Monday, August 13, 2007

Do I like Vietnam better than Madagascar….?

So a few days ago I was asked the $64,000 question: do you like Vietnam better than Madagascar?

The easy answer is yes – life here is in general much more comfortable. There’s electricity almost everywhere and it’s much more reliable, the roads are in better condition, there’s hot water and a good toilet in every hotel I’ve stayed in, and the general quality of life is much higher. Buildings are large and well-built and the floors are all done in tile (for choosing styles and colors, not saying that the Vietnamese taste is better than the Malagasy in decorating, but it’s a step up from dirt). The number of children is generally manageable – the population is still skewed heavily to the youth, but family planning is a big thing here and there’s a general 2 child policy encouraged by the government. It makes a huge difference everywhere from meetings (mothers don’t have 2 crying babies each hanging off of them) to prenatal care (you can actually find all the pregnant women in a community and bring them to a meeting) to schools (almost all the kids actually are in school here because the government can afford to build enough schools and hire teachers) to driving on the streets (kids still play in the streets, but they don’t LIVE there…so it’s not a lifestyle hazard to drivers) to the number of feet in shoes (with few children families can actually afford to buy shoes for all their children – and make sure they wear them).

People here are also generally very friendly. They don’t call me names or stare at me or shout at me in quite the same was as in Madagascar. I still definitely stand out in a crowd, but people are generally more respectful and are honestly friendly if you (try to) talk to them. They’re really hard workers (or at least the women are) and are peaceful and I don’t have to be afraid of random acts of violence or crime (which is the same as in Madagascar).

Hanoi is a tree-filled city with wide streets and parks surrounding the many lakes (err, big ponds) in the city. People appreciate beauty (even if they don’t appreciate clean floors…ironic with all the nice tile) and relaxing and exercise. People wake up really early and gather in the public park areas to do aerobics and tai chi and to play badminton (the national sport) or to run or walk. The streets in all towns are cleaned and swept daily by teams of street sweepers and trash collectors. And the scenery outside of the suburbs of Hanoi is fantastic. The mountains are the real Asia (if you watch the movie The Painted Veil it’s exactly like that), and people are as colorful as the scenery. In many places up where I work they still wear the traditional dress as daily wear and most of them up here are ethnic minorities and speak ethnic languages.

The traffic is crazy, but I don’t know of anybody who’s traveled to a developing country (or even other developed countries such as in Europe) where they don’t say the traffic is crazy. Vietnam is unique in its craziness for the sheer number of motorbikes. In Hanoi there’s probably 50-75 motorbikes for every car on the road. Warm Friday and Saturday nights in Hanoi during the school year are especially nuts when all the students go out cruising on motorbikes all night. It sounds like a Sturgis rally at every traffic light (when the majority of the drivers actually bother to stop). I think it just adds an element to the character of Hanoi and the whole country.

So, yes, I do like it. But your first country is like your first love – you never quite let go or get over it. I’ll probably never have a country that I understand like I understand Madagascar. I sacrificed a lot of time and personal comfort to get that understanding, so I just don’t think I could ever develop that kind of relationship again (I hope that’s not the case in love! J). In Madagascar, I know the language, I know how things work, and while I may not like it or understand what makes the people tick (I’ll never understand the sheer determination to underachieve the population as a whole seems to experience), I at least know how they tick. I had my social networks there and I could fend for myself outside of the main city. I knew what a good price for something was, I could bargain in the markets, I knew where to go to get shoes repaired, I could buy rat poison if I needed it. Here, I’m still pretty much dependent on a translator or a Vietnamese friend to know all that stuff or do it well. I’ve given up a lot of independence moving here.

Work-wise, I’m definitely a lot more fulfilled here. I’m in charge of my own projects and own work and instead of debating the philosophy of how to do it, I’m actually doing it. It’s extremely challenging to juggle things, but Cao Bang in general is a good working environment with the government and other regulating parties. Still, I know I’m only seeing/understanding maybe 10% of what’s really going on. Between language barriers and just not having a lot of day-to-day contact with policy, I know I’m missing out on a lot here. It took me 4 years in Madagascar, but I had a pretty good idea about government policy and (even if it drove me nuts), I was tuned in to the politics. I might not have had any more control over it, but at least I knew what was going on. But then again, sometimes ignorance is bliss.

Well, there, you have a very long answer to a very short question. I can’t believe I typed all that. But I think I needed to think through it myself. I’ve been missing Mada a lot lately, but I think it’s mostly about the communication. Yes, I’m learning the language, but with my other work it’s really slow going because it ends up being lowest on my priority list. And until you learn the language, you never really get to know a culture. I’ll always be more of a stranger here, but at least I’m a more comfortable stranger!

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