Volume 2, Number 55
11 October 2002

Listening to Vietnam

Dear Friends,

All that we fought for, all that we killed and maimed millions for, came to pass after we had lost the war. Vietnam is no longer beholden to the Soviet Union — indeed, the USSR doesn't exist — and it is socialist in name only, capitalist in fact. Thousands of shops have opened up since they were allowed in 1986, "joint ventures" (capital supplied by foreign companies) abound, and the streets are flooded with miniature motorbikes that swarm in an unending flow. If you want to cross the street (we were told), just barge into the middle of them, and they will adjust. Don't step backward, because they may be moving to that very spot to avoid you.

How do I know? I saw it. Robin and I have just returned from two weeks in Vietnam. Two of our guides fought in the war, one on each side. Cuong, who was a Vietcong, reveres Ho Chi Minh for his simplicity, his refusal to live in the ornate presidential palace, and his wish to be cremated. (Instead, his tomb — modeled after that of Lenin — dominates Hanoi, because the party leaders wanted a symbol of the country. They would not let him rest in peace). But even Cuong professed to like capitalism now.

Our other guides were Tri, whose father had fought on the Saigon side, and Quy, who guided us in the beautiful cities of Hue and Danang.

It was not always so capitalist. Before 1986, the guides told us, the winning side tried to establish a Soviet-type economy. The streets were empty of shops — no motorbikes anywhere. In Saigon (yes, the locals still call it that, though officially it is Ho Chi Minh City), loud speakers would sound out at five in the morning, "re-educating" the people). Everyone who worked was employed by the government.

To create equality, all salaries were made the same (I'm not sure this applied everywhere, as we were told, but farmers were told the uniform price at which to sell their rice). So farmers lagged in planting rice. They had no incentive to produce more than the next person, so they sank to an equal "bottom." In 1986, with not enough food for everyone, the government suddenly allowed freedom of enterprise ("doi moi"). Just as suddenly, shops sprang up along along the streets, thousands of them, with merchandise that had not been seen for years, including refrigerators, TV sets, furniture, cell phones, and other consumer durables, besides tons of foodstuffs and clothing. Rice production boomed. The main Saigon market became a bunch of private entrepreneurs actively hawking their wares, no longer government employees lackadaisically selling when a customer came to them.

"The Girl in the Picture," by Denise Chong (the life story of the girl made famous by napalm), that Robin was reading, describes the situation: "After the period of doi moi began, Vietnamese returning from visits home were abuzz with how things were looking up there. People had rice all the time, they were eating meat again, and they could even afford to go to restaurants."

Until 1994, the United States embargoed Vietnam. (Why? For no reason that any of us could think of). But other countries were investing, so we were left behind. Once the embargo was lifted, joint ventures flowed in, bringing foreign technologies and badly-needed capital. We saw many factories, making tires, automobile parts, electrical goods, sewing machines, household durables, and other "new" goods. For a development economist like me, it was thrilling to see economic development before my eyes. The joint ventures were required by law to be no more than seventy per cent foreign-owned, the rest by the government or private locals. It was suspected that foreigners brought in the entire investment and gave thirty per cent of it to locals or the government (no proof or this, however).

The government remains socialist in name only — one party. We were told that our guides were trained by the government and would lose their licenses if they said anything against it. When I asked one local resident if he would prefer two parties, the answer was Yes, that would come, just be patient. Also, I understand that the government is thoroughly corrupt, so that perhaps "crony capitalist" is a better description than "capitalist."

So far as I could see, landed property operated differently in Hanoi (the North) from Saigon (the South). In each case, the government owns the land, and persons occupy it with the consent of the government. Could it be sold, mortgaged, or rented, I asked? "Yes, under the table," I was told in Hanoi. "Yes, unequivocally," I was told in Saigon. But is there a land register, so the owner can prove the land is his, I asked? The Hanoi guide seemed not to understand what a land register was, no matter how well I explained it. He pointed to the rice fields in the countryside, and said, "See those dividing lines (rows where nothing was planted) between the small fields. Everyone knows whose land is on each side."

But I wanted to know if land could be converted into fungible capital (in Hernando de Soto's phrase) by being mortgaged, sold, or rented, and if so, how would the "owner" prove the land was his. "No problem, "I was told in Saigon. "The land is private property, there is a municipal land register, and ownership is transferred or mortgaged by deed." Others told me (proudly) that Saigon is more advanced in capitalist development than is Hanoi, and this may be one of the hangovers of the American war.

I had been wondering if anything remained of the French occupation. In Kenya and India, the English language serves as a lingua franca among many tribal tongues (alongside Swahili in Kenya). But in Vietnam, no one (except a few elderly) speaks French any more. During France's occupation, French was a required subject in schools. Now that the country is free, English is required, as the world's commercial language. (Did we fight for that? If so, it too came to pass after we had lost). The only French vestige I could see was the wide boulevards in Saigon, and some buildings with French architecture. The railroad station in Hanoi resembles the Louvre on each end, but in the middle, where the Americans bombed it, it was rebuilt by the Russians to look like a grim Russian apartment house — a grotesque combination.

Our Vietcong guide told us some war stories. How a strategic bridge in Hanoi was bombed until American pilot/prisoners were made to sweep it with brooms. Then the bombing stopped. As the Vietcong engaged the South Vietnamese army, both sides would take off their uniforms at night and fraternize in the local bars. They would don their uniforms the next day and kill each other. We saw the prison in Hanoi (dubbed "Hanoi Hilton" by the Americans), with its sign announcing that whereas the French had tortured Vietnamese rebels, the American prisoners were treated strictly according to the Geneva Convention. (Writings by the prisoners state that this was not so.)

We also saw a lot of touristy things, but — with local variations — they were the same as in any country. So, I'll spare you that. Besides, two weeks does not make an expert. I have told only what I saw and heard.

Sincerely your friend,


Readers' Comments

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Hello Mr Jack,

I still remember the day we met at breakfast in Sofitel Plaza Hotel in Hanoi. I already read your letter, yes, I read them all. It is correct in my opinion. I think after this letter was sending to your friends lots of them will want to come here. It is true that Vietnam is growing now strongly of its economic. Living standard is getting better, we are all happy with this good sign of our country's economy. Whoever you are, American or other Nationalities, you are welcome all to Vietnam, see us grow in Peace and happiness.

— Tran NHUNG, Saigon, Vietnam.

Here are answers for your two questions.

1. Are there any labor organizations, such as unions?

Yes we have.

2. How is health care given? Does the government provide health care, or is it all private?

We have public and private hospital but we all have to pay money even in public hospital except the people who work for government company, rep office, foreign company and they had already bought the insurance health care and people who are too poor, who will received the certificate by the government where they live.

On your report, there is something not right. For example, salary is not the same for every body. You can ask the people who went to US with the HO program to know more to complete your report. How are you since the time you left Vietnam? I hope that every thing is OK with you.

Take care.

— Kim Quy, Hue, Vietnam.

I had intended the "same salary" statement to apply only to the socialist period, 1975-1985. It is what I had been told in Vietnam. In TQE #55, I reported only what I had been told. I had not checked it to authoritative sources. — Jack

Your writing on Vietnam was the most interesting I have ever read on Vietnam. I sat enthralled until I had finished it.

— Dennis Bentley, Morganton NC

Thanks Jack. You are a two-week-wonder as an expert observer. Your description of modern Vietnam and its complex, violent past reminded me of several former USSR provinces and satellites to which I have had multiple business trips in the past twenty years. They are all in various stages of similar transformations from state communism to some form of market economy. Some have done it rather well, and some have not. But, as a government official in Poland told me in '89 shortly after the Solidarity victory when asked how they were going to make the transition to democracy and a market economy, "We don't know how to do it. No one has ever done it before."

— Norval Reece, Newtown (PA) Friends Meeting.

Your letter #55 reminds me of my studies in Russia this summer. It seems that, as you noted about Vietnam, many of the things the US hated about Russia during the Cold War went away and some approximation of Western-style government and economy has emerged in spite of the US's efforts. That seems to be a powerful statement about US foreign policy.

— Beth Stevenson, Stillwater (OK) Friends Meeting.


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Publisher and Editorial Board

Publisher: Russ Nelson, St. Lawrence Valley (NY) Friends Meeting

Editorial Board:

  • Roger Conant, Mount Toby Meeting, Leverett (MA).
  • Carol Conzelman, Boulder (CO).
  • Ann Dixon, Boulder (CO) Friends Meeting.
  • Virginia Flagg, San Diego (CA) Friends Meeting.
  • Merlyn Holmes, Unitarian, Boulder, Colorado.
  • Janet Minshall, Anneewakee Creek Friends Worship Group, Douglasvillle (GA).
  • Jack Powelson, Boulder (CO) Meeting of Friends, Principal Editor
  • J.D. von Pischke, a Friend from Reston, VA.
  • Geoffrey Williams, Attender at New York Fifteenth Street Meeting.

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Copyright © 2002 by John P. Powelson. All rights reserved. Permission is hereby granted for non-commercial reproduction.

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