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A Return to Vietnam

By Todd Crowell

SNA (Ho Chi Minh City) — The first impression one encounters in Ho Chi Minh City is the swarms of motorbikes. I’d seen pictures of this, but nothing quite prepares you for the spectacle of thousands of the little scooters flowing along the streets and even sidewalks like an endless river. By some estimates there are five million motorbikes in Ho Chi Minh, a city of about eight million, which works out to one for practically every able-bodied adult in the city.

You take your life in hand – literally – just crossing the street. According to a magazine I picked up in the hotel, nearly two hundred people have died in the past two years after being run over by motorbikes. Crosswalks are painted on the ground, but ignored by the riders, as are regulations that drivers must yield to pedestrians. The basic technique seems to be to wait for a small break in the traffic flow and then boldly step out, trusting that the highly mobile bikers will drive around you.

I was also surprised at the Vietnamese currency, known as Dong. The exchange rate is 21,000 to the US Dollar, so even small purchases run in the hundreds to thousands of Dong. These figures are the kind one usually associates with countries undergoing hyperinflation, but I wasn’t aware that Vietnam was suffering from any unusual currency crisis.

Making a purchase in Danang, I fumble through my Dong looking for the right denominations among a dozen or so, while mentally counting the zeros so that I don’t confuse a 20,000 note with a 200,000 note. The saleswoman gets impatient and snatches the money out of my hands, deftly extracting the correct amount (I hope), and then returns the wad to me.

To be fair, Vietnam isn’t the only country in Asia using currency with large denominations. The dollar exchange rate for the Indonesian Rupiah is nearly the same as that for the Dong. But I can’t help but wonder that if it costs a million Dong for one night in a three-star hotel, what is the national budget like? Does anyone know the Vietnamese word for quintillion?

I’m fascinated by the juxtaposition of communism and global capitalism in Ho Chi Minh. Of course, Vietnam has had its own version of China’s market socialism, known as Doi Moi for many years. And the cityscape is lighted up in the evening with plenty of advertisements for Sony, Samsung, Lucky Goldstar, and so on. It has the requisite luxury shops selling expensive watches and handbags along fashionable Dong Khoi Street.

Yet the posters sporting the likeness of Ho Chi Minh are also ubiquitous in the city of his name. Bac Ho’s portrait, as he is generally called, is everywhere, usually surrounded by children, as the Vietnamese like to cultivate an image of him being everybody’s avuncular relative. Of course, no leader could have led his country successfully against first the French and then the Americans if he wasn’t also quite ruthless. Every public building sports two flags: The national flag with its red field and single yellow star is communistic enough, but they also have one with a yellow hammer and sickle. I don’t think they do that even in China.

My hotel in Ho Chi Minh, the Rex, is, I understand, owned by the Saigon Tourism Authority, which means it is essentially a state-owned enterprise. Yet the quality of service is certainly higher than what one would expect from such an enterprise. The hotel was famous during the war as the location for the American high command’s daily press briefings, derisively labeled the “Five-o’Clock Follies” by the reporters.

You can buy a Cartier watch or a Salvatore Ferragamo handbag in the hotel’s extensive arcade, but you can’t buy a newspaper, in any language. The same was true of the other hotels I stayed at during the trip. The management does provide its foreign guests with a paper called the Viet Nam News, which has all the the earmarks of a state-run media, namely its emphasis on development and trade. The front page lead story: “President [of Vietnam] Encourages Belarus Business Ties.”

I happen to know from other sources that Vietnam was adopting a new constitution while I was in the country. Indeed, the National Assembly approved it the day I was leaving Danang. Vietnam was also taking delivery of its first submarine. One might think that these events were rather newsworthy, but you wouldn’t know it by reading the Viet Nam News, which, as far as I can remember, did not mention the story at all.

I’m also not sure whether or not it was a subject in the national television news. Flicking through the television channels, I linger at televised proceedings of the National Assembly in Hanoi, although I couldn’t understand what the deputies were debating – if in fact they were debating anything and not simply listening to a government minister giving them their marching orders.

I’ve been puzzled by this institution even before coming to Vietnam. This being a communist country, one assumes that the assembly simply rubber stamps government-party edicts. Yet, the body showed some amazing independence a couple years ago when it killed as too expensive a high speed train from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City that the Japanese were eager to sell. When was the last time China’s National People’s Congress did something like that?

Speaking of selling, the Japanese and Russians are competing to sell Vietnam its first nuclear power station just south of Nha Trang. Judging from the swarms of Russians in that city, one could easily assume that they already own this part of Vietnam. Here, every hotel table is taken by Russians in the morning hours, eager, no doubt, to get on to sampling the city’s beaches, food stalls, markets, and other attractions.

For a couple years after the end of the Vietnam War, the Russians had a naval base at nearby Cam Ran Bay, although they later closed it as straining their defense budget and having very little strategic value. I’m not sure whether Russian sailors “discovered” Nha Trang and brought back tales of the “exotic East.” Of course, there is no reason why Russians might not choose Vietnam as a place to get away from their frozen winters, especially as Egypt is becoming too dangerous. Nobody has to worry about terrorists here, except for the ones on the motorbikes.

Todd Crowell worked for Thailand-based Asia Times from 2006-2007. He is the author of Far From Worries: a Year in the King’s Town. He is currently based in Tokyo and is a contributing writer to the Shingetsu News Agency. He last lived in Vietnam between 1967-68.