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Vietnam, building, but not built

One of the things that was so striking about coming from Japan to Vietnam is the difference in the level of finished-ness in each place.

Japan is very organized. Things are well put together. There is chaotic energy, but not chaotic design.

Japan's built environment is a well-manicured garden, with an endless team of collaborators working together to improve it.

The Japanese value order, fitting together, function and form.

The displays in their convenience stores are color coded. Neon signs vie for attention, but according to the rules.

Trains run on time, on the exact route.

Japan is governed by spoken and unspoken rules which show up in every aspect of life. Rules can't be questioned, they just are. You do things this way, because that is the way that you do things.

By contrast, Vietnam is a jungle. Rich ecosystems spring up, seemingly feeding on the decay of the layers which preceded them.

You see this in the French colonial buildings falling into disrepair, yet housing thriving businesses.

You see this in the endless construction which continues though businesses and streets are open.

You see this in the juxtaposition of brand new western style hotels next to vacant lots, filled with garbage.

Vietnam is unplanned, fecund, growing and decaying at the same time. Like its traffic, building in Vietnam flows according to individual desires and expediency, not according to the greater good, an existing plan, or harmony with others.

Yet it all works. Vietnam has a vibe of urgency and optimism.

Rules in Vietnam are abstractions, guidelines. Like the arrows and lines on the street, they don't actually dictate what any individual can do. The fact that this is a "one way" street does not actually mean that motorcyclists will only go one way on it.

Everywhere we have been in Vietnam, we've seen active, stalled and abandoned construction projects. It boggles my western mind that you would choose to have one out of three buildings under construction at the same time. I really have trouble with that level of chaos. But it doesn't perturb the Vietnamese.

Like the motorcyclists who go around you when you finally get up the courage to cross at a crosswalk, activity in Vietnam just flows around the construction, the unfinished-ness, and the crumbling. Street vendors set up above the cracks in the road, restaurants stay open while the electrical repairs for the apartment above is turning lights on and off, and customers don't hesitate to ford the open ditch to get to their air conditioned lobby bar.

As we spend more time here, we are becoming harmonized with the chaos (Keegan was pretty adept right away). We don't need the traffic to stop for us to cross the road, we just need it to flow around us. We don't need there to be space on the sidewalk for us to walk around the parked motorcycles, we just need to find a path through.

We don't need everything planned, we just need it to work.

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