Capitalism, Not Really Disguised

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.

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The Ubiquity of Rice

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.

Western Fare Me Well

My recent foray into the world of preparing Western food for myself left me with a delicious batch of mayonnaise-free tuna salad held together by a surprisingly solid foundation of Dijon mustard and raspberry jam. Green onions, red pepper, fresh mint and plenty of garlic rounded out this sure-to-be-repeated recipe.

Bali Revisited

Bali is teeming with magic and ritual. It is home to genuinely friendly people, mischievous monkeys, golden ants and the occasional iridescent blue spider. Travelers here generally fall into one of three categories: surfers, snorkelers and scuba buffs; party-primed students from Australia; and intense yoga junkies who tend toward veganism and condescension.

The town I stayed in, Ubud, is considered the spiritual heart of the island and the hub of its yoga universe. Only in Ubud could I have ended up in a creek at the bottom of a ravine, night falling, participating in a naked cleansing ritual performed by a local shaman of sorts and in the company of a beautiful Spanish woman who was clearly in tune with the enlightening vibe of the moment. Unfortunately, my spiritual awakening was arrested because I remained convinced that the shaman’s buddy was probably rifling through our clothes on the creek bank.

Elsewhere on Bali (and in Ubud, too), high-end resorts and villas abound, even a supposedly seven-star resort near the capital of Denpasar. While the local food is simple and delicious—nasi campur and babi guling (roast suckling pig) stand out—the island also has some of the best Western food I’ve eaten in Southeast Asia, as well as a couple of amazing pastry shops (and, admittedly, some pretty good vegan food).

However, despite my initial infatuation with Bali, my second trip there left me jaded. While it would be easy for me to chalk this up to my motorbike accident and broken collarbone, the truth is that unless you drink the Kool-Aid and turn a blind eye, the island’s antics start to wear a little thin and you get tired of the constant hustle hiding behind helpfulness.

Bali is not for everybody, but its culture and spirituality are undeniably alluring—just take it all with a grain of all-natural sea salt and a deep chakra-cleansing breath.