[Marxism] Saul Landau in Ho Chi Minh City

Louis Proyect lnp3 at panix.com
Fri Apr 14 12:15:30 MDT 2006

Counterpunch, April 14, 2006
Vietnam Diary
Ho Chi Minh City Moves On Without Regrets



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 
MasterCard stickers.

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 
own country."

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 
undeniably real.

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 
over again."

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 
cheap jewelry.

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 
in November.

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.

full: http://www.counterpunch.com/landau04142006.html

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