“Don’t look, close your eyes,” I was told is the best strategy for crossing the road in Ho Chi Minh City. “Wave your hands in the air, so they can see you and make sure you don’t stop.”
Ho Chi Minh is not Vietnam’s capital, but it its most populated city. The roads are heavily congested seven days a week, mostly with motorbikes, that weave in and out of the lanes at a manic pace. There are reported to be more than 80 motorbike-related accidents in Vietnam every day.
The country as a whole may have seen rapid growth in recent years, but it is Ho Chi Minh (still affectionately called Saigon by many locals and foreigners alike) that is the place most seem to want to be. Seeing international chains like McDonald’s, Starbucks and HSBC alongside traditional Asian businesses and hectic street life, demonstrates the extent to which capitalism has taken hold in communist Vietnam in recent decades.
“We don’t feel communist in Ho Chi Minh city, it’s just that we have a communist government,” a tour guide told me, as we explored its many interesting sites. But that government seems far away for some in Ho Chi Minh. In fact my guide told me there are people living here wouldn’t even be able to tell you what the prime minister or president was called. They change every five years and never spend time visiting ordinary people, only coming to Ho Chi Min city for meetings and to carry out the Communist Party’s wishes.
As I wrote in my last blog from Vietnam, US officials fled from Saigon just before the city fell to the North in 1975. But in 1995 there was a breakthrough in relations between the two countries when they restored diplomatic relations. And in a further symbol that it was making strides with the western world, in 2007 Vietnam was welcomed into the World Trade Organisation.
Vietnam is a country that wants to modernise and develop fruitful, peaceful relations with other nations. Embracing capitalism and welcoming international visitors is a key part of this. For some however, like author Bill Hayton, this was inevitable, noting the role that capitalism has played in southern Vietnam in the last 150 years, as he noted in his 2010 book, Vietnam: Rising Dragon:
“When the communist People’s Army crashed through the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon in April 1975, it seemed, in the minds of the northern leadership, to confirm Hanoi’s superiority: militarily, ideology and historically. The north had beaten the Americans. Triumphalism reigned. Hanoi sent another army south, an army of northern bureaucrats which tried to remould it into an image of the north without regard to its very different economic situation. But bureaucracy met its match: capitalism was never eradicated.”
The war may have taken place relatively recently, but given the role the US plays in providing to Vietnam trade and security (something particularly important given its powerful neighbour is China), the government urges people to forget the past to some degree. And a number of people I spoke to in Ho Chi Minh City are happy with that approach of looking the future.
After 1975 it became clear that pure socialism in Vietnam wouldn’t deliver, as evidenced by the economic crisis of 1979. Liberalising the economy became official policy in 1986 and by 1991 inflation had fallen to manageable levels, there was healthy growth and poverty was reducing. New legislation introduced in 2000 made it easier for new private businesses to register.
Despite the modernisation of many aspects of Vietnamese life in recent years, it is easy to get carried away and forget that the Communist Party remains the dominant power in the country. While people I met, like my guide, may feel distant from the government, any attempts to challenge its authority would be met by force.
“The party is experimenting with openness to try to make the current system more effective, but any transition to a new system – a truly open and democratic system – is still a long way off,” wrote Hayton.
“Looking at the streets of big-city Vietnam – Hanoi, Danang, Haiphong and Ho Chi Minh City – it’s easy to think that Vietnam is all market and no socialism,” he commented. “A riot of advertising overhead, a melee of traders below, every alleyway a potential noodle stall and every shady tree a possible barber’s shop. Development is literally ‘free wheeling’; borne on the back of care-worn motorbikes. But the frentic activity exaggerates the importance of the indigenous private sector. It provides plenty of jobs and a lot of excitement but there are few private businesses of any size.”
Loyalty to the Party is still important if you want to get ahead in Vietnam, with members rewarded with the biggest stakes in private businesses. And it is the government and its supporters that own virtually all the media outlets. Hayton, writing in 2010, noted that editor-in-chiefs (who are had to be Party members to hold their positions) attended a weekly briefing where officials provided a critique on stories published during the previous week, where titles that have fallen short of what is deemed acceptable journalism were singled out, and key themes for the week ahead were outlined.
“Criticising the implementation of policy is acceptable; criticising the Party directly is not,” wrote Hayton. “At root, the Party still want the media to be a tool for managing society – keeping corruption within acceptable limits, raising awareness of social problems and applauding efforts to tackle them. Looking too hard at why corruption continues to flourish or social problems go unsolved is not encouraged.”
Foreign owned media operating in Vietnam have in recent years faced different rules. Hayton noted that reporters were meant to register five days in advance any requests for journalistic activity (i.e. an interview with someone), but unless the output is deemed to be highly critical of Vietnam, it seems – according to author – that this has largely been ignored. It has also been know for foreign language television stations to either be banned for being critical of the regime or their transmissions delayed allowing programmes to be censured.
Clearly, the internet, which has been available in the country since 2005, represents a big challenge for Vietnam. While some bloggers critical of the government have been arrested, it won’t be possible to stop all content challenging the Party’s rule to be censored – particularly if the authors live abroad. Unlike China, wi-fi is prevalent in Vietnam and popular sites are freely accessible.
Looking to the future
Vietnam has done well in attracting western businesses to set-up manufacturing businesses in the country, creating hundreds of thousands of jobs in the process. By positioning itself as an alternative to China, it is now common to see “Made in Vietnam” on the label of clothes sold in countless high street shops in Britain. In fact ironically the new bag I bought for my trip to Southeast Asia was manufactured in Vietnam!
But experts have argued that if the country’s economy is to continue to grow it will need to attract higher-skilled and thus better paid industries. This means investing in areas such as education and infrastructure. With more and more people migrating from the countryside to the big cities, this will be essential to ensure that they don’t collapse from bigger populations putting too much pressure on provided services. Maybe one day a safer way of crossing roads will also be introduced!