January 18, 2011
Story By Montana Hodges
Photos By Kevin Radley and a random Vietnamese man
At the four-star resort it was hard for us to feel comfortable back in our Western culture. It felt a bit dishonest to be lounging around on a perfectly groomed beach while we knew the other Vietnam was somewhere outside the gates of our sequestered lair. Phu Quoc Island is gorgeous, hands-down the most picturesque place I’ve been in Vietnam, but it was strangely lacking the Vietnamese. This was after all, their country.
I felt the distress most pointedly when we first arrived at the Saigon Phu Quoc Resort & Spa. Among the stunning scenery of one of the best beaches in Asia, a cleaning woman for the resort stood along the perfectly manicured walkways slowly wiping down every leaf of a shrub. Individually, she polished each visible swatch of foliage, to ensure the guests had neither pesky dust to dismay the aesthetics or dirt to soil their beach clothes.
This was not the Vietnam we had come to know. Yes it was gorgeous, but it didn’t seem sincere.
At our beachfront farewell dinner the next night we gave our loudest and proudest “Mot, Hai, Ba, Yo!” the hearty cheer that we had been taught by our Vietnamese colleagues (translated as “one, two, three, cheers!”). The shocked wait staff of the resort perked with surprising grins and inquired of how we knew such a thing. They said not many visitors speak the native tongue around here. With one short cheer, we had apparently distinguished ourselves as going beyond the fence.
That was the story of our studies in Vietnam. We had gone beyond the Copenhagen reports, the PBS specials and the classroom lectures, to get to know the humanity behind the struggle. We had traveled to an edge of climate change in Vietnam, the edge that textbooks cannot explain. There was a moment at some point I can’t identify, when we became comfortable in the houses of rice farmers, in the hugs of international strangers and we united in the camaraderie of our cheers.
We had been to Vietnam, the real deal, not just an eye-candy resort kept spotlessly surreal.
Somewhere out in the rural stretches of the Mekong Delta, even while we sat on the island, people were singing to us, “see you again.” Their faces, seemingly happy to see us and then more greatly sad to see us go, were haunting the seaside sunset.
I wonder if I will see them again, these people whose lives I have passed through, who have changed mine.
The images I absorbed will be with me for a lifetime. I will see those pictures again. It’s sad to think of how temporary our relationships have been but it is remarkable to reflect on how personal each conversation was. We didn’t just see Vietnam, we didn’t just study Vietnam—we stood on their dyke, where they are holding back an ocean with five feet of earth. We walked with the farmers through their mud-cracked rice ponds, sailed with the skippers who ferry along the flood-prone Mekong and learned with the professors who don’t have the luxury of simply visiting me in my country.
So I will raise my last glass in Vietnam, and hopefully many of the ones to follow in the homeland, to all the people of Vietnam, the nearly 90 million of them, the 13th largest country in the world. Thank you for teaching with open minds, sharing with open hearts and truly wanting to see us again.
To all of you—I say with gusto, “Mot, Hai, Bai, Yo!”
January 17, 2011
Photos and Captions by Kevin Radley
Mr. Lam is a rice farmer in the Soc Trang province who is now dependent on the rain. Six years ago, Mr. Lam was forced to move his farm 20 km, to its current location, because intruding saltwater was impacting production. The Vietnamese government has built a dyke 10 km away, near the town of My Xuyen to stop further saltwater intrusion from the river system. Yet Mr. Lam’s available irrigation water remains brackish. This allows him to only produce two rain-fed crops per year on his six hectares.
Mr. Bich is a shrimp farmer on the other side of the government dyke in the Soc Trang province. He converted his 1.2 hectares of land from rice fields to shrimp production because of larger profits, government-zoning policy, and greater viability given the saltier environment.