Firsthand Look at Vietnam’s Raw Innovation
My travels began in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south. My partner Kerry and I trekked north to Hoi An and Hue in the center of the country, with our final stop in the capital city of Hanoi in the north.
Vietnam is a country on the rise. Ravaged by war and the ensuing economic collapse, the second half of the 20th century was not kind to this beautiful nation. However, a few decades of peace, a growing manufacturing sector, a culture that values hard work, and an energetic youth generation, Vietnam is poised for massive growth in the coming decades.
So, it was with great enthusiasm that I visited Vietnam last fall to check it out first-hand. It was Ken Burn’s epic documentary “The Vietnam War” that ignited my interest in traveling there, but I also have personal ties that added extra intrigue for me.
My dad served in the Army in the 1st Logistical Command at the height of the war in 1968. He was tasked primarily with repairing vehicles and heavy equipment, and by and large speaks highly of how beautiful of a place it was despite his purpose for being there. It was war, and there were plenty of awful moments, but he had a pet monkey for a sidekick, was largely away from the daily fighting of the GI’s, and even got to see a Bob Hope performance. Most importantly, he made it back.
My travels took my from the Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south and my partner Kerry and I trekked north to Hoi An and Hue in the center of the country, with our final stop in the capital city of Hanoi in the north. Along the way I met some interesting people and saw just how innovative and hard working the people there are. I kept my eye open for innovation and here are a few of my favorite innovations from my trip.
War brings out the worst in humanity, but it is also a breeding ground for innovation. The Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers that fought against the Americans used guerilla techniques that were very effective against the heavily armed and multitudinous US forces. However, this required a great deal of innovation to keep their forces geared up and hidden from the enemy, and a trip to the Cu Chi tunnel complex just north of Ho Chi Minh City demonstrates just how clever they were.
The tunnel complex was built to support the Viet Cong and was a safe haven for soldiers to rest, eat, and get medical care. However, it was very close to where American forces were stationed, and they took great measures to not be caught. They tended to only cook in the early morning when the fog would be dense enough to camouflage the smoke, and their chimneys were built long and horizontally to allow the gasses time to cool and lose their odor before they left the ground.
To mask human scent from American K9s, the Viet Cong would drag sacks of hot pepper, or clothes commandeered from American troops around the tunnel complex to confuse the dogs noses. If all that isn’t enough, they made sandals out of worn out tires and cut the soles such that were narrow in the toe and wide in the heel area, the reverse from a normal shoe. If they happened to make tracks in the dirt, it would look like they had walked in the opposite direction.
When life gives you a river..
The Mekong river provides millions of Vietnamese with the nutrient rich water for farming and for daily use. With the multitude of waterways in the delta, many people do not even bother to live on the land, and instead take residence on boats.
It was fascinating to see the details of how families had set up their house boats with everyday conveniences. My favorite was that with seemingly no place to have a pleasure garden, families instead built container gardens at the bow of their boats with bonsai trees or small herb gardens.
Of course the river is the lifeblood of the community and gets used for everything. While there I watched a woman who lived in a house on the bank of the river use a rope and a bucket to retrieve water from the river from her porch without having to walk all the way down to the bank.
The entire eastern border of Vietnam is on the coast of the South China Sea and seafood is a big part of their diet. While driving from Hue to Hoi An in the narrow central part of the country you can see many lagoons that are farmed by the locals for shellfish like mussels and clams.
We stopped at the bank of one of these pools and noticed that the farmers had a unique technique for farming the shellfish. They slit used motorbike tires along the circumference, stack them up, and stake them in the water with wooden posts. The shellfish take up residence on the tires and can then can be easily harvested by boatmen. With the millions of motorbikes that are ubiquitous throughout the nation, there is no shortage of raw materials for this technique.
Bike in the Rain
Two things that Vietnam has a lot of are rain and motorbikes. The streets are often narrow and there is no infrastructure to support large vehicles, and there are huge taxes on cars, so the majority of the population uses motorbikes to get around.
However, Vietnam has a tropical monsoon climate, which means that some areas can have constant rain for months, which can wreak havoc for motorbike commuters. Innovation to the rescue.
Vietnamese riders use a sort of motorbike poncho that keeps the rider dry and makes the bike into what looks like a motorized tent. It even has a very clever transparent panel in the front that matches up perfectly with the headlight to keep people safe while riding in the rain at night.