Capitalism is alive and thriving these days in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: A recently lowered luxury tax on foreign imports has brought a flood of high-end vehicles to the country’s streets; Prada, Gucci and Apple retailers, to name a few, can be found in all major urban areas (and even some small towns); while resort hotels and luxury condos have become the new Vietnamese pop-ups. The Union of Soviet Socialist Republics never had it so good.
To be clear, all the country’s current development bodes very well for its future. Improved infrastructure projects and a flood of foreign investment, both of which have spiked over the past two years, are just the things Vietnam needs to catch up and join the global market.
The weird thing is that, when it comes to the luxury that surrounds them, most Vietnamese can’t even afford more than a once-a-month movie at the local CGV cinema— much less these $10,000 blue alligator-skin Santoni shoes, which cost more that three times the annual salary of the average Vietnamese. Elsewhere, Ray-Bans and Rolexes sit in glass display cases attended by well-dressed youth who often look too bored to be bothered. No one’s really buying anything, while entire luxury apartment blocks in Ho Chi Minh City’s District 7 sit sparsely occupied.
For the people, the thrill hasn’t arrived. For the connected who drive BMWs and Porsches down pot-holed one-lane streets, the thrill’s not going anywhere.
Vietnam’s contradictions are part of what make it so interesting—with this detente between the two sides of the same market coin being the most glaring contradiction of all.
The overwhelming exhaustion of being a stranger in a fucked-up land had become a barometer for all his other emotions and states of mind. He was sick with inner conflict he had repressed far longer than his latent hatred for all things Capitalism. The clarity smarted like his cracked rear tooth.
The workers at this rice depot were a little baffled when I pulled in at around 8:00 PM and wanted to take some pictures with my smartphone. I made some polite overtures, mustered some of my best broken Vietnamese and then poked around for a few minutes.
Each of these bags weighs 50 kilograms (that’s 110 pounds for you imperialists), with this relatively small depot being just one of thousands of such depots in the Mekong Delta alone. In other words, there is an insane amount of rice in Vietnam, a country that is only twice the size of Florida with five times as many people.
Since the early 90s, Vietnam has been the world’s fifth largest producer of rice, while recently the country became the world’s third largest exporter of rice. According to recent studies, in 2013 the country produced 44 metric tons of rice—25 metric tons of which came from the Mekong Delta, which produces half of the country’s rice yield on 11% of its land area. An Giang Province, which is just north of Cần Thơ, is widely recognized as the rice capital of Vietnam, with its largest city, Long Xuyên, featuring a 20-foot sculpture of a rice plant in the middle of a roundabout just down the street from its government offices.
The ubiquitous presence of rice in Vietnam is staggering—from fresh rice noodles and rice moonshine to countless rice-based dishes and more than 1,600 varieties of rice that are available in varying degrees at small rice shops in every city and village, from Sa Pa to Cà Mau. Even the general catchall Vietnamese phrase for eating (ăn cơm) translates directly as “eat rice”.
And eat I do. My inner rice fanatic is always full and happy, yet nonetheless astounded by the sheer volume of Vietnam’s rice production. It seems the French colonialists had it right when they observed that it’s the Vietnamese who plant the rice, the Cambodians who tend it and the Lao who listen to it grow.
And lo, an unknown visitor came unto his dwelling during his lunch hour, defecating in his bathroom’s basin, leaving a double-log insult and forgetting—nay, neglecting with malice—to rid the basin of its foul stain. Afterward, the visitor slipped with slick discretion into the fog of the past, avoiding the most cursory of investigations by the building’s ineffective landlord, remaining forever unknown and unnamed.
The miraculous double-log—following myriad idiocies and foreshadowing a general haplessness that sprouted from the nutrient-deficient soil beneath his feet—Damascus-steeled him against a world he’d once considered his friend.
Yay, as the disciples remind us, the incident also left him frustrated, curious about the purpose of the gift and about the intentions of the nigh-Fortuna who had cast her crafty shadow on his soul and colluded with the unknown-unnamed visitor to infect his life.
“Why?!?” he cried out in the waning light of one day and into the harsh light of the next.
Why indeed, the disciples now intone.
And thus, the jaded expat was born, forever embittered to the world.
Having returned from several weeks of family and leisure time in the United States, the intrepid traveler returned to his blog with renewed vigor, buoyed by the love and positivity he found in spades throughout his home state.
One of the keys to successfully navigating life in Vietnam is to learn just enough of the language to sound like you know more than you do. Your ignorance might quickly be exposed, but they’ll never really quite know if maybe you don’t understand more than you’re letting on—and thus treat you a little more fairly and a little more like a local. Even just showing an effort to speak a little Vietnamese will earn you more than a modicum of respect.