Wednesday, October 04, 2006

Vietnam, part I

Okay, this may not be part 1 because I posted something while in Vietnam. But this is the first post after I got back, and more importantly for Prof. Williams, the first post with pictures from Vietnam.

Of course I had gotten slightly behind in my work when I left and did not make any progress while there, and since I'm giving a test tomorrow, I spent much of the past few days catching up with grading, writing the test, and doing a bunch of administrative work unrelated to either, but related to the Hong Kong program. Anyway, it's 11:28 pm on Wednesday, and this is the first time I have to post anything from the trip.

We arrived last Thursday on Cathay Pacific into Ho Chi Minh City (still known as Saigon to locals but all the official documents say "Ho Chi Minh City"). We had Pho. We toured the city. Here's a statue of Ho Chi Minh (known as "Uncle Ho"), welcoming a child.

We saw statues of Ho Chi Minh everywhere. In this case, I went around to see what Uncle Ho was looking at. He gazes at bright lights in highrise office buildings.

The tall one on the right says "Citibank". The bright lights on the lower right come from what was once the Russian market, but now offers a lot at very low rates. "Motorola", say signs emblazoned on its windows. Even the little guy is in on it. The middle pedestrian is rolling some kind of toy that makes clacking noises as it moves, drawing attention from tourists who might want to buy such a thing. Cheap price! And Uncle Ho sits there, contented.

After all, all Ho Chi Minh wanted was the best for his country. And now his country has discovered that free markets are just what are needed.

I say that with only a little irony. Because it's very clear that Vietnam suffered under communist strictures, and now is flourishing under the free market. There's now a sizeable middle class that has food and clothing and shelter, where once such things were in short supply. They're at restaurants. They frequent massage parlors. They buy brand name clothing at shopping malls and hang out at popular rock concerts. Young couples find secretive places in parks to snuggle, but with so many of them, the general activity is not so secret.

In the 1980s, Vietnam adopted a policy known as "Doi Moi", or "renovation", adopting, like China, a "one party, free market" slogan. And it's worked. I saw prosperity and freedom, though I knew of course that they were not a democracy. But as has often been pointed out, most people don't go for ideologies. They want to live normal lives. They want to enjoy life, and raise their families without fear of danger or deprivation. They want to eat their favorite foods and sleep at home near their spouse and children. And, it seems, many Vietnamese can do just that.

They keep comparing themselves to other countries. If China can get all this foreign investment, so should they! If Singapore is the Asian financial dragon, then the Vietnamese, children of the dragon (or so the legend says), will one day surpass Singapore.

There's also poverty. Kids pushing roses on men walking with women, through the night, a necessary job to put food on the table. People at the river, cleaning plastic bags they salvaged from the dump so they can sell it to recyclers. But under communism, they didn't even have these opportunities. Our tour guide, Viet, lived through both times, and he said they have a saying: Under capitalism they share wealth. Under communism they share poor [sic]. I don't know if people really share now, but it's hard to deny that the people overall seem to be living a better life today.

The next day we went to the Cu Chi tunnels. These were tunnels by the Viet Cong in the jungle to subvert the South Vietnamese and US forces during the Vietnam War (and before that, in their struggle for independence against the French).

They were too small for most American soldiers to crawl through, though it was fine for our Blair Warner:

They had a section of tunnels widened for tourists so we could all go through, even if we weren't Blair Warner:

A display of some of the booby traps used:

And a war trophy: a dismantled US tank, left in the jungle, to be a tourist trap for a later generation of US citizens:

On the left is Andrea Rodriguez, then Jonathan Hippensteel, and right behind him is Andrew Fay. On the right is Alejandro Sangiovanni.

Young mothers would keep US tanks from going into the jungle, saying that to go into the jungle, "you will have to run over me, a mother. You will have to kill your own mother."

There's something democratic about every system of power. No one can be in power with no support. The most disciplined army in the world executed their own Emperor Nero when there was no one left to support him. The Chinese emperor Qin Shi Huangdi maintained control through horrific tyrannical methods, but by the time he died, there was sufficient unrest to dismantle his empire. The fact that women would throw their bodies in front of tanks shows that there is always some way to stop a tyrannical regime if enough people want to badly enough.

I actually predicted (without knowing specifics) back when we invaded Iraq in 2003 that there were probably many in the minority who supported Saddam. We can't know that based on the elections, rigged as they were. But we can know that because otherwise, Saddam's own private Republican Guard would have killed him. Well, I didn't predict they would be a problem for American armed forces this many years into the conflict, but I did predict they represented a sizeable chunk of the population.

I said there's "something democratic". It's possible to rule with a minority. But it can't be too small of a minority or you won't be able to pull it off.

Well, the moment many of the students were waiting for: the opportunity to shoot Vietnam War era weapons. AK 47s, M16s, M60s, all mounted and ready for tourists who are willing to shell out USD $1 a bullet. All left over from the war, in perfect working condition, firing every day for thousands of trigger-happy tourists.

Sangi (Alejandro Sangiovanni, one of our students) gets set up for shooting at the range.

Delia shoots. She gets ear mufflers. Priscilla (lower left) doesn't. Ouch. Those are loud.

This was by far the single biggest event we were all hoping for when we came to Vietnam. But by the end of the tour, we saw so many other things that although this was definitely up there as an attraction, other parts of the trip wowed us just as much.

More on those in my next post tomorrow.


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