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?