#17. So, just what is wrong about Vietnam?

#17 from SE Asia
from Hue, Viet Nam
February 17th, 2010 — So what’s wrong with Vietnam?

One would think that any country that calls their currency the ‘dong’, and gives you 19,600 of them per dollar couldn’t be all bad…

But, all right, I have been here for a while, talking about the beautiful places and acts of kindness. But it cannot be so one-sided. So what is wrong about Viet Nam?

1. The government is rated by the UN as highly corrupt. I saw stats that rates VN as 117th of 152 governments. Today, when my bicycle broke down, I had to take it to a repair shop on a bus. Riding in front, I watched uniformed guards stopping buses for apparently no reason other than Tet gifts of cash. I have heard numerous horror stories witnessed by European professors teaching in VN of government agents shaking down shops and even whole commercial streets for ‘gifts’ to the police and army. It extends to the entire public school system. University professors here and ex-pats tell me that it is getting worse. After the reunification of VN, there was a period of purity. But the next generation of apparachniks now rule. And apparachniks are without ideals. Their only ideology is to themselves and to those they serve. Ahhh, Shakespeare’s wisdom to have said 475 years ago “And the children of the children of the revolutionaries then in turn become the oppressors”. It just doesn’t take 3 generations anymore.

2. Most all the men smoke in public, regardless of the signs, including the boys sitting next to me right now.

3. Garbage garbage everywhere. In the countryside, much of the packaging is natural. Food wrapped in leaves and in neat little bamboo containers. If you throw that on the ground, there will be no evidence of it in a few months. But the VNese are now going to plastic. There are virtually no containers on the street to dispose of things, so everyone just throws it down wherever they are. When I try to dispose of something, the shopkeeper will take it from me and throw it in the street. They do this in front of everyone with zero sense of wrongness. They do have paid street cleaners to pick it up, but they can never get it all. People also burn their trash right in the streets, in the middle of big cities too. You can smell the plastics burning, and imagine the dioxcyns. When I am pedaling in the countryside, I know that I am approaching a village when I see the piles of trash dumped along the roadside.

The government could do things to change this. For example, by state decree, in 2 years they changed the percentage of urban motorcyclists wearing helmets from 0% to 75%. So they could do something here too. But until then, Vietnam is becoming another public dump like India now is.

4. The people can be very pushy. They will cut in line, right in front of you. I always yell when they do, and then they do step back. But they are not the laid back gentle Buddhists of Laos and Thailand. They expect you to be pushy like them. If you are not, they might walk over you.

5. Aggressive drivers, with a compulsion to hit their horns all the time, without reason. I literally have seen people driving down the road ALONE honking. As an example, there are periodic toll gates on the road I am riding. Bicyclists and motorcyclists do not have to pay. We have a private lane about a meter wide where we go around the toll booths. At the end of one day, the head of the toll booths saw me pedaling by and he waved me to stop. Of course I did. He then hopped 2 dividing lanes to shake my hand and congratulate me for cycling across Vietnam.  What a kind gesture.  (I have often received such congratulations from military men here when they see me riding). So sooner had the guard turned around and the motorcyclists behind me begin honking at me. As I am accelerating on my bicycle they are now all going nuts with their horns. All of them have witnessed the event. They know why I stopped. But they still cannot help it. And I have at least 75 meters in this tight lane before they can go around me. HONK HONK HONK! Well I have had it for being honked at all day when I am 10 feet off the road. I STOP my bike, forcing everyone else behind me to stop. Then I turn around and I flip all of them double birds, with my arms moving up and down. Fuck you, I shout. FUCK YOU FUCK YOU FUCK YOU!!!!!!
Silence. Now, they all have watched enough English-speaking movies to know that I am not wishing them a happy new year. As I ride out to the merging traffic, the man with a young girl in tow rides by and give me a thumbs up and a smile.

6. It is a one-party system. You can see the signs of a wealthy ruling class. Is this permitted in a communist state? In Hanoi, as I was riding my bike down the street, I saw 2 boys stealing hubcaps off a VW Toureg. (I think these VW’s sell for lots of money). Well, I shout at the boys, in English of course. But they still freak out and run off to their moped with just 2 of the hubcaps. I actually write down their license plate number.  Then I go into the building that the VW was parked in front of, and I find that it is for army officers. Hmmmmm. It is my understanding that Ho Chi Minh, like Ghandi, died without many personal possessions or wealth. And now we have extremely wealthy communist army officers. I must think of the last line of ANIMAL FARM. “And the pigs looked at the humans, and the humans looked at the pigs, and neither could tell which was which”. Oh the brillance of George Orwell. What a shame it that tuberculosis cut him down at age 46.

7. It is thoroughly male-dominated. It has been for 1000’s of years, and the communist revolution did not change that. Forget public proclaimations.

8. Street theft. Guard your things in the cities. There is very little chance of violence, but the street thieves are sharp and fast. Saigon is the worse, and Hanoi and the tourist towns are catching up.  I know two people who have had their cameras yanked right out of their hands on the street.

9.   The short change.  Count your money, because some will try to short-change you and over-charge you.  It is BUYER BEWARE here.

There are very few fixed prices here.  Determine the price on everything BEFORE you commit to buy, or they may gouge.  Get ready for it.  But it is worse than that.  In Vinh, I sat at a supposedly decent restaurant for a good meal.  It wasn’t.  My bill was supposed to be $5.00  But when the bill arrived, it was $7.  I did the math in front of the waitress, and I was right.  She said that she forgot to give me the  ‘correct’ menu, with the ‘new’ prices.  I shouted for her to get me that menu.  She did not have it.  Then she ran back to the kitchen.  5 minutes later she returns with the ‘new’ menu.  Red labels have been stuck on the 4 items I had ordered with the ‘new’ prices written on them.  I run my finger over the labels and the ink is wet!  She is terribly embarrassed as she glances up at the maitre de bullshit.  I realize that this is not her idea.  I really begin swearing.  When I am truly angry, I can only cuss in foul gutter street English.  I give her a 50 cent tip (big in Vietnam) leave the $5 and walk out to my bike, which I have chained clearly visible next to the restaurant.  TWO guys walk out with me to my bike.  “Where you flom?”  What?  Enforcers?  Over two bucks?  Fuck this shit.


They stop.  They almost never see an ‘ Amelican’ here.

“Oh, Amelica — Vietnam  fliends.”

“Yeah, fliends” I say as I unchain my bike.  But I am thinking ‘fuck you assholes’ as I ride off.

10.  And another thing that’s wrong. The coast of NE Vietnam is really bombed out. According to the books, the country is still soaked in agent orange. There are over 225,000 children with major birth defects linked to agent orange. Over 1,100 people a year die from unexploded ordinance, with another 1500 seriously injured. But this is really another issue, isn’t it?

I feel that I should footnote this by saying that in the cities, my encounters are 10 positive to one negative.  This is usually because of the sheer difference in wealth.  In the countryside, my encounters are practically 100% positive.

The consensus in the guide books and ex-pats living here is that losing your temper here does not help.  It will cause public loss of face and they will become more stubborn.  These two incidents cited above are the only times  where I did lose my temper.  I don’t know that anyone wants to lose their temper, but it does happen sometimes.

3 Responses to #17. So, just what is wrong about Vietnam?

  1. dwight you need to publish.thanks for the laughs.

  2. I can visualize the street incidcnt and the restaurant perfectly!

    The reaction you described on the street is priceless.

    Good writing.

  3. I just stumbled across your blog and have been enjoying the VN blog posts.
    I lived in HCMC for three years and I found some sections of this post funny because:
    1. honking your horn in VN is like saying “look out, I’m right here” rather than “get out of the way”; and
    2. a thumbs up means “up your bum”

    I loved Vietnam. It’s a crazy crazy place but it’s full of energy and optimism. But the rubbish, the traffic and the pollution do get wearing. I hope your blog doesn’t put people off visiting.

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