I first traveled to Vietnam in 1990. Just emerging from the war, visas for foreigners were scarce, but I applied and was granted the privilege of a short visit. Residing in Thailand at the time, it was just a short flight from Bangkok to Saigon, but it was indeed a world away.
Greeting me on that first trip were wariness, sadness and a lack of optimism about the future. Vietnam’s strongest connections were with the Eastern Block, and that part of the world was beginning to crumble.
Personal consumer goods were almost non-existent. Hand soap and basic cosmetics were treasures. Even pens and pencils were scarce. I had purchased some of these precious commodities in Thailand with the intention of gifting them, as appropriate, to people I met on my journey. I will never forget the gratitude with which some of these simple gifts were received.
Because of the long post war embargo, at that time virtually the only vehicles in the country were old American cars left behind as we left in defeat after the war. Tenaciously maintained with hand made parts, it was not uncommon to see a 1950’s Studebaker, being used as a taxi, overloaded with passengers, poultry hanging from every window on the way to market.
There was almost total uniformity of dress. Women wore the elegant ao dai, and men and women alike wore the conical hat and black, baggy pants of the peasant farmer.
This past week, as I arrived in Saigon once again, I experienced a very different place. Industrious and thriving, the Vietnamese people have made their way quickly into the modern world. Saigon is now a city of contemporary architecture reaching for the sky. Cars are modern, sometimes luxurious. It is not uncommon to see BMWs, Mercedes and other luxury vehicles on the street. Brightly lit department stores carry Jimmy Choo shoes, Coach handbags and Armani designs. Italian gelato shops, American coffee houses and fast food abound. The streets are clean, bustling, and the mood is upbeat. Though certainly not everyone is well to do, there are possibilities now that were not even dreamed about in those dark, post war years.
As a long time observer of Vietnam, and their challenges, I stand in awe of their remarkable entry into the modern world. But, don’t let the modern façade fool you. Traditional Vietnamese culture is alive and well and readily shared, to the delight of this visitor.
-Marilyn Downing Staff, Founder and President, Asia Transpacific Journeys
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