Vietnam: Full Speed Ahead
Women ride sidesaddle on the backs of motorbikes, even when wearing pants or jeans, legs dangling over the side, chauffeured by their colleagues or family.
Some don the traditional Vietnamese ao dai, the colorful two-piece outfit with the top extending all the way to the ankles, a long slit down one side, and long white pants underneath.
Other women wear elbow-length gloves to add a bit of class while protecting from the elements. Even the poorest find ways to show their sense of good taste and elegance.
All the retro-style class and sophistication lends an aura of yesteryear. Sometimes I feel like an old movie is playing in front of me.
The roads and architecture are modern, but most of the businesses are still family run, with almost no big international brand names, fast food joints, or coffee shop chains present. You can feel the entrepreneurial spirit, energy, and enthusiasm. It’s everywhere.
There are vendors all along the streets, mostly elderly women offering fruit, vegetables, sandwiches, and snacks. Some wear the stereotypical cone-shaped Vietnamese hat and carry their wares the old-fashioned way, in baskets balanced on long poles over their shoulders.
They’re nearly all lean, almost scrawny from all that walking around, faces creased from the sun and wind.
Men linger on street corners beside their motorbikes, ready for customers needing a short, quick ride. Others work as bicycle taxi “cyclo” drivers pedaling tourists around the streets.
They live hand to mouth, as their parents and grandparents did. They have no long-term view; today is the only day.
But that perspective is changing in real time.
This is Da Nang, third-largest city in Vietnam behind capital Hanoi and business hub Ho Chi Minh City. Da Nang is big but still provincial. Were it not for the skyscrapers, bridges, malls, endless stream of motorbikes, and the whir of air conditioners, today’s Da Nang could easily be 1960s Da Nang.
Da Nang is equidistant between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, the former to the north, the latter to the south, both about 800 kms away. Migrants from the countryside are streaming into Da Nang because it’s the closest big destination for those in largely impoverished central Vietnam.
Young people from neighboring rural areas come to seek out a better life in the big city and then send money home, just like in developing countries the world over. Those who have an education and some English easily find a job in retail or the tourism industry.
In recent years, Da Nang was elevated to “centrally governed status,” putting it on equal footing with Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and two industrial areas, Haiphong and Can Tho. Da Nang is the designated tourism jewel of Vietnam, a gorgeous destination itself with several UNESCO World Heritage sites nearby, including Hoi An to the south, the ancient capital Hue to the north, and the ruins of Hindu temples at My Son in neighboring Quang Nam province.
Da Nang is managed. It’s organized, well planned with a strategic view. I recently saw a plan entitled “Da Nang Master Planning Vision—2030 to 2050.” If that’s not forward thinking, I don’t know what is. I’ve never heard of such a long-term city-planning view anywhere in the world, never mind in a developing country.
Signs and Symbols of Progress Everywhere
In Southeast Asia we’re used to anarchy on the roads. In Da Nang, the powers that be are working to address driving and parking challenges.
At the end of last year, the authorities eliminated motorbike parking in the evenings along Bach Dang, the broad riverside promenade on the Han River that runs through the heart of Da Nang.
Sure enough, promptly on the evening of Jan. 1, scores of policemen were out, all along the promenade, helping motorbikes move along, explaining where they could park on side streets, giving directions, leading the way.
The two rivers that cross through Da Nang are spanned by seven bridges. Now work is under way on a tunnel under the river at the Han River Bridge. It’s not that traffic at this spot is overwhelming today. It’s that city officials are looking ahead and preparing for future traffic.
To many in the West, Vietnam conjures up images of a backward communist country, top heavy with red tape, clogged with inefficiencies.
Couldn’t be further from the truth in today’s Vietnam. The advent of “doi moi” in the late 80s and early 90s has brought about the intended “socialist oriented market economy.” It’s the equivalent of the Soviet Union’s “perestroika“… a restructuring.
The result is an economy on fire, led by forward-thinking executives, many educated overseas, with an entrepreneurial spirit unparalleled in the region.
Developing countries in Southeast Asia are known for sluggish service in shops, restaurants, and hotels and demotivated employees. Again, this is not the case in Vietnam. Vietnam is not your typical developing Southeast Asian market.
I’ve become friends with the woman who owns my favorite café near where I stay. She and her business partner are both married and mothers with young children, yet they work 362 days per year, closing only for three days at Tet, the Vietnamese Lunar New Year.
They open at 6 a.m. and close at 8 p.m., every day, taking turns on shifts. When there is a lull in the action, they hop on their motorbikes to go shopping for the best and least expensive supplies. They mix their own special blend of coffee, select just the right fresh fruit for smoothies, and handpick their tea.
I estimate they have at least 100 regular customers, yet they know every preferred drink and how to serve it, down to the number of ice cubes.
When I show up each morning the place is hopping, but I can count on being served my morning coffee just the way I like it, just as I am every day. They know what their customers want, and they can’t wait to make it happen.
Groups of customers come from nearby office towers, 10 or more altogether at a table. Each of these ladies can stand at the table and tally up the bill in her head in seconds.
In her spare time my friend always has her nose in a business management book. She takes classes at the local university on top of her workload and responsibilities at home.
This is not a rare story around Vietnam. People envision success from far away and are willing to make large sacrifices to earn it.
Vietnam has everything going for it and is catching up quickly to its Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) counterparts in terms of foreign tourist arrivals.
In 2016, Vietnam saw more than 10 million foreign tourist arrivals for the first time; that was a stunning 24% increase over numbers for 2015.
I certainly understand the appeal. This is an interesting time in the history of a country worth knowing.
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