Dispatches from Vietnam: A Capitalist Paradise?
HO CHI MINH CITY, VIETNAM- Walking through the Benh Thanh Market, the only thought that keeps running through my mind is bewilderment. Isn’t this supposed to be a socialist country? Doesn’t the rule of socialism mean that free enterprise is prohibited, or at the very least confined to shady back-alley deals, away from the prying eyes of the secret police? Well, apparently not in Ho Chi Minh City (which I will refer to as Saigon from now on, since no one calls it by the official name). Free enterprise is alive and well. I’ve really never been anywhere that’s constantly tried to sell me as much stuff as here in Saigon, except maybe when I’m home watching the Giants on TV.
It’s something that I really can’t wrap my mind around. Before I came here, I really didn’t know much about Vietnam aside from the standard American rhetoric: it’s one of the world’s four states where single-party Communist rule prevails (along with China, Cuba, and Laos) so I should be wary of their inherent evil, we lost a controversial and bloody war with them in the 60’s and 70’s and we are not allowed to talk about it, and they make an unnaturally large percentage of our clothing which we will continue to purchase at dirt-cheap prices. Arriving at the airport, I did not have the $45 US cash to pay for my visa on arrival, so I was directed to walk out to the ATM and retrieve my cash. Fully expecting them to assign me a handler, I warily plodded forward as the attendant at the counter irritatedly directed me to just go to the ATM. I crossed through the immigration checkpoint…then baggage claim…then customs, just like that, with not a single airport official stopping me or even glancing in my direction as I just walked right past them to get cash out of the Citibank ATM on official Vietnamese soil. Sauntering back to pay for my visa, I realized that I might have miscalibrated my expectations of Vietnam. Fully expecting to walk into North Korea, I encountered a much higher degree of…freedom (especially for an American white boy) than I imagined.
Once finished with airport business, we opted to take the city bus. At 5,000 dong per person plus 5,000 dong for our bags, it came to a grand total of $0.50 US to get to the city center on what appeared to be a vehicle formerly used to transport the willing proletariats of District 12 to work in the coalmines. Riding down Saigon’s main street, I found myself in absolute awe staring out the window. Hundreds, thousands of motorbikes madly jockeying for position on the slick, crowded roadways, neon signs glowing in the background and bouegie looking coffee shops dotting the landscape. This does not look like a socialist paradise. It looks like Chinatown in downtown Manhattan.
After doing a bit of research into the recent history of Vietnam and its contemporary policies, I see that I was wrong to expect a socialist paradise. Certainly if I had been visiting Ha Noi, the capital in the north, things might be a bit different. But Saigon, the stronghold of the capitalist forces during the war and long a bastion of free enterprise (beginning with heavy French influence during the Colonial years) has shied away from adhering to the strict overture of the Communist Party and enjoyed in practice, if not in name, a certain degree of commercial freedom. It only took about ten years (from 1975-1985) for the government to realize that a rigid planned economy was not going to deliver the quality of life that the doctrines of Marxism proclaimed. A series of famines among other failures brought into stark relief the failures of such a state. Saigon had only been under official Communist rule for ten years before these reforms took place, while Ha Noi had been under effective Communist rule since the end of WWII. The effect of this was that the South of the country still had a fresh mind for capitalism (and enjoyed a more modern degree of infrastructure thanks to American aid), while those in the North had more time to…forget. So when the government relaxed policies relating to foreign investment and securing licenses for business, the South was in a much better position to take advantage of this, shall we say, economic opportunity.
THINGS HAVE LARGELY remained this way over the past thirty years. The Communist Party seems to be more intent on remaining in power and guiding the general direction of the country rather than micromanaging the economy. From what I’ve seen, it appears to be working. I’ve only seen a small splice of a tiny section of the country, but I did not expect to encounter merchants hawking their goods, scores of modern and clean restaurants, bars and coffee shops, a thriving tourist industry, and in general a population that seems to be constantly on the go, often to a frenetic degree. Missing are the destitute faces of the citizens of a communist country, longing for Western liberation. It seems the market here is alive and well, and I’d even go so far as to say it’s thriving. Indeed, on the Wikitravel page for Saigon, they have this to say about your culinary options: "You're spoiled for choice in Saigon, which offers the country's largest variety of Vietnamese and international food. Bargains are getting harder to find, however, and restaurant prices have been rising at up to 30% per year due to a combination of higher food prices, rising wages, and soaring real estate costs. Land in the city center now sells for around US$16,000 per square meter, so even a modest-sized restaurant sits on real estate worth more than US$1 million. Authentic local food at bargain prices is one of the glories of Vietnam, but it's getting harder to find in Saigon as the city becomes ever more upscale and cosmopolitan."
Officials in green uniforms prowl the city streets. I assumed they were police officers for the first few days until I discovered that they are actually tourist assistance officers. Vietnam has tourist assistance officers. Lots of them.
Sitting in the park just blocks from the Reunification Palace (where a North Vietnamese tank stormed through the gates on April 30, 1975), seeking shelter from the rain under a tree, I got chatting with an elderly Vietnamese tailor named Tuan. It may be unfounded, but as an American I am somewhat wary of engaging in serious conversations with elderly Vietnamese folk. After all, they would have been of fighting age around the time of the war, and I have no idea what the conflict meant for them. Tuan, however, was happy to chat with me about everything from the aforementioned burgeoning tourist industry in the south (since the weather is much more favorable) to the growing freedoms the government allows the people. That’s right, just a few blocks from the Reunification Palace, a Vietnamese man is freely discussing with a young American the fact that in 10-20 years the Communist Party will no longer be in power. Why? Well, because they are letting the private sector grow, and freely at that. When the private sector gains power, the government loses power. In the past week, it was decided that foreigners were now allowed to purchase Vietnamese land in order to stimulate the housing market. That’s right, one of the world’s last remaining strongholds of communism has now opened its property market to foreign investment (albeit with certain limits on the extent of investment). Who knows what this will mean for the economic development of the next few years?
The biggest lesson these past few days have taught me is to not judge a book by its cover. The picture I had in my mind of Vietnam was a backward country that we desperately tried to free from the clutches of the evil Soviets and Russians, in need of foreign aid and institutional guidance from the first world. While I’m not saying Vietnam doesn’t have its share of problems—the flourishing economy is fully dependent on the continued support of the Communist Party and its intricate network of patronage and bribery—it does seem to be moving in the right direction. The people appear to be free to express themselves in ways that please them, and they have the freedom to work for a living, even if they are making a pittance by Western standards. The Communist Party runs the government, but it does not run the government with an iron fist. Sure, there is a certain degree of corruption, but it’s still a third-world country, and to a certain degree this has to be expected. Vietnam is by no means a first world country, but I’m surprised by the degree to which they are striving to be one.