Hue Ohoy! | Daanish Mustafa’s Blog

Jul 2013

I had never been to Vietnam. That seemed to me the best reason to go there. That’s besides my penchant for Vietnamese food and curiosity for how might it taste in its homeland. So to Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) I headed. Even though my intent was just to enjoy the country, I was to get a lot more than I had bargained for. Little did I know that the travel through Vietnam would also be a journey through a laboratory of development. The development formula being tested may be depressingly familiar, but the ingredients, like the ingredients of Vietnamese food, are quite alien to what we are familiar with here in South Asia.

Vietnam is a country that makes an instant millionaire of you. One US $ is worth more than 20,000 Vietnamese dong. For the only ten ego affirming days of my life, I undertook cash transactions, in hundreds of thousands and occasional million—even if they were in dongs. “Hey man you owe me 300,000 (lakh).” “150,000!? I am not paying a 1000 more than 100,000—take it or leave it!” Such delicious conversations spiced up my days in Vietnam.

I stayed in a modest hotel on, what was essentially the City Saddar Road of Saigon, lined with hardware stores. Being that my friend and I were in Saigon for just one day, we tried to make the most of it, by heading out to where the Western tourists hang out—naturally! Actually there was a rational reason for it. We had a chance of finding street food vendors who would speak a modicum of English. Besides, I have always maintained that observing western tourists and backpackers in their natural habitat, i.e., bars, message parlors and pizza joints lined streets in Asian cities, can be an immensely edifying experience in itself.

We had some immensely delicious street food quite cheaply. The western tourists and back packers did not disappoint either. They were out there in their full touristic regalia—shorts, tank tops and flip-flops doing the mating dance in compact herds. The two main bars around which, these seal like colonies of western tourists gelled had a parameter of street vendors peddling anything from trinkets, massage parlor coupons to an occasional human being for carnal pleasure. One of the most disgusting sights of Vietnam, as of most of South East Asia, is of the really old ugly white men with their hands around petite teenage Asian women. I just found myself thinking that the only western tourists we get in Pakistan are generally armed and have CIA and Blackwater gym memberships. Would we really be better off if we could have the young drunk backpackers and old perverts instead?

The road trip to Can Tho on the Mekong delta was scenic, impressive and a tad annoying. The waterscapes and rice paddies along the way were just picture perfect. The actual road and infrastructure was simply impressive. And the fact, that our driver, like practically everybody else, wanted to follow the speed limit was almost annoying. The Pakistani in me wanted to put the peddle to the mettle and cover the four hour journey in 2.5 hours.

Vietnamese society, like most other societies in tropical Asia was and still is to an extent a water-based culture. Unlike us land rats in Pakistan, people, lived, worked, and died on water in traditional Vietnamese culture. It was a society that was synchronized with the rhythms of its extensive water ways. But like every place else in the world that made a social choice, or that had the choice made for it to follow the western development trajectory, the basic parameters of human environment relations have been changed. Now Vietnam is in the process of reinventing itself into a land-based society. Where once the rhythms of floods and low flows, erosion and deposition were as unremarkable and integral to Vietnamese society as the passing of the seasons, there are now hazards and challenges to be fought and controlled.

My friend is working on a project to promote biological measures to control erosion along the urbanized riverbanks of the Mekong delta. A laudable effort, except that cycles of erosion and deposition is what deltas do and principles of geomorphology dictate that erosion control along one stretch of the stream simply transfer the problem to another part of the stream. So one can protect one community only to put another community at greater risk. Erosion has only become an issue because Vietnamese people have started building concrete dwellings instead of traditional wooden structures on stilts or floating houses. They were well adapted to climate and hydrological challenges when they were poorer. Now that they are better off they are less adapted and us Western trained experts will help them readapt to their environment with the help of our friendly neighborhood Rockefeller Foundation. Such are the ways of development-wallahs, and God bless them because they sure help me butter my toast.

The bumpy plane ride from ultra modern Ho Chi Minh City airport to the other brand new Da Nang airport certainly got me thinking of mortality. In Monsoon Asia there is no such thing as a routine flight. The new dragon bridge in Da Nang is one of Vietnam’s declarations to the world that it has arrived. The symbol of Vietnam’s impressive material progress is the almost universal electrification, and beautiful uninterrupted city lights thanks to scores of mostly small to medium-sized hydo-electric plants all along the mountainous spine of the spindly long country. In centralized states like Vietnam, the building of dams is almost a national imperative. But despite that almost missionary zeal to building dams, the Vietnamese government has taken the sensible decision to focus on small and medium sized hydroelectric generation capacity. That is something our big dam obsessed water managers could learn from.

Visit to the world heritage site of Hoi An near Da Nang was a stark reminder to me of the devastation that mass tourism can wreak on heritage. The old trading town has no heritage left in it. There are just restaurants, trinket shops and massage parlors under the façade of the original buildings. The ancient city of Hue (pronounced whoA) is another matter though. The impressive citadel in the ancient capital of Vietnam is a sight to behold. It is particularly eerie if one considers that one of the bloodiest battles of the Vietnam war was fought in Hue. The city lay on the demilitarized zone between North and South Vietnam. Hence the name of the most famous watering hole of the city, the DMZ bar. The city sees more than its share of elderly American Vietnam veterans walking around reliving the place that they used to bomb as young men.
Vietnam is a country, which was almost dragooned into modernity through blood and fire. The American GIs, B52s, F-111s and napalm not only singed the physical but also the social landscape of the country. The communists, upon taking over, imposed a draconian order that on the one hand left little room for dissent or different visions of the future, but on the other hand also brought equal and universal access to education, health care and basic economic security. Having had a version of modernity forcibly imposed upon it, Vietnam like its bigger neighbor to the North is now turning to market capitalism as a pathway to development. While that developmental path has ushered in unprecedented corruption in public life, where the big policy bosses are cashing in hand over fist to the intense disapproval of the Vietnamese people, it has also brought new opportunities to a universally educated populace that is experiencing unprecedented social mobility. I suppose if one has to take the modern developmental trajectory then it is better to have it traumatically imposed in one go, as the communists did, instead of piecemeal as we have done in Pakistan.

In the bustling cities of Vietnam, everybody cruises around on mopeds. The few cars there are, are either taxis or are Bentleys and BMWs driven by big oligarchs. Hotels mostly belong to the state with ten times the staff that one might see elsewhere. The country is a poster child for the votaries of the capitalist system. But to my eyes, more than the flash of tall buildings and new bridges, the country represents the quiet pride of a society that militarily defeated the United States. It represents what a determined state can do to deliver welfare to all of its citizens. And in between there it also represents the environmental and social costs that follow from headlong rush into a market economy. Vietnam has important lessons and cautionary tales to offer Pakistan. It would be good if instead of a constant focus on the West we also paid attention to the experiences of this remarkable country.

As a postscript—our bakers could also take a hint or two from the Vietnamese Banh mi bread. Our misfortune was to be colonized by the British who gave us that abomination—double roti—bread. That is one colonial legacy I wish we could exchange for the French colonial legacy in Vietnam of Banh mi. Just for that, I say challo Da Nang challo, Hue ke paar challo!

Daanish Mustafa is a Reader in Politics and Environment at the Department of Geography, King’s College, London. He spends his time contesting the despostism of the reader over the message of the Author.

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