Jenny and I stand outside the imposing brick walls of the Imperial city Kinh thanh Hue, the former capital of Vietnam and the home of the Nguyen Dynasty, the last ruling Emperor Family of the country. We have just been scolded in Vietnamese for attempting to enter through the exit gate and are having a little difficulty understanding the guard spitting directions of where we're to go. As hard as I try to blend in, redheaded, soaked in sweat, holding a map in one hand and the Lonely Planet in the other, I scream Western Tourist!!! like a beacon on a dark night. Standing still for more than ten seconds invites the zealous haggle of cyclo drivers. A stout Vietnamese man, with a broad smile and a cigarette hanging out the side of his mouth approaches.
Hello, where you from? Cyclo one hour, I show you all of the city. You buy from me. Where you go? I take you!
I respond that we are American and politely decline the offer, telling the driver that we are exploring by foot and prefer to walk, but with this interaction his bid only becomes more zealous.
Very cheap, five dollars one hour. You hire one hour I show all city, take you back to hotel.
No thank you mate, I again respond with calm; I feel Jenny's irritation meter maxing out as she tries to orient us by unfamiliar landmarks and strange street signs to the entrance of the ancient high walled city.
Why you no help me? I very poor. I have many children very hungry. You hire me, very good tour. You rich American, I poor Vietnamese, you help me. Five dollars, one hour, I show you whole city, we go now! He smiles, as if expecting his doggedness will wear on my endurance and I will eventually give in; I suspect that his strategy has been effective in the past.
I begin to calmly, yet sternly decline his offer again, but after weeks in Vietnam and the nearly constant stream of people trying to hawk you things that you neither need or want, the hot sun beating down on our heads, and just trying to concentrate for minute, Jenny has had it and interrupts.
Look, it isn't about you! We just want to walk and we have said no more than once. Please leave us alone!
The intensity is one I recognize from the few times Jenny has been really pissed at me, and our would-be tour guide has obviously heard the tone in the past. He snarls something unpleasant quietly in Vietnamese, turns and leaves. Jenny and I quickly depart and find the entrance gate to the palace, pay our 50,000 dong ($2.50) and enter the ancient city among hoards of Western, Chinese, and wealthy Vietnamese Tourists, free from the haggle of street vendors.
The Imperial City was largely destroyed in the Tet Offensive of 1968 and as we walk through what remains of the the intricately designed structures built with elaborate lacquered beams, sweeping roof lines, golden thrones, and ornate ceramic mosaic walls, I can't stop thinking about our interaction with the cyclo driver and the how the function of these massive brick walls hasn't changed much in last two hundred years. Just as they once separated the elite ruling class of Vietnam from the lowly commoners outside, they now allow Jenny and me, elite American tourists, to be away from the hassle and harsh realities of life in Vietnam, even if just for a moment.
Vietnam is a quickly changing place, but make no mistake, it is still a country emerging from the third world. Despite the fact the even the poorest people have cell phones, flash cars like BMW's and Mercedes are not an uncommon sight, and Wifi is better than the U.S., the economic portrait for most Vietnamese people isn't very rosy. With a per capita GDP of less than $2,000 USD, I likely carry more money in my pocket than most people earn in a month. When a cyclo driver pleads I am poor, my children our hungry, why don't you help me, it may be a well-delivered emotional plea to help separate from me from some of my money, but it is also the truth. If I were in his shoes I would likely be saying and doing the same thing.
I also carry a burden of knowing that my county dropped over 7 million tons of bombs on this land during the Vietnam conflict, and that the people who suffered the most never picked up a gun and were far to poor to tell the difference between a capitalist and communist government. When bombs quit falling, thirty years of economic isolation stepped in to finish the job. Things are improving in Vietnam, but with a population of 90 million, and an economy largely dependent upon tourist dollars, there just isn't enough to go around.
Traveling the world is meant to challenge you, make you feel uncomfortable, and question your beliefs and ideals. Long have I preached the virtues of simplistic living, shrinking your footprint and rejecting the materialism that is harmful to both our souls and the planet we live on. Being in Vietnam has made me realize though that sometime things are not all that black and white. Values get compromised, hopefully for right reasons.