It was in Vietnam where I discovered Google Translate wasn’t just necessary but desirable.
I was in Ha Long, a picturesque, Unesco-recognised hamlet jutting into the Gulf of Tonkin and located 165 kilometres northeast of Hanoi.
It was where we’d driven from. Rebecca was there to attend a four-day APEC Business Advisory Council meet, one of which was in Hanoi and the rest, further north. I had no business being there but, then again, I’d never been to North Vietnam.
Indeed, there I was in the Royal Ha Long Resort – never knew they’d had
a monarch – where I was basically at a loose end. The TV had all the news channels, an interesting cooking channel: Gok Wan on perfect Chinese fried rice is always riveting. But I drew the line at Eastwood and Freeman conversing tersely in Vietnamese in an otherwise gripping Unforgiven.
A perusal of the hotel’s brochure revealed there was a gymnasium on the 3rd floor. It seemed a good idea.
You stepped out on the 3rd floor and turned right to face a glass door that opened into an outdoor gym.
But Ha Long in July is an anything-up-to-38-degrees kind of dry heat that one associates with heat stroke. It was 11.45 in the morning and the gym was doing its best to imitate a sauna.
I was approached by a youth who addressed me in questioning Vietnamese. Meeting incomprehension, he thrust a mobile phone at me and telegraphed “type”.
Idiot that I was, it took me a full 30 seconds to cotton on. Then I typed “Aircon?”
He read the translation, nodded and rushed out.
In a few minutes, I heard a hum but felt no change, the gym remained implacably full-throttle Sahara.
“Give it time,” he counselled, via his phone and he was right. It was fine in 15 minutes.
Google Translate is the glue that holds tourism together in Ha Long. You used it for well-nigh everything because very few locals spoke the language.
But they were eager, no, desperate to learn. Vietnam, we learned, is a country with very big ambitions and goals, one of which is becoming the next China. Learning English, apparently, is one of its many prescribed routes.
It’s led to considerable injustice, a comment delivered to us with some heat by the resort’s manager, a likable Swiss who used to run KL’s Mandarin Oriental and now efficiently manages the resort with “a little Vietnamese and plenty of sign language.”
He told us how Western backpackers from Europe pass themselves off as “English teachers just because they are white.” English teachers get as much as $US1,000 a month which is a “King’s ransom” in the country.
“I’ve met some and they’re rubbish,” he snorts, “but with that kind of money, it’s paradise here.”
Even so, Vietnam seems to know what it’s doing. The country’s economy is already the third largest in the region and it’s expanding fast, growing 7% during 2022’s first half. This from a country that’s recovered from three major wars and only really started growing in the 1990s.
They are already huge in agriculture and, thanks to Trump’s sanctions on China, have been one of the biggest beneficiaries of US investment out of China. More importantly, it knows where it’s going.
At a farewell dinner hosted by the resort’s owner, the head of the region’s Communist chapter told us that “we will be a high income nation by 2045.” It didn’t sound like an idle boast.
We should be so lucky.