Vietnam. A country that triggers memories for many and has seen one war after the next within the last century. The Chinese, French, Japanese, Americans – everyone wanted a piece of this strategically well-situated country in the South China Sea. Movies like “Apocalypse Now”, which explained the post-traumatic condition of many US veterans and the realization that communism managed to outmaneuver one of the most powerful militaries in the world, automatically shape a certain view and expectation level, long before you even set foot on Vietnamese soil.
If you thought that Vietnam must’ve been crushed by its history and its political and economic situation, think again! Never has a country surprised me so much on every single level, and I’m still being surprised every single day when I manage to scratch the surface a tiny bit more and discover something absolutely unexpected. But, you certainly do need to dig, as many of the first and obvious impressions will stay on the surface if you don’t. For many reasons.
In this blog post, I want to concentrate on my perception of this communist society that has slowly started to open themselves up to the world, and will try to answer three main questions that every culturally aware tourist will ask themselves in the first week of being in the country.
Being watched: Why it is so hard to feel local
In the first few days of being in Saigon, I could not get rid of the feeling that I was missing something. Something substantial. The city was exciting, energetic, radiant and colorful, but for some reason I did not feel like I was breathing the real Vietnam air, but rather a dialed-down version of what it wants me to look at. I felt welcome, but kept at a distance. People were nice, but I could not lose the feeling of a very patriotic Vietnamese vibe that clearly wanted me to understand that I was welcome, but “not from here”.
I’ve talked to many locals since my arrival, many of them having returned to the country as a second generation after the American war. Amongst them were: Two business people that I met at a bar, who followed their roots back to Vietnam in the early 2000’s to help build the economy. One friend of a friend, half American, half Vietnamese, raised bilingual on the US east coast, who chose to move to Vietnam, despite his parents, an American soldier and a South Vietnamese, saying they would never return to the place where their former home country was taken from them. A new Vietnamese friend my age, who was born and raised on a farm in the still poverty-burdened Central Highlands and has moved to Saigon seeking his fortune, now being very successful in business.
I will defer from mentioning their names for a specific reason. Although the country has opened themselves to free markets and welcomes tourists, mainly as a means of bringing in money, the communist state is still very much in place. Maybe being an awkward comparison, but just like Starbucks has the proclaimed goal of customers seeing their next store down the road while exiting another, government executives are watching the public from little booths on every second corner – you will always see one close by, no matter where in the city you are. Many of the agents operate undercover, and when talking about politics in public, I realized how some Vietnamese looked around to make sure no one seemed to show interest in the conversation.
I’ve heard stories of incredibly obvious state supervision and hidden investigation of some locals who had ties to the US or other foreign countries. When the taxi driver suddenly asks questions about things he could not have known, when your PC acts weird and data seems to have been migrated, you have an indicator that you landed on some kind of government watch list. These being the less obvious, many of the South Vietnamese with former ties to American military have been banned from obtaining any type of work for as long as 17 years, as one of our tour guides, a veteran who fought alongside the Americans.
It is interesting how people have excepted this as a matter of fact and have moved on to make the best out of their situation, no matter the environment. But many locals have confirmed to me the fact that fully entering and embracing the real Vietnam of the locals is almost impossible. Accepting the surface, and trying to scratch it as much as possible, seems to be the way to go.
Vietnam and communism: Why people tolerate the system
It is surprising and almost incomprehensible how some of the local tribes and regions used guerilla techniques to fight off the American troops. The Cu Chi region for example built an entire system of secret underground tunnels and living spaces to escape American bombing and support the Viet Cong and their silent attacks. No wonder that the US military could not hold up to this level of fierceness, when their troops consisted of young drafts that did not even understand the purpose of the war (mind me, if there ever was one). But the question remains why civilians would put themselves in so much danger to support a communist system.
The Vietnamese explained it to me as follows: Firstly, while America intended to free South Vietnam from the communist threat to live a life in freedom, the wide majority of Vietnamese outside of Saigon were farmers who lived in extreme poverty. There was no interest whatsoever in the capitalist US influence that none of them would benefit from. Moreover, the communist idea of equality and the absence of property appealed to them much more. Secondly, Vietnam has gone through many wars before the Americans arrived, and having built a persistent and patriotic muscle, they were fighting alongside the Viet Cong rather to get rid of the American invaders than to support the communist idea. They fought for their Vietnam, not necessarily the communist system. Thirdly, the propaganda machine works very effectively. Seeing the way that history and facts are displayed in public places and museums gives you a glimpse of the Vietnamese perspective on things. It also makes you realize how much “propaganda” is still very much alive in our own democratic countries.
Although communism raises many red flags for our western democratic ears, the current system has found a balance that let the country develop into one of the fastest growing and most ambitious economies of South East Asia, and although there are still obvious problems that society is battling with, the Vietnamese people coexist in a very patriotic and powerful sense of “we” that transcends the political situation.
A country divided: Why does a city have two names?
Saigon? Or Ho Chi Minh City? The name of the former South Vietnamese capital was officially changed after the communist victory, paying respect to the former leader of North Vietnam. But the story about the persistence of “Saigon” in local lingo is more than just calling it its original name. When the Americans left Saigon in a 24-hour evacuation operation and the Northern Vietnam troops rolled in, many of the inhabitants witnessed their home country disappearing and found themselves under very sharp rule of the communists, who made sure that no American influence remained. Executions, work bans and tight supervision were common in the city that now even had a new name, and many lives were impacted in the years following.
Choosing the right name is therefore a matter of positioning yourself, especially as a local. Calling it Saigon is almost a tiny but tolerated act of rebellion. Of preserving some of its original meaning and history. Of paying tribute to the republic of South Vietnam that will never return. And of showing the grit and the patriotist characteristic of the South Vietnamese. “Saigon” in the eyes of the rest of Vietnam is chaos, infiltrated by Western influence and lacks the proclaimed dignity of socialist Vietnam. The capital Hanoi being a very different animal seems to look down at Saigon in some ways, and calling it Ho Chi Minh City, or HCMC in short, is another way of showing who’s the boss now.
A humorous little anecdote is to be found in reading the government controlled Vietnamese press. When there’s good news to tell, it is called Ho Chi Minh City. “Double-digit growth rates in HCMC”. “HCMC named most modern city in Vietnam”. “Westerners continue to invest in HCMC.” But that suddenly changes with bad news! “Saigon’s crime rates went up significantly”. “Deadly accident in Saigon”. “More annual bankruptcies reported in Saigon”. An interesting way the officials play with the nature of these two names.
Well, needless to say that I will continue to call my current home “Saigon”. And while I will continue to explore, and will certainly follow up with a next post to dig further into some of the unique discoveries in this beautiful country, I also invite you to explore the history of this country on your own. It is surely one of the countries that will rise and shine in the coming years and decades, and I am very grateful to be here right now to witness a certain change of seasons first hand.
Good morning, Vietnam of the 21st century! I’m excited to watch you thrive.