Essay: Today’s Vietnam is “same-same but different”

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The World

DA NANG, Vietnam — With GIs long gone, China Beach now belongs to the people.

Its silky sands are just past those guarded walls protecting the strand of five-star resorts. Ancestral graves were moved to make space for hotel-spas with $1,000-a-night rooms. At the Hyatt Regency, $1.5 million buys a three-room villa free of local passersby.

Ho Chi Minh banned golf as bourgeois, but a posh 18-hole course is touted by an Australian pro on towering billboards that mar the view of Marble Mountain. The casino here is called a club; gambling is illegal.

If America’s war was fought to thwart communism and make Vietnam secure for foreign capital and a privileged class of homegrown tycoons, it was a smashing success. Clearly, many Vietnamese are far better off now than in the 1960s when corrupt cliques in Saigon and hardliners in Hanoi faced off in a divided nation.

Plenty of old charm and haunting beauty remain. Even for tourists on a bowl-of-noodles budget, Vietnam is among the planet’s best bets for a safe, enthralling holiday. Yet the new Vietnam is, as a waiter remarked in describing two dishes on a menu, “Same-same but different.” And the difference is significant.

The upside is obvious. When I first drove north from Da Nang in 1971, North Vietnamese artillery bracketed my jeep, and U.S. B52s blew distant mountainsides to oblivion. Now those who rush to take the spectacular winding road over the Hai Van Pass can speed underneath it through a freeway tunnel.

Da Nang, then a dusty shamble of nondescript structures choked with army trucks, is a mini-Sydney with a gleaming suspension bridge over the broad Han River. A short ride in any direction leads to those emerald-green rice paddies and water buffalo that captivated 18th century European explorers.

But if by comparative growth other Southeast Asian tigers are mere cubs, Vietnam evokes another zoological metaphor. Some animals, as George Orwell satirized Stalinism, are more equal than others.

Da Nang’s golden youth sip frothy drinks atop high-rises, taking in a cityscape of posh hotels, pricey penthouses and restaurants with snob-appeal wine lists. At a twin-tower mall, a small flask of Bulgari scent costs $100, a worker’s monthly wage. Sports cars join the motorbike shoals on streets lined with galleries and cafes.

In Ho Chi Minh City, Saigon, American architect Carlos Zapata designed an office tower with elevators that reach the 68th floor in 45 seconds. In Hanoi, once a sleepy colonial backwater, Porsche SUVs sit paralyzed in traffic.

A World Bank analyst I met was almost giddy at the numbers. With fresh foreign investment in construction, tourism, manufacturing and agriculture, annual growth could soon be back above 7 percent.

But, yes, he allowed, little gets done without someone greasing someone. The men who run the Communist Party have jettisoned Marx. Their ideology is retaining total power. When governments are corrupt at high levels, by nature and necessity people below them follow suit. Parents even bribe kindergarten teachers to give their kids a leg up.

“The guys at the top steal billions, and make deals that suit them,” a Hanoi journalist explained. Like the World Bank expert, he feared being named, and that it part of the problem. “It is so frustrating here. We will know what is happening, but you can’t report anything. You will lose your job, or worse.”

Visitors find their Facebook accounts blocked and may notice ubiquitous security agents. But on the surface the new Vietnam is no obvious police state. Four million tourists are expected in 2010, nearly 10 percent of them Americans. By official fiat and natural inclination, the war has been forgiven if not forgotten.

If a Vietnam syndrome still persists in the United States, here the American War appears to have slipped into distant history.

Before Bill Clinton barnstormed Hanoi and Saigon in 2000, I looked around to sniff the air. The goateed old man on billboards was KFC’s Colonel Sanders not Ho Chi Minh. Everywhere, crowds chanted, “Uncle Bill.” One man who stared happily at his right hand, just shaken by the president, had survived relentless shelling near Khe Sanh.

“We believe in looking at the future not the past,” Nguyen Dang Linh explained in Hue, after swooping down on two Americans and steering them to his family’s cafe. He was born four years after the war ended and no one taught him to think unkindly of the defeated foe.

Others, journalists and academics in the do-not-identify category, offer a more complex view.

For many Vietnamese, rancor lingers beneath the surface. Carpet bombing by B52s leaves an indelible impression. Dioxin in Agent Orange still takes a toll.

But America’s invasion was an historical blip, a miscalculation with wide opposition across the country, hardly likely to recur.

China, however, has cast its shadow over Vietnam for 6,000 years, quietly exerting influence and periodically storming the border. Vietnam needs a friend with nukes.

U.S. governments have abandoned the domino theory but not Neighborhood Watch. Like the European Union, Vietnam’s largest trading partner, Washington wants friendly ties. The U.S. aircraft carrier George Washington just visited Vietnam in a clear message to China and everyone else. Relations improved after the Doi Moi policy of 1986, a shift to a socialist-directed market economy.

But here is that Orwellian twist: Animal Farm rulers abandon their revolution to ally with human nations, who praise them for giving laboring classes the least to eat. Despite some fortunes, per capita gross national income was $1,050 in 2009. Adjusted to purchasing power, it was $2,850, half the region’s average and in 160th place worldwide.

Most of the country is wired for electricity, but power cuts leave even big cities blacked out for long periods. Rural areas can go dark for days. Big companies, protected by authorities, ignore environmental protection codes. Drought hammers the rivers, and subsidence farmers lose out to those with more clout.

Up-close, reality bites hard. The lovely lagoon at Lang Co, for instance, is too polluted to fish. Cement production and industrial run-off has poisoned the waters.

In a Vietnam made safe for private enterprise, it is a simple equation. The people who command need broad support within the system. That takes lavish gifts and favors. That is common enough across the developing world. It is why emerging markets can be so lucrative, and tropical paradises make for such memorable holidays.

But it's a significant diversion from Uncle Ho’s original script.

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