All my Vietnamese friends complain how much worse the traffic has gotten in the last few years & are surprised when I say I think it has gotten better. I’m willing to grant that Hanoi traffic is chaotic, but when I first came to Hanoi there were perhaps half-a-dozen traffic lights in the whole metropolis. Now there are lights at virtually every major intersection. It’s true that they sometimes have burned out bulbs, but they’re there and drivers take at least some notice of them. I’d say compliance runs about 80%. That is, when the light goes read, about 80% of the oncoming traffic stops, with the other 20% racing through as the traffic from the other direction begins to move. Pedestrians must take nothing for granted. Most of the traffic is still motorbikes, though there are many more cars than when I first began coming to Hanoi & the general rule is that the bigger the vehicle the less likely it is to stop for a light. Oh, and all the drivers are talking on a cell phone. Still, the lights give pedestrians an opening they did not have in the past. For one thing, once the front row of traffic stops (which can take some time in its ragged compliance) the traffic behind is blocked, leaving the way (mostly) clear. For the most part, people don’t go fast, but move mostly with the flow of traffic. I’ve been here almost three weeks, walking the city every day, and I’ve seen only one accident.
This article in the NY Times provides one more piece of evidence–as if any more were needed–in an indictment of American callousness regarding the legacies of the American War against Vietnam. In Vietnam, Cambodia, & Laos, thousands of people, many of them children, have been killed, and tens of thousands injured, by unexploded bombs, landmines, and other lethal garbage left from the American War. I am glad that the Lao government took Secretary Clinton to see the actual human damage caused by these devices. Here are some reliable statistics that give some idea of the scope of the problem. Technologies exist for dealing with these devices, but the moral will, apparently, is lacking, at least in the United States. It occurs to me that the Secretary’s husband, former President Bill Clinton–so famous for being able to “feel your pain”–might gall up a few of his rich & super-rich pals, or talk to them on the golf course, and put together a fund dedicated to removing all the explosives over, say, a ten-year period. It was President Clinton who normalized relations with Vietnam in 1995. More than twenty-five years later, the United States needs to take moral responsibility for this ongoing tragedy. There is simply no excuse not to act. We could begin by signing the international treaty against cluster bombs. Perhaps Secretary Clinton could suggest this modest step to her boss the current president.
Ate bun bo nam bo for dinner tonight–just a bowl of rice noodles with bits of beef & vegetables & a few cilantro-like herbs, but what of bowl of noodles! The food stall, long & narrow like many Hanoi shops, is right next door to the hotel & has been there as long as I’ve been coming to Hanoi. Good food and a good place for observing the local scene–couples, young families, & tonight a gangster & his flunky. I knew he was a gangster because of the shiny black scoop-neck tee-shirt and the big scar across his cheek. Apparently, the semiotic signs that spell “gangster” are cross-cultural. The flunky did not eat & I swear he was there to carry the gangster’s cigarettes. When the gangster left the young father sitting a little further up the long table said something disparaging to his wife and caught my eye. We shook our heads ruefully. What is the world coming to? The girls who wait tables–I think all the daughters of the family that owns the place–could teach those slackers at the Moca a thing or two.
Just got back from lunch out on West Lake with my friends Long & Giang & their little boy. We got to talking about property values & Long told me that the land we were sitting on, right on the lake shore, goes for $250,000 per square meter. Families of modest means who happened to own property along the lake — often for several generations — have overnight become millionaires. And when Giang’s grandparents died a few years ago they left their small (by US standards) apartment in the Old Quarter to her father & uncle: at about 350 square meters, it is valued at around one million US dollars.
Over the last twenty-five years Vietnam has gone from being one of the poorest countries in the world to a point where it is poised to move into the middle tier, according to IMF & UN statistics. Among the reasons for this have been prudent economic policies by the government that have focused on stability, as well as a literate and socially cohesive workforce. But one wonders what such huge infusions of wealth are going to do to a society that retains many traditional elements. I haven’t looked up the numbers on income disparity, but I know there is a lot of distance between urban and rural populations. So far, in the cities, it seems that the wealth is being spread around sufficiently that the social structure has been able to absorb the shock. It will be interesting to see what happens over the next decade.