I had a version of Southeast Asia in my imagination. It was based on books and movies and travel journals and postcards. It wasn’t a perfect world; there was war, and poverty, and dictatorship. But it was beautiful and human, life was artful, and it was completely different from, and even immune to, the ways of the West.
We missed it.
If that version ever actually existed, it’s mostly gone now, as far as I can tell. We catch glimpses of it now and then, on the grounds of a quiet temple, in an alley too narrow for cars, in a garden plot along a river. If you’re very selective with your focus, you can see that world. But one glance beyond that romantic frame with the soft focus filter reveals another reality of traffic jams, fast food, plastic, and commercialism. I expected this, of course. I knew that this part of the world has been changing radically for many decades. I just didn’t think it would be so far gone.
As we bounced along the highway from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay, I wondered if I could get my expectations out of the way enough to simply appreciate the reality of this place. Someday, I tried to tell myself, this will be the good ol’ days, when life here was simple and authentic and so different from anywhere else. There was no doubt that transformation to something else was already well underway. The route was one continuous construction zone, with new apartments and retail developments going up everywhere. Soon, it would be impossible to see the rice paddies and temples beyond the solid wall of new housing façades in the style of La Belle Époque.
Our guide for this excursion was Loan (Low – ahn’), an effervescent woman from Hanoi who filled our ears with words of wisdom, childhood anecdotes, and funny stories about life in Vietnam. The Vietnamese people are flexible, Loan said, and she explained how the system works if the police pull you over for a traffic infraction. Let’s just say that your best outcomes can be achieved if you have a little money stashed near your driver’s license.
Likewise, if there’s an obstacle in your path, go around it. The Vietnamese don’t waste one second resenting the inconvenience or complaining that the obstacle doesn’t belong there.
Vietnam, and all of Southeast Asia, is in the throes of radical transformation. The people are doing the best they can to forge a good life out of the wreckage of wars, communism, exploitation, and culture shock. They have overcome unfathomable personal and collective tragedies. They see salvation in tourism, and that means modernization. They are embracing change, and I can’t blame them.
The transformation of Ha Long Bay is well underway. The coast is lined with modern, high-rise resorts. Instead of quaint fishing boats, the bay itself is clogged with “pseudo-junks” —pleasure boats rigged to look something like the real thing— filling the air with a haze of smoke and diesel fumes so thick, it’s hard to see the famous and spectacular limestone karsts.
Be flexible, I tell myself, and I join the hordes of tourists who have come to see one of the wonders of the world.This entry was posted in Honeymoon 2013