Returning to Vietnam 34 years after the end of what is known here as the “American” war, it is safe to say that this is one of the few places in the world that the United States has absolutely nothing to worry about. The horrendous 20th-century battle to contain Red China and protect Indochina’s dominoes from the menace of communism seems utterly irrelevant now to the development of a bustling, overwhelmingly young, and, in many ways, impressive country. Having lived in Vietnam as a correspondent during the war years, the immediate sense is of a country at peace. There are no insurgencies or external threats of a military kind. As it has for a millennium or more, China looms to the north, a vast, ambitious nation that represents a huge challenge to Vietnam, but mainly of the economic variety these days.
When our flight was delayed, Air Vietnam called the hotel, which telephoned the coastal resort I was visiting, which then located the driver already shepherding me to the airport. United, are you listening?
Vietnam’s future depends on raising the living standards of its 86 million people, and to do that it has to make and sell products for consumption abroad. Until the global collapse of the past six months, China was both a competitor and a marketplace for Vietnam. There is a significant economic slowdown under way, but its impact (based on many conversations and detailed stories in local English-language newspapers) is less here than in China, because the pace of development was slower to begin with.
As for the US, its imperial foray lasted barely more than a decade. For all the suffering and devastation the war produced, its effects were amazingly superficial. The war relics (the “Hanoi Hilton” prison for POWs in the capital; the presidential palace in Saigon where South Vietnam finally collapsed) are musty and long since replaced by virtually every American brand name and cultural touchpoint for sale or viewing. American politics in the age of Obama are a source of interest and inspiration to the journalists, lawyers, and writers encountered in Hanoi and Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City is its official name, but little used, in the same way that the District of Columbia is always called Washington). Every bookstore or stall has stacks of Obama books in translation prominently displayed, including his memoir and manifestos. You can also buy books by Bill Gates, and there are shelves of self-help titles translated, adapted, or merely ripped-off by Vietnamese authors and publishers.
A young woman in Saigon who spent a year as a journalism student in the West and now works for a leading Vietnamese daily’s online edition said she watched Obama’s inauguration on the Bloomberg cable channel available here (along with Disney, Discovery, and MTV) and cried, as did several of her colleagues. The concern about Obama is that he leans toward protectionism as the world economy reels, reflecting the way Vietnamese define their country’s priorities: trade and commerce, first and foremost.
A disclaimer: I don’t speak Vietnamese. Our encounters were in English, clearly the country’s second language. But for a trip of ten days, there were a lot of them. None were officially arranged or monitored, as far as I could tell.
The State Department has just issued its annual survey of human rights and was highly critical of Vietnam for prohibiting political opposition, suppressing human-rights groups, restricting the press, and corruption in the police force. Let’s stipulate the substantial accuracy of these findings. Yet thinking back to the war era, many of the same criticisms, especially the ones about corruption, were made about the South Vietnamese at our side. So through the filter of time, the core question is, inevitably, what exactly was the war about? It is the sort of question Jon Stewart might ask an author on his show, which came to mind when I saw a full-size portrait of Stewart as the marquee advertising for a small clothing store in the center of Hanoi.
For all the limitations on civil liberties and free expression, the advent of widespread cellular and Web technology is having a profound effect on the country. Mobile conversations dominate on the street, in the home, and in the markets, with pervasive checking of messages, taking of photographs, and yakking of all kinds. One important advance in national well-being in recent years was the successful imposition of a law mandating the wearing of helmets on motorbikes, the country’s principal means of transportation. The law went into effect at the end of 2007, after a campaign to explain that thousands of lives would be saved and to arrange for the manufacture or import of affordable headgear. Next there should be a law against chatting on the phone while swerving like a daredevil through the hordes of riders on every road or lane.
Technology and infrastructure, much of it new, make life for Vietnam’s middle class recognizable to a visitor from more-developed Asian or Western societies. An Air Vietnam flight from Saigon to Hanoi was flawless, except for a two-hour delay in its scheduled departure. The airline called the Hotel Continental in Saigon, which telephoned the coastal resort I was visiting, which then located the driver already shepherding me to the airport. So duly notified, we (my wife, son, and I) went for a leisurely lunch. United, are you listening? By the way, we were economy-class travelers, without a guide or any other particular accoutrements. But yes, we were foreigners, and the whole episode was an indication of how important visitors are to the country.
Decades after the war that left so deep a mark on the US, today’s Vietnam is a place that seems to be moving in a direction that is reassuringly compatible with our own. Today’s major conflicts in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan are framed as clashes of civilization, while Vietnamese embrace values of social and economic progress that have little to do with the Marxism-Leninism we were determined to defeat. As I understood it, “socialization” these days is a government euphemism for privatization in a land where every available inch of space has something on it to buy and industrial investment was, until recently, gathering steam.
Vietnam is no dreary Soviet-style police state, but it is clearly supervised by authorities that hold all meaningful power and have the means to enforce it, if necessary. To the extent an outsider can judge, people are getting on with their lives, pragmatic and energetic, and with enough official latitude to enjoy improvements comparable to those in other emerging economies. You can’t help wondering what it will be like to visit, say, Iraq in 34 years, and whether the mayhem and bloodshed of our sojourn there will seem to have been worth it.
Peter Osnos is a senior fellow for media at The Century Foundation. Osnos is the founder and editor-at-large of PublicAffairs Books. He is vice chairman of the Columbia Journalism Review, a former publisher at Random House and was a correspondent and editor at the Washington Post.