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A look back at hard times

A Hanoi exhibition reviews a period when everything was rationed and people waited in long lines for goods.

February 18, 2007|Tran Van Minh | Associated Press Writer

HANOI — A bowl of noodle soup for breakfast was beyond the dreams of most people back in the days before Vietnam's economic reforms.

Once a month my mother would take my three sisters and me to a noodle restaurant. We could only afford one small bowl each, with boiled rice we brought from home to make it more filling.

These memories pour back at an exhibition at Hanoi's Museum of Ethnology, "Thoi Bao Cap" -- the Subsidized Period.

Coming at a time when free-market reforms are taking root and the gap between rich and poor is becoming evident, the exhibition is a reminder to the public of how hard life was before communist Vietnam cracked open its door to capitalism.

Vietnam's postwar generation, more than half the population, lives in one of the world's fastest-growing economies and has no memory of the hard times.

The show has drawn record crowds and earned praise for its frank depiction of the shortcomings of the past, when the government micromanaged even the smallest economic transactions, consumer goods were scarce, and people lined up for hours for meager rations.

Introduced after the defeat of the French colonialists at Dien Bien Phu in 1954, the system was extended to the entire country after the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Then, in the mid-1980s, the government began a gradual program of market-oriented reforms known as Doi Moi, or renovation.

Now Vietnam's economy is booming, and a middle-class is emerging. Fancy restaurants are proliferating in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, and supermarkets are competing with street vendors who balance their wares -- baskets of fruit and vegetables -- over their shoulders.

In the subsidized period, everything from fish sauce to bicycles was rationed.

The exhibition displays copies of old rationing coupons and charts listing the privileges of high-ranking officials -- about 9 pounds of meat a month, 9 pounds of fish, four pints of fish sauce, 4 1/2 pounds of sugar.

Ordinary people received one-fourth to one-tenth as much.

As a boy of 12 when the Vietnam War ended, I stood in long lines to pick up meager, low-quality food rations, while my family improvised at home.

In place of cooking oil, we used imported Mongolian sheep fat to fry rice, with a few drops of water added to ease the stench.

The exhibition has a life-size model of queues at state-owned shops, and displays of what were regarded as luxuries: a French-made bicycle, an electric fan, a bar of scented Camay soap. In those days, Soviet laundry detergent sometimes served as bath suds.

The exhibition shows a model of what was then considered a luxurious apartment -- about 25 feet by 10 feet with one bed and most of the occupants sleeping on the floor.

Almost everyone had to do extra work to make ends meet. My mother baked cakes. My college classmate's family raised pigs in the bathroom of their Hanoi apartment and even trained them to use the toilet -- a hole in the floor.

"I just cannot believe that a bar of Camay soap was a luxury at that time," said Dinh Thi Dinh, 20, a Hanoi university student. "This exhibit has inspired me to study harder to deserve the sacrifices of my parents and my grandparents."

Another visitor, 71-year-old Nguyen Thi Tho, remembered queuing for food starting at 2 a.m.

"Sometimes I had to go back two to three times because the rice or meat was sold out before my turn came," she said.

Nguyen Van Huy, the museum director, said the crowds turning out for the exhibition had been so big that the museum decided to extend its run for six more months.

The museum is government-owned, but the message of hardship and privilege under communism is unadorned.

Huy, however, couched the exhibition's purpose in positive terms: to highlight the benefits of Doi Moi.

Visitors come away understanding that the change was essential, he said. In the past, people dreamed of having a bicycle like the one on display, he said. "Now some people have cars."

And my sisters and I can afford a big bowl of soup each day for breakfast.

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