come with Phase II.
Phase II is not going to make it. Work has yet to start on the bungalows, or on a good water system, or on the power lines to run twenty air-con units. Meanwhile, Phase I is deteriorating, despite the efforts of a small army of landscapers, beach attendants, waitresses and bartenders. From the balcony, I can see peeling paint and the balding thatch of aging beach umbrellas. The hotel’s two jet skis sit rusting and unused in a litter-filled storage bay behind an artisan-crafted rock wall from the restaurant.
But the crippled luxury of our hotel suits both our sensibilities and our budget. The food is beyond good, and an expert massage on the beach costs three dollars. Long walks along the coastline don’t cost anything except time and sweat, and reveal more beaches and more shoals of plastic, and now and then a single standing wall of a collapsed house, a remnant of the time before the war.
At the end of World War II, the population of Vietnam was less than 25 million. Now it’s ninety million. Population density is 628 people per square mile, twice that of China. Seventy percent of present-day Vietnamese were not born when the Vietnam War ended in 1975.
It’s a country of young and hopeful people, and there’s no thought that they will ever run out of resources to exploit or markets to sell to. But we see lots of inflation-impoverished old people, lots of unemployed young ones, lots of people selling lottery tickets, lots of new plastic crap in the markets on its way to becoming the old plastic crap that marks the high-tide lines. Every year the new market economy grows seven percent, and that growth is seen as proof that things will get better and better until everyone has an ATM card.
The communists need to change their name of their party to something more American. They’re a new hereditary elite, feeding off an ability to pass laws in their favor and siphon tax dollars for their own companies and appoint their relatives to high positions in companies or governments.
At street level, you pass rows of shops, all selling the same goods. Hotel districts are expanding in beach towns — you can spot them by the construction cranes. The buildings going up are monsters with hundreds of rooms. Under the skeletal shadows of the hotels, restaurants park children on the sidewalk, and it’s not uncommon to have tiny smiling girls thrust menus under your nose five or six times in a single block.
Fans of capitalism tout its capacity for creative destruction, but more than once in Vietnam I had the thought that what was being destroyed was a nation’s young people. They compete with each other on a life-and-death basis, and it made me glad that there was an ocean between Vietnam’s young people and ours.
A temporary incursion into Cambodia:
Kampot is a small, lazy town on a Cambodian estuary that leads to the Gulf of Thailand. The food is good. Our hotel is clean and new. A population of English-speaking expatriates is happy to recount sad life stories and local survival tips for the price of a beer. The Honey Bar, whose outside sign has a dissipated Pooh Bear hoisting a beer mug, is for sale for five thousand dollars, and that includes the girls who work there. We leave Kampot thinking we should have stayed maybe a year longer. I’ve been a bartender. I could do it again.
We escape Phnom Penh as quickly as we can, distressed that our hotel has been built on the site of one of the Khmer Rouge’s slaughterhouses, and by the taxi drivers’ incessant cries: “Killing Fields? You want to go to Killing Fields?”
We tour Angkor Wat and a small percentage of the temples that surround it. A thousand years ago, these jungle-covered ruins were the biggest city in the world, ten miles on a side, containing a million people. It shows the scale of our own time that two to three times that many were killed in the Khmer Rouge genocide alone.
When we were in Kampot, we met a down-at-his-heels Australian running a small-time tour business with his Cambodian in-laws. He had explained for us the pathologically laid-back attitude of Cambodians: “Most of them had their whole families killed by the Khmer Rouge. They live with no sense of the future.”
Hanoi is not laid-back. It is the capital of a huge and diverse but officially unified nation, although in our short time in the capital we see evidence of deep divisions between rich and poor, young and old, north and south, mountain and lowland, ethnic Chinese and ethnic Vietnamese.
Communism still has a religious heft in Hanoi, even as global capitalism pays the bills. A few of the self-sacrificing heroes of 1975 are still in power, and younger middle-aged bureaucrats still pay lip service to the people’s struggle against American imperialism. A still younger generation of communists is composed of a familiar international breed: intelligent but unimaginative young people who do all the right things in high school and college to worm their way into the existing power structure. Once there, they display a commendable respect for enforcing rules, following procedures, and advancing their careers. But like the generation before them, they have little ideological backbone when it comes to keeping their fingers out of the cookie jar, and Vietnam’s corruption index matches that of Ethiopia, Mongolia, and Tanzania.
A local magazine survey of Hanoi residents reveals that what Hanoians want most in life is not an ATM card. They want a car. This, in spite of the fact that if everybody in Hanoi who wants a car gets one, there will be no room – none — on the already gridlocked streets.
One good thing the government has done is to build housing for the homeless, and down the coast from Hanoi, there are countless five- to ten-story concrete buildings going up around every town. Much of Vietnam is made up of limestone mountains, and those mountains are being ground into powder, and the powder is mixed with water and gravel and poured into forms. There are a limited number of forms: one for family housing, one for multi-family housing, one or two for tourist hotels, and so on. Different colored ceramic facades distinguish one building from another.
In the future there will be no mountains left in the country. In their place will be a vast grey hive, a labyrinth a thousand miles long, with caste-specific cells for genetically-engineered farmers, shopkeepers, soldiers, party members, and tourists.
The week we arrive in Nha Trang, it’s been listed by an international tourist organization as one of the ten worst beach towns in the world. We don’t know that when we check into the Ha Van hotel, where friendly people usher us to a nice twenty-dollar room that comes with the best breakfast we’ll have in Vietnam. We don’t know that when we discover the Louisiana Brew House, across the shore highway from our hotel, where you can sit by the pool all day, drinking beer and Kindling your way through a Russian novel, and eat a superb lunch at poolside or in the attached restaurant. We don’t know that when we walk through the town’s bizarre beachfront sculpture garden in seventy-degree sunshine, or when we visit its restored Cham Dynasty towers. We especially don’t know that when we find an inexpensive Indian restaurant on a narrow back street right across from an ATM.
What could Nha Trang done to have gotten itself on a ten-worst list? It’s the most touristed place we visit in Vietnam, but we’ve become hardened to the beggars and street-hawkers and sidewalk touts, and they have long ago learned to read the subtle signals of that hardening, and they mostly leave us alone. Nha Trang has a half-dozen half-completed high-rise hotels, and some of the completed hotels in town are empty, even though the weather is good. If you dine upstairs at the Indian restaurant, you look across the street to a clothing factory, where the teen-aged workers get ready for bed, right next to their sewing machines. They look out at you with eyes a hundred years old. They see you looking back at them, and you both realize how unbridgeable the gap is between you, how improbable for each the gaze of the other. The blinds come down with a snap. You go back to your beer and lamb vindaloo.
Perhaps the worst thing that Nha Trang has done is to sprawl into a miles-long high-rise carnival on a beautiful white half-moon beach. It doesn’t help that the beach lies between two fog-topped mountain headlands and faces a soft blue bay full of dark green islands.
There is a headless chicken tendency in the tourist industry, one that keeps on keeping on even when it’s clear the tourist infrastructure threatens to kill the thing that attracted tourists in the first place. Nha Trang isn’t quite there yet. It won’t get there, either.
We still want to go back in ten years, not just for another week around the pool at the Louisiana Brew House, but to see what becomes of a place built on the ability of people from all over the world to buy cheap airline tickets in a time when airline tickets won’t be cheap.
In the mountain town of Dalat, home to Vietnam’s wine industry, a university, a replica of the Eiffel Tower, an astonishing botanical garden, and the summer palace of Vietnam’s last emperor, we strike up a conversation with our waiter in the restaurant across the street from our hotel.
He speaks good English, and acts happy to see us. He’s twenty-one years old and goes to Dalat University. He grew up on his parents’ coffee farm. His name is Kong, he says, like King Kong. He flexes his muscles and laughs.
He asks us where we’re from and we say America and we ask where he’s from and he says he’s from his mother. It’s a joke we’ve heard before in Vietnam but when we ask where his mother’s from, he says his parents have always lived in the mountains north of Dalat.
Does he see his parents? Not often. They work the farm. When Kong isn’t working as a waiter, he needs to study.
Kong wants to meet us for coffee in the morning. He has some questions he wants to ask us, and we reluctantly agree. I tell Julie that if he tries to sell us something or get us to go on a trek, I’m out the door. But Kong wants information, not money.
“How can I get rich?” he asks, even before the coffee comes.
I’m not the person to ask, I tell him. I revert to an old cultural narrative and tell him to work hard, save his money, and do everything he can to stay out of debt, but that advice doesn’t even work in America any longer. Finally I say, “Kong, some money is good, but you can have too much. Make sure you own things. Don’t let things own you.”
He doesn’t like this advice. “Interesting,” he says.
I ask him about his family’s farm and he says it’s on a steep hillside. Each coffee plant has to be watered by hand in dry season, he says. He has one brother and three sisters. His brother will run the farm. His sisters will be married to other farmers. He is the oldest son, and for that reason he was chosen to go to university.
He asks how old I am. When I tell him sixty, he says that his parents are younger than me but they look much older. He says that he would like to own a car someday, when he’s a hotel manager in Saigon.
“You will never be rich if you buy a car,” I say. He doesn’t like this advice either.
Julie compliments him on his command of English and apologizes for our not knowing Vietnamese.
“You learn Vietnamese?” he asks. “Why?” Then he says, “I have to learn English. English is my future.”
There is little awareness in Vietnam that the world might run short of oil, or that the economy won’t grow by seven percent every year forever. There is no understanding that recent floods in the central part of the country might be related to changes in the world climate, or that the rice fields of the Mekong Delta could be under sea water by the year 2100. There is no fear that tourists might stop coming due to collapsed economies, or that tourism might become morally unaffordable in a world of scarcity. Population growth is seen as a problem by a few government officials, but when Vietnam’s official two-child policy was recently relaxed, it took only a year for the population growth rate to almost double.
Where it’s not being used as space for concrete buildings, the whole country is being cleared and terraced to grow vegetables. Vietnam will still have food if industrialism and globalism and world currencies get tossed on the ash-heap of history. But it’s not hard to imagine the great tourist hotels becoming high-rise versions of the overgrown temples of Angkor Wat. As for the ambitious young people who have put their faith in our cherished western narrative of hard work and accumulated wealth, I think there will be a time that they will be angry and disappointed for themselves and their families. At least they won’t starve, I think, but then I remember that when the Japanese confiscated the Vietnamese rice crop in 1945, two million of them did.
Near the end of our time in Vietnam, Julie and I hike to a high peak outside the city of Dalat. On our way back down we stop at a roadside café, and a wizened old woman sells us two cans of Coke and sits down at our table. She looks at our wedding rings and smiles.
“How many children?” she asks.
“None,” says Julie. “Zero.”
I try to say that we’re content to be uncle and aunt, but that doesn’t translate well.
“I have eleven children,” she says. “My children have ten children.”
She asks me my age, and I tell her.
“I’m fifty-eight,” she says.
I pay her for the Cokes and get up to leave.
“No children,” she says, “No grandchildren.” She shakes her head in pity, and makes a face so sad that it looks like she’s crying. I’m making the same face, but she’s not looking at me.
John Rember’s latest book is MFA in a Box, available from Amazon and Barnes and Noble. His weekly blog on writing can be viewed at mfainabox.com.