Like many people now in their mid-to-late 30’s, I grew up hearing a lot about “Vietnam,” the war. I was practically born in the middle of anti-war protests in Berkeley, California. Family legend has it I came close to being trampled by a mounted policeman at some anti-Vietnam war demonstration. (Probably the first of several reasons I don’t like being at demonstrations.) The first news story I can remember was Walter Cronkite with news from the Vietnam war. I went to high school and college with children of Vietnam war veterans and children of Vietnamese refugees. One of my good friends in college left Vietnam with her family as a six-year old when Saigon fell in 1975. Her parents had worked for the South Vietnamese regime. She and her two sisters – all three of whom went to Harvard – are brilliant and beautiful and strong-willed. “Vietnam,” has shaped the lives of at least two generations of Americans. The last presidential election was (ridiculously, in my view) dominated by arguments over the candidates’ Vietnam war service records. “Vietnam” keyword searches on news websites these days tend to turn up large numbers of stories on Iraq and U.S. politics. We know a lot about “Vietnam,” the war and the era. We Americans know very little about “Vietnam” in 2005, a place where more than 82 million people now live.
Here are some of the things I learned about Vietnam:
The Vietnamese communist party is considering changing its name to the "Labor Party," or something along those lines. Several people told me this. They’re thinking about doing this for several reasons: First, the change would make relations with other countries (especially the United States) less ideologiclly loaded. In other words, Vietnam could do much to solve its “branding” problem if it stopped calling itself “Communist” – when it is in fact better described as some kind of socialist-capitalist hybrid nationalist-authoritarian thing. (A description that fits China better than “communism” too… some reformers in China have also raised the idea of changing the party’s name, but nobody seriously thinks that will happen any time soon.) Second, the reasoning goes, the leader of Vietnam’s revolution, Ho Chi Minh, was primarily a nationalist anyway: communism turned out to be the most expeditious vehicle by which to rid his country of foreign occupation. Vietnamese who support the name change idea hope it will happen within the next year or so. How likely is it really? Hard to say. There are plenty of old-time war veterans in the party who don’t like the idea. And foreign diplomats and businesspeople point out that re-branding Vietnam won’t change its diplomatic and trade relations all that much as long as the Vietnam’s political system remains the same and trade regulations remain too murky for foreign companies to feel confident they’ll make money in Vietnam. But still, people I spoke with seemed to think there’s a much greater chance of the Vietnamese Communist Party changing its name than the Chinese. So that’s interesting.
The Generation gap is tremendous, and could cause the country to change quickly. More than half the population is under 30. They know nothing of war. They like Americans. You can get around speaking in English in Hanoi in Saigon much better than in Beijing and Tokyo. At Vietnamnet, the online newspaper I visited, most of the employees are in their 20’s. I’m told this is common in many Vietnamese companies. Keeping this generation under ideological control strikes me as pretty tough. At the same time, given the amount of war and trauma the country has been through, we can expect the country’s leaders to keep Vietnam a one-party authoritarian state for a while. They may pull it off if they can keep the economy growing fast enough that the young people can get enough job opportunities and standards of living can continue to rise. (Sounds like the Chinese government’s main challenge too…) Which is why Vietnam is trying to get into the World Trade Organization, so it can make itself more attractive to foreign investment. The scuttlebutt is that China wants to delay Vietnam’s entry because that would mean more competition for investment. Which leads us to point number three…
Many Vietnamese really don’t trust the Chinese, and see the U.S.
as an important counter-weight to Chinese power in Southeast
Asia. China occupied Vietnam in ancient times. (Many Vietnamese still revere the
Chinese sage Confucius, and burn incense to his statue in Hanoi.) The Chinese
and Vietnamese fought a border war in the early 80’s. As one Vietnamese friend
put it: “The Chinese want all their neighbors to be weak.” But the relationship
is complicated. There are factions within the Vietnamese government and party
who prefer to be close to China, and others who prefer to improve relations with
the United States. The net effect will probably be that Vietnam will play China
and the U.S. off against each other, since it certainly can’t afford to be on
bad terms with either great power.