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Freedom, Hope, and Fear: The Paradox of Vietnam, Part 1

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Since the breakdown of Marxist state planning in 1985 and the introduction of free-market reforms in 1986, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam has unleashed a tiger. Free enterprise will not be stopped. Capitalism is respected now for good reason. People are not starving. But police presence hovers.

This past February until the first week in March, I visited Southeast Asia and spent two weeks in Vietnam. A free-lance journalist for 17 years, I traveled with a tourist visa. I didn’t want the party line. I wanted to live like a backpacker, mix with people, and get beyond the stage sets. After writing about Vietnam veterans, I wanted to see firsthand what I had seen through their eyes. Further research had aroused my curiosity. What is really going on in Vietnam today?

Hanoi

On streets at 5:30 A.M. In light rain, I walked Hanoi’s Old Quarter, ending at the Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Restored Sword). Along the way, women carried shoulder poles with large baskets heavy with fresh produce, fish, slabs of pork. Shops opened at 7 A.M. It wasn’t long before the roads, without traffic lights, were clogged with streams of bicycle traffic. Horns from moving vehicles bleated constantly.

I bargained for a loaf of bread, but paid a fixed price, less than a U.S. dollar, for a bowl of pig brain and rice noodle soup, or pho. Enough to last me all day.

The lake may be dedicated to the 15th-century expulsion of the Chinese, but the ancient Chinese traditions of barter remain in the Old Quarter and all over Vietnam today. In the lakeside park, I watched the locals do calisthenics under posters celebrating the Communist revolution. Some are reminders of a government that glorified five-year economic goals. But even in the capital of a one-party system, people seemed more interested in doing business or T’ai Chi than in central planning. Nevertheless, I took photos of hammer-and-sickle posters.

Later a German backpacker warned me not to take pictures of propaganda. My purpose to understand the culture didn’t make me an enemy of the state, I argued. My guidebooks advised against photographing airports, seaports, military bases, or border checkpoints. Understandable. But public posters had historical or educational value.

I reread the Consular Information Sheet from the U.S. State Department I had downloaded before I left the States. The Vietnamese government has detained persons for engaging in political or religious activities in the past. Organizing religious or political groups in hotels is prohibited.

My backpacker friend was right, I reasoned: a foreigner caught photographing government posters could be mistaken for a political activist. An Australian tourist disagreed: “The police look the other way. Take as many snaps as you want.”

Along the tree-lined, shady streets, I found more interest in the Museum of Vietnamese Revolution outside than I did inside the building. “It’s good you go there, comrade,” a smiling man said as he slapped me on the back.

Except for a few Australian tourists, the cavernous rooms were empty. I gazed at faded photographs of Ho Chi Minh’s rise to power, the French colonial days until Dien Bien Phu in 1954, photos I’d seen before in Stanley Karnow’s Vietnam, A History. No school children. The woman guard upstairs was reserved, but more interested in me as an American than in the fact that I had walked in free. I paid an apologetic ticket-taker on the way out.

Most human activity was in the streets. “How do all the street venders compete? How do they all make money?” I asked a Vietnamese hotel manager. He said Hanoi’s roving fruit- and bread-sellers had their routes. What individual street venders got beyond their regular customers definitely helped their survival. Haggling they respected, so do it.

A bookseller on a rickety bicycle wanted me to pay full U.S. retail price for a Vietnamese/English phrase book. “I won’t spend it on rice wine,” he said. “I’m hungry.” I smiled and argued him down to half price, US$4. Curious, I asked about his promise. He said that some guys blew their profits on wine because they had “too much money.” Why didn’t they save their profits in a bank? The bookseller, either because of the strangeness of the English language or the concept, didn’t understand.

Back at the hotel, I asked another backpacker how I did. Just okay. I should have been tougher, he said. Although the book came in a plastic bag, it was probably a photocopy from the black market. “Don’t worry about it. The average monthly income is US$40. He got a good deal. Enjoy,” he said.

Two television channels worked in the lobby. One broadcast obvious propaganda, melodramatic portrayals of heroic sacrifice for the Fatherland; the other, news. Outside, the loudspeakers posted on street poles, announced public meetings for the day.

One of the hotel clerks, a wholesome young man eager to show off his new motorbike, invited me to attend a “Christian church.” Surprised, I climbed on back. This was my first of many tuk-tuk rides, the cheap taxi in Vietnam.

As we rode I shouted questions in his ear. When we arrived at St. Joseph Catholic Church I enjoyed chanting with a row of women who shared their printed Vietnamese liturgy. I found the open vowels of the English translation easy to follow. Tin (name changed), the woman next to me, whispered, “Write to my house address so I can learn English.” She did not have email.

Because of the simplicity of the service, I felt a comfortable rapport “We are free to worship,” Tin told me.

“Starvation under Communism has been acknowledged, at least privately.”

During the bouncy bus trip to Halong Bay, I drew out our tour leader. As this calm, soft-spoken man responded to my questions about the 1985 famine, he remembered little as a child at that time. Staring into his eyes, I recalled, If this young man from Hanoi had been living in the 1960s, he would have been Viet Cong, the enemy.

In the 1980s, his family had suffered from the rationing, the food shortages, the inflation, and the widespread hunger. He acknowledged that lack of men in the rice fields, due to the civil wars, and bad weather conditions had led to famine and pressured the Hanoi government to make concessions. To avoid an outbreak of protest or violence from the unrest, the leaders eased restrictions, and allowed individual enterprise.

“Starvation under Communism has been acknowledged, at least, privately. But a big deal isn’t made about past mistakes. Keep blinders on to the past. The past, no good, the present, good. Life is much better for the people here now. Nobody likes Communism any more. Communes, not good. No incentive to work. People own houses now. The government does not own the land. Individuals own land. Work is contracted out.”

Surprised, I remembered contradictory reports in the United States about citizen protests against the Hanoi government’s confiscation of private land in 2001.

“Protest isn’t allowed,” the young man said, skirting my question. But he said Communist Party members lived the best through their connections. He was adamant about land’s being doled out for private ownership to non-Communist citizens.

“People lease private land from the government. Yes, farmers work for themselves, keep what they grow. Save money. They own their ancestral lands, where family pagodas still stand. There is respect for private land ownership.”

A quiet revolution has taken hold in this generation’s mind, I thought. Private ownership of land feeds people.

I remembered an argument when I recognized the familiar faces of two young American backpackers on Halong Bay. At the hotel, the women had asked for a better room with faucets and a shower that worked. Refused, they had left.

During the boat trip, the Americans told me they had found cheaper, better accommodations.

When I returned that night, I told the front desk about their competition. The brother/sister team of the family hotel argued. “That’s impossible. We have the best here.” But they looked worried. The next morning, a much friendlier desk clerk gave me detailed directions to the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum. Customer service was already starting to improve.

If public protest was discouraged, the street activity reflected a dynamic market-oriented culture.

At night in the old quarter, where French Colonial architecture dominated the landscape along the Red River, the tight-knit families evacuated the narrow buildings for the sidewalks and streets. Mothers cooking on small pot grills poked sizzling meat in the open air. Old people, families with kids, played mahjong or cards under street lamps. A cooked meal from a first-floor café was hoisted in a basket to a third-floor window. A fascinating adaptation of free enterprise. Customer service on a rope pulley.

Reminded of Hong Kong’s famous Temple Street night market, I wandered through the narrow streets, named after canals used for barter, such as Silk St. Crammed with racks of all kinds of garments, jewelry, souvenirs, shoes, the quantity amazed me. Vestiges of resistance to central government are manifest in the tunnel houses, some dating back 500 years. These are narrow-frontage, deeply recessed buildings, built on postage stamp sized lots to escape the taxes of imperialistic overlords and local governments.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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    Rosalind Lacy MacLennan is a freelance writer and a cancer survivor residing in Maryland.