An Unfinished Country

May 01, 2010 Vietnam by Steve Martin Edit

"It's like nothing is ever finished", Jo said as we travelled to Ha Long Bay. It is a perfect description of Vietnam. Nothing ever does seem to get finished. Everywhere we look something is either being built or torn down. Something is being left to rot in the tropical heat or is being redone.

The inability to put in simple terms how this country feels had been bothering me, but Jo had summed it up in a short, simple observation. Buildings are constantly being worked on, footpaths are either cracked, crazed and uneven, or being torn up and repaved. Roads are either excellent or a goat track, sometimes changing within meters from one to the other and back again. The place just doesn't feel finished.

It's not everywhere of course. When you get out into the country side it's everything the tourist brochures promise. There are acres of rice paddies with beautiful traditional buildings. There are cattle and chickens and ducks everywhere, and every available metre of ground is being used to produce some sort of crop. The mountains provide a picture perfect backdrop. It is obvious that these rural communities have been here for generations and they are settled and established. 

But the larger towns and cities are different. They seem to be constantly under review.

We went to Ha Long Bay to get out of Hanoi for a few days while we wait for a flight . Ha Long is perhaps one of the best known places in Vietnam. The bay is filled with almost two thousand limestone islands that seem to burst from the sea. The bays and coves have floating villages and floating fish markets, and throughout the channels a flotilla of tourist boats chug along taking people like us to all the popular sites. The pace of life here is different.

It's in Ha Long that I have come to realise that I don't know how I feel about this country. I loved Saigon for its busy nature and steamy streets. I enjoyed Hoi An for the resort town that it is. Hanoi is a sophisticated city & Ha Long has a lovely feel with its night markets & good hotels. But there are things that bother me, like how the children are treated.

Everywhere we go the children are adored. The affection is real and people want to touch them. It seems every second person tries to pick them up or kiss them. Most brush their hand across a cheek as they pass. James and Emily have come to hate it.

James is now constantly on the lookout for anyone approaching him. When he spots a potential offender he either does a swift little dodge and dives for us, or stares at them and growls like a dog to warn them off. Emily just runs. She grabs my finger and runs saying "No, no! No, no!" 

The locals laugh and think it's cute. They don't understand that the children really don't like it. We can't find a way to stop them so it's easiest and most effective to just let the kids use their own techniques. 

We do have a stroller with us which we use when possible. It's handy to stop the children being grabbed at all the time but it has its limitations. In an "unfinished country" you can't rely on a safe footpath to use. The stroller spends half the time on the footpath and half the time on the road mixing it with the traffic. It is a less than ideal solution. 

I can't go out on the street alone without being approached by dodgy looking men on motorscooters. They ask if I want "Boom boom.". They even give me hand gestures just in case I don't quite understand. A single refusal rarely works, it usually takes three or four goes for them to realise I'm not interested.

I like Vietnam, but I think perhaps that having an extra 12 days forced on us has coloured my view. The people we meet are friendly and are generous with their time and assistance. The service at most places is excellent, and their cuisine is fantastic. 

I think that without the children it would be a very different experience. With the ability to move more freely and go where we want, when we want, we would enjoy the time here more fully. I would recommend Vietnam to anyone with a sense of adventure. It is a fantastic place to explore and soak up, but I'm ready to leave.

We finally have a flight booked for London on the 2nd of May, and as long as a volcano doesn't erupt somewhere and cancel our flight again, we'll be on that plane come hell or high water.

I want to come back here in a few years. I'm interested to see if much gets finished...and what still needs to be done.