[Marxism] Saul Landau in Ho Chi Minh City
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Fri Apr 14 12:15:30 MDT 2006
Counterpunch, April 14, 2006
Ho Chi Minh City Moves On Without Regrets
By SAUL LANDAU
Ho Chi Minh City's growth also signals the future direction of Vietnam. A
university official explains that the government maintained the hotels from
1975 to 1986, even though they "had a low occupancy level." In late March,
rooms became scarce because of an Asian tourist industry convention. The
lobbies of the Rex, the rebuilt Caravelle and the spanking new Hyatt and
other expensive hotels have become meeting places. Vietnamese in suits and
ties--or more casually dressed--meet their western counterparts and head
off in air conditioned SUVs.
In the growing industrial park, south of the city, dozens of new factories
produce a wide variety of goods, including high tech electronics. At 5:15
in the afternoon, the motorbikes lined up at the traffic light near the
plants. I could not see the end of the line on the horizon. The green light
flashed. A thunderous roar of two and four stroke engines blasted the
atmosphere. In awe at the sheer size of this daily motorcade, I watched the
mostly young--teens and twenties--pass by en route to their homes.
"Many share rented space," a biologist friend explains. "They earn about
$40 a month, and send money home. They can't afford apartments. They need
motorbikes to get to work." So, factory workers, like government employees,
have access to credit and buy bikes, some for less than $500.
Nearby, newly built high rises, for sale or rent, house the burgeoning
middle class. Those that have cashed in on Vietnam's "opening" buy spacious
and well-designed homes--valued at $300,000 each. Korean, Taiwanese and
Japanese plant managers, floor bosses and skilled technicians also share
the new housing. Outside of a condo complex, a deli displays a sign in
Korean and English: "specializing in Korean and Japanese food." Next door,
real estate offices have opened and upscale shops display Visa and
Late afternoon traffic congestion reminds me of Mexico City--except without
rules, other than might makes right. Motorbikes dart into the street, stop
when larger vehicles threaten and give no quarter to pedestrians. I learn
to walk between oncoming vehicles and trust God to pay attention. Each
crossing becomes an exciting adventure, a virtual exercise in broken field
At the Saigon river, near Cholon's vibrant market (the city's Chinese
section), the government relocated tens of thousands of slum dwellers, some
from house boats, to more adequate housing. In their place, a riverfront
highway will alleviate some traffic. In addition, the government plans to
build a subway. What happens when motorbike owners trade up to cars?
Inside the massive market, women and men sit at stalls selling dried
shrimp, spices, fruit, vegetables, plastic kitchen ware and fabrics for
clothes, drapes and anything else one could imagine.
The new Vietnam reeks of capitalism, old and new, small and large. The
State retains control of some key "productive forces." The new
privatization schemes allow foreign capital a means of securely buying
substantial interests in some of formerly nationalized industries, like the
French owned Victoria Hotel chain that began as a joint venture and is
evolving into a privatized hotel business.
On the social front, even the lowest wage workers and poorest farmers must
pay small fees, which hurt the very poor and are unaffordable for the rural
poor for health care and education. My biologist friend assured me that
without paying people don't get decent treatment.
In two weeks of traveling (Hanoi, Hue, Hoi Anh, HCMC, Can Tho, Chau Duc), I
have yet to meet a Vietnamese who wants to return to older models, although
some worry about consequences of the new road.
Two academics, Party members, speak approvingly of the prosperity and
growth. They also express concern about looming environmental nightmares
that accompany fossil fuel burning models. China, after all, is next door.
They speak warmly of Cuba, "although they need help in development," and
admiringly of the United States, "a country we need in order to develop our
The War Museum is crowded with Western and Asian tourists. The modest
structure stands in stark contrast to the buildings around the hotel area.
Silently, people move from photo to photo. Hanging on one wall is an
anguished, frightened looking GI, with a five day growth, cigarette hanging
from tense lips. Nearby, hangs the Vietnamese girl running down the road
photo. Her face, contorted with pain from the napalm, was burned into my
memory decades ago. Below that black and white photo, another photo shows
the girl as a woman thirty five years later, holding her own child. Burn
scars cover her arms and shoulders. Several walls contain exhibits of
children victimized by chemical warfare, too horrible to contemplate, yet
We read about US troops carrying out massacres, journalists killed,
villages destroyed. A smiling Lyndon Johnson stands with General
Westmoreland. Next to that photo is one of General Giap and his North
Vietnamese high command. Some viewers are Vietnam vets age. Their somber
faces preclude conversation.
I asked a young blond woman with freckles how she felt. "Disgusted," she
replied in an English accent. "And they never learn do they?" I signaled
that I didn't understand.
"The politicians who make war in Iraq," she replied. "They're doing it all
In one room, children's art adorns the walls, art of hope, brightly
colored, but with some pictures showing bombers raining dioxin on the land.
Why isn't every US presidential candidate forced to spend two weeks locked
in this museum?
The solemn crowd moves to the courtyard to see captured US tanks and
artillery pieces, and an unexploded bomb of massive proportions. The
explanatory sign gives its weight in kilotons. Next to it, museum curators
have placed a jet bomber felled by anti aircraft. Then groups explore the
"gift shop," selling replicas of US army gear along with post cards and
Near the Hotel Rex a legless man begs for money. He tells our Vietnamese
friend he stepped on a landmine left over from the war. In the opulent
hotel area, the crippled man serves as a grim reminder of "the American
War." Do tourists or locals think about him as they join in choruses of
"yum and um" over spicy fish-noodle soup, delicate steamed spring rolls and
succulent green papaya salad? I try unsuccessfully with young University
faculty members to engage in political discussion. Don't you take into
account the past war with 3 million dead, dioxin, napalm, relocation?
"It's over, done," says Tuan, an economics student. "Time to move on." Yes
to economic growth, control pollution and get more US investment. No to the
Iraq war. "I think America did not learn its lesson from 'the American
war.'" They look forward to Bill Gates' visit in April and President Bush
I mention socialism. "Between 1975 and 1986 we had lots of problems, not
sufficient food and inefficient government services. Since the collapse of
the Soviet Union, life in Vietnam has improved. Just look around," says
Van, a science student. Unemployment and sub-employment remain problems,
the students admit, but foreign investment will create jobs.
An environmental science professor says she is not naïve. "We know foreign
companies want to take more out of Vietnam than they put it. But for now,
this is the best, maybe the only road, we can choose."
A conversation stopper.
Saul Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.
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