We are only the others abroad. A journey to Vietnam

By Valentin Hacken, August 2013

Never before have so many young Germans travelled abroad – on the road with a rucksack or as volunteers for a wide range of aid organisations. Valentin Hacken met some of them in Vietnam.

© Lennart Selling

“Where are you?” I text L. – on big trips lengthy questions are superfluous. I am standing in front of the airport in Ho Chi Minh City. Several hundred Vietnamese are looking at me as I leave the terminal. I am tall, almost two metres, and have a very whit skin even for a German. It remains a mystery whom the reception committee is there to meet. L. has received my text and comes to fetch me. Our taxi struggles through the traffic. Mopeds and bicycles are the most important means of transport. There are hardly any cars on the road apart from taxis, high import tariffs make them unaffordable even for well-off Vietnamese, and it is in any case difficult to make any progress in them on the jam-packed roads. 

Together with the heat, the first intense impression is one of masses of people. People everywhere, thousands of people. According to the official statistics, the city has more than twice as many inhabitants as Berlin and they all seem to be travelling on mopeds – not chaotically but according to their own rules. At roundabouts traffic goes in straight lines, it stops briefly to let another swarm cross and then continues on its trajectory. It is a sea of people wearing face masks, helmets and a surprising number of clothes. After my first sunstroke I will understand why. Vietnam is a socialist republic, a one-party state with censorship, the death penalty and political repression, a country with a fascinating culture and beautiful landscapes. Since the introduction of the reformist “Doi moi” (Renewal) policy, business is also thriving at the workbenches of a variety of international companies. L. is working for a year in this simultaneity. He is a volunteer of the “Weltwärts” program of the Goethe Institute in Ho Chi Minh City, the organisation which represents German culture worldwide and which here operates a language school and has its cultural focus in the capital Hanoi. I will meet young people from all over the world, volunteers and backpackers, Vietnamese students and language students.

Swiss watches in the shops and socialism on the posters

By the third day I have got used to the heat. L. and I go to “Le Loi”, a street which obtained its name in colonial times. We rent a moped in a side street. I plunge into the traffic – with the enthusiastic support of the Vietnamese. There are buses and a subway is under construction, but anyone who really wants to get somewhere cannot rely on that. I navigate through the bustle, one hand holding my iPhone with Google Maps and the other trying to keep the moped on course. One can drive and lose oneself for days in Ho Chi Minh City; in historical Saigon there are boulevards, Gucci, Prada und the most expensive hotels; right next door there is an explosion of colour in the jumble of narrow lanes and small markets, every street lined with shops at ground level. Every free metre is occupied by someone with a small stall. Lunch costs twenty cents and Vietnamese cigarettes cost a quarter, coke and grass find willing buyers in the tourist quarter despite the death penalty and prostitutes their clients. At some point I arrive at the sparkling Vincom Centre. Storey upon storey of unadulterated capitalism. Shops employ staff just to hold the door open for customers. French baking, Swiss watches and German Kinder chocolates are only a few hundred metres here from Party posters which in their appearance are reminiscent of a bygone era. The socialist worker brightly looks upwards and the armed fighter into a glowing red future. The female car park attendant, clearly unconvinced by the proclaimed successes of the economic plans, asks me about my nationality and then enquires whether I want to marry her. I don’t, but she gives me her mobile phone number – if I know a German man who is looking for a wife I’m to call her.

No leisure activities

While I’m doing that, L. is blowing out Easter eggs with the Vietnamese language students, whom I always judge to be younger than they are and who will later paint the eggs and talk about Valentine’s Day in Vietnam; Hollywood does it again. When I ask them about leisure activities they look blank – although as part of the wealthier classes they could well afford them – for leisure activities cost money here, more than in Germany, always money. But time is spent with the family where young people live until they marry. Otherwise they work or study – come eleven at night and the streets are empty. Students briefly populate the few public squares and parks in the evening, drink a Coke bought from a street vendor and chat, but there is as little public life as there is leisure time. Plays and films are not only subject to censorship, like advertising, but also expensive and infrequent. A few conversations are enough, a look at the city in which there are hardly any free communal spaces. It is clear that life works completely differently here.

Seven Asian countries in six weeks

F. is not impressed by such otherness. She is nineteen years old, has just passed her final school exams in Germany and is now travelling through “six or seven Asian countries” in six weeks, a different city every two days. Today she is here, sitting in the early evening with other backpackers, a Japanese hairdresser and Vietnamese language students for a drink among the students and speaks about the party she intends to throw afterwards with two French girls in her hotel room, “you’re also invited”. K. from southern Germany will probably not join her. He intends later to go to Pham Ngu Lao street in the tourist quarter. He met an Australian girl there yesterday who just wanted sex. I want to listen to Nguyen, who explains to me how she is trying to convince her family that she never wants to marry and have a family. “Hardly possible,” she says, but she intends to try, wants to travel herself and just see what happens.

Trainers behind walls and empty hotels at dream beaches

“They are leaving now my country,” says the lady at the international counter of the main post office; on my third visit she spread out beautifully drawn post cards which artistically gifted holiday makers were sending home – precise views of the city. In Di An, an hour away, my curious looks are not welcome. Three armed men pull me away with my moped when I attempt to look behind the five-metre-high wall behind which the factories of the subcontractors are hidden who make trainers, clothes and various other products for international business. Despite the firmness of the uniformed men, I am better off than the workers who have to let their bags be checked and themselves patted down before they are allowed to leave the grounds; out into the streets vaulted with the gigantic arches which socialism uses to proclaim its slogans, between opulent borders of flowers and the yellow star on a red background.

Road building must be just as profitable a business here as money laundering is for the empty hotels on the coast which L. and I keep driving past a week later until we sit on a dream beach between Russians with a burnt skin.

Watching poverty is a thrill

The Germans like to watch poverty and then categorise it: bad, not so bad, but in any event thrilling – an adventure trip. Watching poverty is not even that expensive and the hotels are good.

I am sitting just before dawn with L. and his colleague S. from the Goethe Institute in a small plastic chair at the side of the road. Groups of Vietnamese keep walking past us: rather curious looking early-morning exercise, a concentrated walk in street clothes. S.’s moped has broken down and we have not found anyone who can repair it at that hour. The two women with whom we are now waiting no doubt wanted to be of help but apart from coffee on ice not much has happened. Smoking joss sticks are stuck in the sand next to the incapacitated moped. Over the years, S. has had experience of a great variety of volunteers, business people and tourists and has few illusions left. Her reports about managers who throw the money at the feet of their taxi driver and volunteers who ruin the life of their Vietnamese girlfriend because a relationship without marriage is not acceptable remind me of short stories from the former colonies.

Despatching young people all over the world and the many trips by themselves do not guarantee understanding, and even less are they automatically development aid, neither for the people at the destination nor for the young people on their travels.

But that precisely is why they are so exciting: because we are not the ones on the right side. We are only the others abroad. Many volunteers have understood that, at the latest after their year abroad – anyone who demands more of voluntary service than that and the concrete work locally has not yet travelled.

About the author: Valentin Hacken, born 1991, is studying law in Halle an der Saale and works as a freelance author. A pupil representative for many years, he is a council member of Wechselwirkung - waldorfpädagogisches Austauschprogramm e.V.


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