Roaming among crowds with my wife and our three children, I was also struck by the relative scarcity of children.
The one-child policy seems to be working; our brood seemed huge.
I was also comparing China to what I see in Việt Nam, so youthful in so many ways.
The neat blue and white uniforms make schoolchildren easy to spot, and there are plenty of them.
The ones on bicycles usually have a friend on back and make me nervous as they maneuver precariously amid the motorized traffic.
Forgive me, but let me now quote Whitney Houston:
I believe that children are the future; teach them well and let them lead the way…
Well, maybe they shouldn’t always lead.
But I still like the sentiment.
And here in Việt Nam, teaching the children well represents both a huge opportunity and a big problem.
Việt Nam’s baby boomers and their children are rightly considered one of the nation’s greatest resources.
A measure of any society is progress from one generation to the next – the legacy of a better world.
In hardheaded economic terms, Việt Nam represents a competitive advantage compared to the aging populations of the Asian economic giants, China and Japan.
But if Việt Nam can’t do a better job of education, the country has little hope of rising above its current role as a source of cheap labor in the global economy.
This is why Việt Nam’s teachers are right to push for higher salaries as part of the government’s call for a restructuring of its educational system.
Somehow I doubt that Confucius, the revered teacher, would be pleased with the combination of low salaries and large class sizes that Việt Nam’s educators deal with today.
How low are local teachers paid?
Much, much less than the garden-variety expat who teaches English part-time.
According to a report by a national society of former teachers, educators in Hồ Chí MinhCity earn an average monthly income of VND3 million (US $144) to VND3.5 million ($168), while novices are paid only VND2 million ($96), Teachers with 13 years of experience can only earn as much as VND5 million ($240) – lower than what a newly minted university grad can get in the private sector.
But Việt Nam is also an entrepreneurial culture.
With salaries so low, many teachers charge parents extra for tutoring in their homes, and some are known to accept envelopes with cash to provide extra attention to some little Minh or Thủy.
Many Vietnamese parents are angry with this – and rightly so.
But in the larger scheme, as Việt Nam’s leaders consider the huge sums squandered at state-owned enterprises and other businesses with friends in high places, the greater disgrace is the way teachers presiding over a classroom of 50 kids might earn less than a nanny watching one.
I’ve talked about education with two prominent Vietnamese businessmen – one in coffee, one in computers – and both say education needs a major overhaul.
The benefits, one pointed out, would include a more meritocratic society in which who you know is not as important as what you can do.
Better pay for teachers is part of the answer.
The optimist in me prefers Việt Nam’s future to China’s.
I asked our guides their opinion on the one-child policy.
At the Great Wall, a young man said he thought it was a good thing, not only because China is already so populous but also because teaching more kids would be so expensive.
In Xian, I posed the question to a woman about my wife’s age.
“I think it is lonely,” she told me.
She wishes her teenage son had a brother or sister.
Couples who have twins “are so lucky,” she said.
Only then did it occur to me that China was becoming a place where siblings are rare.
Việt Nam won’t have to worry about being lonely.
But it has other reasons to worry.