Daniel Okrent
May 01, 2000 12:00 PM

Ho Chi Minh City wakes up early. By 6 a.m. the insistent buzzing of motor scooters has begun to annotate the edges of the relentless humidity. By 8 a.m. the streets are hive-like, a seemingly random aggregation of Korean-made diesel trucks, military jeeps, bicycles with one person on the seat, one on the handlebars, a third on the back bumper. Then there are the women in conical hats hoisting baskets loaded with fresh produce; the Mitsubishi Pajeros ferrying foreign businessmen out to the Song Be Golf Resort; the vast, surging flotillas of motorbikes, the proudest sign of relative wealth in urban Vietnam—even if the $2,000 it takes to buy one means absolute privation in the rest of one’s life.

By 10 a.m. the street-corner animal vendors may have already pulled in a decent day’s pay, peddling a menagerie of pets sufficient to stock a small zoo—monkeys, parrots, baby wildcats as well as the household cats and dogs most likely kidnapped by street kids who survive by the trade. But the woman over there supports herself quite nicely selling diamonds and sapphires in a shop on Dong Khoi Street. And the fellow hawking newspapers on the corner is more than happy to sell you today’s International Herald Tribune, even if several lines of an article about the “Hanoi Hilton”—the infamous prison whose brutalized inmates once included Sen. John McCain and the current U.S. ambassador, Pete Peterson—have been rendered illegible by the thick, angry strokes of a censor’s black marking pen.

Good morning, Vietnam!

Thanks to the 1987 Robin Williams movie, that’s one of the most familiar phrases spawned by the Vietnam War, a conflict whose final hours ticked past in Ho Chi Minh City—it was called Saigon back then—25 years ago April 30. By then, Vietnam had been a daily presence in American newspapers, magazines and television broadcasts for a full decade, and we knew far more about this astonishingly beautiful country and its beleaguered people than we do now. Today, Americans who visit—more than 200,000 came last year—discover a different kind of news for themselves. One American official in Hanoi says we could rehabilitate all of the U.S. veterans still suffering from their memories of the war by having them spend two weeks in the country. An American woman in a hotel restaurant remarks how friendly everyone is, how warm and welcoming despite the inescapable economic hardship, how little anti-American feeling there appears to be.

Of course, the Vietnamese call it the American War, just one chapter in a long, sad history of war and occupation. For more than 1,000 years, Vietnam was dominated by China. For a century, until the Communist victory at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, it was a French colony. Then came decades of more bloodshed, U.S. troops supporting the anti-Communist government in Saigon, the North Vietnamese carrying their flag into the south. If you’re old enough, think back to 1970—not to the war America was fighting then but to how distant World War II seemed to you at the time. That’s how far we—Americans and Vietnamese alike—are removed from the events of 1964-75. Even Vietnam’s government recognizes the need to sanitize, if not entirely obliterate, the past: What used to be called the Museum of American War Crimes is now the War Remnants Museum.

This doesn’t, however, keep the evidence of the war years from showing up in unexpected places. Those pretty, round ponds you see from the air on the flight from Hanoi to Hue are flooded bomb craters. Military cemeteries are everywhere. In muscular Da Nang, the waterfront is dominated by a spectacular network of port facilities, conveniently left behind by the departing Americans. Even the dots on the map bring back memories of the war, labeled as they are by the iambic bisyllables that once punctuated the nightly news: Khe Sanh, Quang Tri, Nha Trang.

The briefest version of Vietnam’s past quarter century—since we Americans last checked in—needs only the four words that can fairly confidently be applied to the progress of any Marxist state: jubilation, repression, deprivation, reform. Celebration of the North Vietnamese tanks rolling into Saigon was quickly followed by a massive program of “reeducation” of South Vietnamese in an extensive series of labor camps. A devastating drop in farm output followed a disastrous land-collectivization program. A country capable of being, as it is today, the world’s second-largest exporter of rice was, for a dreadful time in the early 1980s, a net importer of the crop.

Then in 1986 came doi moi—Vietnamese for “new era”—and a liberalized economic system that has been called Market Leninism. It’s a clever locution save for its inaccuracy: The only evidence of Communism in this society is an old-style dictatorship and the Marxist soundtrack that it continues to spin, a series of stale revolutionary slogans that the average Vietnamese heeds far less than soccer scores or lottery numbers. In some ways official Vietnam appears, like China, to be aspiring to a capitalist economy whose principal beneficiaries are members or friends of a single-party police state. There’s a two-word answer for who lives in that exquisitely restored 200-year-old house, with its iron-wood pillars and carved mahogany screens, in the lovely southern seaside town of Hoi An: “Party member.”

Still, relative to the pre-doi moi days and certainly to decades of bloody war, Vietnam in 2000 brims with promise. The literacy rate now nears 95 percent. The average Vietnamese is better off today than at any time in the country’s ancient history, even with a per capita income of less than $400. The glam resorts on the white sands of China Beach, the increasing number of foreign visitors (nearly 2 million expected this year), the quickening stream of expatriate Viet Kieu returning to their homeland, business plans in hand, ready to capitalize on the pending U.S.-Vietnam trade agreement—all are signs of stunning changes soon to come, changes that will make what this struggling country has undergone since 1975 seem pale and puny.

Once more, then, even louder:

Good morning, Vietnam!

—Daniel Okrent

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