Nothing wrong with tough love

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A foreigner takes a taxi at the Ho Chi Minh City's Tan Son Nhat International Airport. According to the writer of this piece, Vietnamese need to pull up their socks and start modernizing for the sake of their own progress.

In recent weeks there have been a number of articles in Vietweek describing issues the writers have with the failure of the Vietnamese to recognize the discrepancies between their desire to develop as a modern country and their behavior. These have included everything from driving habits to visa processes to toilet habits to the ubiquitous issue of corruption at all levels.

Usually the following week's edition will have several letters from well intentioned westerners who feel that the articles have been unduly critical of Vietnam and that their authors should just accept things as they are and enjoy them rather than expect Vietnam and the Vietnamese to change their ways.

I would agree with this position except for the very obvious problem that the letter writers overlook in their rush to suggest that things should be left alone and "if you don't like it, don't live or visit here": Vietnam must change if it is going to continue to grow its economy. The letter writers seem to have overlooked the fact that the country is not doing such a great job of this.

I remember a series of several articles that called attention to the lack of toilets for children in school and the deplorable conditions in the ones that existed. I was shocked by this and asked several of my nieces if they had this problem in the supposedly good schools they attended and they said that they would not use the school toilets, ever! There were a number of reports of parent groups mobilizing to change things for their children. But I am sorry to say that I do not think the articles had any real impact on those conditions and that is exactly what is wrong here. Even under scrutiny the problems continue.

If Vietnam wants to be taken seriously along with its ASEAN neighbors whose economies are growing like Singapore, Thailand and Indonesia, as a place for companies to invest, tourists to visit and foreigners to retire to, it must work on the society to develop modern ways. The well-intentioned letter writers who say that expats and tourists should go somewhere else if there are things about the Vietnamese they do not like are completely missing the point of the articles they criticize. People should not be encouraged to continue"¦ whether it is driving on the wrong side of the road or urinating in the street by saying, "Just let the Vietnamese be themselves." We can help by calling attention to these things in a polite and constructive way.

Of equal importance, some of the articles about things like bizarre traffic behavior and crooked taxi drivers are intended to alert visitors to possible hazards to their safety or money that being unfamiliar with the local scene presents.

I visited China in 2001 and found it amazing but still not very cordial to foreigners. On returning in 2008 I was astounded at the changes in their welcome to us. Of course the 2008 Olympics had been the stimulus for this but Vietnam is never going to host the Olympics so the Vietnamese need to pull up their socks and start modernizing for the sake of their own progress.

Shortcomings in the country's infrastructure have got to be addressed: Bridges under construction collapse, roads a few years old fall apart when it rains. Unless there is total stupidity in the planning bureaucracies that have been responsible for these, the obvious fact is that somewhere between approving and funding the construction of a road or a bridge and its opening there is unrestricted corruption. Although corruption plagues all countries, most obviously my own United States, there is no reason to tolerate it.

By Bob Michaels
The writer is an American expat who lives in the south-central province of Binh Thuan

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