All aboard the Nha Trang Express / Vietnam outside of Saigon

10 07 2011

In the Vietnamese zodiac, I am born in the year of the Dog. To be exact, I’m a Water Dog. I really have no idea what that means, other than the Year of the Dog repeats every 12 years, and that it explains how when I travel on Trains, Planes, and Automobiles, I love taking in the smells and sights of the world flying by by sticking my head out the window with my figurative tongue hanging out (bugs permitting, of course).

As we speed towards Saigon on a rusty 12-car train riding atop the poorly maintained railway infrastructure, returning from a 3-day stint at a beachfront resort hotel in Nha Trang, we fly by the Vietnamese countryside at a clip of about 70km/h, but the homes and fields I see out my window are anything but fast. The forgettable wooden shacks and dilapidated structures are the homes of families that work out in the fields from sunrise to sunset. They ride their bikes or motorscooters into town to sell their goods, or simply squat out in front of their homes to make their appeal on the dirt road. They are less concerned about what their plans are for the upcoming weekend or that a new hotel is being erected in the nearest town. They’ve never heard of a 401(k) plan and Facebook is such an abstract concept that it would take some measurable amount of effort to explain it to them, that is, after you explain what the Internet is.

Yes, life is much simpler. There are no car payments, credit card bills, or gym memberships to worry about. The most important parts of the day revolve around meals and sleeping. The air is much cleaner than the overpopulated therefore overpolluted cities. But for someone like me, coming from a world where success in life is measured by material wealth and the ability to ‘do more’ faster, bigger, and better than the guy standing next to me, I can’t help but feel a genuine sadness – a melancholy admiration, if you will, for these inhabitants of rural Vietnam. I’ve been told that ignorance is bliss, but what happens when the more aware cross paths with these non-educated unaware, or those with a global perspective collide with these simpletons?

For me, it’s something akin to observing an ant farm. All the little ants go marching, their little red and black antennae waving, only concerned with nature’s programmed behavior, unable to comprehend that another world exists outside of theirs. Are the ants happy? Would they be happier if they got Christmas bonuses and union wages? Do the ants wish of more opportunity, better sand, and the ability to leave the ant farm should they so desire? Or is it just dig, dig, dig?

Being privileged enough to come from a country where I don’t have to think about the roof over my head, if I’m going to be able to eat tonight, or wonder if I can afford to go to the hospital in a real emergency, I feel an unprovoked sense of indignation that these poverty-stricken people of Vietnam at the very least deserve the education to make themselves aware of the ‘ant farm’. Granted, not all will want to leave the ant farm when they realize they’ve been stuck in one, but it’s the ability to choose and decide that allows one to wield the sword of opportunity. It’s one thing to inherit the long time family business of crab catching because that’s what everyone in your family has done, but it’s another thing altogether to inherit that tradition because you chose to turn down other opportunities to keep the family business going.

Without the ability to measurably determine one’s own fate, life becomes a scripted exercise, one that is repeated from generation to generation, only interrupted briefly by Father Death.

To be continued in part two…

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