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I went to Vietnam at very short notice to do a job for the World Bank about housing reconstruction after Typhoon Damrey in November 2017. Others on the team were reporting on transport, irrigation, agriculture, fisheries and economic development. Unfortunately I pulled a calf muscle at dawn on day one running along Nha Trang beach, as shown in the photo, so I didn’t see as much of Vietnam as I would have liked. Nevertheless I did go north up the coast and inland to the highlands to see ieffect of storm and progress in recovery. Not surprsingly what they have been through, the Vietnamese seem exceptionally resistant and resourceful. Over 100,000 houses were damaged by the storm, some comepletely flattened. But most families were back in the homes in time for the New year on 5 February, less than 4 months after the storm.
Two things impressed me – how they are managing to balance state control and entrepreneurial zeal, and secondly the nature of gender equality where women hold their own and also manage to massage men’s ego’s. And on a personal note, I loved Vietnam: the food, the way the country is developing and the confidence and directness of the people. I wish I could have stayed a month and seen more.
I would so much have liked to have seen more of this country. The trip was also last-minute and Scharlie would have been upset if I’d stayed an extra week. I don’t suppose I get the chance to come again. I like Vietnam – it was clean as Sujit pointed out, comparing Vietnam favourably with home in India, and is well built, as Alan said. But for me it’s the impression people give of confidence – they’re good at their jobs and know where they’re going.
I watched three classic Vietnamese films on the way home. The first “Floating Lives” begins with a woman being assaulted and chased by a group of women shouting that will serve her right for stealing their husbands. She escapes and lives with a man and his children on a boat in the marshes of the Mekong Delta herding ducks in rice paddies. It’s a sad poignant tale of love withheld that is a final happy ending with father and daughter reconciled and living happily in the village.
The second is set in the 60s with all the young man in flared trousers. It’s called “Hanoi in the Season of Bird Nesting”. Again it’s a love story between a young engaged couple caught between traditional family approval and the directives of the state about where young people should live and work. The boy’s father is a high-ranking academic who fought at Dien Bien Phu and who hates corruption and patronage, and the girls mother runs a black market shop and does deals and expects favours. Their young love fades and the boy falls in love and marries the girl’s best friend. What comes across is the tension created by the imposition of communist planning and the effervescent commercial zeal of the Vietnamese. You can see how this is playing out today in Vietnam with the contradictions created by state control and dynamic market forces. The other thing that comes across strongly is the equal status of young men and women and the traditional values of the older generation when women deferred to men. Again you can see this in modern-day Vietnam where women and men are formally awarded equal status based on their talent and ability rather than gender, but where women tend to play a subordinate role in the hierarchy. Nevertheless it is refreshingly egalitarian and as gender equal as Britain.
The final film is called “Moon at the Bottom of the Well” about a successful teacher who devotes herself to her health-conscious husband and is frustrated by his lack of passion. We landed before I managed to finish it. In all the films, including “The Quiet American”, the women are sensitive, beautiful, elegant and devoted and the men screw things up by their arrogance, ideals, ambition and lack of charity. There are stark differences in lifestyle between the four films in terms of how well off the families are and what possessions they have. Yet the women in all the films somehow create elegance and tranquillity in their homes with plants, flowers, neatness, tidiness and caring hands that the men seem to undermine with their boorish ways. The countryside is so different from Europe and the UK. It’s farmed and used obviously but it isn’t manicured. It’s clean, in the sense that there is no litter or destruction, but the uncultivated parts are untamed. The Vietnamese are generally slim and fit looking and the women, in their simple trousers and blouse or longer traditional dress are elegant; elegant in the every day tasks are washing, folding bedding, dressing and serving food.
I have seen so little of life in Vietnam on this visit and have a thirst to know more. I can see how young Frenchman and young Americans in their turn fell in love with Vietnam and beautiful young Vietnamese women. Graham Greene gives a line to, is Fowler, the journalist, in The Quiet American, played by Michael Caine – You get to know a lot about Vietnam in the first few days, the rest you have to learn by living it.