HCMC Dining Guide

Monday, November 29, 2010

The Limits of Growth

As I mentioned a few posts ago, I've been participating in the weekly Hash House Harrier runs for the last month. These outings provide a great opportunity to see rural areas outside of Saigon. We've passed through some truly beautiful spots that are exactly what you picture when you hear the term "rural Vietnam." I always wish I had my camera with me, but I don't want to carry it while I'm running and there's always the threat that a thunderstorm could materialize in a matter of minutes. So I'll just do my best to describe it.

One of the most common sights in the areas we run through are family farms. These aren't the fully mechanized super-farms of America, but rather muddy plots of land full of various animals and their shit looked after by an extended family. Every house has multiple dogs that inevitably bark away as we pass by, obviously wondering why a group of ugly white people is traipsing through their territory. One time I commented on how many dogs there were along the route, and one of the Vietnamese women on the run asked if I knew why there were so many dogs in Vietnam. Surely because they provide great comfort and are man's best friend? Nope, she replied, because "they taste good." I'll take your word on that, honey.

Anyway, these farms support a wide array of animals. There are always chickens and cocks (That would be roosters, get your mind out of the gutter.) running around. Earthen levees surround ponds full of jumping fish that are part of Vietnamese aquaculture. Water buffaloes and their masters eye us warily, wondering if we are a threat or not. Oxen protect their young and occassionally stampede away in fear. Huge pigsties hold noisy pigs that will eventually become a meal for someone. In fact, we've heard several pigs in the process of becoming dinner; their bloodcurdling shrieks can be heard from a distance as they go under the butcher's knife.

The natural scenery is often impressive as well. Forests cover huge tracts of land, providing some much-needed greenery after a week in the concrete of Saigon. Lovely creeks babble between the farms and through the countryside. Rice paddies and fruit farms dot the landscape. What a wonderful scene, I thought at first.

But then you look closer. Those babbling creeks are actually a violently green color that looks something like nuclear runoff. I've come to realize that all of the water we've run past is horribly polluted, as is every body of water here. The "forests" are actually plantations planted by people, the trees in perfectly aligned and unnatural rows. Massive areas of what's left of the natural forest have either already been cleared for development or are in the process of being cleared. What used to be acres of forest cover is now a field full of stumps sitting next ot the charred remains of trees. Slash and burn deforestation seems to be the preferred method of natural degredation here. This is a shame, especially when you consider the fact that most of Vietnam's old-growth forests were wiped out by the wars of the past 60 years. This is one of the most heavily-bombed countries in history, a designation that does not lend itself to a healthy environment.

All of this has me worried about Vietnam's future. I haven't seen other parts of the country yet but I'm assuming the story is the same. The country's massive economic growth has surely done a lot of good: more people than ever can afford modern amenities, and poverty rates have been dramatically cut, especially in Saigon and Hanoi. However, as is the problem in much of the developing world, this growth has mostly been undertaken without any concern for the environment. As Saigon's rapacious tentacles spread ever further into the countryside, what will become of the remaining green spaces? Where will the city's population get its water from as continued industrial and toxic runoff further pollutes the rivers, canals, and lakes? I am assuming that one day Saigon will stretch all the way from the South China Sea to the Cambodian border. Considering how sprawled the city is already, I think that's a fair assumption. Where will the food to feed the city come from when all of the pig and fish farms are cleared away to make room for more high-rise apartment buildings and commercial areas? Obviously I want Vietnam to continue to grow economically. The Vietnamese people have been through hell over the past half-century, and they deserve to prosper. But there is the question of how far this growth can go. Vietnamese leaders must realize that they will eventually have to consider environmental issues as they push for further development. I certainly don't want Saigon to look like Beijing someday.

Smoggy downtown Beijing.
If development patterns here don't change, Vietnam may eventually run into the limits of its growth. This is a very narrow country, wedged between water to the east and mountains to the west. There's only so much room left for further urbanization. Hopefully something will be done to ensure that this vibrant country is able to cleanly grow into a functional, fully modern member of the developed world. Perhaps the rich countries of the world could set a better example, but that's probably asking too much.

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