Vietnam Revisited

Twenty-five years after the end of the American War, as they call it, Vietnamese don't mind all the US veterans coming back and reliving memories, but they'd rather move forward than remain stuck in the past

By Ron Gluckman /Hanoi, Ho Chi Minh, and in between

COM! WHO WOULD HAVE EXPECTED to see the world's favorite three-letter word everywhere in the old imperial city of Hue? Yet there it is, on signs and over storefronts, painted in big, bold letters: "C-O-M." One might have pegged Vietnam among the last places on Earth to catch the dot-com fever sweeping the rest of the globe - and you'd be right. All these shops in Hue, like others around the country, are into com, but the Vietnamese version - rice.

The linguistic quirk says much about Vietnam's current state and long-standing dilemma. By some measures, Vietnam is rich; in rice for instance. That's reason to cheer. Decades of devastating wars reduced Vietnam to rice pauper. In an amazing turnaround, it's bounced back from importer to become the world's third biggest rice exporter. Unfortunately, rice is an old measure of wealth, even in Asia.

Nowadays, the name of the game is commerce, as in com. As in e-trade. Perhaps that explains the crowds last month at a Hanoi hotel. Compaq hosted seminars on internet infrastructure and banking; 200 suits filled the seats. Not long ago, they would have come for the free croissants and giveaways, but in mid-March they excitedly exchange business cards in a gathering that seemed more suited to Singapore or Hong Kong. Likewise the constant buzz of mobile phones. 

"The response has been remarkable," said Dilip Phadke, who flew from Compaq's Houston headquarters to Vietnam for the first time for these e-vents. "The Vietnamese are enthusiastic, eager and ready to go."

Few, though, are on line. With a population nearing 80 million - 13th largest in the world - Vietnam has a mere 45,000 internet users, according to state-run media. Discounting foreign companies, government offices and aid groups, the number tumbles to 14,500, or under two-hundredths of a percent of the population, among the world's lowest internet levels. Yet interest is keen. "The internet is an important resource," said a researcher from the Ministry of Science, Technology & Environment. "We are working to learn about the internet and use it to advance our work." A local colleague from a foreign firm nodded enthusiastically. "The internet is fantastic," he said. "Everyone is excited about the net for business. We want to do on-line trading and ordering. It's one way for Vietnam to catch up with the world quickly."

That's the theory, but quick fixes have a habit of being anything but in Vietnam. Take on-line trading. It would nicely compliment the new stock exchange. If one ever opens. Talked about for years, an exchange is scheduled to open in Ho Chi Minh City by month's end. But even officials expect another postponement. "The pace here tends to be hurry up, then wait-and-see," notes one foreign executive.

And it has been that way through a decade of disappointing false starts. Once the sure-fire next dragon in Asia's long line of miracle stories, Vietnam seemed ready to boom in the late 1980s, after launching its doi moi reforms, but growth stalled long before the economic crisis hit Asia. Money is the number one subject with nearly everyone you talk to in Vietnam, but commerce simply isn't clicking. Clearly, something is missing. And it's more than just a dot to go with the com.

A decade after a deluge of magazine covers appeared at the dawn of the 1990s, touting the new Vietnam, it seemed an opportune time to revisit, especially in the run-up to nationwide celebrations marking the 25th anniversary of the fall of Saigon and nation's unification this month. Parades are scheduled in every city that fell prior to the southern capital on April 30, 1975. Expect the opening of a slew of government projects on that date - the stock exchange and an Australian-financed bridge across the Mekong River are being rushed into shape for "soft" openings - but save for red banners and government rhetoric, a top-to-bottom tour of Vietnam showed there's more sheen than substance to the celebrations.

The goodwill that greeted Good Morning Vietnam is long gone. Now, it's High Noon for a country that has struggled to kick into high gear. Not that it's all gloom. Perhaps nowhere in Asia are people more prepared - and eager - to take a great leap forward. And nowhere are foreign firms more anxious to assist. Enthusiasm has dimmed in the international media, although many grizzled veterans of the US and even French wars are currently in country, retracing their glory years in campaigns from a quarter century or more ago. Yet the media's love affair with Vietnam has faded. That's not the case with international aid groups, back in force, laden not only with video cameras and earnest slogans, but also ample cash. Vietnam could easily become, as a tourist campaign promises, "a destination for the new millenium." On the other hand, it may be another bust.

"That's the big worry," said an US executive, who admits downplaying dispatches to his home office. "Personally, there's nothing I'd love to see more than for Vietnam to finally take off. That's what the people here deserve and what investors have been hoping for years. I'm still a booster but, to be honest, I've just been burned too many times here." 


Still, there remains an invigorating sense of excitement about Vietnam. We feel it the second we touch down in Ho Chi Minh City. That's the official name of the nation's largest city and financial hub, but nobody, except perhaps high-level government officials, calls it that. To residents, whether street sweepers, sales clerks or company presidents, this city is as it always was, Saigon.

Nowadays, it's a crowded, teeming place, populated by, depending upon where you draw the lines, four to six million people. Who are in constant motion. On bikes and cyclos, in cars and buses, and, mainly, by motorbike. On Sunday nights, they roar relentlessly in a circle down Dong Khai boulevard then spin on either side of Dai Lo Le Loi. Inside the tree-lined walkway, kids kick footballs, and families pose for pictures in front of fountains. Vendors sell tiny toys, like the cheap plastic hopping frogs popular with western kids decades ago. The main action is on the street, on the saddle of a Honda Dream, the motorbike of choice. Traffic is so thick in front of the Rex Hotel, a garish relic of Vietnam war fame, that thousands of motorcycles simply inch along. Still, nobody is in a hurry. Dressed in club clothes, young couples make the scene, revving engines and yelling to friends in a mesmerizing weekly ritual of coolness and cruising.

There aren't many other outlets for Vietnam's baby boomers - another legacy of the wars. A third of the population is under 15 years of age, and 60 percent are 30 or under. It's the future consumer base that brand managers dream about, but nobody is cashing in yet. "My dream? It's to study at night and get a job with a foreign company," says a slick-dressed 25-year-old employee of Saigon Tourist Holding Company. He speaks perfect English, and is studying Japanese and Chinese. His motivation? "I could make $200, maybe even $250 a month," he says dreamily. His monthly salary is $150. 

Prospects are even grimmer outside Saigon, where wages are double Hanoi's average. At the capital's Phan Thai Hotel, the day manager has an English degree and earns $50 monthly. Nights are spent in a graduate program in international relations. "Getting a new job, working with a foreign company," he says, "is all anyone thinks about." 

Low wages aren't the only hitch facing upwardly-motivated youths in a nation with a literacy rate of 94 percent. The labor market is stagnant, and swamped by 1.2 million new job seekers every year. Part of the flood stems from the painful transformation of state-run firms into viable enterprises - the same battle that faced old socialist allies in Eastern Europe. The other drag is new investment. Much poured in at the launch of doi moi, but as reforms moved slowly, if at all, the cash flows stalled. Numerous abandoned hotel towers - the Marriot in Ho Chi Minh and Sheraton in Hanoi - are shell-like monuments to the grand ambitions of investors and the failure of follow-through that plagues Vietnam.

However there are hopes on the horizon. The brightest involve investments from well-heeled Vietnamese - from overseas. Turned into refugees at the war's end, many flourished in America, Europe and Australia. Some have returned, bringing money and, equally important, new ideas and western management skills. It's a tenuous alliance, marked more by failure than success. Returnees - known as Viet Kieu - relate a litany of grievances.

"There has been a general sense of distrust in Vietnam for all of us who left and are coming back," admits one. "But it's improving." He credits this to improving relations on both sides. As more Viet Kieu come back and stay, they ease the carpetbagger image. And Vietnam seems gradually to be grasping the value of its returnee talent pool. Still, it has proven to be a turbulent partnership. 

Many Viet Kieu came and left in the late 1980s or early 1990s, a bit wiser perhaps, but often poorer, too. "So many got burned in the early days, Vietnam really burned a lot of bridges," says one Viet Kieu who has stuck it out. Others haven't had the patience, or resources. "Lots of money and good ideas are gone forever," he notes. 

Indeed, the Viet Kieu have come in several distinct waves, most notably at the end of the 1980s, when fortunes were squandered. The second wave arrived in the mid-1990s. They benefited from the efforts of the earlier pioneers, but still found state control too restrictive. The latest wave of Viet Kieu are being greeted by laws that are far more welcoming. Legislation passed last year authorizes Viet Kieu to purchase property in Ho Chi Minh. "That's surely a trial measure," says a Vietnamese analyst. "The government was afraid to do too much too soon, worried that the rich returnees would take over and buy everything. But so far, so good. Everyone expects the provisions to be expanded soon to other cities." 

Perhaps more important are loosening of regulations on the remittance of hard cash from Viet Kieu to relatives back home. As growth plummeted in the Asian crisis, which ushered in massive inflation in Vietnam and a drop of GDP from 8.5% in 1997 to 4% in 1998, these remittances became a vital source of stability. Last year, $1.2 billion was sent back just through official bank channels - roughly equivalent to the total development aid from 45 international donors. 

"I think things are working much better now," notes Tony Nong, who left Saigon as a child with his younger brother and was reunited with the mother he didn't know for nearly two decades when he returned in the early 1990s. Since then, he has helped build his mother's Ann's Tourist Company into one of Vietnam's largest independent tourist outfits.

"At first, there was more suspicion of the motives of many returnees," he admits, "but the trust is growing. People see us as an asset." Nong spends half his time outside the country, talking up Vietnam's prospects at tourism conferences. The result is a soaring industry, that is expected to increase another 20 percent this year, reaching two million visitors.

Field of Dreams

  On a small beach near Hoi On, two backpackers play out a familiar scene. Their romance on the rocks, she hit the road; he followed. Now, they reconcile. For a night. At dawn, he awakes alone. Rising, he angrily tears the note she left into tiny pieces and hurls them across the sand. Minutes later, he does it again. And again. A dozen times. Each time, colleagues rush to retrieve the bits of paper, before waves suck them into the sea. 

"We don't want to dirty this pretty Vietnamese beach," explains one stage hand. This scene is being staged for television, a German show, "Beach Buddies." Like a cross between "Friends" and "Baywatch," it follows the antics of five men and plenty of good-looking women. In its second 13-episode season, the Bavaria Film production is filming two shows around Danang.

"Vietnam has actually been easy for us," says production manager Wulf Gasthaus, who chose Vietnam for the show's first overseas sequences because of the gorgeous coastline, low costs and freshness. "Everyone has already seen Phuket and Thailand over and over," he explains. "This is new and exciting. And the people have been marvelous." 

A crowd gathers on the beach, but they keep out of the way. "This is great to see TV in Vietnam," says one excited onlooker. "We'd never have this kind of cooperation in Europe," adds a crew member. "People on a beach anywhere else would be complaining that we're taking over."

Indeed, Vietnamese are eager to help. Tran Duc took holiday from his post as station officer at Vietnam Airlines' Danang office to work on set as a runner. The pay is better, but it's not his main attraction. "It's great opportunity for me. I've been able to learn about the film business and meet foreigners in this industry." Adds a 30-year-old fellow runner: "It's very different from what I expected. We can spend all day on one scene, just shooting over and over again. I had no idea." 

Few in Vietnam would. Although Vietnam has been a mainstay of American movie making for decades, all the flicks, from "Green Berets" and "Apocalypse Now" to the cartoon-ish "Rambo" series, were made elsewhere, usually in the Philippines or Thailand. In fact, although foreigners have been coming to this beach, outside the ancient trading center of Hoi On, for centuries, even a few years ago, such a production would have been unimaginable in Vietnam.

"Things are loosening up," says Paul Stoll, who can be excused a smug smile. Stoll helped bring Bavaria Films to Vietnam. He also helped find the local labor, and housed the entire crew for its two week stay. It's like a fitting chapter to his own fantasy story. Vietnam is often typified as a field of dreams, and nobody plays the lead role of hopeless dreamer better than this German native. Instead of the corn fields that became a baseball pitch in Kevin Costner's "Field of Dreams," Stoll focused upon a stretch of bare sand outside Danang. 

His vision: if you build a gorgeous beach resort, even in the center of Vietnam, tourists will come. Stoll certainly picked a beautiful spot. Famous, too. When Hong Kong-based developers Lai Sun launched its luxurious Furama Resort in 1997, they drew upon that famous name, China Beach.

A favored spot for American troops on leave during the war, the beach became known to millions worldwide through the TV series, "China Beach." But the area also stirs other memories. The nearby port of Danang is where US troops first landed in Vietnam 35 years ago, exactly ten years after French soldiers stormed ashore for their own war. 

Prospects seemed positive when the government began offering licenses for beach development. Foreign firms staked claims. Taiwanese and Australian companies mapped out retirement villas, golf courses and several new resorts. Three years later, the French chain Novotel's site in nearby Danang remains a fenced-in plot of bare ground. Gone are the Japanese investors who talked of a $1 billion Disneyland-by-the-sea to the north. And Stoll still lounges alone on serene China Beach. 

Oh, there are a few changes. Construction started last month next door to the Furama. Lai Sun is doubling its resort's facilities. All the more amazing, it was deserted for years. But things are picking up, and Danang's gains could fuel the region. 

Last year, Thai Air began flying from Bangkok to the enormous airfield in Danang left behind by the Americans - you can still see helicopter pads and the old bomber hangers alongside. That gives foreigners an option to over-priced flights that have long stifled tourism. For instance, flights from Hong Kong cost $600, about the same as to San Francisco, and nearly triple the price to Bangkok. Blame the old-style of state business; Vietnam Airlines operates a duopoly on the route with Hong Kong-based partner Cathay Pacific.

"Danang is going to take off," Stoll promises. And he might not be dreaming. The faded port was spruced up before its liberation anniversary two weeks ago, and a new bridge across the river is almost complete. Besides the airport, tourists are starting to arrive by sea, but in much more comfort than the troops, traders or colonists who poured into the port in the past. This month, Star Cruises brings a 2,800-passenger cruise ship on a weekly stop in Danang. Other cruise companies are considering a Danang route by the end of the year, according to Stoll.

Destination for the New Millennium

  Tourism is among the most promising growth industries for Vietnam, and it's easy to see the effects in Hue. Women wave from street stalls adorned with pictures stolen from the pages of Lonely Planet, the popular backpacker guide. Offering rooms for $5-20 and meals for under $1, Hue has become a new hub on the budget circuit. Many fear the imperial capital is underselling its regal assets. 

That could change. "We're gearing up to meet a new market," says Nguyen Phong Hung, manager of the Century Riverside Hotel. Squat on the river banks, with tennis courts and a swimming pool, it's arguably the best hotel in Hue, but that doesn't say much. Redecorated rooms resemble China, circa tourism's Dark Ages, an impression enhanced by Russian-style in-room consoles and hideous plastic trees in the underground pub, complete with fake waterfall and carpet mold. Of course, nobody comes to Hue for the hotels. They simply don't come. 

"It's a problem," concedes Hung. "People mainly visit Hanoi and the north, or Saigon and the south. Hue is lower on their list." 

Which is a shame, because few locations in Vietnam, or Asia, for that matter, offer as much. With its ancient citadel and surrounding palaces and pagodas, Hue has been declared an UNESCO historical site; two of Vietnam's three other UNESCO sites are nearby, the Champa (similar to Cambodia's Angkor Wat) ruins at My Son and the entire trading post of Hoi On.

Hue is also the launching site for an odd kind of tourism that has been gaining popularity and will likely soar in coming months - war tourism. "I remember when only a handful of people came," says Tran Hong Chi, a guide for the somewhat grisly tours into the DMZ - a wide swatch of heavily-bombed and severely poisoned territory that served as the deadly border between north and south Vietnam. 

"In 1998, we probably had our best year, about 14,000 tourists," Chi says. "This year is bound to be much better."

Attractions include the bullet-ridden shell of an old church, views of Rockpile, a sheer hillock where marines were dropped by helicopter to radio bomb drops, and the astonishing tunnels were villagers at Vinh Moc survived relentless carpet bombing. Perhaps most gripping is the scorched earth surrounding Khe Sanh, site of the bloodiest siege in the war. 

"Khe Sanh, that was the worst of the worst," recalls Tim Page, a famous war photographer who is back in Vietnam showing the collected works of colleagues who died in action. He recalls a blitzkrieg of bombing, machine guns and blood-letting. "Sheer madness," he says, shivering at the memories. Similar sentiments are scribbled in a guest book at the site's small museum.

"Don't ever forget," writes Randy Wahoek, who served in 1968, when TV footage from Khe Sanh is credited with changing the course of the war, turning American public opinion against it. "A large part of my heart still resides in the red clay of this place," notes former Sgt. Robert Shipper. "I'm glad to see the coffee growing and the American war fading in the past," writes Kurt Johnson, adding: "but one must never forget the evils of the war." 

Actually, though, the Vietnamese have largely forgotten. You still see those ubiquitous fake Zippo lighters with bogus GI inscriptions that constituted, with the visors, tanks and planes constructed of cut-up beer and coke cans, the entire trinket industry in Vietnam some years back. Nowadays, the can-line includes scores of models packed in molded plastic, a tribute of sort to modest innovation. But the real change is that war memories have surely receded. Except for the Americans, of course. 

You bump into them around the country, beefy middle-aged men with mushy muscles and obvious military tattoos. "We were just kids when we were here," says Tom, looking over the barrel of a tank parked in the grass outside Hue's Revolutionary Museum. "We had no clue what was going on." 

Also landing in the DMZ have been American NGOs. Since lifting the embargo on trading with the enemy in 1995, do-gooders have flooded back to help a nation many say they razed. Among them, a troupe of former vets who in February opened Vietnam's first school for disabled kids in Dong Ha, and Peacetrees, a Seattle-based charity doing reforestation and demining in the DMZ. While Peacetrees is thick on the lingo - locally-based Kirsten Leadem talks about "partnership for peace" and "bringing global citizens together with their Vietnamese brethren" the financial aid is genuine and the commitment quite welcome. 

Indeed, talk to Vietnamese and most will say their only objection to Americans returning is that they took so long to come back. "It's amazing how accommodating and forgiving the Vietnamese are," veteran Tom notes. 

Not that everyone can forget. In fact, Hue held a huge celebration marking its liberation at the end of March. In the days before, signs sprouted on streets, and school children were mobilized for massive parades. But everyone, from the cyclo drivers to the beer drinkers and billiard players were more excited about the Hue Festival, its new tourism promotion effort, launched this month. 

"It's time to leave the past in the past," said one restaurant owner in Hue. "Nobody wants to look back. We want to get on." 

Rolling North

 The doors open and, laden with bags and bundles, the crowd surges forward. It's time for us to get on, too. In minutes, the train is loaded and rolling. Despite the Victorian design, the scene at Hue's station is typically Vietnamese, a lot of waiting by the tracks, a few minutes of mayhem, then smiles all around. 

We're rolling north from Hue on the Reunification Express. Begun in 1899, the old Transindochinois runs 1,700 kilometers the length of this spindly nation from Saigon to Hanoi. There have been interruptions. The tracks were prime targets of saboteurs fighting the Japanese in World War II, and, afterwards, the French who built the line. During the American war, the railway was bombed to bits. It was rushed back into service a year later. 

However, reunification is a hopeful name, as we find soon after crossing the line that split Vietnam for much of its modern history. We were purposefully traveling south to north, the opposite direction US forces took in leaving a bitterly-divided nation that also split America, and the reverse route of liberation. Our path was that of change, which seems to be moving, like investments in Vietnam, from the south to the north.

That's what we heard over and over again in Saigon. "You'll never have a conversation like this in the north," a local analyst warned, after a remarkably-detailed two-hour interview. "Not with a Vietnamese, not in Hanoi." And it proved true. Northerners are more cautious and suspicious than southerners. Yet equally striking were the changes that have come to Hanoi, surely Asia's most charming capital. 

Many find it cold, though, much like Beijing in the early 1990s. The comparison is obvious. Saigon is like Shanghai, free-wheeling and westernized. For many years, Beijing clamped down on Shanghai, much as Hanoi has with Saigon. But just like Beijing, which underwent rapid modernization in the mid-1990s, Hanoi is loosening up. It's easy to see why. Money is moving into the capital, and not just into the pockets of government officials. Restaurants are opening, and local residents are showing their wealth. 

The rage in Hanoi is, remarkably, vintage Americana - bowling. Several alleys have popped up in malls and office towers, but they are nothing like the ones brought to Vietnam by GIs during the war. Overhead video monitors display automated scoring, instant replays and animated tips on how to bowl. Cosmos sports Roman statues and marble stairways. The frills don't come cheap. Hourly rates run between $7 and $15, far beyond the reach of most locals. "Bowling is for the very rich," says a worker at one of Hanoi's trendy new pizzarias. Yet she admits being tempted to try. "It's very popular now, the place to go." 

Hanoi residents have a wide range of eating options, including a string of cafes that serve the best coffee in Asia. Music plays, poetry is read. Hanoi is becoming Southeast Asia's renaissance city. One leader of the transformation is Son Pham Quang, who runs some of Vietnam's trendiest restaurants, like the Club Opera in Hanoi and Mandarin in Ho Chi Minh. His newest is the Emperor, a palace of wooden screens where guests are served in the regal imperial style of old. "Restaurants aren't my business, they're my passion," says the 31-year-old entrepreneur. "My goal here was to present the old style, the old Vietnam," he adds, pointing out detail in carved wood, while a Vietnamese band plays lively jazz in the background. 

Tradition is important to Son, who believes Vietnam can move too fast, too soon. "In the old days, we were happy. We may have been poor, but there was laughter. And what is being rich? Money? That is not happiness. Now we have drugs, many problems. "I believe we need openness," he continues, expressing opinions I hear often - but only in Hanoi. 

"We must have control. Look at China and Russia. We can learn from China, that you can have openness, you can reform the market and build a healthy economy, but not sacrifice control. "Unfortunately," he adds sadly, "I think when you open the door, you also open to mosquitoes. The bad is part of the process." 

That's the roller coaster of development, but Vietnam, which has suffered more exhilarating ascents and steep dives than anywhere in Asia, seems to be at a plateau. Take the internet. A year or two ago, there was no public access. Now, internet cafes offer on-line access at $1 for 20-30 minutes in all the big cities.

Compaq's e-commerce seminars were held at the Hanoi Hilton, nickname of an infamous POW camp. The Hilton Hanoi Opera Hotel is next door to and in the style of the capital's opulent opera house. The fact that a brand with such strong US flavor could stand side by side with Vietnam's greatest landmark says much about the maturity of this country. 

But the major signs of change in Vietnam are the last ones I saw, on the way to Hanoi's airport. From a clutter of shops on the outskirts of the city, a modern toll road appears from nowhere and soars over lush, green rice fields. On the sides are a thicket of billboards.

Some advertise new brands: Compaq, Daewoo, Ericson. Others bow to the past, boasting the strength of Zamil Steel or the qualities of a homemade calcium fertilizer. Then, there are dozens of skeletal signs, no longer rented - or worse, those that cannot make up their minds, half-painted billboards that seem to advertise a nation's indecision. 

Commerce may come to Vietnam; it could yet roar like a dragon. But the proof is performance, not the kind of promises easy to advertise on a billboard. What it takes is hard work and commitment, the kind shown for centuries by women in conical hats who continue to pluck and plant the green fields by the road, ensuring that com continues to flourish in Vietnam.

Ron Gluckman is an American reporter who is based in Hong Kong, but who roams around Asia for a number of publications, such as Time's Asiaweek, which sent him to Vietnam in the busy months before the rest of the world's media arrived to report on a quarter-century of change since the war. This story, which appeared in slightly different form, was part of the package that ran in a special Vietnam edition in April 2000

Photos are courtesy of Ira Chaplain, a Hong Kong-based photographer who shot all the pictures for this Asiaweek package 

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