RIght now, in early 2011, I'm living and working in the Quang Nam province of central Vietnam - a poor part of a relatively poor country. GDP per capita for the region in 2007 was 8.76 million Vietnamese dong, (around £280) - 65.2% of the national average. Agriculture and forestry are the main sources of employment. A lot of people here have very very little by way of money or material things. The average house is basic; little more than four walls and a tin roof, with a wood and bamboo shed for animals. Furnishings consist of an altar, a TV, a table, a hard bed or two, a double gas ring and a rice cooker. A lot of people still cook outside on wood fires, and draw their water from wells. The majority of people don't have a bank account. Some families still can't afford to pay the (pretty low) school fees for their children, and some people in rural areas still do not have enough money to feed their families well.
Before coming to Vietnam I spent five years working in Sandwell, to the North West of Birmingham in the UK. This area is very densely populated and economically deprived (ranked 14th most deprived out of 354 UK authorities), with high unemployment (6% of the 'working population' claim benefits for being jobless). Approximately 81% of households in Sandwell experience at least one of the following: high unemployment, low educational attainment, poor and limiting health and disability, or poor and overcrowded housing.
There are definite similarities. Life is hard. A TV is considered an essential. Women like to chat, and are concerned with weight. Men like to drink beer. Teenagers are pre-occupied with fashion, and with the opposite sex. There are some wonderful kind people. There are some less kind people.
But what I want to talk about today is the differences I see...
I'll describe the people of Quang Nam as dignified. They are (in the main) honest, hardworking, self-controlled, quiet and patient. They show self-respect, and respect for others. They take pride in themselves, their families, their home and their work. Community is important to them, as is their community's opinion of them. They have good manners, and are accommodating to others. If you come across a bolshy, loud, impatient Vietnamese, I'd put money on them having lived in the U.S. for a significant amount of time.
I often travel on the local transport, and never once have felt vulnerable because of the character of the people. Physically uncomfortable, yes, and fearful of the road, but never unsafe or at risk. I walk or cycle alone around the streets, and feel completely safe. People smile in the street, and stop to chat. People watch out for one another. They care about one another. If someone is sick or old and has no family, their neighbours, or local leaders will help them out.
Of course there are negatives - petty theft does occasionally happen, most people seem not to have an awareness of or respect for the environment, nepotism and corruption are rife, and the population (for various reasons) aren't moved to question 'unquestionable' decisions and directions from Hanoi. But in general, people live decent, open lives.
Sadly, I could not describe Sandwell in the same way. How often I have sat on the bus trying to block my ears as parents speak harshly and aggressively to their children, swearing at them and pulling them around. How often I have had to get off because someone's rude or harassing me. How often the police have climbed on the bus to remove someone being antisocial. How often I have felt unsafe walking up the road in the dark. How often I have felt vulnerable walking past the local shops, as kids shout obscenities How often I've avoided eye contact with people to avoid trouble. How many times was my van vandalised, just parked up in the road. I know I'm painting a pretty bleak picture of life in Birmingham, but it's all true, and it's been thrown into sharp relief in my mind by the safety and gentleness of the Vietnamese people.
And apparently we're the 'developed' nation.....