A few thoughts occasioned by seeing Vietnam and Laos

Pardon my long silence, but long days and slow internet connections (therefore, no photos) have kept me from my keyboard. I have a little time now, though, and would love to share with you a few impressions I’ve formed based upon eight days in Vietnam and three days in Laos. In other words, these are superficial observations and I welcome corrections.

In no particular order:

Except for the lavish Ho Chi Minh memorial and mausoleum in Hanoi, it’s hard to remember that Vietnam is technically still a communist nation. Mr. Bookworm described it more accurately, echoing both Napolean and Adam Smith, as a “nation of shopkeepers.”

Wherever we looked, people were buying and selling things. Saigon (a name the Vietnamese seem to prefer over “Ho Chi Minh City”) seems to be made entirely of storefronts, with the shops’ owners living above or behind their shop.

I had the dubious pleasure, back in the 1980s, of visiting Prague, when Czechoslovakia was still under Soviet control. It was a grim, unhappy, gray city in which, other than government-approved, overpriced glassware, nothing was for sale except for a nasty kind of ice cream that seemed to be the preferred opiate of the people. Vietnam did not have that feel.

A little confusingly to this Westerner, all the stores sell precisely the same merchandise and are all next door to each other. That is, one entire street might have nothing but stores selling toilets — and they’re all the same toilets (ironically, I saw a lot of “American Standard” brand toilets and baths).

Our guides informed us that the distinction isn’t which store offers cheaper, better, or different goods; it’s whether the customer has a relationship with the seller. That was true whether the product at issue was clothes, appliances, or even food from the endless little kitchens/restaurants set up on sidewalks in every quarter of any town or city we saw.

My sense was that America may have retreated from Vietnam (thank you, Democrats) and may have hung the Vietnamese people out to dry in the most brutal way possible (again, thank you, Democrats) but, ironically enough we still ended up winning: The nation seems to be communist in name only, so much so that our guides struggled to explain why it was still communist. The clothes, the music, and much of the merchandise comes from the West in this driving, bustling nation.

Indeed, there were only two things that felt communist (or maybe just Chicago). One is the the fact that each guide said that there are only two ways to get rich in Vietnam. The first is to have a relative who escaped to America in the 1970s, made it there, and is now sending money back to Vietnam. The second (the Chicago way) is to be in government. To hear the guides tell it, there is rampant corruption in Vietnam, from the police officers who must be paid off when they stop you to higher officials who won’t move without money.

Even the socialized medicine that our Lefty friends would assure us is the purest way to ensure the most and best healthcare for the greatest number of people is corrupt. One of our guides explained that, if you want the best chance to survive a treatment, you have to pay the doctor off in cash. It’s not subtle. Once the doctors make the diagnosis, they’ll explain that, if they don’t get a lot of extra money, they might not be very careful during a surgery or providing other treatments.

The other communist thing about Vietnam is that, for all that the country seems to be growing a fine market-based economy, and even though people seem free of the grim, gray darkness of communism, it’s still a one-party country. One guide said that it’s a democracy, in that the Vietnamese people have the vote, but she never bothers, because they have no choices when they vote.

My overall impression of Vietnam is that this is a bubbling, energetic country working as fast as it can to position itself fully in the modern world, a la Seoul. In that, it differs a great deal from my impression of Mexico, which always seems caught in the grip of an overwhelming malaise.

As I’ve said before, the Left’s open door policy at our southern border doesn’t just harm the US by bringing in people Mexico is glad to see the back of. It also harms Mexico, because, along with the criminals, we get the energetic, innovative, hard-working people who see no future for themselves amidst Mexico’s chronic malaise.

Having finished my random thoughts about Vietnam, here are some random thoughts about Laos:

Poor. Incredibly poor. According to Wikipedia, the average wage for around one third of the population is $1.25 a day. I have never seen such abject poverty as that I observed in a Hmong village just outside of Luang Prabang. The Hmong live in primitive wooden shacks built on clay soil that turns into slick, gooey mud when it rains. Through open doors we could see cooking fires on the floor, in the middle of their homes.

The men go off and work (fishing or farming, was what I understood) while the women stay home to raise the children and try to sell trinkets to tourists. I actually use the word “women” advisedly, as the ones we saw were girls — although they were girls who got married at 13 and had two or three babies by 16. One young woman followed precisely this trajectory, with the added poverty sting that her first child had died of a “breathing problem.”

Admittedly, the Hmong are victims of significant government discrimination, so one could say that this poverty is aberrant — except that we saw a Laotian village that was almost equally abysmal. It had electricity, but the clay streets were the same, the wooden shacks were the same, the young mothers were the same, and the feel of subsistence survival was the same.

Some of these villages are raising themselves up. If you search the web, you’ll find references to a “silk village” and a “whiskey village,” both of which are gaining wealth by positioning themselves as go-to tourist attractions. Indeed, the single best thing that happened to the Laotian economy was UNESCO’s 1995 declaration that Luang Prabang is a world heritage site.

The sad little Laotian village we saw is trying to leverage its in-country tourist potential by boasting about the beautiful Buddha statue that floated mysteriously down the river only to land at their village. And here’s one of those little conundrums of modern third-world countries: When we asked our guide how word was getting out about this Buddha, she explained that some of the more affluent villagers (with affluent being a relative term vis-a-vis our American ideas) had posted it on Facebook.

Laos is also a deeply devout country. Around 80% of the population is Buddhist and they take their faith seriously — which brings me to the monks. Throughout Laos, every morning at dawn monks leave their temples and, barefoot and with one arm bare no matter the weather, they walk through the streets collecting alms from the locals. Two fascinating things emerged from talking to our guide about this ritual.

The first is the monastic structure, which is based upon bringing boys into the temple when they are only nine or ten. To devout parents, having a son who is a monk is extremely important because, if I understood correctly, the boy’s prayers are more beneficial to the parents. Also, the temple gives the boy a good education.

Although I was initially shocked by the thought of sending little boys away from home to live in a stark, all-male environment and go to school, I suddenly realized that the system was familiar: Just think of the famous British public schools in the 19th and early 20th centuries. Families sent their sons off at age 9 or 10 to live in stark, all-male environments to be educated and improve their lot.

The second fascinating thing is that the alms collection works as a charity too. Often, the monks are given more than they need (especially because a boy’s parents may be among the alms givers). The excess, however, does not go to waste. Instead, the monks will donate it to an orphanage or poor house. So it is that, through the medium of a form of religious worship, the poor get fed.

And that’s pretty much all I have to say for now about my travels. I could bore you about the specifics of each destination we visited but I’m too tired for that and, as I said, it would be boring. If you want to know about tourist destinations in Vietnam or Laos, you’d be more entertained visiting a website or reading a book dedicated to traveling there.