Three years ago, when East Meets West Foundation asked me to go to Saigon I started this blog. I had written sporadically over the years and always told myself that I would get around to some serious writing when I had more time. The truth is that we never have more time unless we make it a priority. When I took the EMW job I decided to stop using work as an excuse for not writing and this blog became my discipline. I planned to write at least one entry each week. It’s the old writers’ truism – if I just write 500 words a day I’ll have a whole library by the time I’m 75. I don’t have a library of my own work and I didn’t achieve my goal of blog a week but over these past three years I have managed to post over 100 entries about everything from Saigon traffic to old white predators coming to Asia in search of young girls. I did what I set out to do – get started on a writing project. No more procrastination.
In December of 2012 I finished my work as a full time staff member at EMW. I originally signed on for two years but sometime in Year Two we agreed to add another one. When that was over I agreed to continue work as a consultant on a reduced schedule through 2013. Vietnam, Saigon in particular, is very seductive. The people are interesting and every day is an adventure. I could keep going back year after year; the work is never done. I enjoyed every part of it, but in April when we returned to Seattle EMW and I agreed that with some additional staff support in Saigon the office could succeed without my help. It was bittersweet for me. I feel good about what I accomplished and I loved the people I worked with and the friends I made there. It’s time to move on, but I’m not through with Vietnam. I’ve already agreed to work with PeaceTrees Vietnam on some fundraising, and I’m planning to go back next winter – got to get out of Seattle – to visit with friends and see the sun again.
What are the lessons of Vietnam? Nothing about it is simple. The people are attractive, energetic, ambitious, family oriented, money obsessed, and conniving. Police and government officials are corrupt and individuals can be venal, mean and thieving. The women are the most beautiful in the world until they marry. Then they become strident micro-managers dealing with their lazy, gambling, beer drinking and abusive men. The family is Vietnam’s social safety net because there are no such things as retirement plans or pensions unless you’re a government official. There is no transportation infrastructure. There is one road from Saigon to Hanoi and it’s choked with truck traffic and corrupt police taking bribes. The beaches and resorts are extraordinary but even the most beautiful have to be cleaned daily because of the garbage that accumulates overnight. The Vietnamese don’t seem to know what treasures these beach assets are. They only know that there’s money to be made there.
The war ended in 1975 but the North/South rivalry goes on. It’s not unlike the US – New England vs the Deep South. The northerners think they have the true culture. They’re cold, calculating, and critical of the southerners with their accents and their too sweet food. The southerners can’t stand the imperious, know-it-all attitude of the Hanoians. I’m pretty easy going, but even I had trouble with a couple of female co-workers from Hanoi. They were arrogant, mean spirited, and self-involved. They apparently didn’t think teamwork training had any personal application or see the value of respect and collaboration in social interaction. There is a class structure in Vietnam that condones this arrogant behavior and the increasing spread between rich and poor reinforces it. What’s interesting, in contrast, is the social equality in the expatriate business community. There are no rigid class distinctions based on wealth or position. The only distinction might be your length of time in-country. CEOs mingle with teachers, NGO workers, volunteers, and small entrepreneurs. If I wanted to meet a CEO all I had to do was call up. No gatekeepers. Easy access. These are all generalizations, but they are how I experienced Vietnam.
It has been a great adventure and I think we have learned a lot about the world by being involved there. If I had one wish for young Americans it would be that every young person spend a year or two in some foreign place where they don’t speak the language and have to rely on the kindness of local people to get along. It’s humbling and empowering. It would be a better world if we all saw each other as global citizens and acted accordingly.
So… This is my last blog on this site. The fat lady is singing her farewell song. I’m going to continue to write more but it will be on a different subject on a different site. When I have the new blog established I’ll post the address here. I’m grateful to my friends and acquaintances who have read my stuff and provided feedback. It has been fun. Thanks.