Only a few years ago Bangkok was Southeast Asia’s most notorious city for traffic jams. It was common for parents to pick up their kids from school and, while the family vehicle tried to crawl along, give them a bucket wash, help them change into night clothes, go over homework, give them dinner and put them to sleep; the vehicle would still be crawling-stopping-crawling towards home.
Today flyovers crisscross the city in multiple layers. Sky-trains provide fast links to its far corners. Roads are in good condition. There is, as a consequence, a measure of traffic sense among motorists. The number of vehicles on the move is still scary, but those who knew the Bangkok of the 1970s and 80s would be amazed at the way the city has turned into an attractive, livable metropolis. Ditto with Kuala Lumpur. It was a village in the 1970s. It took Prime Minister Mahathir Mohammed only about 20 years to make it the glittering capital it is today. Ditto with Jakarta.
The most interesting transformation currently under way is in Vietnam. The war ended only 40 years ago. Considering that extra-lethal chemical weapons were specially developed by America to destroy the earth and ecology of Vietnam, independence found the country poor. There are vast tracts of wasteland sarcastically called “Agent Orange museums” in memory of the death-dealing chemical that was extensively used by the US air force. Nevertheless, economic rebuilding has been progressing steadily. Massive infrastructure projects are under way with Japanese and Chinese assistance. Ho Chi Minh City (old Saigon) already looks like a New York or Tokyo.
To see the industriousness of the Vietnamese, one must go to the Old Quarter of Hanoi. A cross between Mumbai’s Bhendi Bazaar and Delhi’s Chandni Chowk, it is a cobweb of narrow streets through which, by some miracle, an unending flow of cars, buses, electric trailers, bicycles, scooters and more scooters, goods vehicles and rickshaws called cyclos cross one another’s paths without knocking down any of the zigzagging locals, upcountry visitors, traders, hawkers and wonderstruck tourists. Every inch of the footpath is occupied, either by parked bikes, or pavement workshops, or stools of the city’s fabled street-food eateries. Not a soul is idle. The Old Quarter is the heartthrob of Hanoi.
But it is only a corner of the vast city. It’s outside the Old Quarter that you begin to realise that Hanoi is a charming modern city, having retained the broad boulevards, the grand old trees and the continental ambience of the French era. Every available public space is a lovingly maintained park. Ancient structures proclaim the antiquity of the place and its civilisation. In the early years of the first century, guerilla warfare was invented by two Vietnamese women against Chinese occupiers.
In a tree-dense area of Hanoi nestles what looks like a Vietnamese speciality, the “Temple of Literature”. (There is another Temple of Literature in Hue, central Vietnam.) Founded in 1070, this commemorates Vietnam’s great men of letters. It is as much a spiritual retreat as a house of learning. Notices greet visitors with instructions such as “Behave in a civilised manner. Please do not swear”. The obviously hallowed space was also home to Vietnam’s first university, founded in 1076. Oxford, described as the oldest university in the English-speaking world, began developing only in 1167 although there was “evidence of teaching” in Oxford from 1096. The only university older than the Hanoi one is the University of Karueein in Fez, Morocco, functioning from 859.
Hardworking population, pioneering guerilla women, ancient culture, love of scholarship—perhaps there is nothing surprising in Vietnam becoming the only country in history to defeat America in war. However, modern Vietnam has also developed the telltale habits of modernity. Tourists often fall into traps operated by touts, dubious taxi companies and spurious hotels. Online football betting is a flourishing racket. You need to develop local savvy to ensure that you are not getting adulterated petrol at filling stations. When progress comes, can mafias be far behind?
But the pluses outweigh the minuses. With Vietnam catching up fast, international experts are predicting accelerated growth for the ASEAN region. They say that cross-border integration alone would bring about an open market of 600 million people with economic opportunities worth $280 billion to $615 billion by 2030. Benefits from urbanisation and technological advancement will add billions more to annual economic impact. The Look East idea has never made more sense to India than now. Provided we learn.