Lac Village, Mai Chau district, North West Vietnam
Tuesday, May 10, 2010

We are in a tranquil, green, watery, pastoral paradise in North West Vietnam. The Mai Chau district is home to the White Thai, one of Vietnam’s 54 minority groups, though the population here now is more ethnically mixed than it used to be.

I am sitting on a platform under the floor of a high, wooden, stilt house. Traditionally the poles on which these homes rested were wooden; now they tend to be concrete. The house has many windows that let in a much desired breeze, and a balcony on one side. The floor is covered in plastic mats and we sleep on narrow mattress, under spacious mosquito nets. There’s nothing else in the room but for too much of our city stuff.

The platform, which looks out on small, fish-breeding ponds, has bamboo tables and chairs. Cattle used to be kept here in the past, but they now build sheds for them. Beyond this are rice fields, and then mountains. There’s a profusion of plants and trees; the breeze brushing against leaves is a constant, soothing shimmer, at times punctuated by low voices, a dog barking, or a cock crowing.

In Hanoi we were besieged by motorcycle horns and all kinds of grating city noises. The Ancient Quarter, which housed our hotel, was an atmospheric warren of shops selling everything imaginable under the sun. The tiny shops took up the house fronts of incredibly long and narrow buildings – a traditional architectural style. Business and life spilled onto pavements, which also provided parking for the inevitable mo-bikes. Everywhere, small eateries spread out their tentacles, particularly at dawn and dusk.

The goods sold were cheap local or made in China, with the usual coke and cosmetics made by regional offices of multinationals. The more touristic parts of the Quarter sold t-shirts, crafts, jewellery, clothing, paintings and supposedly safe water in plastic bottles. The Quarter’s life breath is the bustle and hustle of commerce.

Now, as I look upon emerald fields stretching to the base of hills, close enough for a giant to reach out and touch, I feel a burden fall off. The same feeling had engulfed me when I got to the beachfront in Cape Town, to a narrow strip of sand, rock, the ebb and flow of waves and the sea stretching to the horizon.
This morning there were women in conical, Vietnamese hats working the fields. A narrow concrete road cuts through them, allowing passage for a loaded up bicycle or motorcycle, and a very occasional mini-van.

There are no cars.

Stilt houses line the small streets, and sell lovely, ethnic goods; pieces of elegantly patterned cloth made on looms, and purses and other small items made with these fabrics.

There is minimal electric gadgetry.

With daily power cuts, the homes run generators frugally. This rather cramps our city lifestyle and computer dependency. (By the way, we are here for a work retreat!)

The students find an internet cafe that was not there last year.

(Two cute little French-speaking girls, children of a Vietnamese colleague and her French hubby, and a Hanoi-based caterer who’s organizing our meals, come by and invite me to a balloon blowing fest. Even though I demur, they sportingly serve me French food fashioned from twigs, seeds and leaves.)

This quintessential, agrarian, tropical landscape happens to be among my favourites and I am drinking it in with all my senses, and especially my spirit.

The simple rurality (this is English, you can make words up on the spot!) strikes me with the force of a wooden gong hitting a heavy, brass bell (a common feature in Vietnamese pagodas). What a contrast to our whirlwind tour, our attempt to comprehend urbanity and its ills (mostly), with glimmerings of hope – those valiant efforts to bring equity and environmental sustainability to bulging, crackling, electrifying, terrifying, thrilling cities.

Why do we pour into them? Why do we keep growing them?

City slickers like you could tick off myriad reasons right away, but the main is that life in the cities is an improvement for migrants who come from the towns and villages, even if the middle-class may only see the gaps in their existence, what’s not there instead of what is.

Cities are enterprise, and Hanoi is a prime example of people’s ability to make, or grow or buy something and then sell it for a small mark-up, eking out a living for themselves and their families in the city, while living in sub standard housing if they can afford rent, or building shacks, and sending money back home to degraded and impoverished “rural idylls”.

Vietnam’s rural to urban migrants are increasingly young and female and a quarter of the economy, excluding agriculture, is informal. Policy makers however are slow to acknowledge migration and informality, certainly in Vietnam, even as some interesting efforts to work with this flow, not against it, are emerging worldwide.

And yet, and yet, villages like Lac, which continue to grow food and drum and dance in the evenings, and not just for visitors, while making money from cultural tourism, may suggest another way – of skimming off from the urban traveller and city economy, while continuing a way of life, with adaptations and accommodations, which is more satisfying, at least for this generation and may be for some of the next?

The old man who spoke to us about village customs was happy to be a farmer, and proud of the fact that the village had filled government crop quotas to feed the soldiers, during the wars, despite its poverty. He liked cultural tourism as it kept people better fed. His main concern was for some of the young in Mai Chau who had fallen prey to drugs. The road brought new desperations along with prosperity.

During our journey, we encountered examples of the country in the city – community and roof top gardens, farmers markets and local food systems – existing thanks to a push from state, market or NGO forces, and a drive to create green zones and expand green space. We also saw community-based recycling programs and conservation projects.

There were examples from elsewhere about how former rivers have been reclaimed from under urban concrete and allowed to flow freely (otherwise they would add to annual flooding anyhow), giving nature a chance in thrive in the city. River rejuvenation brings a whole range of flora and fauna to life; the effects of such changes tend to ripple out; they are rarely linear.

In the Brazilian eco-city of Curitiba, former quarries and wastelands have been converted into a range of parks with educational, cultural, historic or recreational functions. This city can pride itself on providing more than the UN recommended per capita green space while most cities are woefully short of the target.

I am not even talking about some kind of a comprehensive, green plan; that would be paradise and we are unlikely to get there anytime soon, if ever, but merely creating an environment that supports local efforts to promote local health, in all kinds of ways.

Instead of allowing developers to go on a wild, spending spree on farmland at the edge of cities to create grandiose housing complexes and gated communities, which even the wealthy can barely afford and seem to mainly benefit speculators, which is clearly happening in Hanoi, if governments worked to protect and include the country in the city, we would be able to feed ourselves – rich and poor – better and longer.