Ho Chi Minh would be appalled if he could see Vietnam now.
Well, perhaps not appalled—he was less doctrinaire than the likes of Vladimir Lenin and Fidel Castro, and even hard-line ideologues can become more flexible over time—but he certainly wouldn’t recognize it.
The Doi Moi market reforms that began in 1986 (a mere eleven years after the fall of Saigon and national unification under the Communist Party) and a general slackening of state micromanagement have transformed the country out of all recognition.
Theodore Dalrymple visited in the late 1980s when much of the old system was still in place but was on its way out. “Only a fortnight ago,” he wrote in his book The Wilder Shores of Marx, “there was no conveyor belt for luggage at the airport, a deficiency that had been rectified [in the meantime.] It now took only an hour to retrieve luggage instead of three.”
Didn’t take an hour for me to get mine. The entire airport procedure from beginning to end was easier than entering Canada or returning home from abroad. Friendly officials stamped me in promptly and let me bypass Customs entirely. My suitcase was waiting for me on the conveyor belt. Barely ten minutes after stepping off the plane I was already out on the sidewalk.
I did not have a journalist visa, nor did I apply for media credentials from the government. Local reporters and fixers tell me the process is a spectacularly expensive bureaucratic nightmare and that the authorities would dispatch minders to baby-sit me, so I blew it off and stuck with a tourist visa. Nobody cared. I booked interviews with government officials and even they didn’t care.
Vietnam makes a good first impression, which pleased me as a human being but challenged me as a journalist. Writing about war zones and other disaster areas is relatively straightforward. Countries on the mend are a bit tougher, and Vietnam has been on the mend for a while now.
A sign on a bridge leading from the airport into the city reads, in English, “Hanoi: City of Peace” and includes the image of a white dove. If you’re American and older than me and can remember when Hanoi was an enemy capital, don’t doubt the sincerity of that message. The Vietnam War—which the Vietnamese call the American War—has been over for almost forty years now. The Vietnamese never wanted to fight Americans anyway. I have no memory of the war and am too young to have known the country in the 1970s, but nevertheless it’s as obvious as the sky that Vietnam has changed more drastically in the meantime than any country I’ve ever visited beyond Eastern Europe.
Outside the airport I saw more construction and infrastructure projects during the first five minutes of my ride into Hanoi than I saw on my entire weeks-long trip to Cuba last year. A forest of cranes punctuated the skyline. The country is charging ahead like a bull hopped up on adrenaline, and it’s startlingly prosperous.
I’ve seen a lot of poverty in the world—especially in Egypt and Latin America—so perhaps I’m a little desensitized. The country might look a little bit poor, I guess, to someone who has never left the US or Europe, but I don’t even know about that. Average homes in Hanoi are larger than mine. Restaurants, cafes, bars, electronics stores, shopping malls, and luxury stores proliferate. Most of the city looks brand-new. If there are slums tucked away somewhere, I didn’t see any. Vietnam’s per capita income is shockingly low, but so is the cost of living, so a statistical comparison with the US or Europe is pointless.
“Nothing had been repaired in years,” reporter David Lamb wrote of Hanoi in the 1970s. “The old French colonial buildings appeared in danger of collapse. Everything was in a state of poverty and decay.”
Much of Havana and Cairo still look that way now, but there’s little visible evidence that Hanoi ever suffered through such a phase. Take heart! Ruined cities can be repaired.
Some parts of Hanoi are a bit messy, but aside from the outdated rat’s nest of electrical wires, its messes are the kind you make in your house when you’re in the middle of a remodeling project. Parts of the Old Quarter still look a little decayed, but even there the decay is like a holdover from the past that’s being blotted out with one high-end boutique store after another.
The ruling Communist Party knows better than just about anyone that communist economics are a disaster. Vietnam’s economy has been growing at light speed for a while now. I knew that in advance, and yet it still stunned me. The city trembles with industriousness and entrepreneurship. Small and large businesses are everywhere. Half the residents seem to be in business for themselves. Anything and everything you can possibly imagine is for sale, though it’s not all high-end yet. I saw a Louis Vuitton outlet next to a bootleg CD store, an elegant Western-style café next to low-end bar with hard chairs and no air-conditioning, a Body Shop next to a used clothing store with cast-off second-hand T-shirts from the West, and an art gallery next to a store selling old pots and pans.
Market economies are uneven, no doubt, but they sure as hell beat the alternative. I could hardly believe it, but when I was a kid the Vietnamese stood in long lines on the street to exchange ration coupons for handfuls of rice. Today the country is one of the world’s largest exporters of rice.
Japan and South Korea: watch out. If the economy keeps growing and the political system breaks open, Vietnam will be a country to reckon with.
Hanoi assaults all five senses.
The streets smell of fried food, incense, barbecue, mold and exhaust, sometimes all at once. The sounds of growling motorbike engines and banging construction are endless, and they’re punctuated by vehicle-mounted loudspeakers announcing God-knows-what all day.
And the climate: God, it is horrendous during the summer. Up to a hundred degrees Fahrenheit with 108 percent humidity and cloud cover, rain, and at times even fog. Summer is the monsoon season. Hanoi gets as much rain in one monsoon month as Portland, Oregon, gets in six. The gloomy sky looks like that of Seattle or London in January, but the air feels like Miami during a heat wave in August.
Hanoi looked to my eyes like someone had put China and France into a blender and pressed puree. (To Vietnamese eyes, of course, it just looks like Hanoi.) Parts of the city look oddly European—and I'm not referring here to the French Quarter which looks European for the obvious reasons.
Houses in the newer parts of town (which is to say, most of it) have Victorian characteristics—steep roofs, tall vertical windows, wedding-cake moldings, and balcony spindles. They’re taller and narrower than Victorian houses, though. Taxes are levied by how much street space each structure takes up, so most houses and places of private businesses build up and back as much as possible rather than sideways.
Nearly all have slanted roofs, not to let snow slide off as in northern climates—I doubt Hanoi has ever known snow—but simply because pitched roofs like nice. They provide a certain elegance to each individual home and to the cityscape.
The city as a whole is not elegant, but it could be if it were twice as rich and four times more orderly. The former may be just a matter of time, but I'm not so sure about the latter. People are the way they are and orderly doesn't seem to be Vietnam’s style. The place is emphatically not German or Austrian. It has a frenetic energy that seems inherent and uncorkable. That a single political party managed to herd everyone into a totalitarian structure for even a short period beggars belief.
Never before have I seen such terrifying and ludicrous traffic. For nearly a decade I thought nothing could beat Beirut’s aggressive bumper-car bedlam, but I was wrong. The Vietnamese are just as aggressive, but most of them are on motorbikes instead of in cars. They take up less space on the roads, so the number of moving vehicles at any given location can be several times greater.
Red lights are suggestions. Sometimes they’re obeyed. Other times traffic moves through intersections in all four directions at once. Best of luck if you are on foot. No one will stop for you. They’ll go around, but they will not stop and they will not slow down.
So when you want to cross in heavy traffic (and traffic is heavy everywhere except after midnight) you just have to steel your nerves and step into the street even as dozens of bikes roar toward you panoramically. Everybody will ride around you. Really, they will—as long as you know what you’re doing.
If you stop, if you change speed, or—worst of all—if you change the direction you’re moving, you could get hit. But if you pick a direction and just go at a consistent moderate speed, everyone will calculate where you’ll be by the time they get there. They’ll adjust their direction ever so slightly and miss you by a couple of inches. Traffic will swarm around you like an eddy in water. It is every bit as terrifying as it sounds. The police may as well not even exist.
It’s strange how a one-party state can look and feel so anarchic, but sometimes that’s how it goes. North Korea sure as hell isn’t like that, nor is Cuba, but the Vietnamese are like cats who refuse to be herded.
They enjoy no political freedom, but the government doesn’t hassle everyone constantly. Not anymore. The place feels free even though it technically isn’t because at this point in history, the citizens and the state have at least tacitly agreed to a modus vivendi: We won’t screw with you if you won’t screw with us. Like a cease-fire during a war, it will continue working until it doesn’t.
I have a hard time believing Vietnam ever passed through a totalitarian phase, but it’s easy to believe the phase was a brief one. Communism endured in Russia from the early 20th century until nearly the end, but it wasn’t imposed on all of Vietnam until the middle of the 1970s, and it ended in all but name before it ended in Moscow. The Vietnamese are too energetic, fearless, and naturally capitalistic to be forced for long onto an anthill.
I crossed a bridge to an island in Hoan Kiem Lake (Lake of the Returned Sword) to an ancient Buddhist pagoda. It had, like all the old temples I saw, Chinese writing on the walls and the pillars. Vietnam’s current modified Latin alphabet didn’t exist before the 17th century and wasn’t widely adopted until early in the 20th century.
The temple looked ancient and felt ancient, and it also looked and felt, to me anyway, purely Chinese. Buddhism came to Vietnam from both India and China, but the temples in the north seem to be mostly Chinese.
Buddhist visitors (as opposed to mere tourists) lit high-quality temple incense and placed the sticks in a central location just outside the entrance. Inside was a quiet place for calm and repose. I saw altars and extravagantly carved tables for offerings, including cash money. The ceiling was made of brown-stained wood held in place by fat red timbers. Intricately carved representations of distinctly Chinese-looking deities stood in the back as they must have for centuries beyond where mere mortals are allowed to tread.
Most buildings and houses in Hanoi are relatively new, so the contrast with everything else in the city was striking. Unlike the medieval walled cities of Europe and the Middle East’s maze-like medinas, Hanoi doesn’t feel ancient. The pagodas do, though, because they are. And their origins lie elsewhere, in the belly of the regional hegemon that has antagonized and periodically invaded Vietnam for thousands of years. China is but a short drive away. I could feel its presence over the horizon like a vast ocean. The Vietnamese feel it too, the way Poles, Estonians, and especially now Ukrainians feel the overwhelming and massive presence of Russia.
Back out on the sidewalk a woman sold small turtles from a white plastic bucket. “When you leave a pagoda,” a local man explained to me, “you are supposed to buy an animal and set it free.”
I like the idea, but it’s a bit circular, isn’t it? The animals must first be captured and sold before they can be freed. The poor turtles would be better off if they were never caught and placed into that bucket at all.
Vietnam’s government falsely claims the majority of its people are non-religious—some communist-era habits die harder than others—but I saw signs not only of Buddhism but also of ancestor worship everywhere. Most businesses have little altars near the front for incense and gifts for the dead. The gifts are often burned so that ancestors can receive them in the spirit world. Some of the gifts are ghost offerings. I saw fake iPhones, for instance, fake iPads and fake money—even fake credit cards. Supposedly when these things are burned they float up to the afterlife where they can be used. Lighting cash on fire, then, is a spiritual Western Union of sorts. Theoretically.
“If you think about it,” one Vietnamese person said to me, “we’re actually burning real money because we have to spend real money to purchase the fake money.”
Women wearing conical hats roam the city selling fruit, fried pastries, and other items to passersby. They congregate around pagodas and tourist sites. I stopped an elderly vendor and asked for a small portion of what looked like Vietnam’s version of donuts. The woman smiled and placed a handful in a plastic bag and said “200,000 dong.”
That’s ten dollars. For a fistful of fried bread.
“Come on,” I said.
Vietnam is not an expensive country. I don’t know what she would have charged a local person, but surely much less than ten dollars. She thought I was rich and therefore wouldn’t mind paying so much, but I’m nowhere near rich, at least not by Western standards. (Only a lucky few writers ever get rich.)
“200,000 dong,” she said again.
“I’ll give you 20,000,” I said. That’s about one dollar and probably more than the locals would pay.
“200,000,” she said again.
Seriously? She wasn’t even going to come down to 180,000?
“Forget it,” I said and walked away.
That night I paid six dollars for an entire meal plus a bottle of beer, so I knew the lady on the street tried to drastically overcharge me. I swore not to buy anything that didn’t have a price tag on it somewhere.
My waitress that evening correctly sensed that I had just arrived (newcomers are obvious everywhere) and gave me some advice.
“The street sellers,” she said, and pointed outside the window with her eyes, “are not good. If you’re a foreigner they’ll charge you ten times what everyone else pays.”
Indeed. It took me no time at all to figure that out. I appreciated, though, that she was looking out for me. She didn’t know me, but she was looking out for me. And she helped me out with the language—which is a pain and a half. The Vietnamese language uses six different vocal tones, and if you’re not used to tonal languages you can easily screw up saying even hello and thank you. A single syllable sound like “Ha” can be made into six different words depending on which tone you use and which markings you put above or below the letters in writing.
The Vietnamese use a modified version of the Latin alphabet, but it’s harder to casually learn a few words and read them that it first appears. You must pay attention to the tone markings, not just the letters, if you want to even begin making sense of it. Má and Mã, for instance, are not the same word. They look similar and to my tone-deaf ears they sound exactly the same, but they’re different words.
I thanked the waitress for helping me out as best she could with the language, and especially for warning me about scammers prowling the streets, but no one else ever tried to egregiously overcharge me, at least not to my knowledge. Even the taxi drivers used the meter without my having to ask, which is unheard of almost everywhere I’ve ever been. Even European taxi drivers have tried and sometimes succeeded in ripping me off.
Before I left home I read all kinds of horror stories on the Internet about scam artists and hasslers of every conceivable variety in Vietnam, but I hardly ran into any of them. I don’t know if it’s because I got lucky, because I’ve learned how to not look like a sucker, or because the problem is much less severe than it used to be. I don’t know but I suspect it’s the latter. Everything else is changing at rocket ship speed, so why not the hassling?
After dinner I returned to my room in the busting Old Quarter, flicked off the lights, and heard the honking and growling of motorbikes as a bat flew past my window.
I awoke early and jetlagged the next morning and set out at six to find some relief from the hideous climate. The air outside was 82 degrees Fahrenheit and humid. Hardly ideal, but it certainly beat the 99 degrees of the previous day. At least I could walk around for a few minutes before my shirt soaked through with sweat.
How miserable it must have been fighting a war in this country. They say war is interminable boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. I’ve been to war zones myself and can attest to the truth of that statement. But war in the sticky and sweltering jungles must have been interminable misery punctuated by terror.
I was advised to check out Le Mat on the outskirts of the city. There you will find the Snake Village where you can pull up a bar stool and order some snake wine. The bartender will kill a cobra, pour its blood into rice wine, and drop the snake’s still-beating heart into the shot glass.
If you don’t want to drink blood, you can have it with bile instead.
I refused. Why make my stomach churn and possibly heave just so I can write about it? The description of the drink itself is enough. I went to Iraq seven times during the war, but drinking snake wine is over the line. I don’t care whether or not that makes sense.
What I wanted was coffee. I was jet-lagged in a bad way, and if I didn’t have caffeine I’d need a nap. And if I succumbed to that nap I’d sleep for eight hours, miss most of the day, and be up all night when everything’s closed. So I headed back toward Hoan Kiem Lake during early business hours, and when a young woman on the sidewalk beckoned me over and told me about a café upstairs, I eagerly agreed to let her show me the way.
She led me inside a building that looked like a parking garage, though nobody parked there. Empty boxes, a discarded broom, and other detritus were strewn about. There was a café upstairs? Really? I felt a twinge of uncertainty. What kind of café would be above this? The building looked derelict.
I resisted the twinge of uncertainty. The young woman seemed friendly enough and she wore a shirt with a café logo on it. I followed her into the elevator. We rode up to the fourth floor, then she pointed toward a rickety-looking stairway leading up a gloomy fifth floor. The way was unlit, the walls filthy, the air hot and still. I saw no other people and heard no sounds but the traffic outside. I had a hard time believing the kind of café I wanted to hang out in was up there.
If I were anywhere in the West I would have turned around and gone back to the street, but my instincts are different abroad. I ascended the stairs, feeling curious about what I’d find though doubtful that I would like it.
I reached the top of the sweltering stairway, pushed open a glass door, and found myself in a café worthy of South Beach in Miami tucked into an air-conditioned aerie. The place was packed with comfortable sofas and chairs and stylishly dressed Vietnamese with laptops and iPads drinking from cups of Italian-style espresso. The entire south wall was made of glass from floor to ceiling and revealed a 180-degree view of the lake and the skyline below.
Almost everyone in the café was staring at a personal electronic device.
Who during the Vietnam War on either side of the conflict could have imagined that such a bourgeois place would ever appear in Hanoi while the Communist Party still ruled? Ho Chi Minh sure as hell didn't expect this. Nor would he have wanted it. Fidel Castro would hate it. Of that I assure you. Pol Pot would have wanted to murder everyone in there.
The world is becoming more and more alike everywhere. Outside of basket case countries like North Korea, Syria, and Iraq, we all seem to be heading in the same direction toward the same destination. And with everyone looking at the little screens in their hands all the time, even while sitting with friends, I have to wonder: where exactly, as a species, are we going?
Whatever the answer to that question, Hanoi is no longer an impoverished totalitarian backwater. It’s a global city now. And despite the name of its government, communism is finished.
The city exhausted me after a couple of days, so I took a brief break on the coast of the Gulf of Tonkin.
I did not drive there. Vietnam is so far the one country I’ve visited where driving must be left to the professionals.
The near-ubiquitous nice housing of the city continued into the countryside. Where was the poverty? Surely there must be poverty somewhere out in the country. In the mountains, perhaps, or along the Cambodian border. But while the rural areas along the highway between the capital and the coast are less cosmopolitan and fashionable, they are not destitute. At least the ones along the main highway aren’t destitute. I saw water buffaloes and women with conical hats in the fields and three-story houses with balconies. The whole scene looked bucolic, though field work in that climate has to be brutal.
And the coast is spectacular, especially Halong Bay roughly thirty miles south of the border with China. Hundreds of islands, most of them karst towers and cones topped with a riot of vegetation, spread out in a vast panorama that goes on for miles.
“Hạ Long” means descending dragon in Vietnamese. The bay is a UNESCO World Heritage site and is considered one of the natural wonders of Asia.
Boat tours are startlingly cheap, so I booked one and set out. The air temperature dropped 10 degrees the minute the captain pushed us away from the shoreline.
Every direction looked like the setting for an Asian fairy tale. The land formations are wondrous, even surreal, and they’re crawling with screaming insects that in concert sound like a huge whirring bone saw. There is no other sound on the water.
Sadly, though, there’s trash in the bay. Vietnam is not trashy in general, but I saw a heartbreaking amount of plastic bottles, beer cans, potato chip wrappers, and chunks of Styrofoam floating by in the water—along with jellyfish with heads the size of basketballs.
“How dangerous are those jellyfish?” I asked the captain. “What happens if they sting a person?”
“Pain,” he said. “No die, but great pain.”
The water is calm and refreshing, but don’t swim there at night.
Much of the trash is generated by people who live in floating villages made of clapboard houses floating on Styrofoam platforms far from the mainland. They have no electricity or modern amenities. These villages are objectively poor. None of Vietnam’s newfound prosperity has reached these people, but fewer than two hundred still live out there. The captain told me they lived in caves on the islands until the mid-1990s when the government ordered them out and told them to live in floating houses instead. But they’re polluting the water, so now the government is slowly phasing the villages out and relocating everyone to the mainland. In a few years they will be gone. Whether they’ll prosper after relocating or resent the state for moving them, I have no idea.
The coast was a pleasant diversion, but I found little grist for my writing mill there. It’s beautiful and relaxing, but it’s a place for tourists and poets, not journalists. So back to the city I went.
When I returned to Hanoi, I came back to familiar restaurants, cafes, narrow storefronts, traffic, and noise. The hotel staff welcomed me back. It was like a tiny homecoming of sorts, and it triggered a question I often ponder when traveling abroad.
Could I live there?
Lots of Westerners do. Even I could separate them from the tourists. Their motorbike helmets sometimes gave them away, but I could also tell by their ease of navigating the place, how they crossed the street with the confidence of a local and settled into cafes and restaurants as though they were regulars.
I found a cheap but pleasant-enough looking restaurant, ordered a beer and some seafood, and pretended in my own mind that I lived there. I wanted to know how I felt about that, partly to satisfy my own curiosity, but also because it’s an important question for me as a writer. It forces me to think seriously about how distressed a place is or isn’t, about the quality of life for the average person, and about the political system.
I wasn’t initially sure of the answer.
So I kept at it. I tried to look like I lived there by pretending I knew the waitress, drinking my beer with a bored confidence, and not fiddling with my chopsticks like an amateur. Whether or not I actually looked like a resident expat, I was starting to feel like one. The only air-conditioning in that particular restaurant was a fan blowing the hot air around and I didn’t mind. My body had recalibrated its thermostat. Full-on air-conditioning made me feel cold. I later got into a taxi that felt like a refrigerator and laughed at myself when I almost asked the driver to turn up the heat.
But could I live there, at least for a while? I had to know. Most places I’ve traveled it’s an easy question to answer, but in Vietnam it was not.
Could I live in Cairo? No. Baghdad? Hell no. Havana? No chance. Not while it’s under the boot heel of the Castros. Rabat? Perhaps. Beirut? I have already lived in Beirut and theoretically could do so again. But what about Hanoi?
Vietnam is a pleasant destination for tourists, for sure, but it’s also a one-party nominally communist state. I have viscerally detested communism since the first moment I learned about it as a child. No political system in the history of the human race has killed such a vast number of people. The fall of the Berlin Wall and the collapse of the Soviet Union were the greatest geopolitical events of my lifetime. Every cell in my body rebelled at the existential heaviness of the state in Cuba on my last long trip abroad and after a week I couldn’t wait to get out of there.
I had to look it squarely in the eye in Vietnam without flinching.
Could I live there, despite it?
Yes. I believe so.
As long as I stayed out of politics.
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