By Nick Gier
It was March 24, 2010, and I was at Bangkok’s new international airport, the fifth busiest in Asia. Along with my travel companions, I boarded Air Vietnam flight 830 to Hanoi. Forty years ago, Americans flying this direction would have been fighter bomber pilots.
As we drove into Hanoi from the airport, we saw many bridges over the Red River that had been destroyed time and time again by U.S. bombs, only to be rebuilt or spanned by pontoons. The river was crowded with boat traffic bearing loads of basic building materials.
In Hanoi, I had expected a drab Marxist-Leninist city, but everywhere we looked there were brightly colored town houses – far outnumbering the more shabby residences. With ornate French colonial ironwork, they are built narrow and with multiple stories because property prices are so high.
Hanoi’s inner city is vibrant and bustling. Its private stores are piled high with goods, and street-side restaurants do a brisk business. The noodle soup called “pho” is the best in Asia.
The first evening in Hanoi, our guide took us to the lowering of the flag at Ho Chi Minh’s tomb. The next day, we visited his famous house-on-stilts. Uncle Ho, as the Vietnamese call their beloved, ascetic former leader, refused to live in the presidential mansion right next door. A Buddhist temple right next to Ho’s home was filled with Vietnamese worshipers.
After interacting with Vietnam’s farmers and small business owners, I have concluded that these people are totally unsuited to Communist ideology. The “liberation” promised by the North Vietnamese Communists after the U.S. withdrawal in 1975 turned out to be another 14 years of oppression. Private property was abolished, and every line of work, even the barbers, was collectivized.
The experiment was a colossal failure, but since 1989 most property and businesses have returned to private hands, and Vietnam has become another Asian economic “tiger.”
Politically, Vietnam is still a one-party state with tight controls on the press and other media. After trying to discourage religion, the Communists now allow religious freedom. The Buddhist temples and Catholic churches I visited were well-attended and well-maintained, though politically active Buddhists are not treated very well.
The next stop on our tour was Hue, the former imperial capital. The government has discouraged commercial development there, and it was nice to be away from the hustle and bustle of Hanoi. Much has been done to restore the many historical sites destroyed in the massive Tet Offensive of 1968, when the Viet Cong invaded the city and their flag flew over the Citadel for 25 days.
From Hue we drove along Highway 1 to Da Nang, where we saw condos, beach hotels, and golf courses being built all along the coast. Forty-five years ago, on March 8, the U. S. Marines landed at Da Nang as the vanguard of a troop buildup that ultimately reached over a half-million.
With a mixture of French colonial buildings and wide boulevards, new high-rises, and miles and miles of chaotic commercial development, Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is now a thriving city of 7 million people.
The war museum was a real downer for all of us. We had seen most of these horrific images, and we knew most of the tragic stories behind them, but to experience them all in one place and in a short time was emotionally devastating.
During my trip, I was most impressed with the morale of these hard-working, dynamic people, and since my return they have continued to prosper. Even with many non-competitive state-run enterprises, the Vietnamese economy is growing at a rate of 6 percent. (The U.S. rate is about 2 percent.) Those living in poverty have been reduced from 60 percent in 1993 to 13.5 percent in 2014.
Vietnam invests more in its schools than any of its developing country peers, and the results are impressive. For 2016 the Program for International Student Assessment (PISA) ranked Vietnamese 15-year-olds eighth in the world in science. Six other Asian nations were in the top 10, while the U.S. came in 25th. In science and technology the U.S. continues to lose its competitive edge to hard-working Asians.
My fear is that the Vietnamese, just as the Chinese have done, will accept the lack of political freedom as long as they have the freedom to worship, to enjoy their professions and to run businesses on their own.
Nick Gier of Moscow was co-president of the Student-Faculty Committee to End the War in Vietnam from 1965-66 at Oregon State University. He taught philosophy at the University of Idaho for 31 years.
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