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World Unfurled… An entrepreneur travels the world. » Vietnam

Policy Architecture and America’s Defeat

December 14, 2006

Hanoi Narrow buildingsRarely has the architecture of policy, been so visible. Hanoi residents pay property taxes based on the linear street frontage of a building rather than its square footage. The predictable result is very narrow, very tall, very deep buildings.

Until 1986, farmland in Vietnam was allocated on a similarly ill-concieved and strictly per capita basis. Each family got 360 square meters of land to farm, per family member. If you wanted more land, you had more kids. It will surprise no one that this resulted in one of the highest birthrates in the world. Families with “only” seven children were considered small. The soaring birth rate just created more mouths to feed, and did nothing to encourage improved productivity on existing land.

Fortunately Vietnamese policy changed and the government instead began renting land to people based on their ability to produce crops and pay for the land. As a result, Vietnam’s production of rice has exploded. Vietnam has in fact become the world’s second largest rice producer. This status was obtained by “beating” the United States. Oddly, and in stark contrast to the US view of defeat, the Vietnamese rice victory seems to play a much more important role in national pride than the earlier military defeat of the US. I was worried that there might be some hostility or resentment about the US role in the Vietnam War (or as the Vietnamese call it, the American War). This, however, seemed to be water under the (Da Krong) bridge.

The rice victory is such a source of pride that three seperate people have told me about Vietnam’s victory in climbing toward the top of the rice heap. The people varied in the degree to which they emphasised this as a victory over the US, but all clearly saw it that way. I, however, did not feel even the slightest shame or disappointment in America’s “defeat” as the world’s second largest rice producer. To be honest, before learning of this loss to the Vietnamese, I had never given a moment’s thought to the source of the world’s rice.

I guess it doesn’t hurt so bad to lose when you don’t even know you are fighting…

Tailor Made

Thu Thuy Tailor shop Hoi An VietnamHoi An is a charming, but certainly not undiscovered coastal town in central Vietnam with a population of 70,000. It is well known for its tailors. The streets are lined with hundreds of tailor shops, many bearing large hand written testimonials on butcher paper. Each satisfied client is more fanatical in his praise than the next — at least of those that I can read. In addition to testimonials in English, I’ve seen testimonials in all the best backpacker languages like Dutch and Hebrew, but not one in Vietnamese.

This is hardly a surprise because every local woman not working in a hotel or a tailor shop, where a traditional ao dai seems to be obligatory, is wearing jeans that are 3 to 10 inches too long for her. The extra fabric is folded up on the outside of the jeans forming an enormous cuff. Unlike a 14 year old boy’s pants that might go from being two inches too long to two inches too short before they wear them out, these women are in their twenties so they have had any “growth spurt” they might expect. In general, the reason the pants are too long may be related to the fact that even after their growth spurt almost one third of them are still less than 5 feet tall.

Those not wearing jeans generally work in the hospitality, retail and government sectors. The local ao dais are made of beautiful fabrics and are very flattering, but the cut and construction, while tailored is quite simple. Against this backdrop, caution seemed prudent. My brother and online investigation yielded many cautionary tales, but some happy customers as well. Based on an excellent article by Deborah L. Jacobs I picked a local tailor, for an experiment in casual clothes, but I decided to hold off on any suits or dress shirts until Bangkok.

I brought a favorite Indigo Palms camp shirt as a model of the cut, style and workmanship I was seeking. I picked out a pair of fabrics while Soyan looked through the 4 inch thick book of catalogs. She picked selected a long white skirt similar to one she had been looking for and picked some red corduroy to use for copying a favorite pair of Lucky brand jeans.

When I came back for a fitting I liked the shirts enough to pick out a few more fabrics, but there were a few small tweaks that I asked to be fixed. On my third visit I tried on the second set of shirts which again needed small fixes. On my fourth visit most of the kinks had been worked out, but one shirt made of a light weight silk, just didn’t hang right. They pledged to try and fix it, but said that if it didn’t work out I didn’t have to take it. Finally on the fifth visit I took the shirts home (other than the silk one). They weren’t as perfect as I’d expect from custom tailored shirts, but I was pleased with them. My biggest complaint was a slight pucker just below the collar at the base of my neck. It was subtle enough that I would have let it go buying off the rack, but it was a disappointment for custom made.

Overall I was glad I had had the shirts made. I thought they looked nice and at $16 a piece they were a bargain compaired to Indigo Palms, but 5 visits is too many to have to make. Fortunately I had the time, but it was a bit of a bother to be always planning around our next appointment at the tailor especially for a few shirts.

It’s not Goodbye, its just until we meet again.

November 16, 2006

How many times must I be called upon to deliver a heart felt goodbye to people I don’t really know and don’t expect ever to see again?

Apparently 6 is the answer.

I meet lots of people while I am travelling and I like most of them. I have travelled for days and weeks with some of them and I have made lots of friends. Sometimes I meet people for a day or two and we are polite, but we don’t become friends or exchange contact information. As we part, we generally wish each other well and say “Goodbye”. Occasionally I’ll bump into them again later and have to say “Goodbye” again, but really, there should be a limit.

I met a European couple I’ll call Olga and Sven, and spent 2 days with them in Sapa as a part of a group. We all returned to the tour office together and said our goodbyes Saturday afternoon, since we were headed to the Bac Ha market the next day. Sunday afternoon we ran in to Olga and Sven in a restaurant near the train station as we too were taking the same train back to Hanoi and said goodbye again, and already I was struggling to muster any emotion at our parting. Of course 2 hours later, I discover I am sharing an overnight sleeper train compartment with them. The next morning we bid them adieu again and head into Hanoi, to pass the day until our evening flight to Hue. They are headed to Hue as well, but not until the next day, so I figure our lives will finally drift apart.

I have reserved a room for the day to shower and nap after the train, but of course it is not ready at 6 AM so Soyan and I are forced to find the only cafe that is open that early where we once again run in to Olga and Sven. I see them in way in the back and take a table in front without making contact. Of course the WiFi signal is weak and the waiter moves us to the table next to Olga and Sven. Breakfasts finished, they come to say their goodbyes (again) while I am in the middle of a call on Skype. I wish them well with a wave and a quiet good luck, while I am still on the phone.

After spending the day in Hanoi we head to the Airport for our flight to Hue, but after 3 hours at the airport our flight is cancelled and Vietnam Airlines puts us (and some 120 other tourists) up for the night in Hanoi, promising a large tour group seats on the 6:25 AM flight and promising us seats on the 12:30 PM flight the next day. At the hotel we are treated to a sumptuous dinner buffet of anything the hotel could prepare to feed 120 people on a half hours notice without spending more than $2.00 a person. This includes fried rice, spaghetti, instant noodles, eggs, Chinese baos, pigs in a blanket, cookies and custard.

My frustration is abated slightly when I discovered that there was a WiFi signal available, so I stayed up past midnight selecting photos from Sapa, in anticipation of sleeping late. Five hours after I go to sleep, Soyan’s voice wakes me despite my ear plugs. It seems that we are late for our flight. Soyan has explained that our flight is not for hours, and the airline explains that they have changed everyone to the earlier flight and that the plane is scheduled to depart in 55 minutes, so we need to meet everyone in the lobby right away. Five minutes later as I charge into the empty lobby I am panicked and confused. It seems that everyone else has left for the airport some time ago. Only two other couples remain with us looking tired and confused. After checking out we are told to wait for a cab.

We finally make it to the airport at 6:22. We are hurried through check in, but Security, completely disinterested in us the night before, needs to open everyone’s hand luggage and x-ray it twice. When we finally board the plane at 6:50 we pass several dozing passengers, including of course, Olga and Sven. They don’t stir to welcome us, but an hour later they do find us at the baggage carousel. My God, I have had an easier time hiding from stalkers.

After saying goodbye yet again we finally make it to our hotel. We took a nap, watched “Good Morning Vietnam” and booked a tour of the DMZ for the next day. Unfortunately the DMZ is about a 3 hour drive from Hue so the bus leaves at 6AM. We’ll have gotten up early two days in a row, why not make it three?

A few minutes past 6 AM the bus picks us up at our hotel and begins to make the rounds to pick up people at the other hotels. 20 minutes later the bus is mostly full and stops at a gas station to fill up. But across the street I see four people headed towards the bus. Two girls with big packs, and, can it be…? Yes, Sven and Olga. They climb aboard and sit right behind us. 12 hours later we part, I can no longer muster a good bye, just “See you soon.”