Vietnam today is, of course, a different place than in the previous century. Changes have been significant in government, infrastructure, morale and population assimilation. Wealth is available and products that wealthy people want is visible in the shops. Urbanization is underway up and down the country. But many people are still poor. Nevertheless, they labor, mostly with a smile. Evidence of their work is everywhere.
Every area of Hanoi is packed with sellers of goods and services. People live and sleep in their shops. Some streets and sections of the city are dedicated to particular items. Being an admirer of color, I am particularly drawn to the floral displays and flower stalls, many supplied by vast fields of flora cultivated along the banks of the Red River in the suburbs of Hanoi.
Rice and food production also remains key to the country’s prosperity and health. In the 10 years since I previously visited the North, however, the rice fields seem to be shrinking. Also, it was a different time of year on this visit so rice harvesting was not as evident to me. Vietnam is one of the world's richest agricultural regions and is probably the second-largest (after Thailand) exporter worldwide and the world's seventh-largest consumer of rice (Wiki). In the Hanoi area it is the upland rice variety that most common. Larger areas of rice growing occurs in the south in the Mekong Delta.
Rice fields, northern Vietnam (2008)
One surprising discovery on this journey was the production of latex, the base ingredient of rubber on plantations in the area of Vietnam’s former DMZ. Vietnam currently ranks third globally in natural rubber production and export, according to the Vietnam Rubber Association.
One of Hanoi's most well-known flower markets, on the day I visited, was in siesta mode, but vast fields nearby on the city's margins along the river is a garden full of buds straining for attention. Seasonal flowers obviously take turns posting their colorful blooms just begging to be picked (and ultimately sold and potted to be admired by followers of the florists' art).
Gifts to nature, for good omens
Before leaving Hanoi for a visit to the north country and Halong Bay at Haiphong, and later to the south of the country, I note that many Vietnamese, even residents of Hanoi, believe Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the model city of the country — the place for unrestricted commerce, progressive innovation, and vibrant nightlife. However, Hanoi is now a sprawling metropolis with nearly the same population density (8-9 million pop.) and bustle enough to cause worry that seems near the breaking point.
Garden at Temple of Literature
As everywhere in the world today, life in Hanoi city clashes in some ways with expectations of communities that rely on labor in the fields and orchards. Glitz and fashion inhabit new urban towers, but in the countryside, where I went next, the basics of living and surrender to nature still command resources and require assistance and subsidy, both nationally and internationally.
(To be continued)