After two years of living in Hanoi, Vietnam working as a volunteer, Steve Jackson signed up for another volunteer stint on the other side of the world in Nicaragua. Here he discusses the similarities between two very different countries.
Somewhere on a journey that started in Hanoi, Vietnam and ended in Granada, Nicaragua, I considered how few travellers must have made the same trip.
Between changing flights in Hong Kong and Los Angeles, and before I jumped into a cab in Managua, I wondered if the last people to fly between the two countries had done so during the Cold War.
I fantasised. Perhaps back then Vietnamese Communists hooked up with Kremlin movers and shakers and headed over to rendezvous with Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega. Maybe Castro was there too.
I bet, as Fidel smoked his cigar, he heard how hellish their trip was.
But I survived it. I arrived 36 hours later, with the time difference of half a day stealing a third of that.
I had given up working for Hanoi’s miraculous KOTO to work for Granada’s CafeChavalos. They are remarkably similar organisations. Both train at-risk kids from the streets to work in the hospitality industry. Both have shown impressive results.
The coincidences don’t end there. In Hanoi we had finally opened a new 150-seater restaurant. In Granada they were starting the fundraising for their’s. This is to be my job.
It’s not just my employers who are alike. The countries, on the surface, share similarities. Both victims of US foreign policy. Both still desperately poor. Both have proved inspirational in actually being able to function at all considering their horrific histories.
Then again, as I settle, I realise that there are just as many differences. Vietnam may be Communist but only in a sense that it is governed by the Communist party. In truth it was as much a socialist nation as Haliburton is a workers’ co-operative.
Maybe it was at the behest of the neo-liberals of the World Bank, but in Vietnam healthcare, education and social provision of all kinds was minimal and comparatively expensive.
Ironically, it seemed, in Communist Vietnam you had to be the toughest of entrepreneurs to survive.
Certainly, somehow the Communist Party manages to be everywhere and nowhere. It controls everything but does so facelessly. I didn’t even know who the president was.
For the most part, politics remained a non issue. You can argue that people were too scared to discuss it. My experience is that, as long as they were left alone, Vietnamese simply didn’t care.
In Nicaragua, where there is a functioning democracy, it’s very different. Politics is debated passionately. After recent neo-liberal regimes, social provision may be no better than Vietnam but change is promised.
That’s because Sandinista revolutionary Daniel Ortega is back. This time voted in to power. His last spell in charge was brought to an end, in part, due to the Contra war, illegally funded by the US. Remember Oliver North?
This time will the US by too preoccupied with the Middle East to care?
Ortega appears to be doing and saying all the right things. On the surface he has joined Hugo Chavez’s “axis of irritation”. But there also appears to be no will to upset the US either. Better to stay the hell away.
So far, so good. For starters barriers and costs associated with healthcare and education are slated for substantial removal.
Not everyone is happy though, especially as Ortega only received 38% of the vote, but that’s still more than any other candidate.
While among the expat communities there are many retired, baby boomer hippies who are adopting a “wait and see” policy, there are others who are worried. After the revolution landowners had their properties seized. Will it happen again?
It seems unlikely, the reborn Ortega is now a seemingly more mature Marxist, but stories circulate of gringos who have taken their cash out the bank and fled.
However, the real estate market remains buoyant – those American retirees are still heading here to live very well on even the most basic of pensions. The Florida overspill is growing daily.
My life here is very different. I loved Hanoi but was at screaming pitch by the time I left. The noise was making me crazy. The smile you need just to do business in Hanoi was wilting. Endless haggling and attempts to make me pay over the odds for everything were just starting to grate.
Worse still was the pollution. Gridlocked roads, plastic bags everywhere, endangered species served up as delicacies.
Now I live in Granada – a beautiful, quiet, colonial town where I can walk the streets again. While Hanoi traffic is growing daily, Ortega, mindful of environmental concerns, is considering banning cars from the highways except for weekends. Everyone, it appears, will take the bus.
Those revolutionary days, however bloodily and messily they ended, have also left a legacy. Worker’s co-operatives are not uncommon. Fair Trade is sporadically practiced. Birkenstock wearing lefties, dubbed the “Sandal-istas” are once more arriving to help.
As the second poorest nation in the Americas, there isn’t much cash to spare but, while unfortunately there will always be corruption in developing countries, there seems to be a will to improve the lives of the poorest Nicaraguans.
The again, maybe he just has me fooled. Maybe he will rob the country blind. Maybe the US will remember old wounds and start the hostilities again. Anything is possible.
Right now though, Nicaragua is at peace. No war, the lowest crime rate in Latin America, no natural disasters for quite some time. Optimism appears to be growing.
For me it seems the right choice. I am enjoying my daily rice and beans instead of fish sauce soaked, over-boiled offerings. I am enjoying the space. The heat might be about the same but here there is freshness and breeze.
In addition, within a couple of hours of my new home, there are volcanoes to climb, crystal clear lagoons, under-developed beaches and, on my doorstep, the 10th biggest lake in the world. It beats a four-hour bus ride to over-crowded Halong Bay.
I should probably also point out that my comparison might not be quite fair – Granada is much more like Hoi An than it is Hanoi.
The food, the air, the peace and quiet? It all sounds perfect and it very nearly is. In the end there is only one thing that is stopping it being the heaven that I know it can be.
I miss Vietnam.
I miss Hanoi. I miss those millions of scooters. I miss dodging cyclos in the old quarter. I miss haggling with xe om drivers.
Most of all I miss the incredible Vietnamese people and their warm smiles. I miss saying “HALLO” to half the neighbourhood every morning.
For all its faults Vietnam is a country that gets under your skin. It never leaves you.
I am sure that one day I will feel the same about Nicaragua.
In the meantime, I urge you all to take those pot-holed roads less travelled – Vietnam AND Nicaragua. Because both countries are as humbling as they are inspiring and both, in their own ways, are filled with incredible beauty.
Tam Biet/Adios Amigos.