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JOURNEY TO VIETNAM: Culture Clash

Decades after the war, modern conveniences are juxtaposed with third-world poverty

POSTED: December 21, 2007 5:03 a.m.
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM -- Landing at the international terminal at Tan Son Nhat Airport, a traveler might easily confuse the terminal with any of a number of the world's airports.

The modern terminal has the design and facilities of comparable locations elsewhere.

When a mission group from First Baptist Church on Green Street landed there to change planes for a connecting flight to Da Nang, Vietnam, they quickly went from modern world to third world.

Leaving the international terminal for the domestic terminal was a day and night change. Even the newer luggage carts from the international terminals had to be exchanged for older, worn carts. The domestic terminal is befitting of a third-world country, more than three decades after the end of the Vietnam War.

This is typical in Vietnam, where modern facilities are located amidst abject poverty.

Once in Da Nang, one does not have to travel far to see the substandard housing that permeates the society of Vietnam.

More recently, large parts of the country have faced the worst flooding in decades, leaving 125 known dead. The flooding has left already dilapidated huts in cities like Da Nang with coats of thick, dark mud. Without much of a storm water drainage system, the water has nowhere to go and stands on paved streets and in low-lying areas around the region.

The flooding comes on the heels of October's Typhoon Lekima, which killed 88 Vietnamese and left others missing and injured.

The flooding kept the First Baptist group from going to a day care center and orphanage they had planned to rebuild. The work will go on with Vietnamese labor.

Their work became a humanitarian mission to provide much needed food supplies to the flood victims.

According to the CIA World Factbook, Vietnam has a population of 85 million with a per capita income of $3,100.

The country's work force of 44.5 million is largely employed in agriculture, followed by industrial workers.

Unlike some international cities, there is little American influence visible. The familiar American brand of Coca-Cola is available, but costs $3 a serving.

Poverty was rampant in the area visited by the Gainesville group, which was gone from the U.S. from Nov. 14-22.

"You forget that there are entire villages that live that way and it's constant," said Liz Coates, 26, a member of the mission group.

Her father, the Rev. Dr. William L. Coates Jr., senior pastor of the church, was also struck by the conditions.

"People are living almost the same way they did when the war ended," he said. "You have a system where a medical doctor and a street sweeper make close to the same amount of money, about $40 a month. There is no incentive to do better and have a better life."

Coates said the few who have succeeded are those who own businesses.

He said that he would only want to go back to Vietnam after things have changed.

"I believe Vietnam will liberalize," Coates said. "China has and they're booming. The Vietnamese are going to learn that if they're going to make it, they're going to have to liberalize."

According to the Factbook, Vietnamese authorities, since 2001, have reaffirmed their commitment to economic liberalization and international integration. They have moved to implement the structural reforms needed to modernize the economy and to produce more competitive, export-driven industries.

The beginning of the U.S.-Vietnam Bilateral Trade Agreement in December 2001 has led to even more rapid changes in Vietnam's trade and economic regime. Vietnam's exports to the United States doubled in 2002 and again in 2003.

Vietnam joined the World Trade Organization in January 2007, following a decadelong negotiation process.

Joining the WTO is expected to provide an important boost to the economy and should help to ensure the continuation of liberalizing reforms.

But for those who have lived in Vietnam since the end of the war, change has been slow to come.

One man, who asked not to be identified, said he had an opportunity to go to the United States as a refugee after the war, but changed his mind.

"I wish I had gone," he said through an interpreter. "My life would have been so different."



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