Monday, January 7, 2013


G-O-O-O-O-O-D MORNING VIETNAM!! 5AM comes early.

It's early morning in the Mekong Delta in Ben Tre, and I have my first encounter with the local government. At 5am in my hotel, I'm awakened by announcements bellowing from a government loudspeaker out on the street. I recall how Robin Williams screamed out, "Good Morning Vietnam!", from his movie of the same name. But this early am announcer isn't anywhere near as entertaining.

“Good morning Vietnam. Time to wake up. Fathers, get up and get ready to go to work, and provide for your families. Mothers, get up and start cooking breakfast. Children, get up and get ready for school. Study hard, and make your parents proud of you. Remember mothers and fathers, having two children in your family is enough. You don’t need more children than that.”

This rough translation is a reminder that the government is pushing to reduce population growth. Vietnam’s current population is 91 million, more than double the population from when the war ended in 1975. This is by far the most densely populated country in Southeast Asia. Unlike China, which has the one child policy, Vietnam is calling for families to have only two. There is less pressure put on farming families. The government expects farmers to have more children, so that they will have more help to work the fields.
Local workers do horticulture by hand in a Ben Tre park
Still, enforcement of this policy on city dwellers can be harsh. If a woman has a government job, and she has more than two children, she can be forced to leave her job, or be demoted. Enforcement of this policy is also emphasized with ethnic minorities, as the government seeks to keep them in check.

I discover that these morning propaganda announcements are not a rare occurrence. These early broadcasts happen almost every day, and there are loudspeakers such as this one hanging in neighborhoods throughout Vietnam. Apparently the government believes that their daily announcements are more effective, if they use them to wake you up. Later that day I hear a siren, much like a tornado siren. Fortunately, it's only a test, for when typhoons are headed this way. In 2006 when Typhoon Durian blew through the Mekong Delta, 66 people were killed, hundreds of boats sank, and thousands of houses were destroyed. Ben Tre Province was one of the hardest hit. Much like after the war, it took them years to rebuild from the destruction.
Ben Tre riverboats. Note the traditional paintings on the bow of each craft.
I decide to take a walk along the waterfront this morning, before I depart later in the afternoon. Arriving at the docks, there is already a lot of activity, as cargo is being unloaded. The wooden riverboats sit side by side, packed tightly together. As I watch, laborers offload a cargo of coconuts by hand, throwing them onto small carts. Soon another riverboat pulls in, also loaded down with coconuts. Ben Tre is well known throughout the country for its tasty coconut candy.

As I continue along the riverside road, I come to the local version of a teamster. As a river town Ben Tre has few trucks, and this hauler uses a small motorbike, with an open cart attached to the back. The cart is stacked high with bags of rice. I’m struck by how much work he is accomplishing, with less powerful machinery. His  motorbike engine is only 125 cc’s, yet he’s hauling a load that westerners would use a pickup truck to do. Admittedly, it’s not very safe. If he had to stop quickly, he could be crushed by those heavy bags of rice. At least he was wearing a helmet.
Unexploded ordinance (UXO) still litters Ben Tre. This war refuse is in the local Ben Tre Museum.
As commerce in Ben Tre has risen, more roads are being paved as the town expands. But road construction here is not without its hazards. Just before my arrival, an unexploded 250 pound bomb from the war years was found during digging on a local building site, and disarmed. The seasonal flooding and muddy earth of the delta rice paddies meant that many heavy bombs dropped here had soft landings, and didn’t explode. It’s no surprise that there are still numerous unexploded bombs still here today. With the rise in construction, and with the continued clearing of land for agriculture, more unexploded ordinance will continue to be found in Ben Tre, and not intentionally.

As I reach Dong Khoi Street on the waterfront, I step onto the town bridge that crosses the Ben Tre River to the next island. A section that was destroyed in the war has been rebuilt. A narrow bridge of light design, the town’s bridge can only withstand the weight of motorbikes and pedestrians. Like elsewhere in the delta, stronger, wider bridges are needed. Unfortunately for the delta dwellers, bridge construction in this region has been slow and plagued by problems.
Ben Tre's riverfront. The rebuilt bridge beyond is only strong enough for motorbikes and pedestrians.
A few years back, there was a major accident during bridge construction in nearby Can Tho Province in the delta. While many workers were laboring up on the bridge, a large section collapsed, killing at least 60 workers, leaving many more injured. It was all over the news. Many Vietnamese blame corruption as a factor in the disaster.
Further outside of Ben Tre, a large cable stay bridge is also under construction. When completed, it will connect Ben Tre Province to a highway leading out of the delta. The unfinished bridge is already months past its original opening date.
This modern suspension bridge will improve life in Ben Tre and the Mekong Delta
Before I leave, I ask a hotel clerk about the new bridge, and he’s well versed in the lingo of promotion. “When that bridge finishes, there will be even more tourism, more development,” he gushes. “Come back to Ben Tre in one year. You won’t even recognize it.”

In a wider context, I think that what he says is far more true, when comparing the war years to the present time. Americans that had been to Ben Tre back during those times of conflict, would hardly even recognize this town today.     


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