The Change Happening
Many Americans have a soundtrack for Vietnam in mind. The songs popular with soldiers in the war – and popular in movies about soldiers in the war – talk about peace, frustration and, primarily, change. Like a rolling stone, I moved here to watch every season turn, turn, turn and further wonder what war is good for. And in my half decade in Vietnam, I’ve found a playlist about change to be perfectly fitting.
Progress is the welcomed white elephant in the room in Vietnam. Change is everywhere. Danang’s tallest beachfront hotel was five stories 60 months ago. Now it’s 199 meters. Restaurant menus now list in Vietnamese, English, Korean, Chinese and a hint of Russian. The tradition of women moving in with their in-laws after marriage and living as a multi-generation complex now may be breaking by the rebel newlyweds choosing to rent their own apartments. English is the modern currency, with language schools becoming as commonplace as coffee shops. Cocktails are suddenly available – dangerous in a nation of small people used to drinking 3% fresh beer.
Da Nang might just be the epicenter for transition in the country. JD was half of the entire South African expat community when he came. Now he’s part of a crowd. Hotels pop up so often that the city government has put a cap on to give them a minute to breathe. Suddenly you can find pizza as easily as ban xeo. There’s a mall, an indoor ice skating rink and even a Mexican restaurant.
Then, again, Saigon – I mean, Ho Chi Minh City – recently surprised me with its progressive strides. On a one-afternoon visit there the other week, traditional Vietnamese gender roles seems to be up for grabs. When I treated myself to a foot massage at a spa, it was a man who tackled my toes. At dinner, I noticed a woman among the delivery “boys” collecting take-away orders. As I ate, a young Vietnamese woman made herself comfortable at a table for one and ordered a craft beer. She may have drunk it from a straw, but, point is, she drank it alone.
Is all this change good or bad? As an active part of this change – both as expat and English teacher – I often wish to qualify the movement I find myself in. The answer chameleons me. From what I can gather, as a completely unreliable narrator often making stuff up and missing nuances, it’s both.
Young people now have more flexibility. Women in particular have more opportunity. There may be more jobs and more money for a still-very-poor country. But as traditional family structure moves into one-bedroom apartments, the beautiful system of grandparents acting as valuable babysitters while their children earn the money and serve as elderly caretakers begins to break. The effects of altering this backbone of Vietnamese society are yet to be fully realized. If tourist dollars can manage to trickle down to real, actual Vietnamese citizens, it could mean more money for school, health, even fun. But sometimes it seems like foreign owned resorts are busy dining out with (silver) silk pockets while the rest of the country struggles to sell fake Ray-B(e)ans on the beach.
As Vietnam further opens its doors to change it stands to gain wealth, ideas and recognition. But it also stands to have its time-old ways scrutinized and its culture cheapened for the spectators. Its kids could become healthier from the influx of accessibility or fatter from the arrival of potato chips.
I don’t know the final outcomes. Truth is, no one does. All we can say is, the times, they are a changin.