Where you from? Part 1

NOTE FOR READERS: I had the good fortune to travel to Vietnam some 5 or 6 years ago. This article, in two parts, was written then and published somewhere that I cannot now recall. I am sharing it here pretty much as it was written up then and as such some things mentioned are already a part of history. Nevertheless the article is overall as relevant today as it was then. I hope you enjoy reading it.


“Where you from?” asked the bespectacled young shopkeeper in An Dong Shopping Plaza in Saigon, as I paused before his shop to glance over the wares on sale.

“Pakistan,” I answered and then asked, “Do you know Pakistan?”

He paused reflectively for a moment and then he said, quite matter-of-factly and looking pleased with himself, ““Bin Laden. Osama bin Laden.”

That in short was how he could relate to my country in his mind. By association with the world’s most wanted man. I felt disgusted.

“Bin Laden is not from Pakistan,” I retorted sharply. “He’s from Saudi Arabia.”

A sales girl of about the same age had in the meantime sidled up to us and piped in: “Bin Laden not welcome here. Not welcome in Vietnam.”

“Well he’s not welcome anywhere in the world,” I said and moved on, somewhat taken aback with whole conversation, brief as it had been.

The more I travel, the more I realize that the world is leaving us behind and all the time the gap is increasing. While officialdom tries to fool us with inconsequential ‘growth’ indicators like the KSE Index or the number of cellphone subscribers in the country, or with doctored growth statistics, other Asian countries are surging ahead with what in my opinion constitutes real growth for any country – a continuously improving quality of life for everyone and a deep sense of societal responsibility in everyone.

But if statistics are for you, consider this – foreign investment in Vietnam last year exceeded ten billion dollars. So if our government is gloating over the six billion or so invested in Pakistan, its time to re-evaluate our ‘successes’ in comparative terms. But not comparative in terms of what the level of investment now in Pakistan is compared to what the investment was during previous governments’ times. The real comparison has to be between us and other countries today – in the same time frame. And don’t forget that Vietnam is a socialist country (many would even say communist), has a relatively poor infrastructure and lacks the natural resources and qualified human capital that we have. But yet it is getting about eighty percent more bucks than we are. Why?

Well, the Saigon shopkeeper’s first remark says it all. Pakistan, to someone who probably cannot even point out the country on a world map, is synonymous with terrorism.

I switched on BBC World in my hotel room in Saigon one morning, to catch up with the news before I ventured forth into the city. The programme Asia Today was on. There was a light humoured story from Thailand about the new youth pastime of pen twirling which is turning into a competitive sport amongst students! There was a story about Vietnam today enjoying the third fastest growth rate in Asia after China and India. And there was a story about violent demonstrations in Peshawar after a cleric was assassinated, with film footage showing an estimated fifty thousand vitriolic supporters of the deceased breaking up the venue for the funeral prayers and throwing shoes and other assorted missiles at the Chief Minister who had ventured to attend the function.

Saigon – the official name is Ho Chi Minh City but most everyone still calls it Saigon (for me too it is a far more soul touching name than the official name) – is a bustling metropolis of some eight million people and six million two-wheelers. Yes, that is correct; six million motorcycles, scooter and mopeds for a population of 8 million. The bizarre thought came to me that perhaps only the 2 million or so children below 15 years of age do not possess a two-wheeler! The primary mode of transportation for the Saigonese. Ridden by everyone – the young and old, men and women, boys and girls, people of all vocations; none with the silencer off, none belching smoke and none going through red lights or exhibiting other irresponsible driving. Looking down at the street from my eighteenth floor hotel room, they seemed like large colourful ants scurrying along purposefully with constant variations in speed to accommodate other drivers on the road.

The second thing I immediately noticed was that umbrellas in Saigon are non-existent. It was raining when my excellent Malaysia Airlines flight from Kuala Lumpur landed at the modern Tan Son Nhat International Airport, Saigon, on a late summer afternoon. The airport, perhaps because of its layout, seemed like a smaller version of Don Muang, the old airport of Bangkok. It continued to rain all along the drive to the hotel. But life didn’t stop. The vehicular traffic – cars, buses, vans and the ubiquitous two-wheelers – was continuous and the pedestrians too carried on unconcerned. Practically everyone protected by a raincoat with a hood. No umbrellas, but no shortage of raincoats.

Vietnam, as can be expected in the tropics, receives a lot of rain. But as I said, like goes on, no matter how hard it is raining. It was a stark contrast to what I had experienced in Islamabad during my 12 odd years spent in the Federal Capital many years ago. I had always wondered why so very few people in Islamabad possessed umbrellas or raincoats when everyone knows the city gets rain almost throughout the year? Instead, every time it rains, you will see people huddled under roof extensions, overhead bridges and whatever other shelter they can find. Life comes to a standstill as surprisingly unprepared Islooites wait out the rain rather than investing in a simple umbrella or a raincoat.

End of Part 1

One Response to Where you from? Part 1

  1. Naheed says:

    Thank you for this read! We have resources but not the right rulers as well as people to make the most of those resources.Smetimes it makes me feel sad to think what would be future of Pakistan like when the present is so depressing. Looking forward to reading part 2.

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