Several days ago, while on our tour of the Mekong Delta, I noticed a couple of empty billboards that had the message above printed on them. After thinking about it a bit, I couldn't help but notice that they were in English... while the rest of the billboards (y'know, with actual ads on them) where in Vietnamese. I think thats a bit telling, don't you? While the Vietnames were able to hold their own against the US's technologically superior army, sadly, I think they are proving to be little match for American Consumerism.
Not that this is entirely a bad thing. In comparison to other developing nations that I've visited, there does seem to be a genuine felling of upward mobility in Vietnam. There is money to be made, and people are happy to be making it. While staying at the MyMy Arthouse, I was flipping through an old '94 Lonely Planet in their lobby and I read something to the effect of: "While most Vietnamese people ride on bicycles, most would happily buy a motorcycle or moped if they could." Well, if you go back and read my entry, Ï *Heart* Mopeds*, it basically proves my point.
Oh, speaking of which, here's a picture of a typical street in Ho Chi Minh City:
Now, I definitely don't want to oversimplify the politics and issues surrounding the introduction of Capitalism into Vietnamese society, and I know that there are a number of negatives that come with it, ranging from loss of traditional values to negative environmental consequences (the exhaust of all those mopeds). In facto, I still think Vietnam has many challanges ahead of it, and only time will tell if the steps they are making today are misplaced or not. I only mention it because I find it interesting.
In fact, Vietnam's entire relationship with the US is fascinating. I can't help but wonder if the Vietnam War (or, American War from their perspective) didn't actually have a postive effect on their national psyche overall. If you look beyond the millions dead, the lasting effects of chemicals like Agent Orange and the scores of people still being injured by landmines each year; and the fact is that they managed to hold their own in a war with the World's leading Superpower. A nation that had been previously undefeated. And, by doing so, they unified the country and ensured its independance in a way it hadn't been for years.
Now, the war was an awful experience for both parties involved, and I don't want people to think I'm saying otherwise. But, much like members of US Colonies probably felt after the American Revolution, the general feeling I get from the Vietnames people was that the bad times were behind them, and together they were moving forward into a brighter future.
Which, in itself is an interesting contrast to what seems to be the national character of the Cambodian people. On the surface, they seem every bit of as upbeat and friendly as the people of Vietnam. But, beneath the surface, I think there is a bit of sadness and desperation which isn't as readily apparent as it is in their neighbors to the East.
Unlike the Vietnamese, the Cambodian people's last major historical event involved the country seemly attempting to exterminate itself under the Pol Pot Regime. What had started as a political movement and civil war devolved into genocide which, in my mind, possibly surpasses even the Holocaust in its directionless brutality. While most genocides seem to involve one ethnic or religios group attempting to exterminate another group; Cambodia seemed even more abitrary. What started as the elimnation of the educated and skilled seems to have quickly devolved into something more irrational where neighbor turned on neighbor. Friend on friend. Family member on family member.
And, also unlike the Vietnamese who ended their recent period of turmoil by defeating their perceived aggressor and unifying their nation, Cambodia's last crisis only ended after another nation (Vietnam, of all people) invading and restoring some sense of normalcy.
You can probably see how the two histories would give each nations psyche a different color. As I've mentioned, the people of Cambodia have been nothing but nice to Sarah and I, but there is a dark edge to it. We've heard several individuals talk quite critically of their government, or made statement to the effect of "I'll never get to leave this country" or "If it wasn't for Angkor Wat, no one would care about this country." Which is sad to hear, because it has so much to offer (the food has been quite a pleasant surprise). In addition, I also feel like there is an undercurrent of rage which we didn't see in Vietnam. Boxing seems popular, gun ranges seem to be a popular tourist attraction and kids seem to play-fight more here than I've seen in other countries. I can't help but feel the nation has issues that it has yet to fully address.
But, that's not to say that Cambodia is hopeless. In fact, it seems far from, with the lack of government support or even wide support from abroad (well, except for temple restoration programs), many people have seemed to embraced a "do it yourself" or grassroots approach to combatting national problems. Many restaurants prominently display donation boxes, while others support orphanages and other charitable organizations.
Also, we've seen lots of signs of personal strength. One that bears mentioning are groups of landmine victims we have encountered while coming and going from the temples. Instead of becoming beggars, they've formed musical troupes. In groups of four to six, they sit outside temples and play traditional music in exchange for donations. It's an inspirational sign and (especially in comparison to the bad music we heard on the radio in Tassie) their music is pretty amazing.
I'm not sure why I mention all this, beyond the fact that these two countries have gotten me thinking. In comparison to other nations we've been to, their history has been so troubled and so, well, current that its not hard to think about these issues and revisit personal notions and values. So, I just thought I'd share. I'm far from being an expert in anything I've mentioned above (I was an Art Major after all), so I imagine I've gotten some of my facts wrong. If so, feel free to let me know, and otherwise, I'd still be interested to hear anyones opinions or feelings.
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