Log and Journal
June 2006
Vietnam: Doi Moi and the National Psyche

No Grudges toward Americans
by Lois Joy

Having recently returned from Vietnam, I am pleased to report that the people there hold no grudges against Americans?although they would like compensation for Agent Orange victims (along with our own veterans). It is a message I need. The last stop of my ten-day tour was Ho Chi Minh City, where the one-sided?yet sad and accusing?propaganda of the War Remnants Museum dug a hole into my heart.

I wonder 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 of Vietnam about current politics. But then, I realize that I need to factor in the national psyche.

Most Americans fail to realize that the Vietnamese have spent nearly two millennia trying to cast off foreign domination. Epic tales of Vietnamese heroism stem from often ill-fated battles against Chinese invaders and conquerors, including the ferocious Mongols. The struggle against the Chinese continues today. Although the border wars of 1979-80 are over, there is still on-and-off friction over the oil-rich islands of the South China Sea. The effect of two centuries of domination has been the development of a national pride, tenacity and spirit of survival. For the Vietnamese have been the perennial underdogs who have eventually defeated or outlived all of their invaders.

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.”

The Vietnamese have paid a price for a turbulent history that has been more occupation than independence. The cost has been the loss of their own native culture. They have been forced to adapt and adopt.

Vietnam has never had the luxury of isolation. The country has been a way station of traders and merchants for centuries. First came the Portuguese and the Dutch. Then came the Japanese traders, followed by the French. One can view this mixed heritage through the prism of just one historic town, Hoi An, located just south of Danang. On the west side of the town is a traditional Japanese bridge leading to one of the many Chinatowns clustered throughout the city. The wooden two and three story houses along the waterfront are similar to the decrepit French holdovers in New Orleans.
And the story goes on: In the shadow of the Chinese juggernaut, the Vietnamese will continue to adapt. The roots of the education and bureaucratic systems are Confucian. The spoken language is derived from the Chinese while the written script is Latin-based, using the Roman alphabet instead of Chinese characters. The bread is French and the buses are rehabilitated American Army trucks. The religions are foreign or amalgams.

My tour included Tay Ninh, the main religious center of a religion called Cao Dai. Caodaism is the third largest religion in Viet Nam (after Buddhism and Roman Catholicism), with about 7-8 million followers. Cao means high; Dai means palace; the supreme palace where God reigns. This is an amazing, syncretistic religion which combines elements from many of the world's main religions, including Buddhism, Confucianism, Christianity, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Taoism, as well as Geniism, an indigenous religion of Viet Nam. The center includes statues of Jesus, Mary, Buddha and Mohammed.

I found the Vietnamese very friendly, gracious and anxious to please. They are vibrant, ambitious, and optimistic. They are very focused on the future. They welcome American tourists and love to show off their country. As a conversation opener, they are quick to spout the standard line that I heard over and over: “We hold no grudges against Americans.” And they want to do everything they can to increase American investment and purchases, for the U.S. is their largest trading partner. The biggest stars on their horizon (according to a Hanoi news article) are:
* Completion of the U.S.-Vietnam Trade Talks (this was accomplished while we were there in June and is seen as the precursor to admittance to the World Trade Organization);
* 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 end 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 Vietnamese have their own post-war baby boomer generation. An amazing 65% of the population is under the age of 30. They are the children 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. 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 13th most populous country in the world.

The Lonely Planet continues: “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. He expects to open 100 stores within the next two years, including a restaurant in southern China.

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. Mr. Trung gave an interview to the Vietnam News:
"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."
By the way, we noticed a wonderful absence of those Golden Arches 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 international chains are just testing the tea leaves, awaiting WTO membership slated for November of this year.
On the technological front, Bill Gates is already a hero in Vietnam. From a recent article in Vietnam News:
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 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 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 in another newspaper interview. 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. But major industries like power and telephones still remain dominated by state enterprises.

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 eighty million Vietnamese, it is a road that the leaders must tread carefully. The youth have inherited a tough and independent streak from their ancestors, who fought centuries of occupation by the major powers of the world (see sidebar). And the decisions made by the governing Politburo over the years have been slow and agonizing?too slow for the energy and enthusiasm of the people.

One thing is certain: Vietnam has finally arrived as an economic player in Asia. The summer of 2006 was a fascinating time to be there. As I following the continuing developments online, I’m cheering for her success.


Shaping a Strong Psyche through Centuries of Occupation

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, it’s a wonder the Vietnamese have 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 dragged 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 our guide covering Central Vietnam 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,” our guide went on to explain. “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.
The USSR began its first cautious opening to the West, called perestroika, in 1984 and Vietnam followed suit in 1986. In 1994, the U.S. lifted its economic embargo on Vietnam and its own opening up, called doi moi, began in earnest. Now, the locals say, “the stars are shining on Vietnam.”