Ho Chi Minh City (HCMC) swings, rocks and buzzes. Its teeming traffic dwarfs the worst of Hanoi’s. In upscale hotels like the Rex, Caravelle, Sheraton, Hyatt and Continental, tourists mix easily with locals. Neon signs for US, European and Asian products litter the landscape and new and old buildings. Hustlers abound with offers to tourists for all kinds of services. No sign of that lack of urban energy, the absence of commercial activity that characterized many cities in the Soviet orbit in Vietnam’s cities.
The broad boulevards in the hotel area, the magnificent opera house and city government palace–signs of French imperial architecture–make HCMC distinct from Hanoi. HCMC also has twice the population (about 8 million and 2 million motorbikes) of the northern capital, and the flavor of a modern, buzzing albeit clearly third world metropolis.
The smug, smarmy smile of the KFC colonel faces restaurants that serve delectable dishes. Fried chicken versus succulent dumplings dipped in nuc mam (pungent fish sauce), with lotus seed salad? “Hey,” my wife reminds me, “some people like prison and hospital food.”
A young Vietnamese woman in a KFC uniform smiles for a photo in the March 21 Saigon Times (English language business magazine). “US products have gained a lot of prestige in Vietnam,” although most Vietnamese can’t afford them, the Times confirms. The telling statistic, however, shows that from 2002-2005, Vietnamese exports to the United States increased by 46%.
Vietnam’s rising level of exports and imports, especially to and from the United States, and the growing foreign investment and tourism in the country will inevitably shape the country’s political direction. Indeed, note how many articles of clothing sold in US malls bear “Made in Vietnam” labels!
Ho Chi Minh City’s growth also signals the future direction of Vietnam. A university official explains that the government maintained the hotels from 1975 to 1986, even though they “had a low occupancy level.” In late March, rooms became scarce because of an Asian tourist industry convention. The lobbies of the Rex, the rebuilt Caravelle and the spanking new Hyatt and other expensive hotels have become meeting places. Vietnamese in suits and ties–or more casually dressed–meet their western counterparts and head off in air conditioned SUVs.
In the growing industrial park, south of the city, dozens of new factories produce a wide variety of goods, including high tech electronics. At 5:15 in the afternoon, the motorbikes lined up at the traffic light near the plants. I could not see the end of the line on the horizon. The green light flashed. A thunderous roar of two and four stroke engines blasted the atmosphere. In awe at the sheer size of this daily motorcade, I watched the mostly young–teens and twenties–pass by en route to their homes.
“Many share rented space,” a biologist friend explains. “They earn about $40 a month, and send money home. They can’t afford apartments. They need motorbikes to get to work.” So, factory workers, like government employees, have access to credit and buy bikes, some for less than $500.
Nearby, newly built high rises, for sale or rent, house the burgeoning middle class. Those that have cashed in on Vietnam’s “opening” buy spacious and well-designed homes–valued at $300,000 each. Korean, Taiwanese and Japanese plant managers, floor bosses and skilled technicians also share the new housing. Outside of a condo complex, a deli displays a sign in Korean and English: “specializing in Korean and Japanese food.” Next door, real estate offices have opened and upscale shops display Visa and MasterCard stickers.
Late afternoon traffic congestion reminds me of Mexico City–except without rules, other than might makes right. Motorbikes dart into the street, stop when larger vehicles threaten and give no quarter to pedestrians. I learn to walk between oncoming vehicles and trust God to pay attention. Each crossing becomes an exciting adventure, a virtual exercise in broken field running.
At the Saigon river, near Cholon’s vibrant market (the city’s Chinese section), the government relocated tens of thousands of slum dwellers, some from house boats, to more adequate housing. In their place, a riverfront highway will alleviate some traffic. In addition, the government plans to build a subway. What happens when motorbike owners trade up to cars?
Inside the massive market, women and men sit at stalls selling dried shrimp, spices, fruit, vegetables, plastic kitchen ware and fabrics for clothes, drapes and anything else one could imagine.
The new Vietnam reeks of capitalism, old and new, small and large. The State retains control of some key “productive forces.” The new privatization schemes allow foreign capital a means of securely buying substantial interests in some of formerly nationalized industries, like the French owned Victoria Hotel chain that began as a joint venture and is evolving into a privatized hotel business.
On the social front, even the lowest wage workers and poorest farmers must pay small fees, which hurt the very poor and are unaffordable for the rural poor for health care and education. My biologist friend assured me that without paying people don’t get decent treatment.
In two weeks of traveling (Hanoi, Hue, Hoi Anh, HCMC, Can Tho, Chau Duc), I have yet to meet a Vietnamese who wants to return to older models, although some worry about consequences of the new road.
Two academics, Party members, speak approvingly of the prosperity and growth. They also express concern about looming environmental nightmares that accompany fossil fuel burning models. China, after all, is next door.
They speak warmly of Cuba, “although they need help in development,” and admiringly of the United States, “a country we need in order to develop our own country.”
The War Museum is crowded with Western and Asian tourists. The modest structure stands in stark contrast to the buildings around the hotel area.
Silently, people move from photo to photo. Hanging on one wall is an anguished, frightened looking GI, with a five day growth, cigarette hanging from tense lips. Nearby, hangs the Vietnamese girl running down the road photo. Her face, contorted with pain from the napalm, was burned into my memory decades ago. Below that black and white photo, another photo shows the girl as a woman thirty five years later, holding her own child. Burn scars cover her arms and shoulders. Several walls contain exhibits of children victimized by chemical warfare, too horrible to contemplate, yet undeniably real.
We read about US troops carrying out massacres, journalists killed, villages destroyed. A smiling Lyndon Johnson stands with General Westmoreland. Next to that photo is one of General Giap and his North Vietnamese high command. Some viewers are Vietnam vets age. Their somber faces preclude conversation.
I asked a young blond woman with freckles how she felt. “Disgusted,” she replied in an English accent. “And they never learn do they?” I signaled that I didn’t understand.
“The politicians who make war in Iraq,” she replied. “They’re doing it all over again.”
In one room, children’s art adorns the walls, art of hope, brightly colored, but with some pictures showing bombers raining dioxin on the land. Why isn’t every US presidential candidate forced to spend two weeks locked in this museum?
The solemn crowd moves to the courtyard to see captured US tanks and artillery pieces, and an unexploded bomb of massive proportions. The explanatory sign gives its weight in kilotons. Next to it, museum curators have placed a jet bomber felled by anti aircraft. Then groups explore the “gift shop,” selling replicas of US army gear along with post cards and cheap jewelry.
Near the Hotel Rex a legless man begs for money. He tells our Vietnamese friend he stepped on a landmine left over from the war. In the opulent hotel area, the crippled man serves as a grim reminder of “the American War.” Do tourists or locals think about him as they join in choruses of “yum and um” over spicy fish-noodle soup, delicate steamed spring rolls and succulent green papaya salad? I try unsuccessfully with young University faculty members to engage in political discussion. Don’t you take into account the past war with 3 million dead, dioxin, napalm, relocation?
“It’s over, done,” says Tuan, an economics student. “Time to move on.” Yes to economic growth, control pollution and get more US investment. No to the Iraq war. “I think America did not learn its lesson from ‘the American war.'” They look forward to Bill Gates’ visit in April and President Bush in November.
I mention socialism. “Between 1975 and 1986 we had lots of problems, not sufficient food and inefficient government services. Since the collapse of the Soviet Union, life in Vietnam has improved. Just look around,” says Van, a science student. Unemployment and sub-employment remain problems, the students admit, but foreign investment will create jobs.
An environmental science professor says she is not naïve. “We know foreign companies want to take more out of Vietnam than they put it. But for now, this is the best, maybe the only road, we can choose.”
A conversation stopper.
SAUL LANDAU is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.