Saturday, December 30, 2006

Not same same at all

Thomas Wolfe was right but too limited. You can’t go anywhere again. We spent an afternoon in Hoi An 11 years ago. It was a tiny, quiet town in central Vietnam, with a lot of vestiges of the Chinese and Japanese traders who had made it a thriving port in the Asian trade centuries ago. The hoard of well-preserved 16th century Chinese ceramics found a few years ago in a recovered shipwreck off the Vietnam coast is known as the Hoi An treasure, and many lovely old merchant houses and Chinese family association temples lined the few streets. As we recall, we were the only tourists there that afternoon.
Today’s Hoi An has at least 100 tailor shops and as many tourist shlock shops, and more than enough tourists to make them profitable. On the road from Da Nang, the nearest airport, a new road runs through the old US base and along China Beach, where huge luxury resorts attract Australian tourists. The disconnect is striking: this is Da Nang airport, this is China Beach, this was what we read about and saw on the news. Now it’s a destination for tourists from Australia, Scandinavia, France, Germany and the US.

Many of the local people are still living in the old way, but it's become more difficult as the cost of living rises with the tourist boom.

Our guide in Hanoi was a true believer, explaining to us that the government had to send soldiers to the ethnic villages to persuade them that they shouldn’t listen to “bad people” and should work to build a better society. This better society, by the way, apparently has no social security, unemployment insurance, or health care, according to the same guide, who didn’t seem to see the problem with socialism that provides no social services.

Our Hoi An guide on the other hand made it clear right away that his family is Catholic, that he learned French from the nuns in Saigon until 1975, when the Communists (his term) came in and changed all the rules. Re-education camps and ration books for too few rations was the norm until the early ‘80s when the government decided a market economy was the answer. Interestingly, the current government is surprisingly forthright about this period; in the Museum of Ethnology in Hanoi there is a large exhibit graphically illustrating the privations of the time.

We’re on our way tonight, a day earlier than planned, to Saigon. It will be interesting to hear what our guide in what was the stronghold of American control will have to say.

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