I was sitting recently with a former US marine by one of the huge open windows on the top floor of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. Our drinks were being served on shiny black tables, and at the bar was a group of rather podgy prostitutes. There is something seedy but fun about the hotel, which reeks of new money: not unlike Saigon — as its inhabitants persist in calling Ho Chi Minh City.
Saigon, and indeed Vietnam, has been transformed since the early 1990s, when the Soviet Union unravelled and the Hanoi politburo was forced to water down its rigid Marxism. The cycle rickshaws, peddled by thin men who had served in the South Vietnamese army, have gone. The streets now swarm with Hondas, and the children of the politburo mandarins shop in Versace.
It was from the bar of the Caravelle that journalists had watched helicopters take off from the CIA building during the final American evacuation from Saigon in 1975. The memories of my marine friend’s own flight from the US embassy remain vivid. He was on the penultimate chopper out. Only a few hours later, communist tanks would park on the lawn of the South’s Presidential Palace, an image of defeat that brought a new phrase to the English language.
Those in the West who had predicated that a socialist utopia would follow proved wide of the mark. If there were no mass killings in Vietnam, as there were in Cambodia, there certainly was retribution in re- education camps and persecution of the Chinese merchant class. There was also collectivisation and famine, new wars and mass casualties. Over the following decade thousands, from the North and South, fled the country in rickety fishing boats, risking attacks by Thai pirates, who robbed, raped and killed countless refugees.
A Vietnamese friend who was one such escapee had aunts taken by the pirates and never seen again, while her father spent 14 years in a camp. Tremendous bitterness remains amongst the Vietnamese expatriate communities across the world, mixed with a sense of longing for a lost homeland. But a new generation has grown up. For those that visit their parents’ birthplace for a holiday or, increasingly, to work, there is also a new Vietnam: the ‘Rising Dragon’ of Bill Hayton’s insightful book.
The communist party in Vietnam is imaginative enough to engage with former enemies such as the United States, enmeshing their interests with those of the party. While the autocracy in Burma is shunned, Vietnam has attracted billions of dollars in aid and investment. The returns on those investments have enriched all concerned: foreign capitalists and Vietnamese. In 1993 60 per cent of Vietnamese lived below the poverty line. In 2004 it was 10 per cent. The South, with its longer history of private enterprise, is doing particularly well. Hayton quotes a saying in Vietnam, that the North beat the Americans, but the South beat the Russians. This success is translating into political power: over half the politburo are now Southerners.
There has been a price to pay for the rapid progress, for example in environmental damage. Some effort is being made to address this. Hayton describes the arrest of a group who were smuggling a wild bear (bear bile is sold in speciality restaurants) out of a national park in an ambulance, having dressed the bear as a patient, and surrounded him with ‘concerned relatives’. Rather more successful than saving wildlife, however, is the self-preservation of the communist party. There are sections in Rising Dragon on the party’s censorship of print and internet information, on the ‘management’ of minorities and religious groups, the careful writing of Vietnam’s history to fit national mythology, and the forgetting of what is inconvenient to remember.
But capitalism is changing Vietnam in ways that the central bureaucracy cannot easily predict or control. The greatest dangers to the party lie within. While the party is still able to assert national over private interests, local bosses are growing ever more powerful. A population with a very high literacy rate may grow resentful of a self-perpetuating elite that behaves sometimes as if it were above the law.
It is the party’s degree of internal democracy that has allowed it to adapt and survive since 1975. Hayton observes that power needs to be democratised outside it also if Vietnam is to continue to grow and develop for the benefit of the many, not just the few. In particular, he argues, it needs a free press to seek out unpalatable truths and give public figures the opportunity to air grievances. Nice idea, and one that comes from the heart — Hayton is a journalist. If it doesn’t seem probable, as Hayton notes, the Vietnamese still have ‘the capacity to surprise’. They are a very remarkable people.