We are back in Hanoi, just briefly in order to catch a plane back to KL. This morning we caught a bus to ride across the island to the ferry on the north end of Cat Ba. The road was under construction, so it was touch and go for a while if we would even get through. But our driver had nerves of steel and powered through the gravel without slipping into the ravine that was mere inches away. When we got to the dock we discovered that our boat was much larger than the one we were on yesterday, and both smoother and quieter with a nice sitting area out of the wind, which was blustery and cold across the bay.
But we didn’t sit inside. The ferry cut across a stretch of Ha Long Bay we hadn’t seen before, and it was too lovely to leave just because of a contrary wind. So we sat huddled up on our deck chairs, bundled in all the warm clothes we could muster, and watched the glorious scenery go majestically by. Eventually we arrived in Ha Long City where we transferred to a vehicle for the next leg of the trip. There was the usual delay while they sorted out the hundreds of tourists onto their various busses and ferries. We were fortunate to get placed on a van that cut the travel time to Hanoi, and arrived just before the rush hour. A quick taxi ride with a very hostile driver brought us to the pleasant staff at the hotel we stayed at on our arrival in Vietnam, where we were treated like old friends. We had a nice meal at a little café overlooking the street, the kind of place that is not easy to find in this overwhelmingly utilitarian city. Then it was back to our hotel for an early evening before our 5 am wake up call.
During a chat with our tour group yesterday we discussed our impressions of the Vietnamese people. The reactions ranged from “hostile” and “aggressive” to “sullen” and “indifferent.” Nobody seemed overly impressed. But when I posted something similar a few days, a number of respondents disagreed. They are indeed a hard people, tough enough to have driven the Chinese out of their country and keep them out for a thousand years. Tough enough to have defeated both the French and the Americans within two decades in the last fifty years; no mean feat in any country’s history. That toughness and aggression is shown in their response to foreigners. During a motorcycle trip around Cat Ba on Sunday we stopped for a moment to get our bearings. A young girl passing by, no more than 6 or 7, contemptuously slapped my helmet visor in a random act of aggression that caught me completely by surprise. This is not the kind of response that we have encountered anywhere else in Asia. Someone is indoctrinating the young of this country in their xenophobia.
However we have also been met with consideration and courtesy on our trip to Ha Long Bay. We chatted with a young Vietnamese student on the van who was studying tourism. Everyone of her friends is studying tourism. Her English was excellent, and so was her attitude. This bodes well for a future of greater openness to outsiders. We also have to note that although the streets are narrow and the infrastructure is crumbling and decayed, the people here work hard at keeping their country clean; not something that you see in Malaysia, Cambodia or Sri Lanka. Construction is happening everywhere; streets are being improved, shoplots are being rebuilt.
These are an industrious and resilient people. Hardship has toughened them throughout their history, and their history has also taught them to be suspicious and resentful of foreigners. They have enough drive and resourcefulness to be an economic powerhouse in this part of the world; to rebuild their cities and develop their industries. They have a physically beautiful country, and it could well become a tourist mecca. They also have enough aggression and xenophobia to rule out any significant progress as a nation. The blocking of the social networking site, Facbook, is evidence of their paranoia. In short, they could go either way in the future, and Vietnam will be an interesting country to watch.