After only two decades, Vietnam is returning to Capitalism - - and to subordination, impotence and poverty.

By Jeremy Seabrook, Third World Network Features

Vietnam is a country in transition, but in transition, it seems, increasingly to its own past - to subordination, impotence and poverty.

Ho Chi Minh City is the centre of the transformation; Saigon, which fell exactly 20 years ago, is now reverting to its former identity.

The centre of the city is characterised by monuments to the French colonial period; soaring trees shade streets reminiscent of the boulevards of Paris, restored public buildings, create an effect of archaic provincial charm, the Hotel de Ville and the dramatic space of the post office, red-roofed villas painted cream and white on the edge of the old colonial settlement. This is overlaid by the architecture of the liberation period - the Soviet- influenced monumentalism of the Palace of Reunification, and the hotels, demolished after 1975, and reconstructed for Soviet experts, advisers and tourists in the late 1970s and 1980s. Many of these have been subsequently prettified. The ornamental night-time lighting of the Rex Hotel suggests quite different contours from the stark angularity of its daytime appearance.

Most recently, the real estate boom of the past five years, the accommodation to receive an army of tourists - far more effective an invasion than any military expeditionary force - shows the lineaments of a future city that will be more like Bangkok than Saigon. Great gaps have appeared in the fabric of the downtown area where white marble and glass palaces with names like Ocean Towers, malls and condominiums, are transforming the skyline.

These, however, are merely symbols of a far deeper transformation, the `restructuring' of the economy of Vietnam, its integration into the world economy, and the dismantling of the social achievements of the socialist interregnum in the interests of the free market.

The tourist industry has conjured forth a culture of mendicancy in the city; disabled people, women and children offering some trifling object for sale, in order to retain an appearance of economic activity - the dumb woman with her box of chewing gum, the children with a single tin of bootpolish in a polythene bag, the pregnant woman with a baby selling cigarette lighters; vendors of toys - helicopters, planes and ships made from cans of Coca Cola, Sprite and Orangina. All these are only one step above those more obviously begging - stunted malnourished children, people with war wounds, propelling themselves with sandals on their hands, their abdomen resting on a rubber pad which slides along the sidewalk. One man lies face down on a platform on wheels, his face supported by a rough cushion and legs contorted behind him. A tin vessel receives the contributions of conscience-stricken tourists.

Many cyclo drivers (cyclos are the cheapest form of transport, a kind of cycle rickshaw, lwhere the passenger sits in front) are also touts. They know how to serve foreigners who are coming to Saigon increasingly in search of the rest and recreation for which it was celebrated in the last years of the American occupation, and who are themselves, in a way combatants, soldiers enlisted in the global crusade of the war of the rich against the poor. The cyclo drivers will take you to brothels, karaoke bars and massage parlours where the girls are. Not that the girls themselves are absent: one notable feature of Saigon is the young women on Hondas, upright, respectable, hair swept back, prim as schoolmistresses, elbow-length gloves, cruising the city for customers. I kept meeting two young girls - no more than 18 or 19 - who were constantly being wheeled around by a cyclo driver, sitting in the metal tub of the one-seater vehicle, human merchandise. Each time I passed them, they called out, `You come with me.' Each time I replied, `Tomorrow.' `Tomorrow I die,' they said.

The culture of begging is the other side of market `reforms', which also re-form the sensibility and psychic structures of a generation which has grown to maturity assured of health care, access to education, an improved life expectancy of 68 for women, 65 for men. No longer; Vietnam now has levels of malnutrition second only to those of Bangladesh.

There are also, of course, the trappings of carnival which celebrate the return of Vietnam to capitalism: vendors of carved Disney cartoon figures, coloured teddy-bears and pandas from Hong Kong and China, plastic guns and musical cigarette lighters, balloons and candies - Mars bars, Kit- Kat, beverages from Nestle, soft drinks and the ubiquitous Coca Cola; what a cruel paradox that people should go hungry in a world made safe once more for the luxury products of the transnationals. Across Saigon River, from the five-star floating hotel, you can see, above the shacks of rusty tin and lush spread of plantain and water-palms, painted boards bearing the logos of the transnationals - Panasonic, Trinitron, Nike, Reebok, Raymond Weil, Sanyo, Canon, Toshiba. These boards are claims of gold-prospectors staked on virgin territory, the wide open spaces evacuated by socialism, a Klondyke, another frontier.

Here, the fate of all the countries of the South is stark: people are being pressed into the service of a wealth- creation that is increasingly disarticulated from human need. The passing of Communism is a tragedy, not because one totalising creed has been vanquished, but because its absence leaves no adequate critique of monstrous social injustice, no challenge to levels of inequality which threaten to squeeze the poorest out of existence.

If the only choice for the world lay between Communist lies and capitalist illusion, there was never any doubt which most people would choose. Lies are more instantly recognisable, and most of us will opt for illusion. But to call it truth, or freedom, sets up a different order of problem from that created by compelling people to intone mantras of revelation. The paradox that the creation of wealth also requires an intensification of poverty is not one which the leaders of Vietnam care to explore. Instead, they speak of maintaining a socialist orientation within a free market economy; words which, instead of revealing the contradiction, are intended to spirit it away.

The Museum of War Crimes remains in Ho Chi Minh, as, of all things, a tourist attraction. The exhibits have become rusty, American tanks, howitzers and aircraft lie ancient and neglected. The images of the My Lai massacre remain, pictures that once shocked the world, the grin on the face of a soldier who holds up the head and shoulders of a dismembered Vietnamese for the benefit of a camera, the heroes with their trophies of the heads of captives, the cage-prisons, the tortures - all appear grainy and indistinct now, half-effaced like memory itself.

And yet, the great question that frames itself in the presence of these monstrosities cannot be spoken. What was it all for? Too many people died, there was too great a burden of human sacrifice, too many people lost loved ones, too many bodies haunt the sidewalks of Ho Chi Minh, too many deformities and birth defects as a result of napalm, and agent orange and all the other untested chemicals poured onto the countryside. These demand that the rhetoric at least be maintained; the words futile, in vain do not appear anywhere in the official versions of doi moi, renovation, which means in effect, capitulation to the superior wisdom of aggressors now become mentors.

And among the people, there is an extraordinary level of forgiveness. Resentment remains, but against the Russians rather than the Americans, for the impoverishment which followed liberation, for the vengeful blockade mounted by the United States against the country; the Russians whose dogmas of emancipation dissolved overnight, leaving Vietnam to make its own accommodation with the world.

So much suffering since the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu, the coming of the Americans to prop up the regimes of Diem and Thieu, the Vietnamisation of the war, the fall of Saigon, the revenge against collaborators, the setting up of the command economy, and now the reversal of all that in the name of free markets, the obligation forced upon the present regime to recognise the debts of the former South Vietnam, in order to gain credit from the International Monetary Fund (IMF) and World Bank.

It is no wonder if most people say all that they want is to be left alone to get on with their own lives. If only it were so easy! But people's own lives are themselves being invaded by growing insecurity, by unemployment, the reduction in health care, adequate nutrition, free education.

Vietnam, it now seems, is being retrospectively punished, for having taken on and defeated the Americans. But the reparations are being paid by the weakest and most vulnerable. The war guilt belongs with those who dared to call into question a system since become global, and to which alternatives are now declared inadmissible.

Vietnam is a strange hybrid now. Left with a socialist rhetoric which cannot be disavowed because of the suffering with which it was brought into being, it is nevertheless entering the Dutch auction of the global marketplace with the labour of its people; a bureaucracy that polices the betrayal of the people, protecting a government coerced into compliance with the will of its late enemy. It's the worst of all worlds; an authoritarian system diverted into the protection of free market reforms.

In this respect, it might be possible to argue that Vietnam now has the preconditions for take-off which characterised the other Asian economies - Singapore, Taiwan, South Korea - although they, of course, had authoritarian governments whose orientation was Right rather than Left. It doesn't seem to matter. As long as the people can be compelled into conformity with the universal truths of the market economy, what does it matter who does the compelling. The legacy of a puritanical work-ethic, discipline and control serves the end admirably. Perhaps this is what the US economist at an Asian Development Bank seminar in Manila late in 1994 had in mind, when he suggested that democracy was often damaging to the economy, essentially a luxury for `developed' rather than developing nations.

It's back to Saigon in less than one generation. Ho Chi Minh City was just a diversion on the way. A city without joy. If it is energised now by hopes of affluence, these will scarcely compensate the poor for the destruction of the fragile security which they had won in such pain and at such grievous cost only two decades ago. -- Third World Network

About the writer: Jeremy Seabrook is a freelance journalist and author based in London.

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