So Long, Vietnam

a recap of the last four weeks! warning, it’s a bit lengthy. 

Xin Chao, reader,

Greetings from 36,000 feet. I left Vietnam at 20:00 this evening, and will arrive in Morocco at…some point tomorrow…but I have a paper due about the negative externalities associated with “green energy” development, particularly as it pertains to food and water supplies, when we land, so I’m not exactly rushing the flight. (Though sleep at some point would be nice. I dozed off for a minute on the runway at our layover in the UAE, and next thing I knew an hour had gone by…Some might call it exhaustion, but I’ll just say I’m a little sleepy. Nothing a cappuccino can’t fix. ^.^)

I’ve checked in sporadically throughout the last month, but let’s just recap: First stop was Hanoi, a very large, bustling city. While there, we had a number of lectures and very few site visits. It felt like very traditional schooling the first week, but that was necessary to get some basic understanding of the Vietnamese government and the power dynamics between the communist party and citizen activist groups. Then we moved to the central coast of Vietnam, to Hue, the economy of which relies heavily on agriculture. The central coast isn’t just vulnerable to future impacts of climate change, it’s already happening. We visited several farms, and the members of each farm told us about how the summers were hotter and drier, the winters colder and wetter; these changes are not flukes, but are emerging patterns, and farmers have to work quickly to learn what adaptive techniques are possible.

In one commune, we met with a farmer, Hoa, who switched over from industrial agricultural methods to organic composting. We pulled up in a massive, pink, Hyundai bus. 31 tourists clad in sunburns and string backpacks, equipped with pencils, notebooks, at the ready with our iPhones in case a water buffalo walked by. We looked ridiculously out of place walking through the dusty roads that intersperse the rice paddies. We did not fit in the landscape. I was very aware of how unnatural it was for me, a white, twenty two year old student from the United States, to be standing in Mr. Hoa’s front yard as he turned his pile of manure and rice stalks, his bare feet caked in compost.  He poured us tea. He didn’t talk too much; the organization who sponsors his organic farming did most of the talking. I had some questions answered for my research project (which will focus on the historical use of pesticides and their impact on agriculture, human health, and climate change). We walked out to his fields and saw his stunningly green lettuce. It looked better than any of the other crops near by. His land was healthy, as were his hands. He noted that the burns he used to have from using chemical pesticides had healed since switching to organic. But organic agriculture is arduous. It takes a lot of time, and sometimes the yields won’t bring in enough income, especially for families with children.

In Hue, we also visited a hydropower dam—one of many that have been commissioned by the main electric company, EVN, which is owned by the government. We had an incredible opportunity to meet with several people who had been displaced by the dam; these individuals were part of the ethnic minority in Vietnam, and have been inhabitants of the region forever. With help from our translator, we were able to talk with them about what the implications of the dam were for their families and work. Even though the government has promised to give them reparations for their lost land, these reparations have been inconsistent and at times ineffective. Some of the positives are that these groups now have access to roads, schools, and medical centers. They also have access to electricity and running water, but they have no money or capital, and so they can’t afford it even though their new homes are set up with that capability. Additionally, they houses and neighborhoods the government moved them into are arranged differently than before, so families and communities which used to work together are now split up. They government also granted them forest land to use, but the land is a long motorbike ride from their resettlement, and furthermore they do not know the plants or forestry or animals in the new land. Many of the displaced individuals are now food insecure because they can’t hunt, fish, and forage like they used to. Everything has its trade-offs, I suppose, but these individuals did not elect to move to a community with roads and schools in order to receive those benefits, they were forced to do so. And while the government is trying to provide assistance, these populations won’t get a cut of the (large) profits gained on their previously occupied land. Instead, they’ll feel the negative climate impacts that will come along down the road as a result of the dam’s construction. Stellar.

Hue was damp, rainy, and muddy, but the sun came out when we got to Hoi An. Another small city in central Vietnam, Hoi An is touristy beyond belief. The entire city’s economy relies on the industry. Young people from surrounding rural areas are abandoning their farms at home to move to Hoi An to work in restaurants, shops, and hotels. In the ancient downtown district, the only Vietnamese people you see are those working to sell their wares. Everything is catered to European and American tastes. Every block is just shop after shop of scarves, toys, and snacks (mangoes were a group favorite and iced white coffee. Lots of iced coffee). Custom tailored clothing is huge, but the selection of patterns is fairly repetitive from shop to shop. All the foreigners walk and bike around dressed in the same 10-15 popular fabrics, with slight variations in their rompers or maxi-dresses. I felt weird about all of the consumerism. It was aggressive, and for someone who doesn’t like shopping, disconcerting. The streets are lined with magnets, postcards, and straw hats, all of which reproduce stereotypical, orientalist views of Vietnam. They’re produced en masse for the Anglo-tourist, in other words, me. I am a tourist in this country. I fumble with the local currency (which customarily must be handed over with two hands to cashiers, waitresses, etc.). I botch the pronunciation of what few phrases I know. I am trapped and confined to a Vietnam that was constructed for my pleasure, for profit.

But I am also a student, and in my adventures as a student have had endless conversations about the environmental and social impacts of tourism. It’s not all bad. For instance, Hoi An is one of the most environmentally sustainable towns in Vietnam, and has become so because green is in vogue, and so having eco-tourist attractions boosts traffic to the region. They were one of the first cities to implement a composting program in Vietnam (most other places don’t recycle, let alone compost. A lot of trash is burned.). There is also a rise of organic farming and agriculture throughout the region. Many people visit the city to tour local, organic farms, stay in bed and breakfasts on property, and consume food grown on that land. But there are still people who travel to the coast to visit beaches. And the beaches, they’re not too fond of tourism. The construction of multiple resorts along the coast has caused a massive—and I mean massive—amount of erosion. In just two years, 100 meters of beachfront has been swallowed by the sea (I wrote a post about it <here>.). Tourists who come for beachfront property are shocked when they arrive, and are kept up by the sounds of mechanical attempts to keep a sea wall up. While tourists must muddle through a disappointingly short beach volleyball court before they return home at the end of the week, resorts and local people struggle to find solutions.

IMG_4188.JPG

hand rolled incense in Hue 

One of the redeeming qualities of staying in such a touristy town, though, was that we were staying with local families. My family spoke very little English, but they were incredibly sweet and welcoming. Mealtimes were always an adventure as we tried to communicate basic stories about our days. For more involved questions, my host mom would smile, and flutter out of the room, returning with her phone, open to the Google Translate app. They fed me and the other two girls living with me extremely well. Every night they would keep filling my rice bowl long past the point when I was full, and after rice topped with meats and sauces and freshly grown lettuce (all produced in Vietnam…the country imports very little food, and consumers do not typically buy things for home consumption that are not grown in Vietnam.), we would have fresh fruits. Green bananas or pineapple with salt or lychee, and always a glass of tea. Breakfast was usually noodle soup, again with some kind of meat or peanut sauce or bean sprouts. Every day we biked to school, which was a terrifying experience, but after a day or two I got the hang of it. Like I mentioned before, there are very few rules of the road, mostly just customs you need to know how to follow. Most importantly: don’t stop. You have to find a break in the traffic line and just pedal at a consistent pace, and pray you make it to the other side. By the end of our two weeks in Hoi An, I was zipping through pedestrians and motorbikes like a pro.

It was tough to say goodbye to Hoi An, my host family, the Nguyens, and my bicycle, but it’s time to move on. There’s a lot left to learn and explore. At the tail end of our time in Vietnam, we spent a few days in Ho Chi Minh City in South Vietnam, but I spent much of my time in HCMC working in coffee shops and the hotel lobby on various assignments. This has been enough of a break from my essay, so I better get going. It’s currently 11:00 in Vietnamese time, and so we’ve been traveling for 20 hours, only six(ish?) more to go to get to Rabat!  Might be time to ring for another coffee….

Hope all is well at home. I’m following the primary season closely from abroad, so if your state is still up to vote, please register and do that!!!

Peace out,

PJ

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