Back in Saigon – Same-same, but different
It is both strange and familiar to return to a place. You easily settle into the old patterns as if you never left them. The food, the drink, the route walked, the time of my nap, is as if I had never left. But, of course I did leave, for two months and balancing between New York and Saigon remains seamless and impossible at once.
How is it to be back? I am asked. I have no answer, other than “it feels normal”or to use the Vietnamese-English common refrain, “same-same, but different”.
I have returned to the rainy season. Bright blue sky mornings change abruptly to early afternoon darkness; not mere clouds but the entire canvas of the sky turned dark, foreboding gray. The rain seems to come from all directions. It is not a gentle tropical rain but powerful, vertical, horizontal and in sheets; a deluge.
After the deluge, the flood, with streets unable to handle the volume, filled, like newly born rivers. As is the case around the world, everyone talks about the weather but there is nothing one can do about it!
The national mood is equally foreboding. Attending a presentation by a leading Vietnamese economist, and established member of the political class, I am struck by both the candor and gloom. The housing market is overheated (up 900% in “value” over the past decade) due largely to speculation; inflation down appreciably (due largely to government edict and lack of available credit), international investments down, consumer confidence down, and the engines of economic growth, such as low wages being eclipsed by even lower wage neighbors (Cambodia and emerging Burma) and more transparent rule making (Indonesia)
More surprising is his not-too-subtle message that the bigger challenge is corruption, exemplified by multi-billion dollar fraud, nonperforming (and in some cases nonexistent) publicly owned companies and growing disdain for the entitled sons and daughters of politically connected parents.
A colleague of mine teaches US history from 1877 and is in the midst of a session on the “Gilded Age” in the US, a period of wealth, concentration of wealth, and a growing gap between the haves and the have-nots. Students in his class nod and offer a knowing smile; wondering if he is talking about history in the US or current events in Vietnam.