Report From Ho Chi Minh City: Capitalists Won the War After All

Commentary by John C Goodman

Twenty-one years and two months have passed since the last American helicopter left Saigon, leaving behind a war-torn country in the wake of a humiliating U.S. military defeat. For Americans who lived through that era, the casualty statistics are still haunting: more than 58,000 names grace the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in our nation's capital and Vietnamese casualties may have exceeded two million.

So you would think the last thing Americans would want to do would be to focus on Vietnam. And you would think the last person the Vietnamese would want to see is another American.

Think again. Everyone in this country is talking about Vietnam these days - The New York Times, C-Span, even the cartoon Doonesbury. A steady stream of American tourists is visiting Vietnam. And far from displaying resentment, the typical Vietnamese acts as though the more Americans the better. Signs all over Vietnam are written in English. And possession of the local currency (dong) is unnecessary. Almost all vendors accept U.S. dollars and most seem to prefer them.

Even students who protested the war in the 1960s must be amazed today by how truly pointless the whole enterprise turned out to be. The right was right: the departure of American troops left Vietnam in communist hands. But it was wrong about the domino theory. And both the right and left were wrong about the consequences of communism. It took the government only a decade to realize socialism doesn't work, and the country has been experiencing creeping capitalism ever since.

In general, as one goes south the country becomes more westernized. So to view more interesting and more authentic Vietnamese culture, one must start in the north - preferably in Hanoi. And the first thing one notices traveling from the airport to Hanoi's (first choice of visitors) Metropole Hotel is that there are no cars.

Instead, the streets are flooded with hundreds - no, thousands - of bicycles and mopeds flowing in rhythms and patterns like schools of fish. The standard garb is drab - muted colors and cone (coolie) hats. But every tenth cyclist brightens the road with colored silk blouses and cotton shirts. Women cyclists seem to especially delight in sporting red, pink and yellow tunics, loosely flowing over white trousers, and the Vietnamese equivalent of Sunday-Easter-bonnet hats.

The next thing one notices is hustling, bustling entrepreneurial activity - the very impulses the revolution was supposed to crush. "Socialism in Vietnam Will Live Forever," proclaims a banner that hangs outside Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum - where the embalmed body of the communist hero lies in public view, just like Lenin's body in Moscow. But any street vendor will be happy to controvert that notion. "We're a capitalist country now," they all say.

And true enough, all the evidence suggests that they're moving that way. Officially, Vietnam admits to fewer than 27,000 private (nonstate) enterprises in a country of 72 million people. But this tally ignores about one million family-owned retail shops, fishing boats (sampans) and farms. Indeed, casual appearances suggest that most of Hanoi's residents are capitalist entrepreneurs, competing in open markets and selling their wares at unregulated prices.

Although the government technically owns the land, small one-building shops stretch street after street, block after block to form Hanoi's emerging free market. A visit is best taken by cyclo, a bicycle with a passenger seat in front. And the shopping opportunities are many: ceramics of all shapes and sizes, embroidered linens, carved ivory, paintings, etchings, marble figurines, etc.

Fair warning to the unwary: entire industries have grown up catering to the tourists' desire to get a good deal. Fake U.S. Army dog tags, fake Zippo lighters presumably used by U.S. soldiers, fake Rolex and Patek Philippe watches, and even fake silver dollars are for sale. For those who want to buy antique pottery at rock bottom prices and smuggle them past the customs agents, supply is there to meet the demand: brand new dishes, bowls and vases carefully designed to look like they're hundreds of years old.

A typical retail business is a one-story, two-room, family-run shop. At street side, and in the outer room, the wares are displayed. The inner room is where the entire family lives. Since that leaves very little space for any other activity, enterprising Vietnamese have discovered that sidewalks are useful places for many of the activities of daily life - socializing, cooking, eating, cleaning and even bathing.

Incidentally, the typical workday in Vietnam is not a 9-to-5 affair. Up at 6:00 a.m. in Hue one morning, I looked out my hotel window expecting to see the stillness of dawn. Instead, I saw rush hour traffic: a steady stream of bicycles going to and fro across the major bridge spanning the Perfume River. On a 7:30 p.m. cyclo trip around the markets of Hanoi, we found almost all shops still open and traders busily exchanging their wares.

Despite these and other attractions a visitor is continually reminded of three negatives: war, communism and poverty.

War. In Hanoi, a small monument commemorates the capture of Navy pilot (now Senator) John McCain. Larger monuments to the Viet Cong dot Highway 1, which stretches the length of the country from north to south. (Unlike Confederate statues of Robert E. Lee in the United States, there are no memorials to those who fought for South Vietnam). In Saigon, the American War Crimes Museum (now called the War Remnants Museum), is hard to beat for sheer anti-American propaganda (see the sidebar). Visitors also can crawl through some of the 200 miles of tunnels used so effectively by communist guerrillas and view the booby traps the tunnel dwellers set for U.S. soldiers - even more wicked and lethal than what we saw in John Wayne's Green Berets.

Still, the tragedy of war is a two-way street. In the 1968 Tet offensive, the communists captured the Imperial Citadel in Hue, home to a succession of emperors. The Viet Cong flag flew there for the next 25 days. By the time U.S. Marines retook the city, 10,000 Vietnamese were dead and what had not been destroyed of the Forbidden Purple City (the inner sanctum of the Citadel) in a prior war with the French was reduced to rubble by U.S. air strikes and Navy gunfire. Americans who feel guilty over America's role in the destruction have the opportunity to make a donation to restoration efforts. However, they should remember that it was the Vietnamese communists, not U.S. forces, who chose to make the Citadel part of the battleground.

Another reminder of the effects of war was more subtle. After several days in Vietnam, it dawned on me that almost everyone in the country was either very young or very old. Apparently, casualties of war, immigration to the United States and a subsequent wave of "boat people" immigrants have depleted the country of its middle-aged population.

Communism. According to Gabriel Kolko and other western Marxist intellectuals, Vietnam today resembles the Vietnam U.S. military forces were supposed to be defending - a capitalist dictatorship. However, in Vietnam itself very few people are complaining that the revolution went wrong. Everyone knows that socialism doesn't work. After the war, the government collectivized the farms and by the mid-1980s the country became a rice importer. Under a return to private family farming (where land is leased from the government, but not privately owned), Vietnam has become the world's third largest rice exporter. Although the more pro-free-market South has only one-fourth of the population, it produces half the rice and most of the seafood exports.

The government is equitizing (their word for privatizing) state enterprises and encouraging private investment. Almost every high-rise building under construction that we saw was a joint venture with a foreign investor. Vietnamese in the U.S. are encouraged to return with promises to repatriate their former houses and other property. Even the boat people are welcome back. These escapees from communism (more than 270,000 fled in small boats in 1979 alone) are today being detained by the thousands in Hong Kong. Yet they are free to return with impunity (they should not expect government jobs, however) and a United Nations stripend of about $440.

Officially, the communists are still in control. But party membership equals only about 2 percent of the population. And even among the 2 percent there are probably very few true believers. Still, there are constant reminders that Vietnam is not free.

And Vietnam provides an important reminder of how government in action conflicts with government in theory. The principle argument for government, after all, is that there are certain collective consumption (public) goods that will be produced inadequately, if at all, by the private sector. Yet it is in the very provision of these goods that the Vietnamese government does a manifestly poor job.

Hanoi's water and sewage system, built by the French for a population of 500,000, now tries to do the impossible: serve a population of 3 million. Highway 1, the only road that spans the length of the country, has only two narrow lanes along which commercial vehicles fight for space with thousands of cycles. And because bridges are few in number, the same bridge sometimes serves both trains and cars. So over some rivers, Highway 1 has railroad track running down the middle of the road.

Vietnam can boast one of the highest literacy rates in the world, 85 percent. But even in this area bureaucratic inefficiency is manifold. At Hanoi's Foreign Language College, most of the teachers are trained in Russian, Bulgarian and Romanian. But after the fall of communism in the USSR, three-fourths of the students switched to English, leaving a lot of faculty with no students to teach.

Poverty. Vietnam is a poor country. Its annual per capita income is only about $200, placing it about on a par with Bangladesh. Even before arriving, visitors are forewarned about threats to health: malaria, hepatitis, encephalitis, dengue fever and parasites. After arriving, visitors are quickly besieged by beggars, either openly asking for alms or indirectly doing so.

Young children quickly surround Americans outside popular tourist stops, hawking postcards, pottery and miscellaneous trinkets. Sometimes they ask for money outright. Since you're suppose to bargain, we hung tough in negotiations with a 6-year-old girl, saving (we later realized) all of about 30 cents. (Could that have been her entire profit?) The temptation is to be generous. The result is to encourage more begging. [See the sidebar.]

Summing Up. Was it worth it? Of course. A trip to Vietnam is more than a vacation. It's coming to grips with the past. On my last night in Vietnam, I had dinner with a Vietnamese businessman whose family had sided with the South and later escaped to America. A few years ago he returned and set up a textile import business.

"How do people feel about someone such as yourself?" I asked.

"At first, it was difficult. But things have changed. There's no problem now," he said.

"You mean, all sins are forgiven; the past is forgotten; bygones are bygones?" I asked.

"That's right," he said.

But, of course, we both knew that was wrong. Some things are impossible to forget.


Sidebar: Snapshot of Vietnam

Most Interesting. There are very few cars in Vietnam, especially outside of Ho Chi Minh City. Almost everyone rides bicycles, mopeds or motorcycles. There are a million motorcycles and mopeds in Ho Chi Minh City alone. Yet a visitor is unlikely to see a single motorcycle helmet in that city, or anywhere else in Vietnam for that matter. Also, virtually no one in Vietnam is fat.
Best. Children wear uniforms to school. Although pickpockets are a problem, visitors have little fear of violent crime. Unlike the U.S., Vietnam does not allow its teenagers to become a predator class. And the Vietnamese are great recyclers: they fashion sandals from used tires and even used discarded chicken feet to help make nylon.

Worst. As in other less-developed countries, begging is a problem, and tourists are mainly to blame. Who doesn't feel the impulse to give a couple of dollars to someone who's lost his arms or legs? But a dollar is what a typical worker earns in a day. So by rewarding the activity of begging, a tourist creates an even bigger problem for the next tourists. We were told there are cases where parents have intentionally maimed children to make them draw more sympathy.

Takes Getting Used To. A favorite snack to take to the beach is an egg hard-boiled after the embryo has slightly formed. For virility, Vietnamese men consume a snake's heart (still beating) dropped in its own blood in a glass of brandy.

Most Disappointing. Even though there is nothing much to watch on government TV channels (unless you're a tourist staying in a hotel that gets CNN), TVs are everywhere. Even families living in one-room houses or on small boats have them - and they keep them turned on continuously.

Most Insulting (To Americans). The War Remnants Museum, originally called the American War Crimes Museum, is an anti-American propaganda exhibit - full of (anti-US military) pictures taken by Western journalists during the war. The exhibit describes methods of torture used by South Vietnamese forces against prisoners and implies that the torturers were U.S. troops. There are no pictures of communist atrocities.