The new Vietnam
By BOB FOULKES
International travel always amazes me. I get into a magic tube not much bigger than a Wayne Gretzky cigar and after a movie or two, I emerge in a far, far away place. I always feel a little like Dorothy and Toto.
Vietnam is not Oz but it’s definitely not home.
Hanoi is home to the national shrine and mausoleum holding the perfectly preserved mummified remains of Ho Chi Minh, the ardent Vietnamese nationalist. It is surrounded by ceremonial guards marshaling long lines of reverent viewers.
Huy, our guide, is a baby boomer of the American war. He offers an eloquent and perceptive history lesson from a Vietnamese perspective, highlighting the successful fights for independence against China, France, Japan and the U.S. over several thousand years. Independence was finally achieved as a result of Uncle Ho’s persistence. Huy is a smart, funny and a quiet but firm nationalist; there is no arguing who were the bad guys in the last round of their many wars of independence, it’s called the American war.
The tragedy still offers a cautionary tale of foreign policy interventions, One of our group remarked, missing the point completely: “I still cannot understand how they beat us.” That is what the British said after the war of independence in 1776. A cautionary tale indeed, history depends on who is telling the story.
Today, Vietnam is a one-party communist state run by old men well past their prime. The economy is slowly opening up to foreign investment. Capitalism is pushed by a generation where more than 50 percent of 90 million are under 35. They want cars, jobs, consumer goods and prospects for a better life for themselves and their toddlers.
The French left a legacy of bread and pastries, impossible to resist. The Americans left a country bombed to near ruin, but they are now returning in droves as investors, aid givers and lost souls looking for peace and spiritual closure.
We tour the sights, shop and wander the Old Quarter marvelling at the energy, enthusiasm and entrepreneurial spirit of the people we see. I buy three custom made linen shirts in less than eight hours, enjoy a cappuccino and a fine croissant at a place called Saint Honore and watch thousands of citizens buzz by on their new Honda motorbikes. Even in old Hanoi, the seat of the communist government, here is a obviously a new Vietnam, thriving under the watchful gaze of Uncle Ho.
Da Nang, in central Viet Nam, was the logistics and supply site for U.S. forces, it is now a resort with high-end hotels and a few golf courses set next to Hoi An, a world heritage site that was a port hub for countries trading into Vietnam over centuries. Hoi An has some interesting house museums and a lot of retail, clothes custom-made in 24 hours being the specialty.
A cooking class was the highlight of the trip. Vietnamese food is excellent, fresh with so many herbs and new flavors — more exotic herbs than any French kitchen delivering a broader range of taste sensations. The lack of refrigeration makes daily shopping a necessity and freshness a certainty. I’m not sure I’ll get used to pho, the ubiquitous rice noodle soup, for breakfast but experimenting with new food in new places is part of the charm. Fruit choices are amazing; colorful, tasty, never seen before and usually requiring a little instruction on which bits to eat and which to discard.
Hue is a small city of half a million that once was the home of a dynasty of emperors. We visit the Imperial Citadel, the inner Forbidden Purple City, several tombs designed by soon-to-be-dead megalomaniacs covering acres and, for balance, a serene Buddhist pagoda. Concubines and eunuchs were regular features of the royal court until the 1940s.
The south is dominated by the rice bowl of the Mekong delta and the cosmopolitan city of Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City — HCMC to us world travelers.
There is little color or drama to rice cultivation, the most labor intensive agriculture ever practiced by mankind. Ask a prairie grain farmer if he’d like to grow his crop by planting each seed individually by hand, irrigating his crop daily, harvesting it with a scythe, threshing it by slapping it on the ground and hauling the grain to a mill to be hulled with only 70 per cent returned. Most of the work is done bent over, the only view is the mucky soil of your little plot of land. If you’re lucky, you own a water buffalo to do some of the heavier work.
These rice farmers worked their plots for generations, survived a 20-year war, celebrated victory, then were forced under the new unified communist regime to share their crop with the commune, in a manner determined by the politburo cadre in their village. It didn’t seem worth it. Vietnam went from being a major rice exporter to being so poor that rice was donated from India (not the most prosperous country to be giving away foreign aid) to save Vietnam from starvation.
After a decade of failure, the communists relented and allowed capitalism/entrepreneurship/private ownership into the economy — while never calling it such. Vietnam is now the world’s second largest exporter of rice.
But Vietnam is not a centre of doctrinaire communism. Like most economies, it’s a blend: the rice-growing system is based on the initiative of individual farmers but it only works as a result of an elaborate system of dikes and canals to manage the annual flood — public works facilitating private effort. The government seems to do its best work when it gets out of the way.
The entrepreneurial spirit exists across all sectors. It is impressive to see what can be stacked on a motorcycle – scary actually. A man delivers wholesale goods, a women takes her chickens to market, on a motor bike designed for two people. That’s grass roots entrepreneurialism.
Saigon is well known as a pedestrian nightmare: step off the curb at your peril. Actually it takes courage and bravado. Here’s how it’s done, it’s simple. Step into the street, don’t look, walk deliberately to the other curb. The key is to allow the motorcycles to dodge you — never panic and never make eye contact. That’s the theory. Vietnam has 25 million motorcycles and putting theory into practice is more than an intellectual exercise. It is a matter of survival.
It is a country rich in resources, a major agricultural products and rice exporter, a growing force in manufacturing supported by an energetic, ambitious, entrepreneurial population with a long history of dogged perseverance.
Vietnam is a country struggling to catch up with the successful Southeast Asian economies like Singapore, South Korea and Thailand — through sheer determination and spirit the Vietnamese are overcoming the burdens of past wars and throwing off old fashioned communist limits to create new opportunities for themselves and their children.