June 20, 2006
Back on Pacific Bliss
Langkawi , Malaysia
Looking Back on China and Viet Nam : I Miss America !

Read Chapter 35 from MiGitana's website www.migitana.com
about the 10-day Vietnam Tour that we took with them

  I close this section of my travel journals on China and Vietnam with a clipping from the Herald Tribune about America, my first home, as we settle back on board Pacific Bliss , our second home. I am in a contemplative mood. It has been raining here ever since we returned here from Vietnam on Sunday afternoon, so Gunter and I are “hunkering down,” which feels good after so much traveling.

The clipping is headlined: Vibrant America Offers Drab Soccer . Why select an article about how the U.S. tends to lose world soccer matches? Well, of course, my thinking is not centered on soccer at all, although we watched many of the matches broadcast on hotel TVs as we traveled. Reading the article before I discard the Sunday paper, I admire the Brit's excellent command of the English language, even in a sports column. And I admire what the writer, John Vinocur, has to say about America --for despite the U.S. mistakes in the Vietnam war, and again in the Iraq war, I am still proud to be an American! I like the selection of adjectives that he strings together. America is:

•  Extravagant
•  Restless
•  Inventive
•  Wild with energy
•  Has an answer for everything
•  Has optimism as a creed
•  Encouragement and positive thinking line the streets
•  There is a niche of potential respect for every whacko and crackpot

He summarizes the spirit of America by saying, “There's one big psychic billboard on the national horizon blinking in neon: You Can't Get Hurt by Trying .”

It is a message I need, having come back from our last destination, Ho Chi Minh City (Saigon) where the one-sided but sad messages of the War Remnants Museum dug a hole into my heart.

Having gone there, I am pleased to report that the people of Vietnam hold no grudges against Americans (although they would like compensation for Agent Orange victims, just as our veterans do). 65% of the population is under the age of 30. They are the Vietnamese “baby boomers” who were born after the unification of North and South Vietnam in 1975. After the “American War” as they call it, there were years of revolutionary initiatives encouraging large families, but now—in an about-face—the two-child policy is enforced in the cities. In fact, not only does the couple have to pay a fine if they have a third child; that child will not have an identity card, necessary for school and work. The population now hovers at over 83 million, making Vietnam the 13 th most populous country in the world.

We found the people very friendly, gracious and anxious to please. They are vibrant, ambitious, and optimistic. They are very focused on the future. And they welcome American tourists and want to do everything they can to increase American investment and purchases; the U.S. is their largest trading partner. The biggest stars on their horizon (according to a news article we read in Hanoi ) are:

•  Completion of the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Talks (this occurred while we were there and is seen as the precursor to admittance to the WTO;

•  Admittance to the WTO—planned for November (with U.S. support)

•  Visit by U.S. President George W Bush, scheduled as part of the forthcoming ASEAN meetings, to be hosted by Vietnam for the first time. (ASEAN is an organization originally established as a bulwark against communism, but now its primary focus is trade.)

These stars are all part of the doi moi , Vietnam 's “opening up” policy. The liberalization of foreign investment laws and relaxation of visa regulations for tourists are part of this opening up to the world. The ending of the cold war with the Soviet Union had far reaching implications to the remainder of the Asian Communist bloc, an effect that is seldom reported on in western media. The USSR began its first cautious opening to the West in 1984 and Vietnam followed suit in 1986 by choosing reform-minded Nguyen Van Linh to lead the Vietnamese Communist Party. However, the dramatic changes in Eastern Europe caused by the USSR “opening up” were not viewed positively in Hanoi . The party denounced the participation by non-communists in Eastern bloc governments, calling the democratic revolutions “a counter-attack by imperialist circles” against socialism. But as China opened up, and relations improved with this age-old enemy, it was logical for Vietnam to follow. Relations with the U.S. improved dramatically since 1994, when the U.S. lifted the economic embargo, in place since the 1960s. Now, full diplomatic relations are restored. In 2000, President Clinton became the first U.S. president to visit northern Vietnam .

The future looks bright, but it all depends on how well the Vietnamese can follow the Chinese road to development; it is a hard act to follow: economic liberalization without political liberalization. With only two million paid-up members of the Communist Party and over 80 million Vietnamese, it is a road that the leaders must tread carefully.

One wonders why there is such a tacit acceptance of the past—toward the Chinese, the French, and then the Americans—and such a lack of interest among the general population in the current political situation. But then, one has to take into account the national psyche.

The Vietnamese have been shaped by their history, which is a recounting of battles won and lost over centuries. China , the giant to the north, has been the traditional threat to Vietnam . The Chinese occupied Northern Vietnam from 189 BC to 939 AD. In fact, with over 1000 years of occupation, one wonders how the Vietnamese managed to retain their ethnicity and national pride. Local Vietnamese kings ruled the area from 939 AD to 1860 AD. This was their dynasty era. Then the French colonized the area, known as French Indochina, from 1860 to 1945.

The United States promised to support former French Indochina when the French pulled out of its colony in 1954 after a nine-year war for independence. Indochina was then divided into four countries: Laos , Cambodia , North Vietnam , and South Vietnam . But North Vietnam quickly became a communist nation, as one of the leaders of the independence movement, the charismatic Ho Chi Minh, took control of the nation. In 1959, he announced he was going to reunify Vietnam as a Communist nation. To achieve this goal, he gave military assistance to the Viet Cong (Communist guerrillas in South Vietnam ) and began a civil war in South Vietnam .

In what was called the "domino theory," the United States believed that if South Vietnam fell to the Communists, the other democratic nations in Asia would follow, creating a massive Communist empire. To prevent this, the United States sent the Military Assistance Advisory Group to the region in the early 1960s to train the South Vietnam Army to defend itself. Air force advisors arrived with a variety of planes on which to train the South Vietnamese Air Force in aerial tactics and techniques. However the boundaries of this "advisory" capacity began to blur as the Americans themselves were allowed to fly reconnaissance and close air support flights against the Viet Cong as long as at least one South Vietnamese was aboard the plane. The war went on year after year and a final cease-fire was signed on January 23, 1973 . Except for a small contingent to protect American interests, American troops went home.

In 1975, North Vietnam invaded South Vietnam again, conquering the country in two months. The United States refused to intervene. As the Communists approached Saigon , the U.S. ambassador ordered all Americans and some Vietnamese to evacuate. For 18 hours on April 29, 70 Marine helicopters evacuated 1,000 Americans and 7,000 Vietnamese from Saigon to aircraft carriers in the South China Sea . The largest helicopter evacuation in history closed the book on America 's most disastrous overseas action.

But it wasn't over for the Vietnamese. The cruel and protracted war had fractured the country; there was understandable bitterness on both sides and a mind-boggling array of problems, from unmarked minefields, to war-focused dysfunctional economies; from a chemically poisoned countryside to a population that had been physically or mentally battered. The Communist party did not trust the Southern urban intelligentsia, so large numbers of Northern cadres were sent south to manage the transition. This fueled resentment among Southerners who found themselves frozen out. The rapid transition to socialism proved disastrous for the South's economy. The reunification was accompanied by widespread political repression. Despite repeated promises to the contrary, hundreds of thousands who had ties to the previous regime had their property confiscated and were rounded up and imprisoned without trial in forced-labor camps. (The father of one of our guides was sent to one of those camps to be “re-educated.”) Tens of thousands of business people, intellectuals, artists, journalists, writers, union leaders, and religious leaders—some of whom had even opposed Thieu and the war—were held in horrendous conditions. Despite a socialist economic policy, Vietnam sought some type of rapprochement with the U.S. , and by 1978, Washington was close to establishing some sort of diplomatic relations with Hanoi . But then, the China card was played and Vietnam was sacrificed for the prize of U.S. relations with Beijing . Hanoi was pushed into the arms of the Soviet Union , on whom it was to rely for the next decade. “Those years from 1975 to 1990 were horrible,” said one of our guides. “There was no work. Our families in Central and Southern Vietnam were starving.”

But it still wasn't over. War weary Vietnam seemed beset by its enemies. Relations with China to the north and its Khmer Rouge allies to the west were rapidly deteriorating. An anti-capitalist campaign was launched in 1978, seizing businesses and private property; most of the victims were ethnic Chinese. Hundreds of thousands became refugees and relations with China soured further. Meanwhile, Vietnam had to respond to the attacks on their villages by the Khmer Rouge, so in 1978, they acted, driving the Rouge from power and setting up a pro-Hanoi regime in Phnom Penh in 1979. China viewed that attack as a provocation and fought a brief 17-day war, also during that horrendous year.

As the Lonely Planet Vietnam says, “They respect but fear China , and in the context of 2000 years of history, the French and the Americans are but a niggling annoyance that were duly dispatched. The Vietnamese are battle-hardened, proud, and nationalist, as they have earned their stripes in successive skirmishes with the world's mightiest powers.”

“But that's the older generation,” the Planet goes on to say. “For the new generation, Vietnam is a different place to succeed, a place to ignore the rigid structures set in stone by the communists, and a place to go out and have a good time. While ‘Uncle Ho' is respected and revered across generations for his dedication to the national cause, the young men are more into David Beckham's latest haircut than the party's latest pronouncements.”

I don't know about the haircuts, but I could see signs of latent entrepreneurship on the streets and in the press. One of the nation's best known new entrepreneurs, Ly Qui Trung, 40, opened a noodle soup store three years ago and now has 33 outlets with distinctive décor and polite service, all modeled on McDonald's.

Called Pho 24 , after the national dish of noodles, beef, spices and greens served in an aromatic broth, the stores earn their franchisees up to $40,000 a year, a handsome income in Vietnam . So some are getting rich, it seems.

"I use the method of McDonald's: everything is standardized, everything is uniform," he said. "It's nine steps from taking the order to serving the food to saying goodbye." He expects to open 100 stores in the next two years, including a restaurant in southern China next month.

Speaking of McDonalds, we did not see one yet in Vietnam , although Ho Chi Minh City has quite a few KFCs and that chain has plans to expand into Hanoi as well. I expect that the other chains are just testing the tea leaves, awaiting that WTO membership this fall.

On the technological front, Bill Gates is already a hero in Vietnam . From a recent news article:

Ms. Ninh singled out the welcome for Mr. Gates, who was mobbed here in April, as an example of friendlier attitudes. "Vietnamese like Bill Gates because he earned his money with his brain, and got it with his determination," she said. "He is a role model young people can emulate."

His last message, she noted, was to say, "I'm coming back."

Intel is also making inroads to Vietnam with plans to build a new manufacturing plant on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City .

Despite the Vietnamese optimism, the transition from fields to factories will not be a cake walk. There are still are political diehards in Vietnam who favor the Chinese model: economic transition to open markets with firm Communist Party political control, and that could be a problem . Intellectual property laws need to be strengthened. Controls over the press controls need to be slackened. And it is important that Vietnam not be turned into a factory for Chinese interests.

In Vinh Yen district on the outskirts of Hanoi , Chen Guo Hui, a textile engineer from Southern China , runs a yarn manufacturing factory with 600 employees, many of whom left the surrounding farms to work as machine operators.

"Chinese factories are coming here more and more — labor costs are 25 to 30 percent lower than in China ," he said. At his plant, workers were paid an average of $60 a month.

The government finally passed an enterprise act in 2000 that permitted the formation of small- and medium-size businesses. Major industries like power and telephones remain dominated by state enterprises.

There have been years of slow and fitful decision making by the governing Politburo. But Vietnam has finally arrived as an economic player in Asia . It was an interesting time to be there and now I am accessing the news online to see what develops.

Contrasting Vietnam with China :

When we planned our trip, I expected that the two communist countries would be much alike. Now, having traveled the two countries back to back, we found that there are more differences than similarities. Vive la difference! If you plan to travel to China , by all means, add a visit to Vietnam . You will not be disappointed!


•  Communist and controlled, no freedom of speech. Both are communist countries and both have centralized government control by a Politburo that represents the communist party. The press and TV stations are monitored and controlled. All decisions and policies are made by a central committee. The one China TV station available in English had no independent commentary. The Chinese and world news was read pedantically, as if the anchor were a student journalist on assignment; the delivery and content was quite boring. Features on travel and history (covering the Dynasties period) were interesting though. Many of the hotels carried only that one English TV station. (In the major cities, however, tourist and international hotels carried either CNN or BBC or both.)

So when we visited Vietnam , we were surprised to read in the Viet Nam News about an ongoing investigation of a corruption scandal in the government, an embezzlement of funds by officials of the Ministry of Transport. It was like a breath of fresh air to think that the journalists could actually criticize their government! And while we were there, the Viet Nam News celebrated its 15 th birthday, running enthusiastic editorials about the future and about how, until that newspaper was formed, there was no English news in Vietnam about the outside world. Even the business magazine, Vietnam Economic Times , had the temerity to run two full pages on the scandal. Unfortunately, the “fresh air” did not continue. It turns out that the Vietnamese communist party is just as paranoid as the Chinese. As we boarded the plane at Kuala Lumpur, the capital of Malaysia, for our short hop back to Langkawi, I picked up the International Herald Tribune . Headlined Hanoi, “New Press Rules in Vietnam.”

Vietnam 's Communist government has issued strict new press regulations that punish “denying revolutionary achievements” and require journalists to have articles reviewed before publication, officials and state media said on Friday.

The new decree on Cultural and Information Activities follows aggressive reporting in Vietnam 's state-controlled press of a massive corruption scandal that forced the resignation of the transport minister and the arrest of his deputy over embezzlement of some US$7million in state funds.

The press regulations came even as Prime Minister Phan Van Khai, in a speech to the National Assembly before his retirement, called for measures to “ensure transparency and openness of state agencies.”

“Holding press conferences, I think, must become a regular activity of administrative agencies,” Khai said, but added that the “peoples right to be informed must be clearly regulated.”

2. Both countries are undertaking an “opening up” policy . In essence, the Vietnamese model is a modification of the Chinese model—opening up the economy step by step while maintaining rule by the Communist Party. It is the distinctly alternate path to development than that followed by the Soviets under Mikhail Gorbachev's perestroika that led to downfall of Communist rule. China is much further along in its transition from a planned to a market economy. But in ten years or so, Vietnam will look much the same. That's why it was fortunate for us to see the country at this stage.

In both countries, the optimism of the young people as they head to market economy is contagious. They are vibrant, hard-working, and in love with anything “western.” They are not interested in politics, since they can't vote anyway, but are hopeful that in the long term, “this too, will change.” The Malaysian press, tongue-in-cheek, has mentioned the fervor with which the Chinese are voting during their hit program “Chinese Idol.” The Politburo is concerned, they say, because it is teaching the younger generation what voting is all about!

3. Conical Hats . In both countries, there were the ubiquitous conical hats. But in China, they seem to be associated with the working class, e.g. they are shown in drawings and paintings as parts of pastoral scenes of fields and rice paddies. Only the older people in the countryside were actually wearing them. In Vietnam, however, they are proud of these hats and see them as part of their culture. They are sold everywhere as souvenirs. We even received hats as part of our Vietnamese cooking class at the Sofitel/Metropole! And we had to wear them during our foray to the market before our class began. The hats are shown in both traditional and contemporary Vietnamese art, worn by the peasants, yes, but also by the young women--right along with the long, slit dress and trousers as part of the formal fashion.

•  Purses . Both countries had hand-made purses for sale of all types—beaded or embroidered, cloth or leather. But only in China are the designer knock-offs to be found--brands like Chanel, Louis Vuitton, and Gucci. Of course, China is the land of knock-offs: North Face vests for $10, “Colembia” shirts for $8, and every brand of sportswear and sport shoes one can imagine.

•  Pale Skin is Beautiful . As in all of Southeast Asia, the women of both China and Vietnam think the paler one's skin, the more beautiful and desired she is. On sunny days, one finds Chinese and Vietnamese women strolling along the sidewalks under a parasol or umbrella. Women who work in the fields will go to great lengths to preserve their pale skin by wrapping their faces in towels, wearing long-sleeved shirts, elbow-length gloves and conical hats. Vietnamese women riding motorcycles look like a bunch of slim, delicate bandits, wearing a bandana over their noses to protect against the sun and the diesel fumes. To tell an Asian woman “you have lovely white skin” is a great compliment. To tell her she has a nice tan is an insult! Only in one city, Shanghai , did we hear that this tide may be changing: our guide said that China 's first tanning salons have appeared there. The city's business workaholics realize that it is a sign of importance and success to appear like they have just come back from a tropical vacation (meaning that they are well enough off to afford the time to do such a thing). Storming the TV airwaves in China (and also here in Malaysia) are ads for whitening, brightening, and luminescing products for the face, one product right after another. Those ads have not yet reached Vietnam , because they do not have shopping malls and department stores with the products. But just wait. The French, Japanese, and American cosmetic companies are salivating to do even more business persuading the Asian women to “lighten up.”


•  Flowers and Gardens . I was disappointed in the gardens of China . There are far more delightful Chinese gardens to be found in other parts of the world, such as on Singapore 's Sentosa Island . In old China , grand spaces and courtyards—covering hectares—were signs of wealth and prestige. The rulers were not into height. They were into vastness to demonstrate their power. So there are huge areas of cobblestone and concrete. In the Forbidden City , for example, one can walk through the courtyards for hours. During the Cultural Revolution, anything ancient and beautiful was to be destroyed, so gardens full of grass and flowers were pulled up by the roots. Now one sees trees surrounded by brick enclosures set in concrete courtyards and occasionally some flowering container plants. We saw very little grass, even in the parks. The paths are very wide, to allow for hundreds of visitors. No one dares to trespass on what little grass there is!

The Vietnamese culture values beauty. There are fresh flower stands everywhere in the cities and towns. The homes do not have individual gardens, since land is at such a premium, but it is a lush land of flowers and blooming plants.

•  Bread vs. Baguettes . We had the colonial French to thank for the wonderful croissants and baguettes in Vietnam . They even sold baguettes in the morning along the highway going from Hanoi to Halong Bay . What a wonderful change!

In China , they seldom served bread with meals, except for breakfast in “Western” hotels. Back here in Malaysia , where they like the sweet biscuits or white bread, we have to go to a bakery in Kuah that makes just a few loaves of wheat bread per day for foreigners. They call it “Euro Bread.”

•  Pollution . When traveling in China , bring eye drops and allergy tablets. And don't expect to come back with photos of blue skies. You know those gray misty photos of China ? It's not all moisture and mist—especially around the cities. My eyes burned from the pollution. Entering Mainland China from Hong Kong , the bad air is the first thing one notices; the south is the primary manufacturing area. But even along the Yangtze, there is a lot of pollution. Beijing was better, but perhaps we were just lucky. We had blue skies for our hike along the Great Wall. The following week, our Intrepid tour leader reported that the skies there were a constant gray.

I was pleasantly surprised about Vietnam . The skies were blue, the fields a bright green, and the countryside a delight. That will be the negative of WTO entry—more factories and hence, more pollution. Already, the Chinese are putting in factories there, since the Chinese can save 30% on labor in Vietnam.

•  Cost of Living . Prices are gradually increasing in China . Needless to say, one can live like a king for very little in Vietnam . The food is fantastic; with the combination of French and Vietnamese, how can you lose? One can have a four-course meal, including beer or soft drink, for about $2 US. A four-star hotel room, including breakfast, is less than $70 US.

•  Art . I always loved those traditional misty paintings of Chinese limestone mountains and of the concubines in full regalia. And I love those vases, which are still fabulous. But to me, the contemporary art scene in China lacks the creativity, flamboyancy and flair of the Vietnamese. I saw numerous art galleries in every city we visited. The paintings ranged from traditional to impressionist to cubist to modern. However, the Vietnamese artists tend toward a minimalist style reminiscent of the Japanese, a style in vogue there which I found very different and appealing. I regret that I do not have any wall space left to hang more art!

•  Cultural Revolution . Vietnam did not go through a destructive Cultural Revolution as did China in the 1960s. While Vietnam leaders let major temples and historical monuments decay with no maintenance funding, and put no importance on “old things” during the years of 1975-1990, they didn't destroy them as the Chinese did. As part of the “opening up” policy, the Chinese government now encourages tourism. As part of the process, the government has spent billions and billions to restore old temples and palaces. They called in hundreds of experts and professional restorers who could make new woods and metals look old and distressed. The myriad sites throughout China that they've managed to rebuild and restore are impressive. Even so, the new wood, new paint, and fake gold under eaves of temples and over artwork is evident. In Vietnam , the temples and sculptures look really old—even though they don't date back thousands of years as in China .

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