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Freedom, Hope, and Fear: The Paradox of Vietnam, Part 2

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Some backpackers said they preferred understated Hanoi to the raucous attack of venders, the capitalism in Danang and Ho Chi Minh City. I enjoyed the bartering, the drivers who surrounded and harangued me. Told that many hawkers would exaggerate tales of suffering to get a better price, I felt the stories were real. Especially in Danang, a city I had experienced through interviews with American Vietnam veterans.

The airfields were vast empty spaces with few parked aircraft. Government-owned Vietnam Airlines, the one flagship, dominates the market. Pricing is chaotic because of government controls. Domestic flights are set at fixed prices, relatively expensive, compared to U.S. competitive pricing. It’s best to buy all domestic flights outside the country, because the government doesn’t like competition.

Plagued with an erratic reputation for air crashes during the days of the “Russian flying coffins,” recycled Soviet jets, the bilateral 2000 U.S. trade agreement has, one hopes, reversed the record. Vietnam Airlines purchased four 777 jets from Boeing Aircraft in 2001, but I experienced four, smooth, linking flights in ATR72s, smaller but comfortable jets. In the air, the attempt to please was better than on the ground.

When I described to an airline counter employee the difference between fixed pricing and flexible pricing that encouraged volume, I was treated with disdain. Although bumped from an overbooked flight from Hanoi to Danang, I did get on the plane after waiting. Reserved seats could be given to local people, I learned. And I was told a customer could be charged for booking a flight canceled because there were too few passengers.

According to July 2004 business reports, Pacific Airlines and new charter flights out of Hong Kong will offer needed competition.
Enough food means peace. “We are a poor country, but we feed ourselves.”

Danang, central Vietnam. An image of freedom against a backdrop of police in beige uniforms: The wife of the hotel owner in Danang said, “C’mon get on back.” This strong, athletic woman, who flashed a beautiful wide smile, owned a Japanese-made motorcycle. We took a whirlwind ride through Danang. Entire families with children, including babies, squeezed onto motor bikes. One little girl carried her dog. I found myself in a stream of motorbikes, toting boxes, crates, bananas. Laughter, smiles, everywhere we rode. No one wears the government-required helmets. Sure, it’s dangerous. Accidents happen. But I’m glad I took the risk.

My hostess walked me through the Cham Museum of Sculpture. Stone carvings, dating back to the fourth century, reflect the Hindu/Buddhist influence from India. We didn’t discuss what the Vietnamese call the American War, the 1965–75 period. Preservation, funded by UNESCO and private Italian investment, is a controversial subject because of the B-52 bombings of Viet Cong hideouts 35 years ago that destroyed some irreplaceable My Son temples, 47 miles outside Danang. Land mines still plague on-site archeologists; visitors are advised to not stray off the path.

Several idle young men hung out in the immaculate hotel lobby. All seemed eager to practice English. Young people in Danang seemed less compliant than in Hanoi and complained openly about low wages. “If I worked 100 years, I could not save the US$20,000 to buy my way out. I love America. I want to make money,” one desk clerk told me. He was lucky because he had a job, I was told by another young man, who was unemployed.

On the way to China Beach, Van (name changed) motorbiked me past an imposing, unoccupied white cement apartment/office building. The rest of the roadside area, once home to U.S. Army helicopter bases, is mostly a vacant lot. Van told me the Hanoi government planned more massive housing and commercial developments. “No one knows who will live here or what the buildings are for,” he said. “Rumors are — government officials and foreign investors. Not us. But Danang is looking up, forward.”

I asked about the occupancy rate at the privately owned hotel where I was staying. “Much better than here,” Van said laughing as he looked upward to imaginary high-rise buildings. If they build it, they will come? The beach and mountains are breathtaking. Danang, however, once the Saigon of central Vietnam, a base for rest and relaxation during the American War, became a ghost town after 1975.

Quang Ngai province, about 70 miles south of Danang, is known as one of the most patriotic. I hired a car and driver to My Lai, the scene of the massacre, now commemorated with a museum and monument. The contrast between city and country was immediate. On a dirt sideroad, a human being on foot pulled a cart with passengers. Children ran barefoot, but appeared healthy.

The driver liked the Hanoi government. “The thaw between the United States and Vietnam began in 1992. More trade allowed. Yes, it helped.”

“Why is the Hanoi government good?”

“They keep Vietnam for the Vietnamese. The important thing is: we are a poor country but we feed ourselves. We don’t need your food, your foreign aid.”

Polite outrage at My Lai. Mostly from European tourists. But a hand-clasping, warm exchange with one of the Vietnamese directors at the museum, who graciously thanked me for coming out of my way to pay tribute. The driver, Han, stalked off, refused to stay. Too unpleasant. He picked me up later.

“Many more Vietnamese died than Americans. We are not interested in politics. As long as there is peace and food,” he said before translating large red letters on a yellow banner in a rice field: We have come from living hand-to-hand to hand-by-hand.

“From hand to mouth to joining hands?” Yes, that was an adequate translation.

In rice fields, I spotted a family pagoda in the distance. I came closer to believing the descendants owned this land again. “Right,” Han said. “The government cannot go back on that.”

“Individual land ownership, not communes, bring people together?”

“Yes, that’s true,” Han said.

In the lush, green rice fields, here and there women did backbreaking work beside the men. I was struck by the number of women, identifiable by their conical hats. At a work site, women lifted bricks, shoveled dirt.

I remembered reading: Women replaced the men in the work force, who either died in Viet Cong reeducation camps, or in the civil wars with the Khmer Rouge (Cambodians backed by the Chinese) that dragged on from 1978 to 1989.

The driver continued: “People work very hard seven days a week. Every day — to eat. Office workers in cities, not so hard. Unemployment outside cities is high between harvest seasons,” Han said.

Beautiful white moths in sunlight. Girls, in ao dai, the long, white, silk pants, rode bicycles home from school. They wore white dust masks, protection from diesel fumes; long white gloves for protection against the sun. I wondered what they learned in school. Outside schools in Hanoi and Danang, I had heard children chanting rotely in singsong voices.
More contradictions

Bay (name changed), an enthusiastic tuk-tuk driver, put his hand in front of my camera before I took a photo of a Viet Cong memorial monument in downtown Danang. “I like Ho Chi Minh. He gave us back Vietnam. But I don’t like the Viet Cong. America, Number one,” he said.

Because of his brother, who served seven years in a reeducation camp, and his father who died there, he couldn’t get a high-level job, Bay said. He himself had served a month in prison after the 1975 fall of Saigon. He had grim memories of the 1985 famine. Meager rations. Long lines. Lots of children and people hungry all the time. Rampant inflation.

In 1986, the government initiated Doi Moi, or “newness.” Changes in economic policy brought de-collectivization of farm land, allowed private land-use rights and ownership. Vietnam, an importer of rice in the mid 1980s, became one of the world’s top three exporters of rice by 1991. Then the 1993 land law enabled people to inherit, exchange, lease, and mortgage land-use rights.

A miracle brought about by giving people freedom, relative to what they had known in the past.

Since the late 1990s, Bay had managed to invest more than the per-capita $483 annual income. His wife taught school. His son, his pride, did well in the university.

“Private property is not well protected,” he said. “You have to bribe officials to get them to leave you alone. Especially if you oppose the government, your property can be confiscated on a whim at any time.”

“Human rights are different here. Citizens can be detained or jailed or abused, beaten without reason.” Harassment from officials was commonplace, although lessened because of the tourist dollar. “They don’t want to scare you away,” Bay said. Capitalism is power to the people, I thought.

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