Dear Faithful Correspondents,
It has been very strange not having regular access to the Internet. It’s like some strange Science Fiction story where you are suddenly “jacked out” of the system. Oh No! Where’s the Borg Collective?
But I survived. This morning in Hong Kong, let me finish up some reflections on Vietnam, and then this afternoon or tomorrow begin talking about the almost inexhaustible Hong Kong!
Some remarkable things about Vietnam surprised and delighted me.
First, the traffic. Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) has the most dense scooter traffic I have ever seen, even more than Bangkok. Traffic lights are few and far between, and the scooters share the road with cars, trucks, lorries, you name it. As larger vehicles move through the streets, the schools of scooters give way (sometimes by inches), and then reform. It is very much like the undersea videos of schools of fish, fluid and organic.
I saw no one getting angry, and no accidents. It is almost graceful.
Next, everything is up for negotiation. When you enter a cab, you must negotiate the fare before you start. For example, a metered trip might cost 500,000 Dong (about US$30). The negotiated cost might be 250,000 D. All but the high end stores are the same. Food is very inexpensive, and delicious, with the spiciest cuisine in Central Vietnam.
On board the ship, I compared notes with another passenger who had also visited East Berlin before the Fall of the Wall.
We both agreed that when you walked through the Brandenburg Gate from West Berlin to East Berlin, it was if someone had switched on the gray filter: drab and dark as opposed to West Berlin’s almost frantic pace and brightness.
This was in the mid 1970s, and I also experienced the same feeling in Prague.
Vietnam (and now I see, Hong Kong as well) is nothing of the sort. In Vietnam people seem peaceful, generally happy. And too, I saw no homeless or beggars. Even in the old market sections of the cities, and on the up-scale shopping streets, there were the obviously poor, but no one begged….instead they tried to sell souvenirs, watches, and the like. I know that there is poverty in Vietnam, but I did not sense despair. In its place seems a willingness to import used heavy equipment, and build (and rebuild) a nation. They have now achieved the status of largest exporter of rice, and of coffee beans, in the world.
One of the Jesuit missionaries once remarked “God help the world if the Vietnamese are ever loosed upon it.” I think the genie is out of the bottle. As they are one of the Asian Tigers, I anticipate Vietnam being a successful and innovative partner in the planet-wide New Atlantis humanity is constructing. Small countries can have very large cultural impacts (think: the UK, Ireland, Israel, Singapore).
Religion also seems to be alive and well in Vietnam, with Buddhist Temples and Christian Churches a-plenty.
In terms of language, the Roman script of modern Vietnamese gives me at least a fighting chance of figuring out some words. I’ll talk about linguistic experiences in Thailand and China next time. In Vietnam, English and French are at least widely enough used that in the big cities, I could communicate (with pointing, etc. to help).
So where does Vietnam stand in this paradigm I have been creating these last few weeks?
I believe, like Thailand, Vietnam is its own land, its own culture, intimately tied to its neighbors in China and SE Asia. There has been considerable Western colonial influence, first from France and then from the United States (in the south), but these are overlays. Vietnam has been occupied by its neighbors, but has a long national history and identity. Again, I hold that this is a nation choosing to use much that is Western, without having been visited by either Alexander or Caesar.
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One fascinating note is that Christianity was here a long time ago. By the 13th Century CE, the Chaldean Church, HQ’d in Persia, had reached as far as Vietnam and other parts of “Indo-China.” Having sent missionaries to China in the 7th Century (Google or Wiki “The Nestorian Stela”).
They continued to expand, until in the mid 1200s, one fifth of the world’s Christians were of the Chaldean Church. Many of the Mongol generals were married to Christians, and apparently Genghis Khan himself considered becoming Chaldean Christian. Their most lasting missions were those from the late 1st, early 2nd Centuries, which formed the Malabar Christians in India (the “Thomas Christians”) who continue today at home and abroad.
Today, the Chaldean Church is much smaller. They rejected the canons of the Council of Ephesus in 431, but have maintained Apostolic Succession all along. There are dwindling numbers of Chaldean Christians in Iraq and Iran who face regular persecution. Most have fled, and there are very large centers of Chaldean Christians in Detroit, MI and Turlock CA and in the general San Jose CA area. The majority make up The Church of the East, and others are in Communion with Rome.
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I am happy that we have so many Vietnamese in the SF Bay Area, so that I don’t have to give up my beloved phở, their world-renowned soup.
If the opportunity arises, I would be happy to return to visit Vietnam, and get to know the people better. They are welcoming to us in a way that is truly humbling, after the tragedy of the war.
A final word. It appears from Vietnam that this is not your Grandparent- Comrade’s Communism. I’ll be very interested to see this at play in Hong Kong. This is a single-party system, with the Communist Party’s hands firmly on the reins, but the Party has created a “socialist-oriented Market Economy,” and The Economist calls them “ardently capitalist communists.”
Time will tell if this will work for the benefit of the people. There are still hurdles of large economic gaps between rich and poor, health-care problems, and gender-equality issues to be surmounted. I will bet on the Vietnamese to succeed.
We are now setting out to explore Hong Kong…. more soon!
… Sorry for the brevity and typos: Sent from remote on the phone.