Thursday, March 19, 2009

"I (heart) communism?" Gimme a break! Some brief impressions of life in the, uh, Peoples’ Republic of Vietnam.

• Somebody at the local ad agency in Hanoi needs a lesson in original thinking. That "I (heart) Communism" poster in the photograph above is a ripoff of the "I (heart) New York" advertising campaign that was new more than 25 years ago.

• There is some prosperity under the communist government. I said some. But not a huge dose of it. A big positive indicator: The formerly ubiquitous bicycle has been largely replaced by the absolutely ubiquitous motorcycle and motorbike traffic jam. And yes, I did see significant amounts of new building construction all the way from Hanoi, down Highway One to Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon.)

• But huge numbers of people, even in the cities, are still living in shacks. And you don’t even want to know about the sanitation. Living in Vietnam is a very mixed bag. The communists have failed to do enough redistributing of income — sort of like Republicans here. And I was told there is virtually no social safety net. Grover Norquist would love being a Vietnamese communist.

• To quote one informant: “Yes, we really do feel free to say anything we want about the government here. As long as we don’t write it down.” In short, freedom of speech, yes — although I wouldn’t shoot my mouth off in a government office about corrupt bureaucrats. But there’s no freedom of the press.

• Some Vietnamese complain that corruption is rampant. I got to see one example of what they mean — the Vietnamese roadside equivalent of a rural Georgia speed trap. Our tour bus was flagged down along Highway One for some imperceptible (at least by me) traffic violation. The driver, who didn’t look happy about it, left the bus almost in tears. Evidently, the bribe he was required to pay had to come out of his own pocket, not the bus company’s. Suddenly, the cops saw another bus coming. Whaddya know! Two of the three ran away from the first “transaction” to flag down the next bus. Hey, policing is a business.

• The Vietnamese seem willing to forgive us for the war. Maybe just because they need our money. Maybe because the majority of the country’s population wasn’t born yet during the 60s and 70s. In any case, Americans seem to encounter no overt hostility.

• But the Vietnamese don’t forgive their own. A member of our tour group, an American captain during the Viet Nam War, found a private guide in Ho Chi Minh City to show him the “jungle” area where his unit had been located. Well, it’s jungle no more, just an extension of the expanding city. But the guide was “as bitter as they get,” said my fellow tourist. The guide had been ARVN, working with the US Army. For this he got sent to a “re-education camp” for four years — the equivalent of what you and I might consider prison. However, when they let him out, they weren’t finished with him. The government withheldhis work permit. So he can’t get a job. He also can’t go to school. He ekes out a subsistence doing secret “private tours” for visiting American war vets. The rest of the time he lives off the kindness of his family, 21 of whom occupy a four room house.


•Pickpockets are busy in Ho Chi Minh City. We were warned. Even so, a woman in our group lost her passport and credit cards right in the center of town. If you go to Saigon, hang on tight to your stuff.

• The Vietnamese are very touchy-feely. They’ll not only grab your arm and try to make you hold still until you buy something. (“You buy, you buy!”) If you’ve got a big belly (as some in our group did) they’ll run up to you and rub it for good luck, exclaiming, “Happy Buddha! Happy Buddha!” This is in reference to a common image of the Buddha as pot-bellied and smiling. First thing I did when I got back to New York was put in a call to a nutritionist to put me on a diet.

• Prostitution is illegal. But our guide took us to dinner one night in Saigon’s red light district, a long narrow alley lined with brothels. There must have been ten whorehouses in a row, each with a dozen or so girls lined up outside or just inside the doorways of their establishments. But of course that plain-sight whorehouse row is completely illegal. (See the item several paragraphs above about corruption.)

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