I wasn’t at all sure what to expect in my visit to Vietnam. Probably a lot of Pho, I figured, that bland noodle dish that has become ubiquitous in west coast strip malls. Part my confusion was because Vietnam is a communist country, and I had little idea what exactly that even meant anymore. Waves of goose-stepping soldiers and boastful displays of missile launchers, as we recently witnessed in Pyongyang? Glum internal-security apparatchiks keeping a watchful eye on anything non-conforming? A grim population of robotic drones, their shoulders to the wheel, grinding out 12 hours workdays? A stark unavailability of consumer goods?
Actually, none of those clichés turned out to be reality. No soldiers, few cops, a friendly, albeit a reserved, population, and stores, galleries, and boutiques dealing in luxury goods. In the center of Saigon is a 5-story shopping mall, named Saigon Centre, “your fashion destination”, that makes the Century City Mall in L.A. look like a flea market.
In the southern coastal area, the beaches are lined with high-end resorts, mostly catering to European tourists, fancy, French-inspired restaurants, and beachfront Tiki bars, in addition to the quaint fishing villages you would expect to see. Mui Ne beach, near the fishing town of Phan Thiet, is the kite surfing capital of the world.
Most of the tourists I bumped into in the more affordable beach areas were Russians , by and large a dour and humorless lot, clad in their uniforms of tank-tops, baggy shorts, and rubber flip flop sandals, swilling beer and vodka from mid-morning on. The high end resorts were populated mostly by slender, fashionable Asians, sipping Mojitos and taking selfies. The locals were concentrated in nearby fishing coves, mending their nets and selling their catch, or drying anchovies in the sun in preparation for the production of their famous fish sauce, nước mắm .
Residents of Ho Chi Minh City still refer to it as Saigon, and the old, ornate French architecture co-exists alongside shiny new high-rises. The streets are teeming with motor scooters and pedestrians. In fact, there was little on display, either culturally or economically, that screamed “communism”. Marijuana is openly sold and smoked on the side streets and, at night, young Vietnamese hipsters pack the bars and discos.
There is the Ben Thanh central market (cleaner and more orderly than similar ones found in Latin America), along with a few other reminders of Vietnam’s 2nd world status. Aside from the Gothic and Romanesque architecture, some of the remaining vestiges of the French occupation include hundreds of little open-air coffee shops, family owned and operated, along with lots of food stalls selling ham-and-cheese baguette sandwiches, known locally as bánh mì . Yes, there is also Pho. I did not sample it. I would prefer to imagine it better than the chicken soup version available in the states.
Aside from trying to wrap my mind around abstractions like “communism”, “socialism” and “planned economy”, I obsessed a bit on the war and what thoughts the Vietnamese people harbored when confronting American tourists. After all, it was my generation and my country that shredded and incinerated their country, while dispatching 2 million souls in the process. I did visit the War Remnants Museum, originally called the The Exhibition House For Crimes of War and Aggression ( the name altered as part of the 1995 deal that allowed trade between the U.S. and Vietnam). There was still a pavilion devoted to American war crimes, that included dozens of enlarged photos of the aftermath of the My Lai massacre and the effects of agent orange. While viewing the depressing exhibits, the Dylan song A Hard Rains Gonna Fall kept looping in my brain. It was, to say the least, a sobering experience.
The only conversation about the war I had in Vietnam was with a Mekong Delta tour guide who spoke decent English. He took a somewhat sanguine approach to the war, suggesting that neither the U.S. combatants nor the Vietnamese resistance had much choice in the matter. He told me about his father, a “collaborator” who had provided some kind of conveyance service to Americans in Saigon, but then fled in fear when the Army of North Vietnam triumphantly entered the city in 1975. He died of cancer after 9 years of exile in the Soviet Union, never seeing his family again.
Meanwhile, all I could think about was a tidbit from history. Ho Chi Minh was a notorious admirer of America’s revolutionary history and practically begged the U.S. to merely recognize his revolution, unsuccessfully of course. When he drew up the constitution for the new country he would ultimately lead, this was the preamble: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed, by their Creator, with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty, and the pursuit of Happiness.”
It has taken centuries of war and occupation, first by the Chinese, then by the French and the United States, and years of recriminations, re-education camps, and purges, but my feeling is that Vietnam is finally approaching the ideal embedded in those famous words.