By Rabab Naqvi
Once you step out on the streets of Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, it is hard to believe that this is a country that was devastated by war not long ago. My cousin, Rashida, responded to my email from Vietnam, “I am glad you are having a nice stay in Vietnam. My mind still carries the war ravaged scenes of that country of 40 or 50 years ago”. To find remnants of war today one has to go to the War Museum and the Cu Chi tunnel complex. Hanoi, which was bombed during the war, buzzes with life. Amidst restaurants, hotels, shopping plazas and bazaars pretty women and handsome men scurry around. Vietnamese are blessed with good looks and good figures. Men and women both drive motorcycles on roads and highways. Vietnam has the highest number of two-wheelers per capita. Whole families somehow manage to fit on one motorcycle. It is amazing how they can carry an incredible amount of stuff of varying shapes and sizes on a motorcycle. It appears to be their main mode of transportation. It may seem an exaggeration when I say that the only thing I did not see them carry on their motorcycles was a car. I was in Vietnam from December 1 to December 20. Christmas celebrations were in full swing: railway stations, shopping malls and hotel lobbies were decorated with Christmas trees, festooned with Christmas lights and rang with Christmas carols. “The percentage of Christians in Vietnam is very small. Are these decorations for the tourists?” I asked my Indian host. “Yes and no,” he replied, “Vietnamese are happy people; they want an occasion to celebrate.” My tour guide told me that 81 per cent of Vietnamese have no religion; they worship their ancestors. About 0.1per cent of the population known as Cham is Muslim. I was lucky enough to visit a masjid near Saigon. All the men were dressed in white kurta and coloured lungi, which they wore only when visiting the masjid. Language barrier hindered our communication but they appeared to be content with their lot. Muslims in Vietnam have a long history of persecution since Vietnam took over the Champa region. Visit to the Cao Dai temple was quite an experience Caodaism is a religion unique to South Vietnam. The symbol of their worship is a single human eye. The temple was decorated with pillars, walls, ceilings and statues in vibrant colours worthy of a carnival. Over three million Vietnamese lost their life in the civil war between North and South Vietnam that ended in 1975. There isn’t a family that did not lose a member; many lost several. The American-led South Vietnamese forces fought with North Vietnamese guerillas. The country was unified after the end of the war. Their motto now seemed to be “forget the past and move on.” I saw no bitterness against Americans, a former enemy and ally of South Vietnam. American retail chains are doing good business in Vietnam. Their ubiquitous influence can be seen in Coca Cola, Kentucky Fried Chicken and Burger King outlets. English has replace French as the second language. I sensed some disappointment on the issue of compensation for the victims of Agent Orange, a highly toxic defoliant. As fallout of this chemical warfare children were born with severe deformities. These children have grown up and are coping with life as best as they can with government help. ‘It was our bad luck that it happened to us’ is all they had to say. One man offered to take me to his house to meet his two deformed children. I declined; I could not emotionally handle it. Seeing the pictures of Agent Orange victims in the War Museum was hard enough.
Vietnamese have fought more than one war for their independence. They were ruled by the Chinese for more than 1,000 years. They were colonized by the French in the 19th century whom they defeated in the First Indochina War and proclaimed independence in 1954.
Long time ago, I read the book Small is Beautiful. I grasped the full meaning of that concept when I visited Vietnam. In the War Museum in Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) American tanks and artillery present a stark contrast to the simple and ingenious contraptions and weapons of the Vietnamese resistance fighters. They won the war with a fraction of American firepower, with their dedication, resourcefulness, homemade weapons and booby traps of bamboo spikes and barbed wire. The Cu Chi tunnels, near Ho Chi Minh City, are a part of an extensive network of interconnecting underground tunnels. At some places they are five levels deep and stretch from the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City to the Cambodian border over 250 kilometres away. The tunnel complex was replete with ordnance factories, hospitals, kitchens, living and conference areas, even rooms to show cinema. It was the base of the Viet Cong guerillas during the war.
Hopefully all the wars are behind them. Today’s Vietnam is a vibrant, peaceful and egalitarian place with a rapidly growing economy. About 25 years ago Vietnam changed from a centralized economy to a socialist-oriented market economy which encouraged foreign investment. For visitors it is a shopping heaven, a good place to relax, get a rejuvenating foot and/or body massage at a very reasonable price or go sightseeing.. The soft seat compartment of the overnight train that I took from Hanoi to Hue was a pleasant surprise with its clean bedding, water bottle, and flowers (artificial) on the side table. A variety of inexpensive and good quality restaurants and hotels can be found. I enjoyed the Vietnamese food consisting of fish, chicken, rice, noodles, vegetables etc. but the snake head and crocodile meat on the menu at some places was a put off. The main course is always followed by fruits. They don’t eat dessert in any form. There is no difference in the meals served for lunch, dinner, and breakfast though toast, cereal and eggs was also available at breakfast for the tourists.
There is an ambience of law and order. People follow traffic rules. You may see a petit and beautiful Vietnamese police woman in full makeup directing traffic. For most people visiting Vietnam may be their only chance of feeling like a millionaire. Since US dollar is equivalent to 21,345 Vietnamese Dongs, one needs a little over forty six dollars to be a millionaire.