I read the March 15 Vietnam News (English language daily) read at the modern Hanoi airport. VinaLand, I learn, has invested more than $200 million into Vietnamese real estate, a “hot sector,” according to Merrill Lynch. The Wall Street giant calls Vietnam “one of the last emerging markets in the region.” Merrill Lynch advised “investor attention over the next decade.”
Sharing front page space with real estate, Venezuela’s Assembly President and his Vietnamese counterpart extol their joint working relationship.
Can Vietnam cooperate with Venezuela’s socialist goals while US investors speculate in Vietnamese real estate? Can Vietnam enjoy the “fruits of foreign investment” and still have a viable socialism? Or do such questions reveal my short-term thinking, inappropriate in the face of Vietnam’s conflictive past? As empires have successively conquered this nation, its people have become resilient. In the “American War,” preceding the mid 1970s Liberation of Cambodia and subsequent border war with China, few families escaped death, injury or displacement.
Indeed, rubble remains from the ten years in which US military technology showed its lethal capacity in cities like Hue. In the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong captured Hue and hoisted their red flag from the citadel, the early 19th Century fortress that dominates the city’s landscape. The VC, as the US military called them, systematically dismantled the South Vietnamese government structure, eliminated its supporters and rebuffed South Vietnamese counterattacks.
Then, US bombers and artillery pounded suspected Viet Cong positions. The Vietnamese revolutionaries fired mortars at advancing US troops. Afterwards, thousands of dead soldiers and civilians covered the ground. The ancient citadel was reduced to debris..
Former Vietnam veterans now tour the rebuilt fortress with sad — perhaps nostalgic — looks on their faces, alongside tourists from Europe, Asia and other parts of Vietnam. Do explains that it will take some years before the government finishes reconstructing parts of the citadel destroyed during the 1968 battle. Our Vietnamese guide in his late 20s speaks English and Japanese, which he learned at the university. Tourists roam the walkways amidst workers who ignore them. Their job is to repave the corridors where bearers once carried the Queen Mother to see the Royal Theater perform. The Queen Mother was plump. She ate and got carried everywhere. I have seen few overweight Vietnamese.
Plump Western visitors, however, applaud the singing and dancing of the slender members of the Royal Theater Company (trained by the Communist government). No royalty or concubines attended the performance at least not in costume.
Boats with painted dragons on their prow haul tourists down the Perfume River named because of the wide variety of fragrant flowers along its banks — to visit ancient pagodas. On each boat, boat owners try to sell tourists handicrafts, art work and clothing along with the local Festival beer.
The economy of Hue depends on tourism. I asked Do what he thought about the past when 3 million Vietnamese died in “the American War” and the present where he and others whose families suffered make their living by catering to US, European and Japanese tourists.
He smiled. “We have put that in the past and we have moved on. We do not feel hatred toward Americans,” he said. Every Vietnamese we ask repeats this mantra. I have come to actually believe it. Do assured me that Iraqis too will forgive the Americans for what they are currently doing to that country. I wonder if the Vietnamese had been Muslims Didn’t the “American War” teach the Pentagon not to fight enemies who fight back?
An ancient “garden house” on the outskirts of Hue how green thumbs applied their magic over centuries. Elegant and natural looking floral arrangements dot the patio, without exhibiting any apparent effort. I want to bite into the mangoes, jack and dragon fruits and the plump green figs hanging from the branches. Do, noting my interest in development and socialism, explains that “the government says we are only at an early stage in developing communism and we must have patience.” I smile. He smiles. “I’m not sure I believe we are ever going to experience that stage of perfect equality,” he says with a twinkle in his eye.
On the walk to the hotel from the river, I note that almost every store offers tourist items, from sun tan oil and mosquito repellent to clothing, art, craft and booze. The DMZ Café resonates with the sound of American pop music. US tourists drink beer inside.
Early next morning, video camera in hand, I film streams of bicyclists and motor bike riders crossing the Trang Tien bridge over the Perfume River. I inhale nostril-searing fumes. On the riverfront, women try to sell me tickets for boat rides, men offer to drive me to my destination on the back of their motorbikes or on bicycle driven cabs to see the sights.
At the upscale Saigon Morin Hotel, a French tour guide tries to hurry his flock comers to board the tourist boat. France colonized Vietnam from 1860 until Ho Chi Minh’s troops threw them out in 1954. A frustrated Japanese couple shouts heavily accented English at a taxi driver, presuming he will understand better if the volume goes up. Japan ruled Vietnam during World War II. Ho’s independence forces fought them until August 1945, when Japan left and Ho declared Vietnamese independence. For one month, under Ho, the sovereign Republic of Vietnam ruled the country. Then, the French troops returned and war began. Now Vietnamese get tips from tourists coming from the very empires that oppressed them.
On the bus to Hoi Anh, further south on the coast, two Australian high school teachers comment on the good food and reasonable prices. I also hear Danish, German, French and Japanese. Some travelers get off at Danang, once a US military base and now an example of “development.” High rises under construction dot the landscape of a place that once served as a major US base. An army museum displays a US jet bomber shot down during the war, alongside other captured military equipment in the “American war.”
Hoi Anh, despite the ubiquitous presence of the motorbikes, leaving trails of rancid gas exhaust, has retained qualities of an ancient city. Hordes of tourists flood the old quarter to eat, drink and buy paintings, post cards, tailor made clothing and mass-produced “marble” Buddha statues.
Tourist hotels and internet cafes dot the streets. Vietnamese teenagers play video games on the web; others sit in small open air café-cinemateques and watch DVDs of Kung Fu films on mid sized TVs.
“Life became so much better since the government opened the economy in 1986,” says Le, a former English teacher who now works with an NGO that helps street kids. The people of Hoi An, like those of Hue, welcome the tourists. “It’s preferable. From 1975 to 1986, the government gave everyone 4 meters of cloth per year and small amounts of food. People lined up for hours to buy bus tickets to Danang.” He spoke about the abundant food now available on street markets. We still have a communist government of course, but you can see people feel free. We can buy motor bikes. Before, we had only bicycles.”
Ironically, his best friend died in a motor bike accident. Le blames the anarchy of Vietnamese traffic. “We have no rules.”
I mention the penetrating blare of the motorbike horns. “Until 1986, Hoi Anh was a city of looms, much noisier and more polluting than motorbikes. When the government decided to promote tourism, the textile industry moved to areas outside the city.”
At lunch, the 17 year old waitress brings us a spicy, flavorful crab soup and lotus root salad. Then she goes outside the tiny restaurant. “Good food,” she shouts, trying to steer two grouchy Germans inside.
I look at Le skeptically. “Before tourism, the young people left for larger cities to find jobs. Now, they’re returning, along with overseas Vietnamese, the boat people who fled in the 1980s. Some have actually invested here. When they left the government called them traitors. Those same people are now called patriots,” he laughs.
Vietnam had remained inside the Soviet economic model until 1986, when Gorbachev admitted that the model did not work. Vietnamese Communist leaders quickly began to integrate their nation’s economy with the flow of the dominant world forces.
In twenty years, the economy has become transformed from a Soviet socialist to a visibly capitalist model. The March 18 News show an unsmiling Fidel Castro gripping the hand of Nguyen Van An, Vietnam’s Assembly Chair. An “admired Cuba’s remarkable achievement in the difficult context of the current international situation.” Earlier, An had addressed a joint Cuba-Viet Nam Business Forum and emphasized that “Vietnam is a now a favored environment for foreign investors, including Cuban businessman.”
On my next trip to Havana, I hope meet one of these Cuban businessman.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.