Vietnam Vacation: Development by Design

25 04 2012

As we crossed the border from Cambodia to Vietnam, one thing was very apparent: these are two very different countries.

Even as we got our Cambodian exit stamps at the glorified toll booths, we could see the intricate design of the Vietnamese building just yards away.  Now, obviously the design of border offices aren’t exactly the most precise measurement of development, but it was the first of many noticeable differences to come.

Vietnam is clearly (at least very superficially) developed. As the bus accelerated away from the border, the grass was green, the trees plentiful in a kempt sort of way. The center median was carefully manicured with shrubs, flowers and trees that were clearly tended to regularly. For a land previously doused with defoliants, this was one green place.

As we rode towards Saigon, we couldn’t help but notice the architecture of the bridges and the buildings. Vietnamese houses were not altogether different from those in Cambodia, but they seemed to have something extra. A certain flair, you might say. An aesthetic.

For as wonderful as Cambodia is, there tends to be a focus on the functional, with little concern for aesthetics. Not that this should come as a surprise to anyone; function should always be goal number one when building houses, bridges or roads. As a country working hard (perhaps desperately?) to develop, Cambodian architecture is working at the primary purpose of design: function. There is not enough money as it is, so public projects focus on the basic need and little else (rightly so).

Some of you may remember reading a certain ridiculous term paper I wrote in college in which I measured personal success by the quality of toilet paper you use. I couldn’t help but think of this as we hurtled by shrubs spelling out the names of towns outside of Saigon. If “success” at an individual level is having flushable, er, disposable income/resources beyond the necessary, than can we measure development the same way on a larger scale?

Knowing next to nothing about the economy, government, or culture of Vietnam, I’m just grasping at straws here. But isn’t that what tourists do? We so often make sweeping generalizations about a place based on two days and one night in the tourist district. As tourists, we seek out shiny things, tall things, fast things, clean things, new things to tell us to mentally check that box for capital D-eveloped. Tourists don’t pour over education or infant mortality stats before visiting. We will, of course, look for the biggest burger or the cheapest guesthouse or the best happy hour.

So, as our eyes as development detectors, we rode through the streets of Ho Chi Minh City. We passed buildings with sharp angles, diagonal facades, and archways to terraces. Groomed greenscapes gave breathing room to the 9 million residents, while art gave them something to look at. Spiral staircases looped delicately up shops and homes of blue, green, and yellow. Fountains adorned intersections; ponds centerpieced parks. If this was the measure of development, Vietnam was doing well.

Throughout the country, the story was the same. On a desolate patch of highway near Cam Ranh Bay, the only people around were the maintenance crews carefully watering and trimming the hedges. At points, it just seemed to be too much. Certainly, the money for all of this could be put to better uses? Or is it all designed as a façade, hiding systematic problems underneath? Perhaps many tourists will visit both Vietnam and Cambodia, and simply remark, “Cambodia is just so stark, so plain, so boring, etc.” Or perhaps there is a surplus to spend both at the governmental level and for individuals, to concern themselves with the “developed aesthetic.” Maybe as lovers of art and architecture, the Vietnamese are happy to spend more on ornamental aspects of their lives. There are many possibilities, none of which are clear.

But the question remains: do aesthetics indicate development?





2 responses

26 04 2012

I would love to read this toilet paper term paper. ;)

4 05 2012

At the very least, attractive aesthetics make a place more inviting to tourists, which brings in money.

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