Glimpses of Vietnam

Going for a stroll in Saigon at either end of a business day is like walking along the bank of a furiously rushing torrent:  a torrent of motorcycles, tens of thousands of them, hurtling past. Since much of the city has no traffic lights, you wait and hope for a break in the flow, which may not happen.

Veterans always tell you that the best hope of crossing a busy Saigon street in the face of this hazard is just to plunge in, looking neither to left nor to right, and above all never stopping. The motorcyclists are extremely alert – they have to be – and will divert around you if you maintain a steady, inexorable pace. Stop and start, though, and there may well be a disastrous mixup. I must have seen a hundred thousand motos tearing past on my recent trip, and pedestrians weaving through them, with nary a bump.

On the other hand, it’s one thing to know this intellectually and another to actually dive in. I got paralyzed proposing to cross one furiously busy thoroughfare, until a tiny child, smiling sweetly, took me by the hand, and with good Confucian reverence for a senior, led me through the maelstrom.

All this is something of a metaphor for Vietnam in general:  everything is pervaded by hustle, bustle and optimism; by enthusiastic movement.

These days, one hires a taxi to get around – cheap and efficient, except for the ones at the airport that try to carry you off to a “better” hotel than what you asked. On my first trip, though, a few years ago, the conveyance of choice was the “cyclo-pousse,” a back-to-front rickshaw with the customer projected forward like the cowcatcher on a steam engine. You felt very exposed, but as on a roller-coaster, you had no choice; you just had to submit to fate.

Law enforcement is fierce in Saigon, and as a result tourists on the streets are safe, although subject to lots of little rackets. One I heard of is renting you a motorbike subject to a big deposit, with an admonition to be sure to lock it up carefully. Then, two of the lessor’s men cautiously tail you until you park the machine. After you walk off, one of them produces a duplicate key, unlocks the rented vehicle, and scoots away.

Women, particularly riding on motorbikes, often wear cloth masks drawn over their faces. This is not to avoid spreading cold germs, as in Japan, or to filter dust, like cowboys, but because they prize a pale, unblemished complexion, like Victorian ladies. They are also modest in their attire; no revealing dresses or form-fitting jeans. The enchanting traditional silk tunic or ao dai, with a fitted bodice, loose trousers and full length panels from the waist down fore and aft, became politically incorrect at one time but is now the uniform for high school girls and women attendants in hotels and the like.

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Setting aside the metallic torrent, on this trip I embarked on the real one, heading down to the delta of the Mekong. That great river rises in Tibet, and flows through much of Indochina before splaying out into the South China Sea. (My wife Francie and I once sat on its bank at dusk in northern Thailand at a place where you could hear the dogs bark in Laos and Cambodia.)

On the gentle brown Mekong there rides an endless procession of scows and long, thin motor canoes loaded with agricultural produce and other freight. Most of the boats are driven by a propeller mounted on a pole that projects backward about ten feet, inclined just below the horizontal, so that the blades are barely covered. On its inner end, each pole is counterbalanced by an unshielded engine, blasting away in the helmsmen’s ear. Entire families live on all but the smallest of these boats, and as you pass you see into the dark, messy main cabins where they eat, sleep and keep house.

Along the banks of the many branches of the vast river and on the canals that connect them live about fourteen million people, in watery green farms, where they grow every known fruit, and rice, coconuts, pigs, poultry, cattle, dogs and children: half the population is under 25, five years younger than China!

The riverine population of the Mekong must be the smiliest and waviest people on earth. Every single boat we passed – many hundreds – waved happily, as though our passing was the finest thing that could possibly befall them. “Faire coucou” it’s called in French. Very different from China, where the river folk mind their own business.  Speaking of language, the Vietnamese swallow the final consonants of English words, which can become hard to understand. Thus, the Park Hyatt hotel becomes the PAH HIYA, a rice field is RYE FEE; twelve is TWAY.

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I’m optimistic about the country. I suspect that like Chile, having gone through Allende and then Pinochet, the Vietnamese have had enough of political extremism, including state ownership of the economy. It doesn’t work, and aside from anything else, one-party government guarantees massive corruption, proportionate to its power. That’s still true of the country today.

A very large population of Vietnamese fled the country for America during the bad old days, attended college or went into business, and have now returned there, bringing their skills, capital, and new experiences. These people constitute a group of U.S. sympathizers that is unique among the countries I know.  They also provide business savvy that is proving extremely helpful.  The volume of repatriated and new money entering the economy is providing a powerful stimulus to development. But, attention!  If you invest, remember that as with all countries emerging from Communism, management is likely to be corrupt and incompetent. The outside investors must have the right and the skill to dig into the company and make changes.

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 What if the U.S. had not intervened in Vietnam? The world has forgotten the Bandung- Jakarta-Hanoi Axis, which proposed to take over Southeast Asia by degrees. Sukarno dropped out of the U.N., like Mussolini from the League of Nations, and as a first step declared a policy of “confrontation” against Malaysia. Indonesia is a huge country – almost as populous as the U.S. these days – and when Hanoi started to come after the South, backed by the “international communist conspiracy,” it looked like a reprise of the World War II Axis: a word of baneful memory! First would have come Malaysia, Singapore, Laos and Cambodia, then Thailand, and so on down the line.

But would Sukarno and his Axis, like Hitler and indeed Stalin, actually have succeeded in reducing his corner of the world to subjugation? There is more of a case for this domino effect than many recognize today. But flushed with such a triumph, would this new Axis have remained communist? Now, with hindsight, we can see that it probably would not, but perhaps, though, some still argue that like the Soviet empire, it would have immiserated its enslaved population for generations. As it turned out, Ho Chi Minh was first and foremost resolved to expel the French colonists, who after World War had arrived to “reclaim our heritage,” as their general said, and to unify his country.

As it happens, I was in Paris when Dien Bien Phu was taken, a fantastic feat of arms, which everybody realized meant the end of the French empire. Public entertainment performances were cancelled that night as the nation mourned. At least one paper didn’t get the word in time, though, and reviewed the Opera enthusiastically, as though it had actually taken place.

Today, anyway, American deplores its Vietnam War, but the Vietnamese themselves, much less, particularly given the youth of the population. They have had a war with China since then, the French were extremely cruel, and nobody likes the Russians, so the U.S. emerges as their friend. The people are enthusiastic and forward-looking, like Americans. Everybody now speaks English there today and our products are universal. After all, it turned out just as we said: Communism was a terrible idea, so now, just as in China, the so-called Communist Party is presiding over a capitalist boom. And the south didn’t want to be run from the north, any more than in our own Civil War.

So perhaps our intervention, painful as it was, stalled the Viet Cong – Sukarno campaign against its neighbors, and made possible the solid growth that East Asia has achieved, the postwar era’s most remarkable success story. ■