If it weren’t for the hammer and sickle fluttering in the wind from almost every street light, and the propaganda posters which pop up everywhere from high streets to farms, one would not think that Vietnam was anything like a Communist country. Ho Chi Minh’s face can be seen everywhere, from bank notes to the banners adorning every street in the capital but there is something decidedly Capitalist about the beat of the drum which the population moves to.
Last week we read an article, on the BBC website, which said among the nouveaux riche $35 bowls of Phó (a noodle soup dish that is popular throughout the country and normally costs about 1 Euro) were all the rage (click here for the article).
Walking down the street in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC), Kawasakis, Suzukis and Vespas crowd every pavement, while in the big cities LVHM and other luxury brands have outlets (one wonders what percentage of the population can afford to shop there though, because most of the people appear to be wearing fakes).
The new skyscraper in HCMC’s financial centre with its spacey viewing deck, which charges $10 entry, is another symbol of plenty towering over the beautiful colonial centre which seems to be developing with a disregard for the crumbling suburbs. There is a sense that here “some are more equal than others.”
But in the midst of all this one sees the poorest members of the society eking out a living in the gutters of the city. To survive they must work as there is no safety net. To be childless in old age must be terrible for those who are too frail to lug heavy loads, sell fruit on street corners, play courier or run errands for others. At night a steady army of amputees, elderly people and filthy street urchins approach tables in the tourist areas hoping for alms, which will make the next meal, the next day possible.
Filing past the body of Ho Chi Minh, inside his marble mausoleum, I wondered what he would have made of the expensive restaurants, exclusive bars and the luxury cars, which members of the Party elite (and many others) seem to favor.
Finally we were on our way to Vietnam, some home comforts and a little warmth; however at 5 am we woke to find that the whole of Munag Khua was pitch black and a steady rain had begun to fall. Martin volunteered to go down the rickety staircase, made from scraps of wood, to find the man who was responsible for the ferry, which would take us 10 metres across the river to the bus.
A search with a head torch and a few calls in the dark woke the boatman, who had the monopoly on the pathetic ferry that, if the river were lower, and our baggage lighter, we would totally have crossed on foot. Once we made it to the dock with our baggage, we found that a few others were waiting for the rusty boat, which rocked alarmingly in the water as we boarded. Onboard we were hostage to the grossly inflated fare, which the boatman (who appeared to be a little hung over) demanded.
Once the motor was on, we travelled for approximately 30 seconds before being delivered to the opposite bank of the river, where the bus was due to leave at 5:30 am. We found a bus, but no driver and nobody on that side of the river seemed to be awake yet. We waited, as directed, outside the largest building there and sheltered from the rain, taking turns to go to the loo behind the parked bus.
Approximately half an hour later, the bus began to be loaded with all manner of mats, food, tools and building materials. This loading would continue all the way to the border with Vietnam; we stopped frequently to load yet more people, perishable, non-perishable and live goods throughout the morning. Surprisingly, some of the young people we picked up were wearing Diesel jeans and toting Louis Vuitton, Gucci and Coach handbags – of course none of them were real. The irony of the fact that these luxury brands had found their way here, to the north eastern corner of Laos, a place swimming in a sea of mud, where people live in depressingly basic conditions and signs such as the one below can be seen, was not lost on either of us.
The journey along the treacherous hairpin bends on the road to the border was much longer than we had anticipated. When we finally arrived, a large group of guards, who looked formidable in their smart uniforms, were waiting. As the only farangs (foreigners), we were singled out; a guard barked at us indicating that we had to sit down and submit to a temperature check with a digital thermometer. As I submitted to the gruff guard who inserted the dirty nozzle of the digital thermometer into my ear, I began to wonder if it was possible to catch something nasty from it.
After about 15 minutes, we were ushered into Vietnam. As we filed past the statue of Uncle Ho in the hallway, which was uncannily reminiscent of the statues of Kim Il Sung and Kim Jong Il we had to bow in front of last year in North Korea, we exchanged a knowing look. Finally we were in Vietnam!