Experience #32 - Laos and Vietnam



Laos and Vietnam are among the five countries which still declare themselves socialists. The others are China, North Korea and Cuba. What is an immense motive to sharpen the curiosity to see in practice all the theory that I’ve read about this economic model.


I don’t entitle myself socialist as I still need to study more to comprehend deeper its different ideals and consequences, but I’m convinced that the most common non socialist systems nowadays don’t work to everyone. I can’t resist giving examples, like the incentive to unnecessary consumption of finite resources is a joke and the quest for opportunities that can take the maximum possible out of others is blunder, besides the legend that keep on growing the GDP is in favour of equality.


I looked for the history and moment of these two countries as we can find it all out in the streets, but I could feel they are in full force in development.


Laos looks a bit more oppressed, with more coy and very kind people. There are serious critics regarding human rights’ violations and it’s a more “reserved” country, without many globalized companies. Anyway, what impressed me the most was that even with reports relating a severe poverty, during a twelve hours bus journey through the countryside, I could only see houses made of bricks that were apparently in good conditions and there was electricity along the whole way. Even though, a detail that bothered me is that the public buildings (such as governmental palaces) are much newer and more pompous than others, even more than the national museum, which is old and not properly conserved. The difference is noticeable in the picture from the museum with a palace just in front.



A positive surprise I felt there, like in a very few countries, is that the strategy to take advantage from the tourists is not used… They have always said the fair price without any additional. Almost a miracle, I was shocked! It’s just very said to feel happy when somebody treats you the right way, it seems everything is really in the wrong way… Congratulations to the Laotians – someone needs to find out their secret so we can disseminate it.


In our quest for experiences, with a little help from destiny, while walking through Luang Prabang, we saw a group of people talking in the organization Big Brother Mouse. Its objective is to promote education in rural communities through the publication of books, besides they also organize weekly gatherings where foreigner volunteers and Laotians seat together to talk and train English. We arrived a bit lost in the middle of a session and one of the participants, the Buddhist novice called Thoungxai Munvitai, kindly invited us to participate.



We stayed there for two hours telling and listening to stories from the youngsters, what showed us even more the country’s reality. Like Steve, who works twenty hours per day in a hotel (among naps when he has a break from guests) and lives alone, away from his family that works in the countryside.


By the end of the session I had the most unexpected consumption experience of my life. Thoungxai asked for our help to go to the night market to buy gifts for his mother and brothers that live in another city. He was going to visit them in the following weekend and wanted to comply with his mother requests. When in life I thought I would go shopping with a novice? Never. Besides witnessing a necessary consumption act (which is rare today), I noticed his detachment to choose the tent shop and model. In twenty seconds he chose, payed and took. We’re glad to help and carry the bags around to avoid his embarrassment, as it’s uncommon for monks and novices to go shopping.



We got along so well that Thoungxai offered himself to show us the city in the following day. We felt very honoured. Way more than walk around, see temples and rivers, we could learn more about meditation and about the life of someone who dedicated himself to religion in the past six years. He is nineteen years old and comes from a simple family. In Laos, who chooses to study to become a monk has a very low cost of living, while also learns the conventional curriculum applied in the public schools. The novice is able to pay the monastery’s living contribution through donations he receives everyday along the morning walking, when he gets food, money and objects from the population.


He told us he decided to go to the monastery because besides alleviating the costs for his family, he wanted to help his mother with what was left from the donations. This happens there as a way of earning a living in a country where there isn’t opportunities to everyone. He finished high school this year and will move to Vientiane (the capital) to study literature and decide his future. This is because after graduating the novices have to decide if they want to become a monk and dedicate their lives to Buddhism or prefer to move their path to another social role.

I had no idea about all this and the great learning for me was demystifying that everyone who decides to dedicate himself to religion gets into it totally certain about it and can never leave. At least in this one it’s not like this, I’m not sure how it works in the other ones. Another interesting learning is that our society imposes so many miseries and future fears to us that even our friend, generous and religious, confessed that his concern today is to not feel confident about how life is going to be in university, in an unknown city and if he will be able to maintain himself there.


This concern became too common nowadays, unfortunately, but I used to hope that practicing meditation and believing in a superior force made us immune to this psychological sufferings. I still believe that this peace is possible.


It was an intense and quite thrilling day. In the end, after the sunset by his previous monastery riverside, he gave us a bracelet that was energized by a monk with magical powers, according to what he told us. He blessed them and told us he already considered us as older brothers. It was difficult to hold the emotion when we said goodbye and walked towards our hotel, just thinking about the purity, innocence and affection of an extremely humble new brother. Hold yourself together!!!



That was how our days in Laos came to an end and we continued to Vietnam.


Vietnam is way more “released”, with its business districts full of high buildings concerned with their external beauty and tons of motorcycles in the streets in the driving style of “let’s go for it, no matter what”. The economy was opened for globalization and we saw many fast-food brands, but there are still a lot of rules to maintain the state control. One of them states that at least 50% of the employees must be Vietnamese, in all hierarchical levels. Another is more authoritarian, as there are public products (produced and sold by the government), any kind of advertising from private companies is controlled. Therefore everything must be approved and can even not be, in case it represents a risk for the state sales. It’s serious and quite an easy competition to gain, especially because the government also gets the taxes from others’ sales.


It seems like a modernized and flexible socialism, once in its traditional concept the state controls everything. I wish I could believe that the objective of this opening is to generate more income and development to the country, but it’s hard to trust when we consider its high corruption level. It’s a shame to think that the temptations for money could even corrupt the economical organization of a whole country. – This is a quite initial perception of mine, in case you don’t agree please comment.



When we got to Hanoi, it feels like a tight city with very smiley people! Women hawkers are at every corner, offering everything you can imagine. Precisely about them we could learn at Museu da Mulher Vietnamita. The documentary Street Vendors – Their Voices talks about the life of these women and it was very impactful to hear in detail (and subtitles) how is their life.


The majority of them leave family and kids in their countryside hometown and move to the metropolis to earn income. They sale fruits, hats, flip-flops, handcrafts and who knows in what conditions they live, but most probably with not much dignity. To have an idea of values, despite the fact that the cost of living in Vietnam is quite low, one of them said that with all that hard work she is able to send back to her kids about 12 dollars every three weeks.


When we left the museum with these testimonials revolving the head, we lived something intense that proved one more time the power of information, of knowing the truth, seeing real people and not only statistical data. Even having lived this sensation a lot lately, there it was stronger, perhaps because we saw them working hard in the streets without imagining the reality behind that work. We left there with an uncontrollable will of doing something for them and we kept loyal to the belief that even small well intentioned gestures generate a chain reaction of good things.



So we decided to buy fruits (like lychees that are very good there) from all the women hawkers we would see along the way back to the hotel. Independently from the price, as a few of them apply the “tourists’ additional tax”, we made ourselves “blind” to this detail for one day and bought small quantities always giving 5 dollars (the equivalent in Vietnamese dongs). What means that who charged the fairest price, like 1 dollar, would keep a more generous change than the ones who charged more, like 3 dollars.


Without getting into the value they charge, it was a supernatural feeling the see the giant smile they ALL gave when they understood that we would leave the tip with them. I believe that way beyond the additional financial value that they won (4 dollars maximum), we could feel that it was a joy just because somebody cared about them, like recognition for their effort and a gratitude for feeling they deserve something more, that almost no one gives.


The point here is not social inequality, unemployment or low income, it’s only merit, feeling valorised and receiving an extra affection. By the end, the doubt was to understand if who was more amazed with the situation, were them or us. Nice challenge! It was an evening of good energies that we considered in our budget as “personal investment in daily empathy to mutual entertainment”, as it was quite fun!



In Vietnam we couldn’t go to the countryside, as the train would take at least forty hours in our route and we already had the flight out. Therefore, the second big city in the South we visited was Ho Chi Minh, it’s more modern with skyscrapers, rooftop bars and luxurious shops everywhere. It used to be called Saigon and had its name changed in tribute for the country’s independence icon, a world figure of communism.


In our search for social organizations we were very well received by Cherie Nguyen who is, actually, in funding phase to begin the Quatmo Foundation (it still doesn’t have website). Independently from not being able to see their activities neither the results, it was an amazing class about the country’s reality from the perspective of a young Vietnamese social entrepreneur.



Her mission will be to do a mentoring to youngsters in order to orient them to find a job they identify themselves with and really love it. Today this is a big challenge, as very few schools and even families have the conscious that to work with purpose it’s totally related to fulfilment and happiness. I would say that mainly as a consequence of the capitalist savagery, where the rule is to want to have a “good” job, earn well and that’s it.


One of the selection criteria, particularly, of the ones who will be part of the two years program called out my attention. Instead of instigating competitiveness, one requirement to the youngsters is that they must be aware that they will join the orientation to encounter their best, therefore they can’t participate expecting to be better than anyone else. This is a crucial point for self-knowledge. It was inspiring!


I think it’s possible to feel a little bit of the intensity of these moments, learning with people and their totally different histories. We are all really unique and getting to know yourself seems to be magical. One simple conversation puts us imagining how could be the life of someone else, his fears, sources of happiness and what we can bring and exchange. Moments that taught us things that only they could and that are not in any book.


We need to be always open to listen and understand what the subtleties communicate us. The empathy helps seeing more and you automatically want to make others feel better. Let’s hope it becomes a global outbreak! So many bad ones have succeeded, a good one also has chances!


Felipe.