THE VICES AND VIRTUES OF VIETNAM 🇻🇳

(Photo: An elderly lady mixing cement in Saigon – June 2018)

There is a notable time lapse between this blog and my last one. The reason for this is that I just could not bring myself to write any more on the Saigon/Ho Chi Minh experience (I’ll refer to the city as Saigon in this blog as the local people don’t particularly like the new name of Ho Chi Minh following the Vietnam war). I needed some time to process what I was seeing before being able to write about it again, and frankly, even re-visiting it in my mind was distressing, as i think is evident from my previous blog.

In hindsight, (aside from the War Museum), I’m not sure why it had such a profound impact on me. I’m very much aware that there is poverty everywhere in the world. I do believe however, that even the poorest of us in the western world live a very privileged lifestyle by comparison to how people live in many countries outside of this. Our TV screens show us this every day, yet to see it first hand I think is very different. News reports and images of babies being injured by bombs in Syria etc. seem to have very little impact on us anymore. While I’ve been horrified to see these images on my TV, I’m ashamed to say that it’s become such a regular occurrence that I have almost become immune to it, and I believe that this is the same for all of us.

While walking through the streets on the outskirts of the city of Saigon, and Hanoi (to a lesser extent), I witnessed for the first time in my life, people living in what can only be described (by our standards back home), as minimal at best, and totally poverty stricken at worse. It’s a very different level of poverty than I have ever seen in the Western World. It kicks you right in the gut, and it has made me reflect on many things, not least, about being a parent, rearing children in a society very different from here.

From the time our children take their first breath, as parents, we are constantly worrying about whether we are giving them “enough”?! And I refer here to material things! In first world countries, most parents, (including myself), frantically shop at Christmas and birthdays and every other occasion that demands it, filling rooms with toys, computers and whatever material gadgets might be in fashion, fooling ourselves that this will bring so much happiness to our children and make us better parents. We buy them everything from designer clothes, shoes, to expensive sugary cereals where inviting tokens and toys are displayed on boxes and targeting parents to buy them to ensure our children have “the best product”. Sucked in like idiots. I have been that soldier! Parents are pressurized into purchasing the best designer products for the same reason. I’ve known parents who have got into serious debt in order to “keep up with the Jones’s kids” in the belief that they were being better parents as a result! We are all guilty of overindulging our children at some point, as we are ourselves. It’s almost impossible to avoid! Our children will remind us about “Johnny’s mother or father buying him the latest x-box/computer/computer game” and we are challenged constantly as parents to say No! In a nutshell, we don’t say “NO”! It’s much more difficult of course, but in the end, by doing so is teaching our children a very important life lesson. “No, you can’t have everything you want”! I would love if every teenager living in the western world was encouraged to spend a minimum of two weeks of their school holidays out here doing voluntary work. Teaching them some valuable life lessons about helping people less fortunate than themselves.

Here in Vietnam it is very very different! Many parents don’t have the luxury of saying “Yes” ever, to their children. Even to provide them with the most basic of toys is a challenge and the children are none the wiser. Parents struggle to feed and clothe their children and toys just cannot be a priority. Regardless, these children can be seen playing happily in the little alleyways and along the side of open railway tracks where their tiny houses open out onto. Their street outside their homes are train tracks. I walked down along these train tracks in Hanoi one afternoon with a local English speaking Vietnamese guide and spoke to some of the women who lived in what can only be described as little one-room shacks no bigger than 5m2. They rear their children in these rooms. They cook, sleep, and conduct their family lives in such conditions. The women dry their food on blankets across the tracks in between the times of trains speeding through their tiny street. Children were playing on the train tracks, playing with burst footballs, (probably dreaming of being the next Ronaldo). Little girls playing with worn ropes for skipping. I asked one of the mothers how she could be sure that her children were safe from the daily trains speeding through their “play areas”. She pointed to a train timetable that she had pinned to her door and explained that when the train is due to pass she calls them in off the tracks. I was gobsmacked! And yet, these men and women go about their daily lives happily. They don’t complain and claim they are very happy with their lot. The children are the happiest little children I have ever seen and remind me of the really old photos from my parents time when children played with a tin can or played skipping from sun up to sun down. To watch these children playing and with having so little is a sight to behold and lesson for any parent.

Children, from a very young age, must also help to bring in some money to the household. On one occasion when we were out taking a stroll on the outskirts of Saigon, near our luxurious accommodation (that came at a very low cost but troubled me with guilt returning to it each evening), we came across a group of children from about 4 years of age up to maybe 10 years old at the side of a main road with traffic speeding up and down. They appeared to be siblings and were rummaging through a pile of rubbish, gathering recyclables and bagging it to sell. They were happily and excitedly going through the pile only a few feet away from where we had seen the rats scurrying the previous day. This is a common enough occurrence and one that is very moving to witness as a parent. And the elderly people! We saw old women who were at least 75 years old, doing the very same as the young children had; sifting through rubbish and piling cardboard and plastic onto their bikes to sell on in the hope of making some money for their families. Another elderly couple who were well into their late 70’s or possibly 80’s in Saigon were mixing cement at the side of the road in seriously high temperatures and stacking bricks outside their little house that was situated down one of the alleyways. (There would be uproar back home if this happened!)

Away from the train tracks, people, in the main, live in tiny one or two roomed dwellings of about 15m2 with no windows, one main door at the front of the house, with iron gates that fold across the front exterior of their homes to act as their barriers at nighttime. In this small living area, motorbikes and scooters are also kept. The roofs are made from pieces of corrugated iron joined together. There is little point in putting a window into your house here as the neighbouring houses are packed so tightly around you. On another day we decided to take a stroll through the alleyways, only to discover a river with a little bridge right in the middle of the neighborhood. And as we got nearer to the river we were overwhelmed by this nauseating smell. The riverbank was filled with piles of rubbish running alongside peoples homes. Weekly garbage was literally just flung into the river and never cleared! This same river where fish was caught and eaten. The roadways where we walked along had rats, running alongside us, scurrying into yet another pile of rubbish that had been left on vacant ground. The smell was palpable in temperatures of 32 degrees celsius (and rising). Directly opposite the waste ground where the rats were happily discovering their next meal were alleyways where men and women sat on the pavements selling fruit, meat, chickens, vegetables and all sorts of foodstuffs. Women with buckets of live fish, gutting them and selling them from plastic buckets. You don’t get much fresher than that! (Apparently this is common practice and done to ensure that the customer sees that the fish is totally fresh – they would never sell fish that had been dead and gutted already!). Hygiene standards are also very very different from ours back in Ireland. I witnessed a beautiful young woman who was in the full throes of gutting a fish. Clearly hungry, she reached for a peach and ate it without even a thought to wash the fish guts from her hands! And continued gutting the fish once it was eaten. Another woman was bargaining with a customer on how much she would charge for a piece of the dead dog that lay sprawled across her stall.

There doesn’t appear to be any sort of organized rubbish collection by the state in Saigon. The opposite is true of Nha Trang and Hanoi.

The southern city of Saigon is almost seen as the “prodigal son” after the war. There is an underlying resentment by the people of Saigon towards the people of Hanoi and vice versa. It’s not an “in-your-face” resentment. But it’s very much there under the surface. The hangover from the war I guess. The people of Saigon believe that the Government in Hanoi holds the purse strings too tightly in the context of their slice of the pie. They believe that it distributes monies stingily to its city. They are also expected to contribute a lot more of their taxes to the Government in Hanoi than people and businesses in Hanoi. The people of Hanoi however, believe that the people in Saigon are irresponsible with money and only live in the moment! Interesting that! I suspect it’s more to do with the fact that the people of Saigon had the USA as allies during the war.

Regardless, there is a clear responsibility on the state in this country to provide proper facilities for disposing of rubbish for its people and not have them exposed to dangerous levels of filth piling up. And I’m thinking, where are the state run rubbish collectors? Where are the equivalent of their “county councils” in all of this? There is absolutely no visual evidence whatsoever of garbage collection, let alone regulations around the environment in Saigon.

What is evident is that the Vietnamese are a dignified and hard working race. There is virtually no-one classified as “unemployed” according to “Government statistics”. But how reliable are these statistics? Latest reports state that the average annual wage here is just over $1,700 per year, that’s only $145 per month!

Like many other tourists who have visited this part of the world, there is a sense of initial shock, which then becomes “what can I or anyone do to help”? Before we arrived here, and from what little we knew of this country we had decided that we would like to do some voluntary work in Vietnam. And having spent some time here, my thoughts have turned to “how bloody arrogant and ignorant were we to think, we, two Irish tourist who are very privileged to be here to begin with, might think we were better than these people, or that they needed our help to begin with”!. I was seeing the needs of these people through a “western” lens, ignorantly assuming that they are not happy because they are living with different conditions than we have back home. I am ashamed to realize that this is very far from what these people want! I’m sure they are sick of foreign tourists coming in and “judging” their standard of living and telling them that they need to change! The reality is that the people here are so happy with so little! They don’t see themselves in the way that I, or other people who come here from the western world do. They have nothing to compare to how they live their lives. This is what they do and they get on with it. This is their life and they are a proud race of people who take pride in how hard they work, regardless of what the work entails. They don’t need “foreigners” like us coming in and telling them that they should be aiming for riches and wealth, and giving their kids computer games and xboxes! The children running around are happy and loved and cared for, albeit by different standards than we are akin to. They are not kids that have their own bedrooms and computer games and can lock themselves away when they choose. They are like kids of times long gone by in Ireland, so happy to be playing outside with a burst football or skipping rope etc. And they are certainly the richer for it!

The orphanages on the other hand, well the same applies here. Western tourists, like ourselves, come over with the intention of doing good and spending a few weeks helping out. Until you get here and realize that these orphanages cannot allow tourists to spend a couple of weeks getting attached to young children that are here, and then disappear back to their normal comfortable lifestyle, happy with themselves that they’ve done their bit? Well, a bit of a reality check here for all of us! The heads of the orphanages are absolutely right in restricting such a practice! So, from our perspective on our plans to help out, we are committed to our teaching jobs now in southern China and once that’s through, we can look into spending more time on these issues.

From what we have researched, there are 1.5 million children (out of a population of 96 million) housed in orphanages here. The vast majority of these children are victims of the Agent Orange chemical used in the Vietnam wars. They are severely disabled and are rarely if ever adopted by western families due to their horrific disabilities. There are also another group of children who will remain in the orphanages, unadopted, due to them having the aids virus. These are the children that need help and assistance the most.

In total contrast, the centre of the city of Saigon itself it is a hive of activity, with shops and bars and restaurants everywhere. The city is filled with such welcome for foreigners and the markets in the centre of Saigon are an absolute must to visit, filled with local gifts and wares and foods and spices that are spectacular and the freshest you will ever find. There are vegetables and fruit for sale around every corner that i had never seen or heard of before. And one of the jaw-dropping moments on arrival to Saigon is the swarms of scooters on the roads. Scooters with whole families piled on weaving through the traffic. We saw scooter drivers carrying large glass windows, fridges, doors, and basically anything you can think of, piled onto the scooter. Rules of the road are practically non-existent we figured! 🙂 We took a wonderful trip along the Saigon River on a huge illuminated ship where we were entertained with local traditional dancers and enjoyed the beautiful variety of Vietnamese food on offer. There are cranes along the skyline throughout the city, which is a sure sign that the city is on the brink of huge development. However, I believe that it is merely the outer layer of the onion on display for all the world to see. Peel it away and that’s when you see the inner layers that I have written about above.

Having moved further north along the coast to Nha Trang, and then Hanoi, the poverty was there, but was nowhere near what I had witnessed in Saigon. In a nutshell, I was happy to physically leave the city and move further north along the coast, although what I experienced will remain with me forevermore.

Our visit to Nha Trang took 9 hours by train from Saigon. A train that also ran through the tiny streets of Saigon with wide-eyed children looking out and waving at us from their tiny homes along the tracks as we passed by.

Despite all of the above, Vietnam has many virtues and the warmth of it’s people and the rest of it’s beautiful country are but a few that i will talk about in my next blog, Nha Trang…a world away from what we had left behind in Saigon.

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