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August 21, 2007

Vietnam Today - Part Two

Tom McLaughlin

When we arrived in Hanoi, the first thing I did was book both my daughter Christine and myself on tours. Everyday was a different one, most lasting a full day. Little did I realize all of them had something to do with a Buddhist Shrine.

Now I have nothing against Buddhism, but so many in unbearable 100 degree heat was a bit much. I am not going to bore you with a visit to each one, but I will give you an idea as to the extent of the Buddha journey.

We had to take a cable car to one. Another required a trip on a "river," which was about six inches deep, in boats paddled by Vietnamese women. Climbing down over 500 steps into a cave was another. By this time we were both Buddhaed out. They all began to merge into one huge Buddha. One wag called my tummy a Buddha Belly which I did enjoy in finding some merit about my stomach.

I liked the conversations with the locals who spoke English. One guide was a school teacher who, when learning I also had taught, asked how to motivate students, discipline (they use the rod quite often) and how to prepare students for government tests. Common teaching problems whether in Vietnam or America.

While swimming in the military pool, I struck up a conversation with a Vietnamese officer. He asked if it was my first trip, implying I may have been in the war, and was re-assured when I told him I wasn't. Then he assumed I was some kind of person related to human rights. I will never forget his statement: "We don't want any of your human rights," as if I was a salesman of unwanted merchandise. There isn't much of a reply to that.

We needed to get some toothpaste, so I went to a vendor outside the hotel. I smiled and pantomimed holding an imaginary tube of toothpaste. Then I squeezed the paste onto a non-existent toothbrush and began brushing. Then I pointed back to the imaginary tube. Communication established, I purchased a real tube the lady had for sale.

Scholars often gathered at the hotel where we were staying and breakfast was a real treat. I usually went down early and asked someone if I could join him or her, even if there were many other tables to be had. I enjoyed talking with a professor from Connecticut who was translating ancient tomes. She was a joy in explaining the many mysteries of the culture. They all seemed to revolve around dragons and turtles.

There was a French professor on an exchange with the local university trying to teach medicine. His heavy accent was difficult for me, and I could understand why he was having problems with his students.

Zoologists and botanists would lather into the excitement of their latest finds before trooping back out into the field for more discoveries. Some of their communications ranged into the obtuse, and I pretended to understand what they were talking about by giving several thumbs up and words of encouragement when in reality I hadn't a clue.

Kids often practiced their English, which didn't get much beyond "What is your name?" and "How old are you?" Some of the teenagers listened and answered questions patiently about how the weather was in January and the snow, while eyeing my 18-year-old daughter.

Many western observers claim that Vietnam will be the next economic giant of the Far East. One thing is certain; the infrastructure must be developed before that will happen.

Roads are poor. Water and sewage plants are non-existent in some places. Electricity is sporadic at best. Schools need to be built and an educated work force must be established. A government riddled with corruption and, with the remnants of the communist philosophy, will have to change.

But, labor is cheap. As people in India, Malaysia, Thailand and even China demand a higher standard of living and more material goods, wages will rise and the export products will become more expensive. Vietnam can and will fill that void when the infrastructure becomes more established.

I must remind readers my observations are of the north only. I did not visit Saigon or the surrounding areas to the south because of the unbearable heat. But, I have a feeling, from talking to Vietnamese who were traveling north that my observations are correct. In other words, don't invest in the Hanoi Stock Market anytime soon.

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