Over the past year, I have gotten the opportunity to travel to Vietnam on several occasions. With each trip, I was fortunate to explore another region of the country. In all of East Asia, it is the country that perplexes me the most. It is full of contradictions that somehow coexist in a precarious package. It is overtly communist with slogans and propaganda bombarding you at every corner; yet McDonald’s, KFC, Gucci and Hermes along with a slew of capitalist symbols operate lucrative businesses. Egalitarianism is preached through policies and sound bites but on closer inspection the dwindling rural way of life and magnetic pull of urban centers are creating large swathes of urban poor who are trying to make ends meet. On the surface, Vietnam’s urban centers are teeming with young urbanites. There seems to be an insatiable appetite for luxury goods with boutique stores such as Gucci and Hermes sporting gleaming store fronts. For those who can only afford to window shop, the next best trend seems to be choreographed wedding photos by these store fronts to capture the opulence in their matrimonial snaps. My experience in Vietnam’s urban centers (Hanoi, HCMC or Danang) has been very intimidating. Despite varying pace of life, traffic never stops for anyone, one has to forge his or her way through the sea of motorcycles, bicycles, cars, carts. The simple task of crossing the street becomes a battle to keep your wits, assert your presence (committing to walking in a slow and steady pace so motorcyclists can weave around you) and make it to the other side with minimal scratches. Somehow a parallel for forging a living as an urban dweller in one of the country’s rapidly growing metropolises.
Despite the turf rivalries between Hanoites and Saigonese residents, the former known by their southern neighbors as up-tight, frugal and bogged down by customs and traditions; while the Hanoites accuse their southern neighbors of being far too happy-go-lucky, loud and brash. The war of words and divisions extends to food and life style. This neat infographic gives a bit more insight as to the preferences of Hanoites vs Saigonese. All differences aside, from what I saw the majority of residents in Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) or even Danang all seem to be in the below 30 years old demographics. Bia Hoi’s (local beer vendors) and pop up street food stalls are full of young, 20 something sporting the latest western clothing trends, k-pop inspired hair-dos and armed with the latest electronics. All are bubbly and chatty and the constant hum of chatter, motorcycles, vendors creates the perfect atmosphere for a people-watcher’s paradise.
On the flip side of this urban utopia, Vietnam’s rural landscapes are breathtakingly picturesque but mask the harsh reality of rural daily life. I was struck time and time again passing through eye-popping green rice paddy fields and noticing that the arduous, labor intensive task of harvesting the rice was undertaken by elderly women. Time and time again, I saw aging women vastly outnumbering men or young adults tending to farms. This left me thinking if all the young folks are heading to Hanoi, HCMC or Danang and not coming back, who will carry on this work? and where are the next generation of food growers?
Another realization is for a county that has sped up to catch up with the pace of its neighboring Asian Tigers, very little has been done to quell this mass exodus from rural settings to the cities. Although Vietnam is one of the world’s largest rice exporters. In international markets, its rice quality is seen as inferior to neighboring producers. As food consumption increases, this stress on water resources is becoming more pronounced, particularly since the staple crop, rice, is still being grown using water intensive mechanisms.
This is a country that I would love to spend more time peeling back the layers and unearthing the idiosyncrasies that make this nation tick. It’s a task that takes some time given the tightly packaged and sanitized version painted by socialist ideals yet slowly cracking from the pressures of capitalist temptations.