The last four weeks Monique and I spent our Christmas and New Year’s holiday in Vietnam. We made it a holiday combined with a little bit of work: we started in the North, where we met one of my PhD students, Trinh Quang Tu, and visited such tourist destinations as the Mai Chau valley, Tam Coc, and Ha Long Bay. After a few days in the ancient city of Hué and the picturesque merchant town of Hoi An we continued to Ho Chi Minh City, from where we travelled to the Mekong Delta. In the Mekong Delta we had reserved some time to meet people at Can Tho University, visit aquaculture farms in the regions where Tu does his research, and to visit one of the research sites of another PhD student of mine, Phung Thanh Binh. In the following weeks I will post my impressions of my trip.
Vietnam is a magnificent country, with wonderful people, stunning views, delicious food, and a fascinating history. Despite the obvious traces of a millennium of Chinese domination and a century of French domination, the Vietnamese have a strong sense of independence. I think the Dutch and the Vietnamese have something in common: two relatively small countries, surrounded by big powerful neighbours and the deep blue sea. During the Anglo-Dutch wars the English called the Dutch ‘frogs’ because of our wet and muddy natural habitat (they later later applied the same pejorative to the French, but then for culinary reasons). I like to think there is a similarity between the Dutch frogs in their cold Rhine and Meuse delta, and the Vietnamese tortoise, a mythical specimen of which provided a magic sword to Le Loi, the Vietnamese emperor who kicked the Chinese Ming dynasty out of Vietnam, in the tropical Red River and Mekong deltas.
But Vietnam is also a country in transition from a poor communist economy to a bustling capitalist economy, with all the environmental and social issues associated with that process. You can see beautiful big houses next to crumbling shacks. Small businesses everywhere, Pepsi and Samsung billboards next to Communist propaganda posters. New infrastructure is being built, and shiny new office buildings. Streets and shores are littered with plastic bags and bottles. Both deltas are under threat from upstream dam construction in neighbouring countries, and from climate change. Large areas of mangrove forest have been cut to make room for shrimp farms. And don’t forget the motorbikes. You cannot escape the motorbikes, buzzing their way through the streets like angry hornets with vehicle horns.
And no, I am not going to mention the war.