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The Scene of the Crime

VIETNAM, NOW: A Reporter Returns, By David Lamb, PublicAffairs: 276 pp., $26

June 16, 2002|CAROL BRIGHTMAN | Carol Brightman is the author of "Writing Dangerously: Mary McCarthy and Her World." She was the founder and editor of Viet-Report and has returned to Vietnam several times to gather oral histories on the wars in Indochina.

Times have changed since 1997, when the young bartender at the Polite Pub told David Lamb that "Hanoi is like being in the center of the universe." That was at the start of the former wartime reporter's four-year stint as the Los Angeles Times' Vietnam correspondent; before the Asian financial crisis, the Mekong Delta floods and Hanoi's foot-dragging over free-market reforms took their toll. The city's streets were alive with the roar of new Honda scooters and the sounds of saws, welding torches, jackhammers--and everywhere the eager faces of Americans, bringing tidings of release from the long postwar penury.

In 1994 President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo. In a process that had started the year before, mail and telephone links were restored; the U.S. veto of Vietnam's membership in the U.N. was withdrawn; and credits and loans from the World Bank and the Asian Development Bank were unblocked. Still unfulfilled, however, was President Nixon and Secretary of State Henry Kissinger's 1973 pledge to send Vietnam $3.3 billion in reconstruction aid.

Soon the scarred battlefield was a new frontier for American investors who hoped to cash in on the takeoff of another Asian tiger. This chain of events was impossible to anticipate, except perhaps by Hanoi's officials: When Saigon fell in 1975, Lamb reports, they replaced all the embassy flags but ours with the flag of a unified Vietnam. "We do not want to humiliate the Americans," one said. "They will come back." Hanoi, like Ho Chi Minh, has always taken a long view of relations with Uncle Sam.

Vietnam, of course, is far from the center of things today. Terrorism has replaced communism as a mutable conspiracy and Washington seems to be gearing up for another open-ended crusade. U.S. capital does not roam the Third World in search of cheap buyouts of state industries as it did a few years ago (though the search for cheap labor never ends). But Vietnam's fortunes have begun to elicit a different kind of attention than they did in boom times.

Hanoi's reluctant capitalists have won the grudging respect of international lenders who, according to Lamb, have come to see in the government's stubborn resistance to privatization something like the vigilance and patience that served the country well during centuries of conflict with powerful invaders. In addition to the $3 billion in development aid the World Bank put together each year he was there, the pot was "sweetened ... with millions more in incentives if Vietnam took certain steps toward achieving a free-market economy." Hanoi refused the bait; the extra reforms were not adopted; and the country, though prospering--today Vietnam has the fastest-growing economy in the region--has suffered none of the political, financial and social chaos of Indonesia, the Philippines and Thailand.

"You can't pressure these guys," the World Bank's Albert Steer tells Lamb. "They do things their own way, at their own pace. If they thought we were interfering, I have no doubt they'd say, 'Thanks for your help in the past and now it's time for you to go home.' " They have their priorities, and high-speed Internet access, broad-band radio and more hotels are not high on the list. Political stability, education, better roads and more plentiful rice harvests are.

"Vietnam, Now" offers a tantalizing glimpse of this new kind of relationship between East and West. But the book's freshest voices are those of the Vietnamese, north and south, who testify to the evolution of a war-ravaged backwater into a fast-growing nation with a fierce sense of destiny. The voices include veterans from the Ho Chi Minh Trail and their sons who travel it as engineers; the former Time journalist in Saigon who secretly worked for the Vietcong; a retired North Vietnamese Army colonel who fought the French, Americans and Khmer Rouge; an ex-supreme court justice from the south who was sent to a re-education camp in 1975; the wartime radio propagandist Hanoi Hannah; Amerasians in the Philippines; and Viet Kieu--Overseas Vietnamese ("strong in grey matter and deep in the pockets" according to one Hanoi bureaucrat) going home to seek their fortune.

The Westernized David Thai left Vietnam in 1972, grew up in Orange County, went to the University of Washington and then, briefly in 1995, to the University of Hanoi. He returned a few years later with $700 and big plans; but "[o]nce you think you're Mr. Big," he says, "the Vietnamese are going to take it out on you." He lost his money but went on to found Hanoi's popular Au Lac Cafe (Lamb's outdoor office), where he ran "smiling workshops" for employees and a school to teach local kids math and English.

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