Saturday, December 08, 2007

Bangladesh and Vietnam

I just finished reading Andrew X. Pham's book Catfish and Mandala. When he was ten, Pham and his family escaped from Communist Vietnam two years after the Fall of Saigon, subsequently settling in the US. This book is about a bicycle trip through Vietnam that Pham made after reaching adulthood.

In Vietnam, the author has a wide range of adventures as he bicycles his way up the country. I was startled by the similarity between what he reports and life in Bangladesh. Some examples:

Arrival: As his flight approaches Ho Chi Minh City, the Vietnamese passengers behave just like Bangladeshis do when their flight approaches Dhaka. They grab their overhead luggages, scurry up the aisle into seats closer to the exit and, as a group, stand up as soon as the plane lands and taxis. The flight attendants shout and scream at them to sit and fasten seat belts. Hmmm. Doesn't this happen on every international flight into Dhaka?

Line in airport: Everyone tries to go over everyone else in the immigration queue at HCMC. We are a little better, but I still see people at ZIA jumping queues shamelessly.

Traffic: In HCMC "Nobody gives way to anybody. Everyone just angles, points, dives directly towards his destination, pretending it is an all-or-nothing gamble." Sounds suspiciously like many Dhaka intersections.

Buffering: A technique I use while bicycling in Dhaka traffic - when crossing dangerous intersections always try to go parallel with a car/bicycle/person, keeping them closer to oncoming traffic. Pham describes a similar technique used by motorcycles in HCMC.

Pham describes strings of villages that resemble our villages very closely. "The countryside opens up with an endless patchwork of four- or five-acre farms, the houses hidden among the willowy trees and banana palms.."

And the children: "Mile after mile, children sprout out of the land like weeds. They tag each other town the road to school, sit and play cards right at the edge of the blacktop, paying no mind to the buses roaring by and d spraying them with dirt."

There are of course dissimilarities. The Vietnamese drink much alcohol, becoming rowdy and obnoxious (and turning red). More importantly, they call the overseas Vietnamese Viet Kieu and usually treat them with a mixture of contempt and greed. Compared to this, Bangladeshis treat NRBs much better. The Vietnamese carry deep scars from the war, which may contribute to their treatment of Viet Kieu. They try to cheat the author many times, including overcharging him for hotel rooms, food, even medicines when he is sick.

It is not clear what year Pham went on his trip. It was sometime between 1991 and 1999 - I am guessing 95 or 96.

The book is really more about Andrew Pham than about Vietnam. It moves fast and is chockfull of anecdotes and stories from the road, as well as painful family history. I have to say, though, the book paints an unflattering portrait of Vietnam and her people. I imagine things have improved a lot in the intervening years, because today's travellers to Vietnam (including several Bangladeshis I know) sing her praises. Could it be that in ten years, Bangladesh will be where Vietnam is today?

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