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Vietnam's love affair

With the war a fading memory, its young people crave all things American.

November 15, 2006|Andrew Lam | ANDREW LAM is an editor with New America Media and the author of "Perfume Dreams: Reflections on the Vietnamese Diaspora."

HISTORIAN FRANZ Schurmann of UC Berkeley once observed, "The United States is a sovereign with its own self-interest, but America as an idea of individual freedom and happiness is powerful and has no border." Nowhere is that distinction truer than in our relations with Vietnam.

Vietnam might have once resented the United States for its bloody incursion more than four decades ago, but Vietnam is currently in love with America and is being changed by it.

President Bush, who will attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation summit this week in Hanoi, will find that out if he cares to look out the window.

What Bush will see is a country that belongs to the restless young. Since the Vietnam War ended in 1975, the country's population has more than doubled, from about 35 million to 83 million. Nearly two out of three Vietnamese are too young to have any direct memory of the war. What they do have is a new longing for the West.

They want Levi's jeans, cellular phones, laptops, Honda "Dream II" motorcycles, Calvin Klein baseball caps, pagers, glamour. At night they slip a movie from Hollywood or South Korea into the DVD player and marvel at the beauty and elegant possibilities that exist in the larger world.

Though Vietnam is still under one-party rule and claims to aspire to communist ideals, the state has, since the late 1980s, eased its once iron grip on the economy and cultural life. It even rewrote its constitution to allow individuals to practice "private capitalism" and opened its doors to the world.

Gone are the days when citizens were required to discuss Marxist-Leninist doctrines at weekly neighborhood sessions. Gone too are the permits needed to buy rice from state-run stores or to move from one city to another.

In fact, since doi moi (change for newness) reforms began in the late '80s, the economy has, after some bungling and missteps, been on the upswing, particularly after President Clinton lifted the U.S. trade embargo in 1994. It's still a poor country where human rights abuses are routine and the per capita annual income is under $700 (though in Ho Chi Minh city it's about $1,800). But in the last 10 years, GNP has been growing at an average of 7.4% annually, a phenomenal rate second only to China's. More American investment has forced more transparency, and, with Vietnam poised to join the World Trade Organization, business practices are inching toward the international standard.

What's more, poverty rates are falling rapidly. In 1993, the World Bank considered 58% of the population poor; by 2002, it was 29%. It would seem that Vietnamese communism has given way to capitalism. Vietnam's new ideology is simply to make money.

Perhaps that's why Vietnam seems to have two versions of itself. Distinct and contradicting, they exist side by side. Red banners hanging between tamarind trees along boulevards glorify the war against the foreign imperial powers and idolize Ho Chi Minh, not far from glaring billboards selling Coca-Cola and Tiger Beer and Toyota. Loudspeakers on telephone poles blare out communist propaganda and tout the shining path toward socialist paradise, but they are drowned out by stereos from private homes or neighborhood bars that play the likes of Justin Timberlake and Shakira.

Communist officials give monotonous speeches warning the populace against "peaceful evolution" toward Western values and decadence. But many, including the revered Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, under whose command the Vietnamese defeated the French and then the Americans, send their children to study and live in the U.S. and Europe. (Many stay and launder their parents' ill-gotten gains in Western real estate.) The version of Vietnam the Vietnamese people like best is by far the one with America and its stuff.

Just how much is America part of the Vietnamese imagination? One of the first foreign-owned restaurants in Ho Chi Minh City in the early 1990s was called Ca Li Pho Nha. In a recent poll, Bill Gates was named as a hero by the Vietnamese. When he visited in April, young men wearing "I {heart} Bill Gates" T-shirts lined the streets and cheered. The U.S. is still the favorite destination for those wanting to emigrate.

U.S. efforts at regime change in the Middle East have met with increasing failure, yet enormous changes are taking place in the Vietnamese regime that defeated the United States. It could even be argued that Vietnam won the war against the United States but that America has slowly won the peace in Vietnam.

That's something the American president might want to mull over as he talks about economic progress in East Asia at the summit in Hanoi, while the tragedy of Iraq continues to unfold.

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