Back in the U.S.A.

The strangest thing about traveling is that as soon as you’re home, it seems as if you’ve never left. Of course, there’s a lot to process, to digest — much will be integrated into my world view over time. But day-to-day life can return almost immediately to normal routines.

I was in the Saigon airport at 3 p.m. Thursday to catch the first of four flights that brought me to Florida. A late afternoon flight on a weekday, Saigon to Hanoi, a lot of business travelers, traveling light. What caught my notice as I stood in line to board the bus that would take us to the plane: Almost everyone was carrying a big vinyl-sided briefcase with a metal rim. I haven’t seen that style of briefcase here in about 10 years. (I used to have one.)

I looked around, searching for other styles. I saw two people carrying something more updated. Thinking back, I realized that U.S. business people carried those briefcases before we all had laptop computers.

I had a lot of thoughts about development (as in “developing nations”). Many times I thought, while in Cambodia or Vietnam, this must be what Malaysia looked like 25 years ago. The traffic in Phnom Penh and Saigon and Hanoi did much to explain to me why roads are designed as they are in Kuala Lumpur — motorbikes lead to cars, and cars are bigger, and then new roads are needed. But pedestrians were not considered in the plans when Malaysia modernized the arteries in its largest city, and as I walked in the gutters of streets in Hanoi and Saigon, I understood why it’s so hard to walk around in KL’s famous shopping area, the Golden Triangle.

In Hoi An, to preserve the old part of the city, the government is forbidding all but foot traffic, one day at a time. Eventually it will be a wheels-free zone all week long, to the benefit of tourism — brilliant.

Another thing I considered after spending time in Cambodia and Vietnam was the retarding effect of war. Cambodia held its first free elections in May 1993 — before that, real economic development was not possible. Vietnam “opened the door” in 1986-89, but I would estimate Vietnam is at least 10 years ahead of Cambodia on the development scale. Other Southeast Asian nations such as Malaysia and Thailand have been able to focus on economic reforms, infrastructure, and education instead of cleaning up after a country-wide destructive conflict. When I thought about the chaos in Vietnam and Cambodia only 30 years ago, I had to judge their progress as pretty remarkable.

Vietnam has a mission right now to improve the education system at all levels, so it can properly train the next generation of skilled workers and information professionals. Night schools for learning English are everywhere, and many of the 60 journalists I met were enrolled in one. Our Intrepid Travel trip leader, Cong, had studied Russian in school for many years, but started learning English when he was 24 — about eight years ago. The level of English right now in a lot of the hotels where I stayed was poor, but with the government’s emphasis on tourism as one of its income centers, I would bet that will change soon.

I posted some new photos today on Flickr.

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