Vietnam is a land which challenges many of the assumptions I grew up building, e.g., water is drinkable and precious; showers come in cubicles; everyone pays the same price for things; a “sunny” day means unobstructed view of the sun.
Here, water is plentiful but only special water is potable. This is apparently true for lots of peole in Hanoi, not just the foreigners. I believe the Hanoi water company’s 2020 goal is to have potable coming through all the taps. Foreigners will probably still need to boil it, but for different reasons.
I’m actually still not sure if I’m showering correctly. There’s a shower-head, a bucket, and a floor drain, but no clearly delineated area for showering or way to keep the water from covering the whole floor. Either that or I’ve overlooked something and now my landlords think I’m a total grot…
Pricing is a whole topic of it’s own, but every foreigner here who comes from a non-bartering culture has a blog post about it so I won’t bother until I have something interesting to write.
It’s probably just Hanoi winter, but last time I saw the sun I was above the cloud cover. The other day I was thinking “Gosh, it’s sunny today,” only to look up and realise it was still solid cloud-cover, but somehow lighter… So I _think_ I can tell a sunny day from a cloudy day from a going-to-rain day, but I also thought that in Australia with about as much accuracy as a weather-rock.
More importantly though, Vietnam challenges my assumptions about Vietnam. Specifically, about communism.
Growing up, all I knew about communism was that it was the direct opposite of America, and some vague images of people queueing to buy bread and toilet paper. I think I somehow built the idea that communism was a system without money: When you were hungry, you were fed. When there was work to do, you did it. When you were tired, you slept.
Having just written that out, it sounds like either childhood or slavery. Hobbes would be proud. And having read “The Stainless Steel Rat gets drafted”, I now suspect I’d actually started to recreate Marxist economics from first principles.
Nonetheless, it wasn’t a particularly nuanced understanding. And one I thankfully grew out of. Mind you, I don’t know if I grew into a more accurate understanding, or simply a more influenced one. My current understanding of communism is it’s like a committee system of government, as opposed to a partisan system like the Westminster system of Democracy, and the state’s welfare is held in greater importance compared to individual liberties than in a system like America’s, where the state is seen as a neccesary evil rather than a collective vehicle of the people.
In Vietnam, this idea, combined with the apparent basic Vietnamese values of community and entrepreneurship, seems to have produced a system where everything is privatised, but some things are owned by the public sector (government or the military for example). Some markets (education, for example) are tightly controlled by regulation but not closed, but the oddest thing is when the government competes, it’s on a (roughly) equal footing.
While I was aware of this effect already, it was brought home to me this morning, waiting to catch the train to Hải Đương. That train (run by the state-owned national railway) includes two privately-owned carriages. They cost more per ticket (most expensive is almost double the cheapest public car ticket) but are air-conditioned. Maybe this is normal in other train-based societies? I saw something like this in a book series I am reading (RCN by David Drake) so it might just be me this is an unusual concept to.
It seems like an obvious idea, of course. If you can sell more expensive tickets, to cover the cost of the carriage and the price of having it pulled, then it’s a good business idea; albeit a long-trm one. I expect a train carriage costs a lot, and the “expensive” ticket was forty thousand dong (about AU$2), although that’s not the entire length of the line.
The taxi to the station cost 125 thousand dong, for comparison. But it was almost 7km, as this train doesn’t stop at my closest station except for the first and last runs of the day. Early enough and late enough for working commuters, although why someone would live in Hà Nội and work in Hải Dương I can’t imagine…
Another thing that is challenging my assumptions (or maybe my basic character) is the total orthogonality of business and friendship. One of the reasons I’m a terrible businessman is that I feel really weird taking money from my friends as if they’re customers. It’s probably just me, not my culture, but I find business an adversarial, uncomfortable process. Here, it’s a natural part of life — everything costs something, and so you pay for things, but it’s not like you feel like you shouldn’t have to pay.
My first two experiences of this were actually last year. Firstly with pay-per-use public toilets, and secondly (and more importantly) at my friend’s wedding.
When I and a whole bunch of western friends-and-relations showed up for the wedding, we were picked up in a minibus which we were told belonged to a cousin of the bride. However, at the end of the day, he was paid off like a hired-driver. This got me thinking… If a cousin of mine needed help driving guests around, I’d be fine with doing it. A little bit of fuel money would be nice, and perhaps free lunch if it was an all-day thing, sure. But that’s not how the Vietnamese attitude runs.
Here, if you do work, you should get paid. Cousin, friend or stranger. The more I look around in this framework, the more I see it. Or the more misinterpret what I’m seeing into this framework. I can’t say for sure.
This is pretty much the opposite of what I expected from communism. But it does seem to suit my own ideals of egalatarianism, and a fair reward for fair effort.
And I think it’s a culture which will help me get over myself, and become a better, more detached businessman. Or at least a poorer-but-wiser businessman.
And that’s one thing I’d never have assumed a communist country would teach me.