On the way to our “very special, traditional Vietnamese lunch,” our schoolteacher-cum-tour guide pointed out a Greg Norman golf course. Tee time in a communist country. Isn’t that a little bizarre?
“Have you played there?” I asked.
He laughed and shook his head. “I have short arms and long pockets,” he answered. Then he pointed out the state-owned casino. “And so do the people in those places.”
“How is gambling legal?” I asked. This too seemed like a non–Ho Chi Minh notion.
“Only for Vietnamese with international visas,” he said.
“How do the operators know who has an international visa?”
“They check your passport,” he said.
“But you can play the lottery, can’t you?” Chris asked. “And that’s run by the government.”
Quoc nodded. “I don’t play,” he said and turned to look at us in the backseat. “I don’t like throwing my money out the window.”
At the restaurant, the maître d’ showed us to our seats while Quoc and our driver disappeared to a small table in what looked to be the guide-and-driver section. Meanwhile, we were surrounded by busloads of tourists talking loudly at long tables. The multi-dish menu, we soon learned, was set. And heavy on the fish.
It was bad enough we’d landed in a tourist trap (I naively thought Quoc would take us somewhere low-key and authentic). But now we had to explain to our waiter that we would not be eating the fish soup, the fish balls, the raw shrimp salad, or the deep-fried filet of mackerel. None of which the waiter seemed to grasp. When I went over to Quoc’s table to ask for his help, I noticed he was slurping a bowl of meat and noodles. No fish.
In Vietnamese culture, it’s very bad form to bring embarrassment upon another person, to cause them to lose face. But it seemed worse to suffer the alternative. While it was possible the restaurant’s fish had been caught outside the danger zone—130 miles long and twenty nautical miles out to sea—it didn’t seem likely. And just the thought of eating potentially contaminated food didn’t do much to stimulate my appetite.
As the maître d’, two waiters, and Quoc worked out our menu alternatives in low but frantic voices, I thought about the cascading effect Formosa’s toxins would have on this region’s livelihood and marine environment, which was already overfished and suffering from erosion.
Fish and rice are staples of the Vietnamese diet and income. However, rice production in the Mekong Delta is only at 50 percent thanks to the worst drought in ninety years. And now it’s anyone’s guess when the fishing industry might recover. Maybe it’s time to find new ways to adapt to the changing world. As one Formosa representative put it, “You have to decide whether to catch fish and shrimp or to build a modern steel industry. Even if you are the prime minister, you cannot choose both.”
But can’t you? Maybe the prime minister can’t. But the people can. Resentment toward the government is swelling across the country. Despite the ubiquitous presence of the secret police—the much feared Ministry of Public Security—and the prison system’s reputation for torture and ill-treatment, the disgruntled are not only taking to the streets but also to Facebook and Twitter. They want a cleaner, healthier environment, fairer living conditions, and government transparency. Just like the protesters we saw in Saigon.
When the waiter returned to our table to explain that our amended menu would now feature chicken and pork, I happily agreed to the changes. Anything to help him save face. Still, I couldn’t help but wonder if the pig on my plate had been fed the poisoned fish that wouldn’t sell at market. How many unaccounted side-effects of this marine disaster remain to be discovered? And now that the young, educated workforce of Vietnam has found its voice, how will the government respond—with more repression or with reform? All we can do is wait and see.
In the meantime, I think of that young woman who translated the sign for me at the Saigon protest. How will our lives—seemingly so separate yet inextricably linked—be changed by the health of our planet’s oceans? How can we set a new course?
Like so many people around the globe, I don’t want to be forced to choose between economic progress and a healthy environment. But if I have to, #IChooseFish. Because what would the world be like without them?