Vietnam seems a young country. It’s actually been in existence for a couple of thousand years but has been at war pretty much most of that time. Now, finally at peace and open to the world it is one of the fastest growing economies in the world and everywhere, North to South is being reconstructed, built up and opened out. It’s only since the late eighties that foreign links were made and since then everything has been running double speed as business and tourist dollars pour in.
All the people seem young too. Everything seems to be run by teenagers. There are lots of old folk of course, many scratching a living farming or selling fruit and veg with their giant weighing scales and conical hats, but it’s the young, young people who appear to run the new Vietnam show. They are the ones that swarm through the cities on their scooters and throng the bars and cafés with their haircuts and hip hop.
All this new thrust sits alongside (and sometimes on top of) the mass of ancient traditions, ethnic groups and beliefs that make up the old Vietnam.
A good example of the new meets old is paradise cave near Dong Hoi. Buried in thick jungle, on the Ho Chi Minh trail, a few kilometres from the old divide between North and South is paradise cave, one of the largest and most spectacular caves in the world. It was discovered by accident around 2003 by a local man who was hunting and looking for medicinal plants. He found the entrance but was too afraid of the animals to explore further – in a country that includes the dragon as their national animal and has a long history of dragons helping and causing havoc to the people, staying away from caves was probably quite a sensible move. Anyway, word got out and a professional surveying team from Europe descended to take the measure of the place. They soon realised what a unique find they had on their hands and a UN mandate provided world heritage status and an influx of tourism experts and dollars to create infrastructure and train the locals in the news ways.
Now, bright young entrepreneurs with degrees and enthusiastic English run tour companies and the villagers are leaving farming for selling souvenirs and feeding tourists or to build the new roads and hotels to accommodate them. The hunter who found the cave still lives in the same village but now has a much bigger house and recently discovered an even bigger cave.
The story of paradise cave could serve as a fitting metaphor for the whole of Vietnam and the changes that have happened over the last two thousand years.
After all the invasions, divisions and conflicts in Vietnamese history the people appear incredibly tough, adaptable and surprisingly full of laughs. How will the latest invasion, of western/global consumerist attitude, be adopted and adapted? In a country where family and ancestors play such a key role in people’s lives, how easy does that sit with the atomised culture of the west? The independent, cool kids running Hanoi seem to be pretty happy with it and I’m sure most people’s lives have improved with additional healthcare, schools and solid infrastructure. However, on the way to the caves our driver was telling us that after university he had wanted to become a school teacher but now, “it’s much easier to be a tour guide”.
It will be interesting to see what he and his fellow Vietnamese make of the country now.