Tuesday, October 24, 2006

Vietnam Roars

Last week I was in Saigon, researching the next Rain book. Here are a few photos from the trip.

I was struck by many things about this remarkable city. Three stand out.

First, Vietnam is getting rich. It has a long way to go, but when you see a cosmetic surgery clinic and electronics stores are selling $4000 massage chairs, you're talking about a post-agricultural society, and then some.

Second, the business drive in Vietnamese culture is remarkable. Things may be different in the north, and I wish I'd had more time to visit more regions in the country, but Saigon is all business. Everybody wants to give you an impromptu motorcycle taxi ride, everywhere you look someone has set up an improvised street stand to sell secondhand engine parts or watches or watermelon juice. Business and capitalism seem to be part of the culture's DNA.

Third, the people I met have a positive, enthusiastic view of America and Americans. Again, things might be different in the north, but still: we killed three million Vietnamese during the war. I'm flabbergasted that I encountered no lingering ill will. I'm not sure what accounts for the lack of animus: perhaps in the south America is remembered as an ally, not an enemy (although no ill will for eventually abandoning our allies to the communists?); perhaps the culture's Buddhist roots; perhaps the Vietnamese are too busy making money and improving their lives to indulge in bitterness about the past. Still, the contrast with Muslims who are still stewing over the crusades is stunning. Any guesses on which culture has a brighter future: the one excited about tomorrow, or the one furious about yesterday?

Here's more on the country, from today's New York Times.


Anonymous said...

There is nothing better for a country’s economy then for them to go to war with the United States. After we tear them down (Japan, Germany) we build them up better than ever.

Anonymous said...

i envy you. i would love to go, but my wife says no.

She is Vietnamese......

Anonymous said...


Vietnam is a fascinating and wonderful place. I hope you get to experience more of it. Saigon is amazing and vibrant and thrilling all at once, but Hanoi’s slower pace and has its charms and it is not without its own thriving economy. I would point out to though, that the speed of economic expansion is somewhat elusive. It seems frantic now, but that is on the heels of 20 years of stagnation brought on by external pressures, and a decade of economic fits and starts in the 90’s, while the Communist Party struggled with the cognitive dissonance created by economic expansion, and therefore economic freedoms.

While both are booming though, a few miles out of either city center, or literally just outside the gates of some of the 5 star resorts like the Furama in Danang, you quickly return to a highly agrarian society. But don’t let the relative lack of material goods (I say relative because many of them will have at least a TV and motorbike) fool you. Our experience was the slower the pace of life and economy, the tighter the family units and those families appeared happier and more relationally focused than did families in Saigon and Hanoi.

As to why Americans are so warmly received? It is unique, in that the French and Russians are treated with far more animosity than we. We used to describe it with a simple illustration – most Vietnamese view the American war (for it is truly thus from their perspective) as an unfortunate conflict, but one that was fairly fought, with both sides suffering. Kind of like two kids on the school playground who get in to a fight. One emerges a winner, but neither emerged unscathed. As long as the fight was fair, there is a good chance that the two can still tolerate each other in the days after the fight. The only permanent consequence may be a re-balancing of the relative power base on the playground, especially when the smaller, scrappier kid wins. And lest any think I am devaluing the loss of life on either side, I am not; the illustration is simplistic, but useful.

It certainly hasn’t hurt either that Orange County CA, Harris County TX and Fairfax County VA all quickly developed Vietnamese populations larger than virtually every Vietnamese City outside of Saigon and Hanoi. Those populations represented to those who remained, family and immigration possibilities, opportunities for education, real sources of hard currency (initially through the mail and with the SRV’s tacit acceptance), and knew sources of knowledge and intellectual property. And with so much of the population related to, or claiming relation to, Americans, it becomes hard for the collective psyche to bear grudges for any real length of time.

On the other hand, the French (in actuality) and Russians (virtually) colonized them, and for this affront, they are much begrudged. In our early months in Vietnam, when the foreign population was much smaller and thus drew more notice on the street, it was not uncommon for the Vietnamese to ask us if we were “Mui Dai”, or Long Noses. In fact, they were inquiring as to whether or not we were French or Russians, with the not so subtle pun digging at the classic caricature of the Gallic proboscis. On finding that we were not Mui Dai, but in fact Americans, their stern faces would then crease with broad smiles, and the entire tenor of our interaction would change. Mui Dai, however, became one of our favorite examples of the Vietnamese love for wordplay.

It is worth noting that there is one region within Vietnam where this love of Americans is less universally shared. In a swath straddling the DMZ, from the coast on the East to the border on the West, considerable animosity is often directed at Americans, although even that wanes as time erodes memories and emotions. Those living in the DMZ came out of the war more bloodied and bruised than most, feeling used and abused by both sides, and ultimately, abandoned by the Americans.

Finally, in the end, most Vietnamese hope that the West has/will win the peace. This in fact has been the great fear of the Vietnamese government, as illustrated by their fear of “Peaceful Evolution”. They cast “Peaceful Evolution’ in terms of proactive tools used by the West to bring about regime change in the East. And so they spout rhetoric, and legislate against it (I remember a debate about whether or not Kodak qualified as an English word, and thus was ineligible to be used in advertising, but Fuji was okay). But really what they fear is that economic freedoms will lead to demands for political and other freedoms.

I am sure that I have gone on past some word count limit. For that Barry I apologize and really must go re-read those guidelines again someday.

PBI said...


I can't really argue with you on Germany and Japan, but you seem to be implying that the United States played a similar role in Vietnam.

If I am not misreading your implication, please recall that the U.S. was driven out of Vietnam in 1975. At that time, the U.S. trade embargo against North Vietnam, which had been in place since 1964, was extended to cover the entire country. Vietnam then operated on a centralized command economy, rife with inefficiency, and made very slow progress until 1986 when the Sixth Party Congress instituted market-based reforms and the seeds of the current boom were planted. By 1991, the U.S. had finally started to begin moving toward a more open relationship with Vietnam, but we didn't lift our trade embargo until 1994, fully nineteen years after the last of our troops left the country.

The Vietnamese have enjoyed increased success since gaining access to U.S. (and European) markets in the 1990s, but the United States had pretty much zero to do with rebuilding Vietnam or with moving the structure of its economy toward its current strength.

Sensen No Sen

Anonymous said...

I'm not sure the comment from JH is correct. The US placed a 16-year trade embargo on VN when it ousted Pol Pot from Cambodia and saved its population from autogenocide. I dont think embargos help an economy very well and theres absolutely no evidence that they work. So once again I don't understand the US's foreign policy logic. But anyway...

I suggest that a more likely reason for VN's large growth rate is because a, its initial low starting point; b, its huge population growth rate (70% pf the population born after the American War); c, cheap labour; d, attractive regulatory and legal environment that seeks FDI; e, Viet Kiew remittances or repatriation and investing; f, Japanese investment; and finally g, the attitude of its people. Of course it could be said that the US had involvement with Points a, b and e.

Barry Eisler said...

Doug P, there are no quantitative limits on comments here. Thanks for sharing your experiences and insights on Vietnam. Damn, I wish I could have spent more time there. There's so much more I wanted to see. It'll be interesting to see how increasing wealth in the cities spreads to the countryside... now there's an "oilspot" strategy that makes sense to me.

Paul and FMIA, thanks for the posts... certainly Vietnam's increasing success has been in spite of postwar US policy (and in spite of its own postwar Communist creed, which it began to abandon, IIRC, around 1989), not because of it.

Anonymous said...

doug p wrote:

"... It is worth noting that there is one region within Vietnam where this love of Americans is less universally shared. In a swath straddling the DMZ, from the coast on the East to the border on the West, considerable animosity is often directed at Americans, although even that wanes as time erodes memories and emotions. Those living in the DMZ came out of the war more bloodied and bruised than most, feeling used and abused by both sides, and ultimately, abandoned by the Americans."

Throughout 1999 I lived and worked in Quang Tri Province. Everything my partner and I wanted to do had to be written up and submitted to the Provincial government for blessing before we could proceed. This injunction included the hiring of local citizens as translators, drivers, admin staff.

We interviewed quite a few applicants for the six positions we could afford. Once we'd made out choices, the list was sent up for vetting. When the list returned, all six of our choices had been vetoed... erased with white-out... and in an attachment to our reject proposal six new names were offered for our consideration. An offer we knew we couldn't refuse if we wanted to have get our project started.

A little background:

After the American War ended in 1975, Quang Tri Province was desolation row, town and country everywhere literally littered with unexploded ordinance [UXO], the highlands still slimed with Agent Orange. For all intents and purposes, Quang Tri had no permanent population left.

Hanoi formed a governing council for the province. Northern technocrats took the train south and filled the mid-level seats in all the bureacracies, and former senior officers in the regular North Vietnamese Army were appointed as provincial leaders.

For example, the chairman of the Quang Tri Women's Committee was a retired colonel who during the war had been responsible for providing logistic support to all NVA units operating in the DMZ.

Her husband, the quiet shadow constantly beside her throne, had been a sapper during the war, officer in charge of an infiltration and sabotage cell. He was locally famous for having killed hundreds of American soldiers in a single night attack, and he had been granted a generous war hero's pension for life by Hanoi. His official duty was to advise his wife... and the council... on all matters. He stayed busy.

We did meet some Vietnamese men who'd fought for the Americans. They had lived through the rehabilitation camps... but even in 1999 they were not permitted to take any job in Quang Tri except for the most menial.

One of those men -- his clothes almost threadbare and his featured hollowed out as if he were a Heroin addict -- spoke perfect "American" English", and he was university educated. His understanding of the local environment and his English were so good in fact, that he'd topped the List of prospective employees we'd forwarded to the council. He alone was mentioned by name in the council's response to us, singling him out as the example of exactly the kind of person we must scrupulously avoid if we wanted our program to be successful in Quang Tri.

This man became our confidant, social/political guide, and beer-drinking buddy. He usually dropped by after sunset, taking advantage of the fact that there were no streetlights in the neighborhood to slip by the back door into the Colonial French villa we'd rented as our office and residence.

I have no doubt whatsoever that he was a government plant reporting every tidbit concerning our daily doings and ruminations to his case officer on The Provincial Council. But I digress...

I did ask each one of our several contacts on the council, and each of our six employees why I hadn't detected any resentment or anger against myself, an American returning to the place my nation bombed into a quagmire. Sifting their various replies down to what was common in all of them, the answers were:

- It's easier for the winners to put their wars behind them than it is for the losers.

- Americans = money... and since "Doi Moi" had recently been proclaimed by Hanoi, becoming rich was every citizen's patriotic duty. So... for pragmatic reasons the Provincial Council and all ambitious citizens of Quang Tri officially welcomed any Americans who wanted to visit, or do business, or donate their dollars and labor.

- More interesting to the citizens than the particular color of our passports [my partner was a Brit], was the fact that we were out and about, highly visible, actually renting a house and living in Quang Tri Province. The sight of ludicrously large, pale, blue-eyed Europeans/Americans casually walking the streets, browsing in Dong Ha's open market, or taking a table in one of the local restaurants... that hadn't been commonplace anywhere in Quang Tri since 1975.

All the best...