|The Cycle of Life: Street traffic in Ho Chi Minh City (Alistair Wearmouth)|
It's payback time in central Vietnam. Our five hosts, all dressed in neatly pressed slacks and billowy shirts, sit at the back of the room waiting for me to begin. I dig deep, channeling Robin Williams' offbeat character from Dead Poet's Society, then launch into my hesitant pitch.
We're in the mid-country resort town of Nha Trang, about an hour's flight from Ho Chi Minh City, and the last days of our vacation have somehow morphed into a working holiday. The receptionist at our tidy, whitewashed hotel, an English student at the local college, has hooked us up with a posse of five of her classmates who've asked us to spend an evening teaching their class conversational English. In return, they will show us Nha Trang away from the backpacker-filled beach bars, booze cruises, and peddler-besieged local temples.
My captive audience consists of a middle-aged doctor, several ladies working to become secretaries, and a half-dozen other youngsters learning English in order either to bolt south and bolster Ho Chi Minh's growing tourist industry or put it to good measure in Nha Trang's own burgeoning service sector. I only hope my ramshackle lesson plan, backlit by some hazy recollection of a fictional New England teacher, can repay the hospitality our Nha Trang minders have showered upon my friend and me.
I'd arrived in-country full of woeful misconceptions; here was a land traumatized by decades of conflict and rife with pain, I thought. Little did I know I'd leave having encountered a place full of smiles and hope and generosity.
My first glimpse of Vietnam—one of the world's few remaining communist countries—delivers the first surprise. As we disembark from our plane, we're greeted by an airport transporter emblazoned by the red, white, and blue of a Pepsi Cola ad. I shouldn't be surprised—Vietnam re-opened its doors in the mid-1980s and it's been ten years since President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo. More recently, in late 2001, the former enemies entered into a bilateral trade agreement that will further liberalize and open up the Vietnamese economy.
Vietnam today is a far cry from the country 30 years ago that still obscures the collective American psyche. It's a striving, ambitious place that averaged GDP growth of 9 percent in the mid-1990s before the 1997 Asian financial crisis put on the skids. Like the Chinese economic juggernaut, Vietnam is a socialist work-in-progress, opening up to seize the obvious boons of free enterprise, yet a place where social and political mores are still tightly controlled by the ruling Communist Party.
For a predominantly agricultural society, Vietnam's biggest card may be its still-growing tourist economy. Of the roughly 1.2 million tourists who visited Vietnam in 2003, almost three-quarters came from Asian countries like China, Taiwan, and Japan, while over 200,000 hailed from the U.S. Easily accessible from various Southeast Asian hubs like Bangkok or Hong Kong, Vietnam is also a refreshing antidote to the more cynically trammeled stretches of Thailand to the south. The sad irony of this international lure, however, may be that this very uniqueness could lose its luster as more people discover the new Vietnam and locals hustle for that precious tourist dollar.
On the upside, if one is not too exhausted from shrugging off the persistent advances of street hawkers selling everything from lighters to authentic (so they say) Viet Cong regalia, Vietnam is a country offering a world of different experiences. You'll discover historical relics of an ancient land set alongside the literal scars of its modern struggle for independence; you'll explore golden beaches and wooded highland groves, all wrapped in the exuberant gentility of this country's beautiful, warm-hearted people.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication