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In transit

As I write this on the terrace restaurant of a hotel in the hills in Sri Lanka, there’s a small river tumbling over huge boulders a few feet away. The sound of rushing water is constant. There are only four rooms in this remote spot, and no Internet. None of my Sri Lankan friends have even heard of it.

We arrived here on Saturday, driving straight from Colombo airport on our way back from Hanoi. Gamini, our driver and friend, took a little known route through some spectacular forests and rubber-tree plantations. Over the years, one of the delights of spending time in Sri Lanka has been the discovery of out of the way spots and byways.

After spending a fortnight in Vietnam, I have been reflecting on the cultural and social differences between Southeast and South Asia. And while I have yet to visit Singapore, Cambodia, Malaysia and Thailand, talking to friends who have, and reading about the region, I have the impression that people are more inclined to follow the rules than they are in South Asia.

In Vietnam, for instance, we used taxis to get around constantly. Not only are they cheap, but run strictly according to their meters; not once did we get the impression that our drivers were deliberately taking the long route to jack up the fare. Tips were neither demanded nor expected.

Although the two hotels we stayed at were fairly basic, everything worked and cleanliness was of a high standard. The staff were helpful, and again, made no demands for tips. Language was a problem, though: very few people in the tourism industry spoke any English or French.The lack of the latter was a surprise as Vietnam was part of the French empire until 1954, so I expected some vestige of French cultural influence to have lingered, much as it has in ex-British colonies. But apart from some splendid colonial architecture in Hanoi, there is little else to indicate that Vietnam was ruled for a long period by the French. No doubt the bitterness of the parting has something to do with this.

But the colonial era buildings are the only redeeming architectural feature in Hanoi. Other structures are of either hideously overpowering, Soviet-style design, or cheap, shoddy modern constructions. And despite the general adherence to rules and regulations, traffic seems to be chaotic with scooters, bicycles and motorbikes competing for road space with cars in what seems an utterly suicidal manner.

The lack of English-language skills is odd because there are, according to the Viet Nam News, 284 tourism schools in the country, with demands for more, given the constant increase in the number of tourists flocking to this destination. One of the most popular sites is Halong Bay. This corner of the South China Sea is dotted with nearly 2,000 tiny uninhabited islands composed largely of spectacular sandstone rocks, with vines and shrubs clinging to the vertical sides.

We got on a junk to tour this fascinating seascape for two days, and were very well looked after by the staff. I asked our English-speaking guide how he felt when he was taking American tourists on tour. He replied that he felt no resentment or anger, despite the devastation caused by the United States in the war of liberation that ended in 1975. “And how about the Chinese?” I asked.

He laughed and replied that every Vietnamese hated the Chinese. It is important to recall here that for centuries, China has been viewed as the regional bully: soon after the Americans pulled out in 1975, there was a short but fierce war between Vietnam and China which saw the latter suffering heavy casualties.

Another English-speaking Vietnamese I met was very depressed about the lack of political choices his people had: nothing ever changes here, he said. The same faces, the same party, he went on to complain. The people have no rights. I mentioned that we in Pakistan have too many political choices, and most of them are bad. Rather bad choices than none, was his view.

But in Sri Lanka, the ruling party and the ruling family are progressively taking over the political landscape in a most alarming manner. The media and the opposition have already been bullied and bribed into silence. And now, the government is in a bitter struggle with the judiciary in its ongoing attempt to sack the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court.

Ms Bandarnaike, the Chief Justice, has refused to back down from a number of rulings challenging the government’s intention to pass legislation to further strengthen its grip on power. In retaliation, the government has moved a number of corruption cases against her and her husband.

Although a government appointee, Ms Bandarnaike has committed the cardinal sin of challenging the government, and as a result, there is a deadlock that is being watched here and abroad as an indicator of the direction Sri Lanka is taking. This resonates deeply with Pakistanis, given our experience of a judiciary that has made governing virtually impossible.

In contrast with the bit of Southeast Asia I have just travelled in, South Asia seems chaotic and almost dysfunctional. And yet, for me at least, this freewheeling spirit is an essential part of our DNA. In Hanoi, the officialdom we came into contact with at the airport was stone-faced bureaucrats with not a smile or a word of welcome. Visas and passports were carefully scrutinised, and in my case, the top immigration officer was summoned to examine my green Pakistani passport and the visa it contained.

No such scrutiny in Colombo where, as always, we were waved through with the most casual of examination: once we had paid the visa fee, nobody was much concerned about anything else. And nor were our passports demanded at every hotel here the way they are in Vietnam.

After years of being hassled by immigration officials in different parts of the world, there’s much to admire in a system that takes a more laid back approach to visitors.

Irfan Husain, "In transit," Dawn. 2013-01-07.