Seeing Development First-Hand

Vietnam is going through a lot of changes.

The economy is expanding quickly. In fact, it’s one of the fastest growing economies in the world. In 2014, Vietnam’s GDP grew 6.0% and is expected to increase to 6.2% this year.

It’s easy to see how quickly Vietnam is transforming. I visited Vietnam in 2010, 2011, and have been living in Vietnam since August of 2014. Comparing my first visit in 2010 to now in 2015, I’ve noticed just how fast Vietnam is developing. Even my past year in Tra Vinh, I’ve noticed how quickly this little city is changing.

From my first visit to Vietnam in 2010 to now, I’ve noticed changes in infrastructure, fashion, and the increasing availability of consumer products. I’ve seen more cars on the road than ever before which is astounding to me considering the 200% tax on cars in Vietnam. 5 years ago it would’ve been difficult to find products like hand sanitizer, floss, or cottons swabs in supermarkets. That’s not the case now. I’ve noticed throughout my travels that you can really tell where a country is as far as development goes by what you can find in the local supermarket or store. The number of products, the diversity of brands for one product, and the different kinds of toilet paper are oftentimes an indicator of development in a country. Or at least as much as I have gathered from my experiences traveling thus far. This of course may not always be the case. The more choice there is in a supermarket though, the more consumer-driven a country is or the more open a country is economically, at the very least, which I think can be attributed to economic growth. My visit in 2010, there were fewer choices of yogurts, snacks, and potato chips than there are now.

In Tra Vinh, there’s always construction happening somewhere. The lush forests are being cut down to make way for new developments. Old buildings are being torn down to make way for new ones and development is expanding beyond the city center to the outskirts of town. This past year, I’ve seen so many new buildings and businesses pop up in Tra Vinh, I have trouble keeping track. I have noticed though there have been an influx of fancier clothing stores and restaurants popping up. When I first got here, everyone had identical bikes. The only way I could distinguish my bike from others, was the stickers on my bike. But now, different kinds of bikes and different brands are available in Tra Vinh, which before, if you wanted a fancier bike, you would’ve had to purchase one in Ho Chi Minh City.

Living in Tra Vinh has been a fascinating experience for me. Having studied East Asian and Southeast Asian political economy in college, my inner nerd is freaking out from not only seeing all the changes taking place but hearing from local Vietnamese talk about development in Vietnam and where they see the country heading. Of course there are many downsides that accompany fast growth and development, but that deserves a whole other discussion.

You really are seeing development happen first-hand in Tra Vinh. The city is right on the cusp of “modernization.” It’s not cut off from the world or anything but it’s in a part of the Mekong Delta that’s far enough away from Ho Chi Minh City and Can Tho that it’s taken a little longer to see Vietnam’s economic growth within the city but close enough that the  affect of growth is really starting to take effect, recently. Even in the past year, I’ve noticed an increase in foreign tourists around town. Being one of a handful of foreigners in the city normally, seeing foreign tourists, can be a bit surprising. I’ve talked to some tourists as to why they decide to visit Tra Vinh and from what I’ve gathered, it’s off the beaten path but not too off the beaten path that it’s easy enough for people to travel to in order to see a typically “non-tourist” part of Vietnam.

That may all change in the coming years as Tra Vinh and its surrounding areas become more accessible.

Recently, the completion of a new bridge will do just that. The Co Chien bridge connects Tra Vinh to Ben Tre, which in the past was connected by ferry service. Now, with the opening of this new bridge, not only will traveling by ferry be obsolete, travel distance to Ho Chi Minh city is cut by 60 km. It’s a big deal. I visited the Co Chien bridge. bridge on the second day of its opening and it was pretty amazing. I have taken the ferry a number of times and in order to get there, you had to travel by small roads with thick forest on either side of you. The past few months, have transformed the area. While construction around the bridge is not yet complete, the emergence of new, wide roads connects either side of the bridge. I had yet to see such wide, new, roads in the region until now. It seemed like just about everyone was celebrating the opening of the new bridge. The excitement was apparent with crowds of people lining either side of the bridge hanging out, taking pictures, and driving back and forth on the bridge.

Not only can people travel more easily to and from Tra Vinh to Ben Tre but also to Ho Chi Minh city and vice versa. This new bridge, of course, opens up more opportunities for socio-economic development for the region. Change is happening quickly in the Mekong. I have a friend whose family lives in a nearby village about 20 minutes by motorbike from the center of the city where most residents are farmers and the area is covered in trees, gardens, rice paddies, and surrounded by rivers. This same time next year, that area will be razed to make way for new factories. Residents are being offered money in exchange for their land. And while some welcome the change, others oppose it. I’m sad that this will be happening, to see the natural environment destroyed, but this sort of development is inevitable as Vietnam gets richer.

The emergence of this new bridge and Vietnam’s plan for more bridges and development in the area to connect the Mekong delta will definitely make way for many changes and development in the region. Tra Vinh will be a very different place in 5 years time.

Video of us going on the bridge for the first time.

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