Lessons from decades exploring Vietnam - Rusty Compass travel blog

Lessons from decades exploring Vietnam

| 01 Jun 2024
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01 Jun 2024

In our latest video (below), I have a think about 30 years of change in Vietnam and some of the travel lessons and wider lessons from my experiences of the country. One message is loud and clear - read a book or three to add meaning to your travels.

After decades of remarkable economic growth and progress, Vietnam has reached lower-middle income status and something of a mid-life crisis. Corruption scandals, environmental degradation and political upheaval, all signal new times and new challenges. Many of Vietnam's key economic indicators continue to perform well. But there's a sense that a new period has arrived after a three decade economic miracle that has transformed the country and its people.

Anyone who got to know Vietnam in the 1990s probably isn't surprised by its economic miracle. Even in 1990, the energy, work ethic, determination and the opportunities on offer, were evident to most who visited. I was so convinced of the fascinating process that was set to unfold, I stayed for decades.

What nobody could have anticipated in the 90s, was the scale and ubiquity of corruption that has been documented in the Vietnamese press this year - especially in the real estate sector.

Back in the 90s, we were in awe of the character of the Vietnamese people. We were moved by their sacrifices and terrible suffering over decades. The idea that 30 years later, Saigon would spawn one of the greatest real estate and corruption scandals in world history, (on a per capita GDP basis), would have seemed preposterous.

In March 2024, having been swept up in the wonder of Vietnam for nearly two weeks, our Vietnam by the Book group arrived in Saigon and quickly became aware of the historic corruption case playing out around us. There were crowds outside the French colonial-era court right downtown. A woman, Truong My Lan, who has since been sentenced to death for her crimes, was in the dock. For our travellers, who had developed a keen interest in all things Vietnam, this seemed an out-of-character major event in Vietnam's story to be digested.

Vietnamese soldiers recreate an iconic photo of victory at Dien Bien Phu - 70 years later.
Photo: Mark Bowyer Vietnamese soldiers recreate an iconic photo of victory at Dien Bien Phu - 70 years later.

The stories of the old capital Hue are especially powerful
Photo: Mark Bowyer The stories of the old capital Hue are especially powerful

I thought a lot about the Truong My Lan and the Van Thinh Phat corruption case during our Saigon stay. After decades wandering its corridors, I was actually staying at the Continental Hotel of Graham Greene's Quiet American, for the very first time. This massive corruption case was so different to anything travellers would have processed in the 1990s. There were corruption cases back then. But nothing approaching this scale. And there was a belief that such systemic failings would be less common as the Vietnam economy developed - not that they would get worse. Our guests didn't make many references to the court case but they were aware of it. It felt like a break with previous decades.

The gleaming Rolls Royce showroom a few metres from the entrance to the communist city government building, the disproportionate number of luxury cars packing the streets, and the global luxury brands encircling Ho Chi Minh's downtown statue, were clues to our travellers that a supercharged acquisitive culture had taken hold in Saigon.

For me, travel is always a process of learning about places. The fascination with history is in part a desire to make sense of the present. That's always guided the way we've run tours too - whether in Vietnam or my hometown in Sydney.

Sometime during those hot Saigon days in late March, as the corruption case rolled on, I found myself also thinking about the wars in Ukraine and Gaza, the coming US election and politics at home in Australia. It occurred to me that so much of the contemporary political culture in the West too, would have been unimaginable in the 1990s. Against a very different background of comfort and privilege, we too had been imbued with a default optimism that we were set for continuing improvement. It was a big part of my excitement as I embraced life in Saigon in the early 1990s.

Now, we in the West also find ourselves bidding farewell to an era of stability that has run since the end of the Cold War. Our optimism has been degraded by rising extremism, inequality, corruption, tech driven gaslighting and distrust, geopolitical crisis and uncertainty. Travellers carry those realities with them, no matter their affluence - I have a sense of that when I meet travellers in Vietnam and Australia. Our new-found vulnerability may make us more open to respecting and appreciating the different worlds we travel in.

Out on the road with our group, I was struck by the enduring power of Vietnam’s stories - despite huge changes across the country. Our travellers immersed themselves in the books recommended for the tour - and many more. They found Vietnam fascinating, beautiful and they were besotted with the people. The personal stories of Duong Mai Elliott's Sacred Willow and Nguyen Qui Duc's Where the Ashes Are, gave our travellers insights into Vietnamese lives and traditions. The power of books to add meaning to travel was reaffirmed.

Our Vietnam by the Book tour coincided with two Vietnam anniversaries. In 1954, Ho Chi Minh's Viet Minh forces defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu, marking the end of the French colonisation, the partition of Vietnam and the beginning of a deepening of the catastrophic US involvement in the country. Anniversary preparations were well under way during our visit to the remote battlefield. Forty years after the battle in 1994, Vietnam officially normalised relations with the United States, marking a new era in the country's engagement with the world and finally ushering the end of Hanoi's geopolitical estrangement from the world's only superpower. Those two anniversaries form bookends on a period of conflict and upheaval. Thirty years on from normalisation, 2024's real estate and corruption scandals may mark the end of the first phase of Vietnam's economic miracle.

For me, the early 1990s memories are cherished and feel recent. I wonder how Vietnam will feel in another 30 years? What the centenary of the Battle of Dien Bien Phu or the 60th anniversary of the normalisation of relations with the US, will look like in 2054? I hope I get to lead a tour to mark the milestones.

Check out the video. And if you’re interested in knowing more about Vietnam by the Book, head over to the tour page on Old Compass Travel (link).

Mark Bowyer
Mark Bowyer is the founder and publisher of Rusty Compass.
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