Letter from Hanoi

A $10 BILL ON LEGS

That's what SIEVE BURGESS felt like in this clinic of raw capitalism

February 28 2005
Letter from Hanoi

A $10 BILL ON LEGS

That's what SIEVE BURGESS felt like in this clinic of raw capitalism

February 28 2005

A $10 BILL ON LEGS

Letter from Hanoi

IT’S TET HOLIDAY TIME in Vietnam, and a crowded Hanoi sidewalk is in flames. A woman is burning paper clothes, festive paper hats and boots, fake money, so that the dead too can celebrate with new goods for the lunar new year. Pedestrians detour around the bonfire, merging with the ceaseless flow of motorbikes, cars and bicycles, all of them honking incessantly, most of them swooping and swerving like fish in a gin-laced aquarium.

The visitor must keep moving as well—a newcomer to Vietnam soon discovers what happens to tourists who move too slowly.

Ho Chi Minh was a pragmatic guy. Seeking to end French rule after the Second World War, the Vietnamese freedom fighter asked for support from the great land of Washington and Lincoln. But America sided with France, and Ho was forced to look elsewhere. The Marxist Ho sought out more ideologically friendly allies, ensuring that the hammer and sickle would one day fly over Saigon.

Ho Chi Minh, great leader and Marxist icon, is inescapable in modern Vietnam. His name is now attached to the former South Vietnamese capital, his waxy corpse on display in Hanoi, his picture on posters and postcards and lampposts everywhere. And his spirit? Well, that depends.

If Uncle Ho truly was the dedicated Marxist of propaganda legend, that oftrefurbished cadaver in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum ought to be spinning fast enough to supply electricity to the entire nation. But if the former guerrilla who wore down two great powers over three decades of

armed struggle truly was a pragmatist, he might well be pleased by how his children have turned out. For down at street level, Vietnam is a roiling clinic of raw capitalism. Red stars and party slogans do not a Communist society make—10 minutes in Hanoi or Ho Chi Minh City will show you that.

Following a couple of visits to Bangkok and Hong Kong, I thought I knew what Asian street commerce was all about. But Vietnam is a different matter entirely. Halfway through my first day in Hanoi I was running like a hunted animal through the

streets of the Old Quarter. After fending off shouts and disconcerting hoots from an endless procession of hawkers, I’d made the mistake of stopping to engage in conversation with a motorbike driver. When I then declined his offer of a ride, he grabbed my arm to pull me toward the bike. I ducked through an archway and bolted.

My usual plan in a new city is to wander, blend in and observe. In Hanoi, I might as well have been 50 lb. of bratwurst attempting to blend into a kennel. Each narrow street seemed a gauntlet of vendors—motorbike, shoeshine, T-shirts, watches, maps, bananas, books (usually The Quiet American, The Sorrow of War and the Lonely Planet Vietnamese Phrasebook—but at home I’ll bet they’re reading Adam Smith and Donald Trump). Peaceful repose in a public place was not possible. The Vietnamese may burn fake money for the dead, but they don’t play games with the real stuff. As a strolling tourist, you are a walking $10 bill. You are Opportunity. You must be grabbed.

That hectic pace is mirrored in traffic patterns that must be seen to be believed. Actually, you can see a fairly good approxi-

mation by smacking a wasps’ nest with a stick. Vietnamese drivers use a sonar system, telling other vehicles their position by constant honking. The traditional use of brakes to avoid collisions has been replaced here by horns and the flashing of headlights. This can signal a driver ahead of you, “I will shortly be climbing over your back wheels—please move aside.” Or, if a driver is heading straight for you on your side of the road, it says: “While I agree that pulling out into oncoming traffic is ordinarily a perfectly acceptable Vietnamese activity, it

might in this case be inadvisable due to my inability to hit the shoulder where a gasoline truck is squeezing through to my right. Thank you for your co-operation.” In a perverse way, it was reassuring to come upon a gruesome cautionary display of traffic accident photos posted outside a Hanoi hospital. It was my first indication that the Communists had not repealed the laws of physics.

Communism does show up occasionally here, in a few large roadside monuments and in the English-language Viet Nam News. The paper prints plenty of international

That's what SIEVE BURGESS felt like in this clinic of raw capitalism

IN A NEW city, I like to wander, blend in and observe. In Hanoi, I may as well have been 50 lb. of bratwurst in a kennel.

wire stories, but when it comes to domestic matters—well, in summary, the party is making great strides with the full support of the people. Rubber production looks good, too.

Hai Anh is a Hanoi writer who has returned after spending the past 15 years in Holland. She sees a different city than the one she grew up in. “A lot faster, a lot noisier now,” she says. “More traffic jams. Most of the bicycles are gone. Now, motorbikes and cars.” In fact, she says, the old days are not only gone but increasingly forgotten. “Nobody remembers the past. When people go to festivals, they dress the way they imagine the traditional dress used to be, but it’s not the same. It’s funny—they do their best.” Not that there’s anything wrong with that

in Hai Anh’s view. “You can’t expect people to value the original traditions,” she insists. “They just want change. People have more things now, more chances to go abroad, more TV channels. The development of the economy has made people more self-confident. They have seen things change so much—they think they can have everything now. Vietnam is very positive—it doesn’t worry about the past. Vietnam is a country of the future.”

At the Army Hotel (conveniently located beside the Ministry of Defence), a group of Europeans hope to export a little of that Vietnamese future to their own homes. Couples from France, Holland, Ireland and Italy fill the hotel, each with one or more adopted Vietnamese children in tow. After a complete moratorium intended to shut down a system rife with corruption, these four countries have been the first to sign agreements with the Vietnamese government to restart the adoption process. Here, at least, rampant capitalism has been checked as Vietnam negotiates the terms of its ongoing reintegration with the world.

A visitor constantly hears the ghostly warning voice of Basil Fawlty: “Don’t mention the war!” But in fact there seems to be almost no sensitivity to it—they won, it’s over, end of story (although the South Vietnamese would gently correct me if I asked any sweeping questions about national customs: “Well, in the North, it is different. This is the South ... ”).

Still, I am not trying to be glib in pointing out that what the French and Americans discovered in turn—the impossibility of conquering Vietnam—is a lesson learned in miniature by each new Western arrival. Seated next to me on a flight from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City, a Swiss businessman sighed as he described eight months of offand-on activity here. “In Vietnam, anything is possible if you have money,” he told me. “You could probably get away with murder if you made the right payments. But as an outsider, you can only go so far here. You will hit a wall. You cannot be part of this place.”

This country’s growing thirst for tourists is drawing increasing numbers here. But there will always be those who seek more, and for them Vietnam can be a daunting experience. “I think,” my Swiss friend concluded, “that this is the last time I will come here.” fil