By Elizabeth Pond
Hanoi / December 2013
The best way to see Hanoi is to ride pillion on Do Duyen’s motorbike. Duyen, like most Vietnamese drivers (except when they drink too much rice wine at Tet or at weddings) has a sixth sense of how others in the flood of motorbikes and intruding cars, trucks, buses, bicycles, cyclos, and village peddlers with bamboo carrying poles will react. Never mind that motorcyclists routinely make illegal left turns at intersections by plunging left against the three immediate lanes hurtling to the right in order to edge their way, eventually, into the three farther lanes hurtling to the left. Everyone else simply swerves to accommodate this anomaly in his own way, and the collective streams of traffic glide on.
You might call it a metaphor for the course of Asia’s newest tiger, the one that took off in the late 1980s and averaged 7.5% growth over the next two decades, to leap far past neighboring Laos and Cambodia in living standards. This tiger cub’s proportional poverty alleviation, egalitarianism, political openness, and optimism all surpass China’s. In Vietnam the real energy bubbles up from the chaotic bottom to be codified retroactively as government policy (sometimes), without necessarily being filtered through formal institutions or a non-existent civil society. Doi moi (“renovation”) set the pattern in 1986.
As Duyen makes constant micro adjustments to preserve the crucial centimeters of space between us and the rest of the capital’s pulsing humanity, he provides a running commentary. Some of it I catch, despite the warp of words on the way to my ear through his mouth mask and my helmet. Some I don’t catch, amid the roars and honks and occasional screech. There is the downtown park that until a few months ago showcased the Lenin statue that Moscow gave Hanoi in 1982; recently the 5-meter-tall Lenin migrated to the more out-of-the-way Reunification Park. Here on the left is West Lake, on the right Truc Bach Lake, the one John McCain parachuted into when his plane was shot down.
There is the amusement park. Over there is the Hotel Hanoi, the first four-star hotel in the capital, built a decade ago. Today it looks like a relic and gets mostly Chinese guests. On the right is the tower that will be 72 stories high when it is finished, the tallest in Hanoi. It was supposed to have risen to 102 stories, but then the world financial crisis hit, and it got scaled down. Here is Little Korea, where the expat businessmen know from their own experience what it’s like to swoop overnight from rice paddy to urban modernity. There is one of the 28 hotels that mogul PHPLX (name drowned in the gunning of engines as the traffic light changes to green) owns all over Vietnam. He doesn’t invest in stocks, just in property.
See that “Made in Vietnam” outlet? Those shops guarantee quality by selling global-brand clothes that are certified as not made in China. See all the water tanks on top of Hanoi’s narrow-front, 15-meter-long “tube houses”? A Vietnamese traveler noticed them in Taiwan in the early days of doi moi, brought the idea back, and found his niche in providing constant water pressure without your having to pump water up every time you want to use it. That’s what it’s like in such a young economy. There are lots of gaps, and all you have to do to make your mark is to identify and fill them. That’s the way almost half of Duyen’s class at the Hanoi Banking Academy became millionaires (even if half of this half fell back below the magic line when global stock markets dived).
Village to City
Duyen grew up in a village in the mountainous northwest, where he worked hard as a barefoot boy planting, hoeing, and harvesting the family rice terraces. His mother got up at 2:00 a.m. to make tofu in a co-op kitchen for delivery to the government store by 4:00 p.m. Duyen gathered firewood in the hill copses, hauled bamboo to build the family house and fence, and caught fish in the streams to augment the family’s meager diet. He also picked wild leaves to feed the pigs and the rabbit the family was fattening up for sale. In the pre-doi moi decade of severe central planning, food shortages, rationing, and widespread malnutrition, his family had to eat cassava on some days for lack of rice. They had to be on guard against other villagers who might sneak into the house when no one was home and filch their scanty belongings–perhaps with the help of a fishing rod baited with meat to hook the dog’s mouth and keep it from barking an alarm.
Duyen never saw anything beyond his own valley until he was in his late teens and his sister took him along to a larger settlement near the Chinese border to buy slippers. “Everywhere people started trading even though it was illegal. Then the law changed.” The Communit Party ordered the doi moi liberalization that echoed Deng Xiaoping’s earlier breakup of collective farms in China and legitimized the Vietnamese black market that had sprung up to fill the existential consumer gaps. “It was just like water flowing from one rice paddy to the next when a dike breaks.”
Duyen quickly sensed that his future under the newly tolerated market system would depend on gleaning information about the world of business. What better place to do it than at Hanoi’s Banking Academy, a 1961 North Vietnamese wartime institution that was now starting to retrofit Marxism-Leninism for the globalized age? With donations from his family, he crammed furiously to stretch his rudimentary village education up to a level to compete in entrance exams with graduates of the elite Hanoi high schools. By the time he was accepted into the academy as one of 156 out of 3000 applicants, he was also studying that other yuppy prerequisite–the English language–at night school.
At that point Vietnam still had a standard of living close to North Korea’s current level of misery and was only denied listing under the World Bank’s concessionary category of “least developed countries” because the educational drive of this Confucian society had already produced 90-plus percent literacy. At that point Hanoi was still so rough that Duyen hid his money in his underwear whevever he rode the bus.
After getting his diploma, Duyen worked for a cellphone company and earned enough money by 2000 to buy a new apartment for $8,500 and settle his father in it in the center of Hanoi, not far from Little Korea. His timing was perfect. The condo doubled its value in one year and kept on appreciating to its current worth of $120,000. With financial aid, he continued his education in the United States, earning an M.B.A. at Maryville University in St. Louis. He returned to Hanoi, this time to work for a bank. As he thought it over, though, he turned down promotion into the rat race of a prestigious career in finance and opted for the less demanding branch of tourism that would leave him master of his own free time.
When he married, Duyen enlarged his apartment from 39 to 57 square meters by enclosing the balcony; this gave his wife Trong and their twins, Bunny and Chipmunk, ample storage and multi-use space in the open-room layout. And as the five-year-olds grow up, the condo’s size will grow with them. The developers have promised double space to all the current owners, along with free temporary housing when they tear down the current buildings in the next few years and scale up to higher-rise replacements. This leaves the family budget in good shape.
As Duyen has exited the financial sector, he has no need to buy either an expensive golf club membership or a car. The Honda motorbike serves nicely for family outings, and Duyen is under no compulsion to impress business contacts by arriving at negotiations in a Mercedes or a Lexus sedan.
Hanoi’s Old and New Quarters
On Thursday morning I get acquainted with the octogenarian matriarch of my hotel in the bustling Old Quarter, with the help of her great-grandson. He is studying literature at university, trades off reception duty at the hotel with siblings and cousins, and speaks English. The developer who bought their house is waiting for the right time to put up more modern units from this and adjacent tube houses, at prices per square meter that will reach Tokyo levels. For now, the matriarch can continue to stay in the home she has inhabited for most of her life, slip out the door every morning to see friends and buy herbs on the streets that constitute everyone’s front doorstep and shopspace, then slip back in for a nap on her board bed as the spirit moves her.
Duyen picks me up, and we weave our way through the old guild streets, now shrunk to one block for the woodworkers, with their hand-lashed ladders of virgin bamboo trunks; one block for the ironmongers hammering red-hot crowbars into shape over tiny charcoal stoves; additional blocks for the silk and china and broom and flower merchants, and, since this is the beginning of the lunar month, ubiquitous shops with pyramids of red and gold boxes of sweets and packets of Thomas Jefferson two-dollar bills to burn as offerings to ancestors.
We head out through urban sprawl to one of the two rural districts of Hanoi that will soon become city districts. Duyen points out the heroes’ cemetery where Vietnam’s luminaries are buried, with the exception of the two most famous celebrities of all. Revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh enjoys his own mausoleum at the center of the moribund party and government district. General Vo Nguyen Giap, who transmuted his original platoon of 34 men into an army that expelled both the French and the Americans from Indochina, is buried, at his request, in his home province.
As we proceed, the few rice paddies tucked into empty lots between commercial offices grow in number, and some water buffalo appear, nibbling the stubble that remains after the year’s single harvest. Some future high-rise building are already under constrution, as is a stadium that a few years from now might host Asian track and field championships for the first time.
By trial and error Duyen navigates his way through the maze of streets that have materialized since he was last here, and we arrive at the village of Yen Vinh to visit a friend of a cousin. Duyen coached Nguyen Hai Tho some years ago, showing him how to study English more effectively and drilling him until he pronounced the last consonant in English words clearly. The mentoring paid off. Tho now speaks easy-to-understand English, with distinct word endings, and works as a freelance tourguide. He leads us down a pedestrian lane in Yen Vinh’s newest neighborhood, past a motorbike parked in his front pocket garden, and into his one-story cement-block house with a tile roof. His accountant wife is in her office after having dropped their children off at first grade and kindergarten; he will pick them up in the afternoon. The older one is in a magnet school for gifted children and is the best in her class, he notes with pride.
Tho, like Duyen, is from the first Vietnamese generation that has had to invent its own life instead of simply replicating its elders’ subsistence farming or guerrilla privation. Like their friends, he and his brothers are the first in the family to have chosen their own marriage partners rather than following a rational economic pact arranged by their and their spouses’ parents. They are the first to have adopted the strange custom of bringing the toilet from the outhouse right into the middle of the home. They are the first to give their toddlers tricycles and blow-up plastic pools to splash in and let them watch Tom and Jerry cartoons on TV. The first to play a set of tennis before reporting for work in the morning. The first to eat meals sitting on chairs at raised tables (except when grandparents are present and everyone joins them in dining on the floor, even in luxury apartments). And above all, they are the first generation in four millennia to have known only peace in their lifetime.
For now the house is just right for Tho’s family, and a clear improvement on traditional village homes. In three or four years Tho expects to move on to a larger home, though. His and his wife’s incomes should suffice to buy an apartment for $75,000 or $100,000 and pay for public school fees that will increase from the $40 per month per child they disburse now to $200 per month per child in secondary school.
“If only Vietnam had been united before, it could have been as rich as [South] Korea now,” Tho muses. He is glad that America and Vietnam have forged better relations, as deterrence to a greedy China, and he observes that his cohort no longer shares its parents’ views about a predestined clash between communism and capitalism. He appreciates the sacrifice of his elders for the liberation of the country, “but for our generation, we just think it’s good for Vietnam to have good relations with every country, especially the West and America.”
On our way to lunch we stroll past the village “authority office” facing the muddy rice paddies and on to the original heart of the community, with its small Buddhist temple. One plot has been converted after the rice harvest to grow pumpkins and green vegetables for Hanoi palates, another to a cash-crop rose nursery to help supply the capital’s insatiable demand for blossoms. Each swelling bud has been painstakingly swaddled in paper to prevent it from opening before the optimal sale day. Ancient loudspeakers mounted on utility poles blare out the national radio pop songs that have largely displaced the old progapanda and summons to village meetings. A slope leads down to the village pond, where women washed their clothes before they had running water installed in their homes. Today it is used only for rinsing off muddy feet or shovels after weeding the ricefields.
The narrow lanes take us past one woman who looks up from her Japanese sewing machine as we pass by her open window to show us that she is finishing seams on trousers for export. A few doors on, apprentices in the middle of their three-year instruction sit on the floor of the carpentry shop and chisel traditional temple-post designs into jackwood logs that they steady with their toes. We end our tour at the village restaurant that spills out from the cooks’ home onto the street outside and order the local variant of the national dish of pho noodle soup.
The well-dressed Vietnamese woman in her mid-40s looks as out of place as I do as a Westerner. By chance we are both sitting in a street restaurant in a section of the city that is one of three new locales for families who once lived on houseboats on the Perfume River. In recent years they were relocated to apartments here in what seems to have been a miscarried effort to lift them out of poverty. The former fishermen received no vocational training for any occupation on land and are hard put to feed their families on the pittance they get as drivers of ancient pedicabs that are relics from French colonial times.
The woman assesses me with a curiosity that mirrors mine about her. Am I perhaps American, and if so, what city do I come from? Boston! She beams. Her son is studying in Boston, and she just visited him there, where he has a four-year scholarship at MIT. She pulls out her cellphone and displays photos of her son and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology as viewed from the Charles River bridge. I tell her that I just saw Dinh Anh Minh’s name that afternoon on the honor plaque at the elite Hue lycée that is as famous today for its pupils’ steady string of gold medals in the international math Olympiad as for its founding-father alumni, Ho Chi Minh and General Giap. My new acquaintance beams again. She is pleased that I already know that Minh was the first Vietnamese to win an Olympiad gold medal in the hard sciences (physics). She introduces herself as Ho Thi Thuy, Southeast Asia Manager for a Russian exporter of Vietnam’s prized highlands pepper.
Her son is both typical and atypical of the new generation of young people who are fanning out to the US, China, Australia, Singapore, and Germany for higher education. He is typical as one of the 106,000 Vietnamese in their early twenties studying abroad in this academic year, for a higher proportion than their counterparts in China. He is also typical of many in receiving full financial support; in the US alone the cumulative list of Vietnamese Fulbrighters specializing in subjects ranging from public administration (at Harvard) to environmental policy (University of Hawaii) to water management (Colorado State University) numbers some 500 by now. Minh is atypical, however, in the size of his generous stipend of $58,000 a year. Remarkably, the nuclear or extended families of the majority of Vietnamese foreign students have to cover the bulk of expenses of their clan’s young scholars, and they do so. Often enough, students keep their costs down by living with relatives in the San Jose or Sydney or Berlin diasporas, and taking shifts at cooking or waitressing in their third cousins’ Asian restaurants.
Thuy extends an invitation to breakfast the next morning in the leafy tropical garden of a restaurant overlooking the riverfront. We see no houseboats, nor even the traditional dredging sampans that have been evacuated to tributaries away from the center of Hue. Local leaders have yet to expand their imagination to think of the tourist value of reinstating the boats and their inhabitants and perhaps even subsidizing some of them to bring back all their ducks and fighting roosters and strung-up fishing nets and to resume laundering their wash at keelside. So far there are no model sampans in the old Nguyen Dynasty capital for vendors to hawk on the bridges that connect the two sides of the city, no picturesque postcards of Perfume River fishermen battening down the hatches of their rising boats as the first monsoon of the season pours down in sheets, The only local souvenirs on offer are GI dogtags that are either macabre or fake. There are not many buyers.
We exchange business cards, and Thuy gives me a jar of peppercorns as a memento. She hopes to visit Minh again soon, and we promise to stay in touch about a possible reunion at the Charles River, where we can at least see sailboats on the water.
Ho Chi Minh City
In this city the motorbike must wait. My first day back here after 43 years has to begin on foot, slowly.
My introduction to 21st-century Saigon—the name natives still use rather than Ho Chi Minh City—starts as I chat with the owner of my hotel. He is ensconced on a chair in the lobby supervising renovation of the property and waiting for the holiday return of his three children, who have been studying at high school and college in the United States for several years. Duyen, whose cousin used to work at the hotel as a receptionist, interprets. The hotel is in the one corner of the First District that still caters to international backpackers, but is gentrifying fast. A stack of new bricks appears in front of the hotel in the morning and is exchanged for an equivalent volume of jagged cement chunks and metal debris in the afternoon. Across the street, a new screen of red, white, and blue plastic sheeting signals that a parallel project is just about to begin there too. The owner’s oldest daughter arrives—and talks and gestures just like any outgoing American co-ed, with no residue of Vietnamese reticence.
I first take Duyen to see the spot where I lived four decades ago. In the park a young woman sits in the midday sun, giving herself a fix with a syringe. No passer-by intervenes. In the early morning, Duyen comments, the parks belong to the rich as they practice tai chi. In the middle of the day they belong to the poor, to the street orphans and cone-hatted vendors who find few customers in the heat and doze on benches instead.
On Le Loi Street there is no trace of the thin metal door that once gave me entry to a cavernous truck garage and the outdoor stairwell in the back leading up to my apartment on the top floor. My corner has already been absorbed by the posh neighborhood that is every day radiating farther out from the opera house. I presume that the fat sluggish rat that used to contest my space has long since been evicted from the premises.
By contrast, the Continental Hotel, the old hangout for wartime correspondents next to the opera, still exists. The state enterprise that now owns the hotel has kept its satisfying four-floor height and refurbished it in keeping with its19th-century origins. On one wall in the lobby Duyen notices a discreet plaque honoring Pham Xuan An, the veteran correspondent for Time magazine and invaluable part-time assistant to the New Yorker‘s Robert Shaplen, me, and perhaps a dozen other American reporters over the years. It is the only tribute to him that I can find in the entire country. After the 1975 fall/liberation of Saigon, it turned out—to the astonishment of all of us who had worked with him and of the American generals who had conversed freely with him as a very well-informed Time correspondent—that An had been a top North Vietnamese spy during the war. He had regularly delivered military intelligence to the Viet Cong’s well-camouflaged headquarters in Cu Chi, a scant 20 miles from the center of Saigon, a site that is today a prime destination for American tourists who might wish to crawl through parts of the 150-mile web of claustrophobic underground tunnels.
In retrospect, it is clear that his intimate knowledge and even love of America that made An an ideal spy. Once the war was over, however, his empathy for the US also made him suspect to his North Vietnamese commanders. He had to endure not only reeducation camp, but also a decades-long ban on foreign travel and any meetings with foreigners. Not until the 1990s was he promoted from the rank of colonel to brigadier general. And only in the months following the death of General Giap last October was An’s exploit widely publicized, six years after the premier agent’s death.
For lunch, Duyen and I choose the pho restaurant immortalized by President Bill Clinton’s visit of reconciliation with Vietnam in 2000. We sit elbow-to-elbow at tables with a clientele that consists of 50% American tourists, 50% Vietnamese yuppies, and 100% photographers with their cellphones. The pho tastes good.
In the afternoon, on the spur of the moment, Duyen calls a classmate and one-time badminton partner from the Banking Academy who moved here four years ago as a “75”—a north Vietnamese who came after the 1975 reunification to join the “54” southerners whose families have lived here since French times or, in the case of many Vietnamese Catholics, fled here after Gen. Giap’s rout of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954. Dang Tran Dzung accepts Duyen’s invitation to dinner, and we meet him at the Chanel and Gucci shops on the ground floor of his condominium building. Then we ascend escalators through a mall featuring toys and children’s designer clothes to a third-floor restaurant. As course after course is delivered smartly, it strikes me that rookie waiters in Vietnam take their profession just as seriously as any Italian or French maitre d’.
Unlike Duyen, Dzung stayed in the world of finance and has now risen to become the sales manager for his bank in Vietnam’s commercial capital of Ho Chi Minh City. His wife has started her own firm selling herbal cosmetics online and can continue this business wherever they live. Already the couple are Saigon boosters. Dzung finds this city much livelier than Hanoi, and less expensive to live in. He listens attentively as Duyen talks about the memorial to Pham Xuan An in the Continental Hotel and explains that An was an assistant of mine during the American war. I shine by reflected glory. Dzung looks at me with awe and declares, “He is my idol.”
After dessert, we take the elevator up to Dzung’s apartment to meet his family. His wife has her hands full trying to keep their sub-teen son and his buddy from across the hall from wielding their make-believe swords too boisterously. Their teenaged daughter is willing to try out a few words in English and to be coaxed to perform Für Elise on the upright piano in the living room before she disappears to cram with her French and math tutor.
The next day Duyen rents a Honda and we head west on Vo Van Kiet Street, named after the prime minister from the southern Mekong Delta who launched doi moi in the 1980s. Our destination is Long An, the venue for Jeffrey Race’s classic 1970s’ exploration of the Viet Cong tactic of courting peasants by exacting lower rice taxes and pressganging fewer soldiers than the South Vietnamese goverment did, while intimidating villagers by assassinating the best local leaders who opposed their cause.
Today’s Long An doesn’t look rural until you get off the ribbon of urban sprawl on Vo Van Kiet Street. The highway is lined all the way with wholesale warehouses, outlets selling streetlights imitating 1890s’ European gaslights, salesmen who display serried rows of a few hundred shoes by the side of the road, and scavenger dumps of rusted John Deere tractors, Komatsu mini-excavators, and disemboweled transmissions. A few kilometers past the sign announcing the invisible dividing line between urban Saigon and provincial Long An we turn off on a cinder side road, however, and are soon rewarded with a landscape of emerald Mekong Delta rice fields. In the 1980s, once doi moi lifted restraints on peasants, it was the delta that quickly compensated for the decade of acute malnutrition, fed Vietnam, and even made it the world’s second-largest exporter of rice, after Thailand.
A cheery barefoot farmer with a hoe, a pail, and a satchel approaches on one of the narrow mud dikes, welcomes us to his domain, and invites us to see the new wing of his house. In his lovingly tended flower garden he hacks open two waiting coconuts with a heavy knife and inserts straws for us to drink the milk. We enter the cool interior of his home, and Bay Hoach explains how much better his life is than his father’s was. He possesses the Land Use Right Certificate for the leasehold on his plots and is sure that his daughter—who attended the college of food processing and works in that branch—will inherit his tenure. His father plowed with a water buffalo; he hires someone with a rotor to till the ground instead. His father shelled the rice himself; he sells his 18,000 kilograms of grain each year to a big company to process instead, and with the money he is paid buys much better seed rice than he could grow. Nowadays he needs to work only sixty days out of the year, twenty for each of his three crops. These improvements gave him the extra money to expand his house and install a flush toilet—and enough free time to swing in his hammock and watch TV.
I ask what it was like for him during the American war, and in what could be a three-sentence reprise of Race’s War Comes to Long An, he replies, “I wasn’t for the Americans. I wasn’t for the North. And I wasn’t for the South.”
On our way back to Saigon, Duyen phones a second cousin who was born in the same village as he was, to see if we might drop by. Tran Thi Ha lives in a villa in a semi-gated community in Saigon’s new Seventh District, as befits the path she mapped out for herself as Vietnam globalized. She began as a guide for investors who were visiting Hanoi, became a facilitator in purchasing their airline tickets in the era when foreigners were barred from buying them directly, then founded a ticket agency that has become one of the largest in Saigon. She quickly realized that Korean businessmen were settling down in Vietnam in large numbers—by now there are 80,000 in Saigon alone—so she learned Korean as well as English and seguéed into a successful realtor with a large Korean clientele.
She welcomes us enthusiastically and goes off with Duyen to buy the ingredients for the banquet she instantly plans in our honor and will spend two hours cooking. Her junior-high daughter, whose fluent English derives from attending a bilingual Vietnamese-English school, entertains me in the meantime, in the hour before her tutor is due to appear. She first shows me around the neighborhood, then interprets for me when her grandmother hears our voices and comes downstairs to greet the newest foreign guest in the house.
After the feast, Duyen and Ha exchange multiple gifts for various family members. Duyen receives fruit, a soup powder made from a vegetable root, special ginger for his sister, and rare gourmet Korean mushrooms for him and his wife. As he flies back to Hanoi the next day for a surprise party for Trong he will be hard put to persuade the stewardess to treat all his bundles—including the bottle of soapy water with wand he has bought for Bunny and Chipmunk to make rainbow bubbles—as his carry-on allotment.
This is the new face of Vietnam.
Elizabeth Pond covered Vietnam in 1969/70 and South Korea in the early 1970s for The Christian Science Monitor.
© Elizabeth Pond
Links updated December 3, 2015