Real life is stepping aside for tourists in Vietnam

DANANG, Vietnam: It was impossible, being a person of my generation, to sail into Danang harbor aboard a luxury cruise liner the other day without thinking of an earlier foreign embarkation on these same shores, which happened to take place 33 years ago this month.

On March 8, 1965, some units of the 9th Marine Expeditionary Brigade, arriving in Danang from Okinawa, Japan, became the first official American combat troops in Vietnam. Eight years later, this city was the site of horrific scenes when South Vietnamese soldiers shot and killed civilians in a mad scramble to board the last evacuation plane to leave the local airport ahead of victorious North Vietnamese troops.

It was a long time ago. A lot has changed, not least that you can arrive in Danang these days on a luxury ship rather than wading ashore. Still, for somebody whose formative experience was the Vietnam War and all the turbulence and protest that it engendered, arriving here as a high-end tourist served as a reminder of what Hegel called the ruse of history as it applies to this country.

Who, after all, could have predicted all those years ago when Lyndon Johnson decided to make the Vietnam War an American war, that after the Communist enemy won that war they would allow Vietnam to become more or less the kind of place we wanted it to become when Johnson sent those troops to Danang?

That kind of country would be an entirely independent one, taking orders from no large neighbors, near or far, having normal, even rather cordial, relations with the United States, even while opening its doors to foreign trade, investment and luxury cruise liners. To be sure, Vietnam still falls short on the human rights front, but so, for that matter, did the Saigon regime for the sake of which all that money was spent and all those lives lost.

Danang is as good a place as any to see what Vietnam is and what it is becoming, namely another one of those poor countries that strives to become a bit less poor by allowing its beaches, its scenic places, and its exoticism to be playgrounds for the wealthy.

Take the road from Danang south along the famed China Beach, that exquisite crescent of white sand known mostly to Americans by the popular television series of that name.

The whole beach, which is some 50 kilometers, or 30 miles, long, seems to have been carved up by big international hotel chains that either have already constructed, or will soon construct, luxury resorts.

The Furama is already up and running. Across the street from the yellowed concrete walls of what was once an American military base are signs promising the arrival of a Hyatt, a Raffles Hotel and Residences, and what looks like an immense development of hotels and luxury housing being put up by a Chinese company whose slogan, marked in Chinese characters on a wall facing the road, is “A One Hundred Year Big Plan.”

On the same side as the former base, automatic sprinklers send a swirling shower of irrigation water to nourish the grass of the new Montgomery Golf Links. Another future development, suitably enough called Eden, is advertised by a series of posters that stretch a kilometer or so along the road south of Danang, showing idylls on the South China Sea.

The road departs from the beach after 15 kilometers or so and ends up in Hoi An, a picturesque town of old wooden houses with courtyards, most of which have been turned into handicraft shops. There are restaurants serving local Vietnamese specialties and lots of cold beer. Hoi An is a Vietnamese version of one of those picture-perfect towns you might see in Tuscany or Provence, a place where real life is giving way to a kind of arts-and-crafts tourism.

And why not? Why should Tuscany and Provence have all the nostalgic seekers of bygone authenticity to themselves?

What is sad about it nonetheless is the contrast between the wealth of the visitors and the poverty of the country they are visiting. This is one of those countries where the arrival of a tour bus occasions the appearance of hordes of touts, cyclo drivers, would-be tour guides, sellers of T-shirts and ink paintings of women in flowing ao dais and straw conical hats. These are the economic opportunists who aren’t shareholders in the Hyatt or Raffles but who jockey and jostle to have a modest portion of the tourist trade.

On the shuttle bus from my cruise ship to the center of Danang the other day, there was such an aggressive rush of touts that most of the cruise-boat passengers refused to disembark, preferring to go back to the ship rather than brave the importuning horde.

Looked at economically and socially, Vietnam has restored a bit of the atmosphere of French colonialism, when wealthy Europeans occupied the seats at the café tables and restaurants and local people served them, except that for many visitors here today Vietnam is an incidental factor. It’s more the beaches, the scenery, the cheaper-than-Tuscany prices (and the marvelous cuisine) that attract many foreign visitors, not so much Vietnam as a cultural or historical entity. And the prices aren’t always cheaper than Tuscany.

Outside Nha Trang, the beach town and port where my cruise ship is due after Danang, the Ana Mandara Six Senses Spa offers what its Web site calls “the ultimate seclusion,” because it is only accessible by boat. The cost for a two-story villa, the only kind of accommodation, is in the neighborhood of $800 a night. My guidebook describes it as a magical place where dirt tracks between buildings give the illusion of a jungle village. But, clearly, it’s an ersatz jungle. It’s not Vietnam.

Then again, the places where people have been going in Thailand or Indonesia don’t afford much contact with Thailand or Indonesia either. Vietnam, which, for obvious reasons, was slow getting into the game, is becoming like them, and, on balance, it’s a very good thing.


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