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Opening Arguments

Out of the anthill

A fascinating look at Vietnam today by an observant and articulate journalist:

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.

[. . .]

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.

[. . .]

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.

A very long article but well worth reading. His dispatch is from Hanoi, which for obvious reasons I have never seen. I wish he had written it from Saigon -- er, Ho Chi Minh City -- where I saw that curious mix of European and and Asian influences for myself.

It took a while, but I finally got over Vietnam, sort of, mostly. It's been on my want-to-visit list for some time, partly for the "history was made here, and I was a part of it" experience and partly just to see the place again with some years and experience under my belt. I admire the veterans who can go back there dpesite everything and apparently feel no lasting animosity. Expecially people like John McCain, who suffered so much there. A lot about him I don't like, but that showed a lot of class.

And we thought we could force Western ideals on them at the point of a gun -- hell, when I was young I believed that, too. They are finding their way on their own because, well, damn it, it's the right way. From the Vietnamese I've met in this country -- whom I've known considerably better than the ones I met over there -- I know exactly what he's talking about -- "too energetic, fearless, and naturally capitalistic to be forced for long onto an anthill." Industrious doesn't begin to do them justice.