Expectations of Vietnam

By Friedrich Hanrath
Before I came to Vietnam, I expected it to be a poor and inefficient country shaped by agriculture and some tourism. The only time I really heard of the country was in school, when we were covering the Vietnam War. I knew it was a Socialist ruled country. Despite social and economic liberation and deregulation, I still expected an underdeveloped country.
 However, when I arrived in Hanoi, I was immediately struck by the excellent infrastructure. The motorways and main roads are in excellent condition. They could easily compete with roads in “developed” countries such as Germany and Ireland. However, this is probably the case because the roads in Vietnam were built very recently.
The quality of Vietnam’s infrastructure, even in a rural area, like that where we are staying, exceeded my expectations by far.
I was struck by the diversity of products and the market competition. This was not only the case in a shopping centre in the capital of Hanoi, but in rural areas as well. In our village the main road is edged by many little shops next to each other. I was so surprised by the competition of the Vietnamese market.
I was expecting a central super-market with fixed prices and products. I also expected a lot of visible poverty in the form of, for example, slums. I didn’t know that the percentage of people living in poverty dropped from almost 60% in the 1990s to less then 3% in 2015.
It is also worth-mentioning that everywhere in Vietnam, no matter where you are, there is a high density of construction work taking place. I observed the construction of industrial facilities, housing, electrical services and roads. This construction boom is one part of Vietnam’s rapidly growing economy. The country has enjoyed high annual growth rates in the past 15 years (6.3% in 2017).
After our arrival at the airport, we exchanged Euro to the local currency, the Vietnamese Đồng. We were all very surprised to be suddenly millionaires! After the Vietnam War, the country suffered from recession and hyperinflation. This is why the Vietnamese Dong is so “weak“ today (EUR1 = Dong 26.000,00). However, the inflation rate has stabilised (4.4% in 2017). Another important aspect of the economy is the low unemployment rate (2.3% in 2017). However, statistically the productivity in Vietnam is very low.
During our time here, we travelled by bus through the country. The landscape is intensively used for agriculture, especially rice. When we drove to the sea, we witnessed examples of aquaculture along the coastline and river deltas.
Vietnam has transformed greatly in in the last 30 years from one of the poorest countries in the world in the early 1990s, to a lower middle-income country in 2014. I wasn’t aware of this remarkable progress the country has made before I came here. However, it must be mentioned that the environment paid a terrible price for this rapid economic improvement. Hanoi, for example, has been ranked the second most polluted city in South-East-Asia. Besides, the Vietnamese government has not really taken action to tackle the such pollution.
To conclude, Vietnam happened to be far more advanced and developed than I thought it would be, albeit it still has a long way to go.
It has been an eye-opening experience that my expectations of Vietnam differ so significantly from what I am actually experiencing. My perception of the country was and still is influenced by a Western stereotype. My month of volunteering in Vietnam has showed me how biased and limited my knowledge of the world actually is.