Vietnam – peeling back the soft sheen and the sepia


Communism in Vietnam 

Order and planning – maintaining our culture and heritage in the face of modernity

Hindered by short-termism and a focus on growth

Our Toyoto Prius cab glides along the airport highway towards the Red River and then to Hanoi. This feels like some mix between Bangkok and Manila: a fascinating hotchpotch of houses along the road – tall thin, some with European influences, solar panels, bill boards. The usual medley of shops, homes and eateries, of any ordinary South East Asian city – though on the orderly, prosperous side of the continuum.

carpet_bombing_by_archangel72367-d45yc37Yet for many of us, when we think Vietnam our minds are swiftly flooded by a succession of dark images, the war time scenes: terror at Mai Lai, B52s dropping bomb after bomb like frog spawn -so close together – on idyllic tropical forest and paddy fields[1].  For others, like me, we also hold in our minds images of exquisite beauty from the An Nam coast or further south – glimpses of mountains that reach down to the sea, the luxurious dark wood of the sailing junks, the lacquer reds and blacks of the Buddhist temples. Essentially indigenous Vietnamese but incorrigibly French, viewed through the lens of movies like Indochine.


boats-and-waterAfter spending a short summer break in Hanoi, following in the footsteps of the Hampstead crowd, I am going to make an attempt to peel away the soft sheen of Indochine and the anguish of the war to get a sense of a modern day Vietnam. I’ll experiment with seeing Vietnam through non-Western Eyes. It was Frances Fitzgerald’s Fire in the Lake set in Vietnam that inspired Edward Said’s critique of “Orientalism”, so let’s see what can be done with other eyes.

Western influence is the wrong place to start – the Westerners had little more than an overnight stay, whilst China was here for centuries. The real history is perhaps best read in Christopher Goscha’s History of Vietnam – the story of the Sinicised elites, the warring north and south for many centuries – from the area North of Hanoi to Hue in the Champa south. I like the story of the sisters Trung who wrest control of the country from the Chinese state – there is a hidden matriarchal culture in this part of the world, I note again.  The Confucian repertoire of enlightened monarch, good governance and social harmony apparently existed by time the colonial French arrived on the scene. According to Goscha, Vietnam was a pretty modern state by then.  Here is a rather lovely Chinese view of the western aggressor, armed to the hilt leaving nothing to chance.



Moving on a century and a half, like most visitors to Hanoi, we make our way to the Ho Chi Minh Museum and Mausoleum, and wonder around looking at the photos of this man of the early 20th century who it seems was really a man of the people – more sailor/lascar than elite of Cambridge or LSE. It is quite tiring in the heat. After finding some warmish fresh coconut water by the One Pillar Pagoda, and a coffee and sandwich at some sort of café chain, we find the energy to continue to Uncle Ho’s “humble abode”. Ho Chi Minh – remains a hero; not tarnished by time and horrors like Stalin and Mao. He has a slightly saintly look, and his home is plain and simple, more Gandhi than Stalin. Just a couple of rooms built in wood and on stilts. No love of grandeur – neither pomp nor ostentation.


It is hard not to be struck by the longevity of the Communist Party of Vietnam, symbolised by the mausoleum buildings, reminiscent of Havana more than Beijing – swapping Uncle Ho for Jose Marti.  The roots of Communism in Vietnam are in the resistance to French colonialism from much before the 2nd WW. But in many ways this Communism is just a continuation of the old Confucian culture. After the collapse of Japan’s Asian Empire in 1945, the north quickly declared its independence with Communist Party, Ho Chi Minh, in charge. De Gaulle’s determination to re-establish colonialism after the war, by force if need be quickly alienated many and no doubt strengthened this local communism. This victory before long kicked off the “American War”, which only ended in 1975 when the tanks of the communist north finally entered Saigon.

Communism in its Chinese form continues despite the end of the Cold War, the dismantling of the Soviet Union, the old ally, as in neighbouring Laos and China too. In Vietnam, according to Bill Hayton, the BBC’s man in Hanoi, the Communist Party is determined to remain the sole source of authority. “Everything depends upon the Communist Party maintaining coherence and discipline at a time when challenges to stability are growing by the day”. In that way, it looks more like China and from the stories I read, the Party controls things in the same way –  freedom on a leash. Perhaps our little hidden away Hanoi hotel owner symbolises this. On the one hand crazy artist and dancer, but with his roots in the secret police hanging out with artists and dancers to ensure they didn’t go off track.

Like in Cambodia, there was a period of harsh control but it seems to have been a great deal shorter. It took just two years to decide that collectivization of farms wasnt going to work. In fact Vietnam did rather well taking the learning from the famous International Rice Research Institute of the Philippines. Contrast this with Pol Pot’s “idealism” that let millions starve, and the fear and oppression of the time.

In economic terms, it is a miracle. It’s GDP per capita (with purchasing lower parity) is at $6100 per annum, and PWC’s 2008 report put it at one of the fastest growing emerging economies in the world. It predicted that by 2040 it could have an economy 70% of that of the UK.  However, despite all the talk of Vietnam as a rising dragon benefitting from liberalization and FDI, that does not seem to have been the facilitating factor. World Bank efforts to encourage liberalisation including $300mill in structural adjustment credits in 1997 were for many years just turned down.  The country was making enough from exports and commercial foreign investment to not need cash.  Deal after deal was rejected, and for a while Vietnam held out perhaps giving its local businesses a chance.  Eventually things moved on and there has been greater liberalization and private enterprise promoted.

Though there are plenty of big foreign companies based here, apparel to heavy industry – European to Taiwanese – many charming boutiques in Hanoi andhanoi-street rather a lot of tourism, state ownership remains widespread. The party can still control the economy through state owned enterprises. The law has categorized businesses into 4 different groups and in 1 – with 16 business sectors – 100% state ownership is required. These include electricity, irrigation, railways and air terminals. In the lowest category – including water/sewerage and chemicals and fertilisers 50-65% Government ownership is required. The Government’s strategy includes making Vietnam a centre of ship building amongst other things. So it has a planned economy at least.

Compared say with Cambodia where one is immediately hit by the kids that would like just $1 –  or Manila, the absence of visible poverty is striking. Whether this is the result of a China style hukou policy or a smooth rise into the ranks of middle income countries, is not too clear. Its more a country of bikes than the inequality of big cars and worthless pedestrian. See here – Hanoi on a Friday night.


Modern Vietnam also has a sense of freedom and a sense of the rule of law. It appears to have a strong civil society with legal challenges allowed against the Government, judicial review provided for since 1996. Though apparently the grounds for challenge are “legality”, rather narrow. However, Hayton challenges this too. The Party doesn’t really tolerate dissent – though perhaps more about Confucianism than Communism here.

Perhaps there is too much order, too much of a drive towards modernity, too much short termism. At Halong, there is a series of glass box waiting rooms for the 300-400 junks licensed to ply the water – more Gatwick. Minibus after minibus pull up to collect the previous nights occupants and take the new ones onto the boats. Lunch breaks are at the vast Viet style service stations where you can buy pricy artisanal products – but anything from expensive lacquered bowls to ceramics apparently dug out of some ancient shipwreck. Bill Hayton takes away some of the pleasure– saying they have found quick ways to lacquer – more car spray than layers and layers of resin, and clever ways of turning ordinary ceramics into century old stuff.

But the junks are beautiful: wooden boats, with wood floors and decks, spaces for Tai Chi, cozy rooms and delicious food; and the marine water looks clean enough. We hear the government is not too keen on wood  – before long they will all be metal. It plans to expand the number of junks on the water too, and move the boat dwellers onto dry land. they are at risk from the typhoons that batter this coastline for sure and no doubt their presence leads to pollution of the water. But there is a risk of soullessness and loss of the feel of the local community. Is this the westerner in me talking? I hope we will get a bit of a rethink here – character, heritage, identity are invaluable for the national psyche in my view and need not be lost. Pride in ones history and culture is an intangible asset that mustn’t be lost. How about the fascination with modernity being channeled into keeping the water as clean as possible, the boats as energy efficient and pollution free as can be done?



Its not only this but the evidence suggests that the water isn’t as clean as it should be, the environment not as protected as it could be. Junks discharge sewage into the water, mangroves along the edges are destroyed for neatness, over-fishing continues at a disastrous level, factories pollute the rivers, a new shipping terminal for no good reason has been squeezed into Halong City. The conservation minded bureaucrats in Hanoi seem to have lost the battle against those looking for growth.


I am beginning to see now why the Hampstead set are rushing to Halong Bay. Best to visit now before this rather lovely world is lost.