April 26th, 2005

Ho ho ho Chi Minh City

Since we’ve been talking so much recently about Vietnam, this article, entitled “Why Go Now,” in the travel section of Sunday’s NY Times, caught my eye.

(By the way, the title of my piece, for those of you too young to remember, comes from the old lefty taunt/chant/hope of Vietnam War days: “Ho ho ho Chi Minh, NLF is gonna win”–a chant that I, as a liberal rather than a leftist, neither sympathized with nor recited.)

Here’s an excerpt from the Times article:

Why Go Now?–Because 30 years after the end of the Vietnam War, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is finally growing up. With a prettified, gentrifying downtown, an array of international hotels and now direct flights from the United States via United, it has never been easier to visit. What’s more – and this may shock anyone who was mobbed by postcard vendors or stalked by optimistic cyclo drivers back in the mid-90′s – there has been an overall relaxing of the city’s aggressively capitalist nature.

Which is not to say that Saigon – as everyone from your maître d’hôtel to your moto driver calls it – has slowed down. Compared with the stately elegance of Hanoi’s French colonial streets and cafes, this city of six million remains brasher, more outgoing, more energetic – a New York City to Hanoi’s Washington. Eating, drinking and shopping are not just primary pastimes but full-time pursuits, and the streets are packed with 100 cc Hondas ferrying housewives and hip teens alike from cafe to market to nightclub. The constant noise and activity, plus frothy, hard-to-identify smells (grilled pork chops? diesel exhaust? durian?), can overwhelm even the residents, but just think to yourself: It’s like Manhattan with mopeds. And like New York, the city offers the chance to get lost in the bustle, and to emerge from it with your own personal map of the best back-alley banh mi sandwiches, the most secluded rooftop swimming pools and the perfect glass of iced coffee.

Now I know that it’s just an article in the travel section, and as such is not meant to be a comprehensive treatment of current-day Vietnam, but it certainly seems to make the picture seem a lot rosier than it is. Disclaimer: I’m not a Vietnam expert, by any means–but it is fairly clear that Vietnam’s capitalism is only skin deep, covering an economy that is mostly state-controlled (oops, I hope I haven’t violated my own rule about not writing about economics), and a typically suppressive and repressive Communist police-state government. Hardly “New York with mopeds,” especially in the political sense.

For those interested in modern-day Vietnam, I recommend this article. Written in 2000, it’s probably somewhat outdated, but it seems to me to offer a fair picture of the country–although those among my readers who are Vietnam experts might be able to say whether that is correct or not.

Here’s an excerpt that expands upon the travelogue picture presented by the Times article:

Change is inevitable. The real question is, Will the change be evolutionary or revolutionary? Casual observers of Vietnam, impressed by the size and vitality of the “Honda at the cybercafe” crowd, speak of a coming generational change that will sweep aside today’s geriatric leadership. But this optimism is far too simplistic. True, the French-speaking veterans of the “senior” generation, esteemed for having fought the wars and unified the nation, are rapidly passing from the scene. But the next generation, 40 to 60 years of age, has begun to run the country and will not readily give up power and privilege. This “middle” generation, trained in Moscow and the capitals of the Soviet bloc, is committed to the VCP. The “junior” generation that grew up in the more open environment of the past decade will have to wait. Moreover, within this younger generation there will be competition, as the sons and daughters of current party members vie to inherit jobs and privileges.

And this, in particular, riveted me:

Another contradiction is that although the North won the battle, the South may yet win the war…Today a gradual “Southernization” of the North is becoming visible. The industrial parks on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City and the rice paddies of the Mekong delta now drive the national economy, producing two-thirds of the nation’s wealth and accounting for 80 percent of its tax revenue. Southern constituents urging privatization, entrepreneurial initiatives, and capitalist ideas are pressuring party politicians and the rigid ministerial bureaucracies of the North to change. The more robust economy of Ho Chi Minh City rewards its inhabitants with considerably higher wages than those earned in the nation’s capital. Thus in the struggle for the “hearts and minds” of the people, the former Saigon could win over Hanoi after all.

So, we may be able to replace that old chant with a new one: “Ho, ho ho Chi Minh City is gonna win.” Although it lacks the sparkling rhythm of the original, it makes up for it in ironic and tentative hopefulness. Will demographics, capitalism, and time allow the Vietnamese people to finally achieve a free and democratic society? I sincerely hope so. How many of the aging leftists who recited that long-ago chant would agree?

20 Responses to “Ho ho ho Chi Minh City”

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  3. Richard Aubrey Says:

    Ref neo’s last sentence in her post:

    How many leftists would approve?

    Damfew, is my guess.

    Richard Aubrey

  4. Richard Aubrey Says:

    It is beyond stupid, ranging to dishonest, to presume, or plant the axiom, that the war would have been fought in the same way forever.
    Had it been fought differently, gotten over sooner, and done so with more conventional methods, the casualties would have been far less, civilian and military.
    Since we were calling the beat, it was our choice about how to fight it. We chose a bad model, but could have changed at any time, except that the prospect of success would have enraged the antiwar types even more.

    It is odd, if the war were so bad while it was going on, that the exodus didn’t start until peace flowed like a river.
    What did they know the antiwar types don’t–or do?

    Richard Aubrey
    raubrey@sbcglobal.net

  5. Mork Says:

    You can go fuck yourself with your attempt to paint me as a defender or endorser of the communist regime, “Anonymous”.

    If it is your contention that the Vietnamese people would have been better off with the continuation of a war in which more than one in ten of them had already been killed – including several million civilians, then you are the callous ideologue, not me.

  6. Anonymous Says:

    Mork, take a look.

    Per UC Berkeley demographer, Jacqueline Desbarats’ article “Repression in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam: Executions and Population Relocation,” research show an extremely strong probability that at least 65,000 Vietnamese perished as victims of political executions in the eight years after Saigon fell. Desbarats and associate Karl Jackson only counted executions eyewitnessed by refugees in the USA and France to project the rate of killings for the population remaining in Vietnam, and so discarded about two-thirds of the political death reports received, so their figures are likely very conservative. Their death count did not include victims of starvation, disease, exhaustion, suicide or “accident” (injuries sustained in clearing minefields, for example). Nor did they count Vietnamese who inexplicably “disappeared.”

    Gotta crack a few eggs to make Mork’s omelet, eh?

  7. Mork Says:

    What continues to confound me is how many people who were staunchly against the Vietnam War still have not confronted the brutal reality of what our leaving that conflict wrought. The death camps, the millions of refugees who barely made it out alive, the horrors perpetrated on the people by Ho Chi Minh once he was victorious…

    Well, Dean, one reason they may not have confronted it is because it’s not really true. There were no “death camps”. There were a lot of refugees who had a terrible time making it out, but no harder than the hundreds of thousands of economic migrants every year who still voluntarily get into leaky boats from third world countries to try their luck in the west.

    Yes, there were re-education camps to which hundreds of thousands were sent, and they were unpleasant places. Those who were regarded as collaborating with the South Vietnamese regime were actively discriminated against until the early 1990s. The country suffered economically much more than it should have because of the communist system and the corruption that it bred.

    But one in ten Vietnamese people died in the Vietnam war. That rate of attrition would have continued as long as the United States continued to fight it. Given that, it grotesque to suggest that the Vietnamese people would have been better off if the U.S. had kept the war going longer … unless you are one of those who literally believes that a person is better off dead than red.

  8. Lance Hyatt Says:

    Having seen Ho Chi Minh City/Saigon when it was still Saigon, in 1968-1969,
    What I will say is this: If you think everything is all roses and love, go there, but don’t dally in Saigon/Ho Chi Minh City too long!!! Get out into the countryside, and get to know a few of the people that farm for a living. Ask them what they think-if you can do so without having a Communist there, recording his answer. You might get a real shock at what the truth is, rather than the party line. We had the chance to really make a difference there, but the idiot’s that were afraid of being shown to be lying, snake-in-the-grass left-wing loonies, pulled us out, before we could secure the freedom that the South Vietnamese wanted, so desperately. Now, we have the same breed of nut-case trying to do the same in Iraq!!! We need to stand up and show them that they are not in the majority, and that they are outvoted. Then we need to get the job done, decisively, and get our men and women out…but only when the average Iraqi can feel safe from the Taliban and other nut’s!!!

  9. Fred Says:

    “Capitalism working much better in a dictatorship” is an utter oxymoron. State capitalism ain’t capitalism. (No wonder it was an anonymous comment.)

    When Poland was under communist rule some 2-3% of its farmland remained privately owned. That 2-3% accounted for over 90% of Poland’s agricultural production. There is a are endless other examples.

  10. David Thomson Says:

    Joseph Schumpeter “creative destruction” thesis may be the most important economic dogma you need to understand. A fairly free (an absolute one is inherently impossible) economy will inevitably create new jobs—but will also destroy many others. Around 40% of all American adults, for instance, were employed in the farming sector in 1900. Today, less than 3% do so and food is ridiculously cheap. However, a high number of people had their lives dramatically upset by the process. Many farmers went to their graves unable to ever again find a good job. The same held true for a number of horse shoe makers after the automobile became popular. Capitalism can admittedly be a bit of harsh when the destruction price has to be paid. Allow me to revise Winston Churchill’s original insights regarding democracy to read:

    Capitalism is an awful economic system, but far better than anything else devised by humankind.

  11. Anonymous Says:

    Like the Chinese, the Vietcong haven’t been Communists for a long time – just state capitalists. Since capitalism can work much better in a dictatorship than a democracy, don’t expect political reforms anytime soon.

  12. PatCA Says:

    My cousin who works for a US govt agency that promotes third world investment recently took a group of Viet leaders on a tour of US businesses. Each one took him aside privately and said, “Psst–we’re not really communists. We’re just waiting for the old ones to go, and then things will change.”

  13. Pancho Says:

    Paul, I agree with you. Many veterans of the Vietnam, myself included, believe that we are in the third phase of the war. The one for the hearts, minds and pocketbooks of the people. Fueled by information of what’s going on in the outside world the Vietnamese cannot but help wanting more or everything including freedom.

    And there is hope. This morning I rec’d an email from my friend Joe Galloway who is in Vietnam today. He wrote from the old and once beautitul capital of Hue. Joe tells me that there is a broadband connection in his hotel room. A free broadband connection!

  14. Paul Says:

    Uncle Ho is spinning in his grave ! Economics wins where battles do not.

  15. Dean Esmay Says:

    What continues to confound me is how many people who were staunchly against the Vietnam War still have not confronted the brutal reality of what our leaving that conflict wrought. The death camps, the millions of refugees who barely made it out alive, the horrors perpetrated on the people by Ho Chi Minh once he was victorious…

    The ghosts of that war still haunt us in more ways than one. Sadly, they still divide our politics even today.

  16. Goesh Says:

    We are the product of evolution. 30 years ago, Viet Nam was just about devastated from war when the US withdrew and North Viet Nam took control. 45 years ago in the US, Blacks had to ride on the back of the bus and many couldn’t even vote and women were prevented from working in many different occupations. The change and transition in Viet Nam may not be as accelerated as ours, but it is occuring. It is inevitable and slowly for the better.

  17. Ed onWestSlope Says:

    As a vet from the latter part (1971)in DaNang, I thought at the time that Japan had won. All the Honda products, some refrigeration, radios, TV’s, Sony and Panasonic goods, clothing. How could the North compete? It appears that they could not.

    I also had the theory the best tactics would be to move in large numbers of troops, build up the bases, help with schools and a WELL STOCKED PX system. The comparatively wealthy troops would introduce the benefits (!!??) of our culture and then we leave.

    How are you going to keep them on the farm after they have seen the city?

  18. VietPundit Says:

    neo,

    I’m not a “Vietnam expert”, but I think the VietForum article makes many good points. I share your hope also.

  19. Pancho Says:

    I have many friends who have gone back to Vietnam, mainly to lay to rest old ghosts, but come back with a new more positive sense about Vietnam after their last “trip” there in the 60′s or 70′s.

    In fact my good friend, author, Joe Galloway is in Vietnam right now, his fourth trip since ’91. His first three trips were doing research for his book “We Were Soldiers Once…and Young”. This trip is to remember those who didn’t come back 30 years ago.

  20. Fred Says:

    You haven’t violated your rule about not writing about economics. Your recognition that capitalism works better — infintely better –than state-controlled economies (read socialism) puts you far ahead of those people who think the opposite and who also believe they understand “economics”.

    The CIA — in another intelligence failure — believed that the Soviet economy was far stronger than it actually was, almost until the collapse of the Soviet Union. Ronald Reagan never bought that assessment — his Team B group had it right.

    Today, Russia, and a number of East European countries are beginning to have economic success with simpler “flat-tax” structures, while high-tax “old” Europe struggles.

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