What does Việt Nam do better, that other countries could learn from?
I thought about this for nearly two weeks; there were many themes to choose from:
Hard working, strong family culture, determination and ambition.
Most countries share these ideals but few have that ‘magic’ characteristic of ‘optimism’; that feeling that no matter what quality of life I have now, I still believe in a better future.
Việt Nam had slogans like “land of smiles,” but that’s not what I’m talking about here.
Việt Nam has a young population, as do many other Asian states.
The majority of these populations are under 40 and in these economic times, that’s a huge advantage.
Yet Việt Nam has already been though war, economic depressions and much more, long before many other nations, still, people are endlessly, magically, unbelievably cheerful.
You could say the westernized world is depressed.
Europe is self-obsessed with an unstable economic union.
America is busy pondering its future, electing a new president and its role in the world.
Africa is split by economic woes, a growing political spring and the tragedies of failed states.
China, South Korea and Japan face slowing growth, a rapidly aging population and potential unnecessary conflict over the East Sea, and South America isn’t yet sure how to best use its growing economic power.
However the Vietnamese, faced with a lack of modern education, poor infrastructure and climate change, are moving at an extraordinary speed to develop themselves.
I’m sure some people will say:
‘Hey…Việt Nam’s got problems!’
So who doesn’t around the world?
Yet they battle on to grow, learn, organize, plan and develop an emerging economy, all with a big grin, a motorbike, a phone, tools borrowed from a friend and an unshakable belief that somehow they will sort it all out.
The pockets of prosperity are blooming and spreading.
Sure, coastal cities seem to do better in some ways than the mountain regions yet anywhere you go, the Vietnamese, young and old, still giggle, carry wheelbarrows, build a house themselves, grow food everywhere and lean on a shovel to have a chat with the neighbors.
I sent the SOS (emergency call) out across Facebook for ideas from my friends living in Đà Nẵng and Hội An for this story.
What emerged out of nearly a week of posted ideas was surprising…
Often as I ride though the waning red and gold sunset shining down between the thick deep green branches of the old trees towards the pub, I see young dads cradling young babies, walking slowly and whispering songs in their baby’s ears.
It’s something missing from the west these days – public displays of family togetherness.
The Vietnamese could be accused of letting their kids wander the roads – but that’s not quite true – kids are simply left to make their own fun.
In the western world, you won’t often hear the regular giggles and yells of kids playing in the streets, sitting calmly with their grandparents trimming the dinner vegetables, picking up bugs and insects in Việt Nam’s open session biology class or just sleeping peacefully next to the busiest road around town – on the seat of a motorbike.
This is something the west has lost to some degree.
That sense of just living with the world and being at peace with it – not endlessly questioning it.
Family is not a word here, it’s a world, grandparents have jobs – to mind the kids.
Children have jobs – to help mum and dad with the business.
Young adults have jobs – to help out their parents on the local farm plot during school holidays.
It’s obligation but I’ve never heard any youngster resent or complain about it – and as I, (strange foreigner), pass by, everyone just gives me the biggest grin and races the sleeping babies, madly waving an unaware tiny arm, up to me for “hello, hello” practice…
I can do it myself…
I once met a woman in her mid-thirties; disguised by a face mask, wearing rubber boots, on slim, short, strong figure with great legs and a deep blue jacket (uniforms say a lot here: deep blue is ‘construction’) and a shovel taller than she was, waist deep in a pit.
She looked up, pulled down the mask and showed one of the most beautiful grins I’ll ever see.
She was probably lucky to make 3 or 5 dollars a day for her work but still had the energy and the enthusiasm to smile at me… amazing.
I should have married her on the spot, but you have to be careful about things like that in Việt Nam!
I’ve seen laborers almost dying in the midday heat yet still waving like school kids as I ride past.
I remember a very cute woman looking after the motor on a primitive rope crane for winching bricks and mortar to the upper floors of a building, who smiled too long at me as I rode past (I really can’t tell you what she was thinking…) and almost let the wheelbarrow flip over on the top floor!
And behind my house there’s a grandmother who still cooks on a wood stove and sleeps on an old, wooden hard bed, who smiles like a chuckling secret at me every morning!
I’d love to know what she thinks of me but I’m too afraid to find out!
Houses (and a lot of small hotels and businesses) are still built mostly by hand and brute labor, vegetable gardens are lovingly nursed while hunched on old knees, precious wood is collected for fuel, and building scaffolding is pushed in carts by people in their fifties and older.
And even here, there’s that’s endless chatter, giggles, jokes, side cracks and gossip.
All my neighbors can dig, build, make concrete, lay bricks, fix the wiring, repair motorbikes, grow and catch their own food and maybe a dozen other skills we’ve lost in our detached from nature, ultra-convenient worlds.
Not really – they sing, chatter and hum.
You want it, we’ll figure out a way…
One of the strongest traits of the Vietnamese is to just begin something and work it out as they go.
This doesn’t work well for highly technical things such as modern highways, massive bridges and the like, however, it’s an enormous advantage when you want to make money and develop an economy fast, and it is all done with a smile.
The Vietnamese actually want to help and do something good – it’s not all rip-offs and stuff-ups.
They do, almost relentlessly, track down a way to deliver, supply, make or get something.
It often is not what we originally wanted but some strange version of what they think we want.
But you can’t help but admire the effort in trying to satisfy you.
It’s far better than dumping the problem back in your lap and telling you to go somewhere else.
So don’t complain so much when your smiling waitress brings you ‘ba-con’ instead of ‘but-ter’! She’s just trying to make you happy!
It may sound odd to a foreigner but this is a ‘group culture’ – the society is maintained by the way people think and share the ordinary things.
I don’t mean offering or sharing food – most of the world still does that.
In my street most of my neighbors are farmers, although quite a few of their children go to high school and university – which does cost a fortune despite their ‘on paper’ land wealth.
But they are not ‘stingy’ about the things they own.
Every day I see them borrow the ladder, return the garden tools, lend the water pump and ask for their friend’s bike… and…
I’ve never seen a bad argument upon returning damaged equipment.
While it’s often irritating to me when they yell across the street to say hello, I don’t want them to change… there’s something very comforting about being noticed by your neighbors as you ride down the street.
In Australia, I would barely know any of my neighbors.
Once they know about you – it’s no problem to come back with the money later if you forgot to go to the bank – if you borrowed the tools on Monday – bring it back by Friday!
This too is an odd one.
There are many times when I’ve gotten angry about the traffic, or I didn’t get what I ordered in the restaurant, the shopkeeper can’t help me with something simple and I fume, the Vietnamese don’t reply, respond, answer, confirm, arrive… in a quick manner…
I yell, stamp my foot, mutter under my breath – and they know it’s not nice – but the next day, it’s all forgotten.
Unless it’s a serious money, family or love feud, Vietnamese don’t hold much of a grudge.
Oh… we are so happy you are ok today!
Finally, simply being themselves…
Now, I am not talking about the ‘super rich’ of Việt Nam, they can be very arrogant; just ordinary people with some success and a decent business.
I know quite a few ‘well-off’ people in Hội An who just say hello and talk normally about life – they don’t ‘show off’ or talk about money much.
And there is the other end… the little grandmother with the wood stove who smiles because she wants to, not because she ‘has’ to.
And one of my neighbors who works two jobs to put his daughter through university, still offers me coffee anytime.
Go to the country coffee shops at the weekend and you find rich landowners and young students chatting happily.
No one is trying to impress you because they have a supreme self-confidence and the thing that we in the west could sorely use – endless cheerfulness.