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Wednesday, Jan. 24, 2007 01:44 pm

In Vietnam, peace gets its chance

For now, people are happy making money. But how long will that last?

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Untitled Document Our guide called Vietnam “the land of 10 million motorbikes,” and they all seemed to be zooming down the street between the Lucky Hotel and Hoan Kiem Lake, the centerpiece of old Hanoi. There is no tidy stoplight or crosswalk; pedestrians just step out into the traffic and most survive to the other side. Avoid eye contact, we were told: “If you look, they won’t stop.” A little old lady was crossing, so I walked unchivalrously on her nontraffic side till we got to the far curb. I told the church group I was traveling with that crossing the street is good for one’s prayer life. Everyone is in a hurry in Vietnam. Energized by an 8 percent rate of economic growth for the past two years and sustained growth since the doi moi economic reforms of the mid-1980s, people we met were intent on making enough money to buy a better scooter or move their family out of their parents’ house. From the bikes, motorized and people-powered, streaming out of the Panasonic and Canon factories at shift change, to the new five-star Sheraton where President George W. Bush holed up on his recent visit, Hanoi offers a picture of vitality. Vietnam’s cities have no vacant storefronts, and every rural road is lined with entrepreneurs selling something. I saw one bicycle with two live pigs strapped to the back heading to market; two others carried baskets of dogs destined to become restaurant food. These days, visitors have to go out of their way to find hot dog on the menu, but a growing number of restaurants cater to the 4 million Western tourists who come to Vietnam each year. One menu, for which English was definitely a second language, offered us a choice between “chicken swings,” “Hawailin pizza,” and “beef fajitass.”
I’ve always thought of Vietnam as a war, not a country, but the people here are way over that. To Americans they cite their proverb: “A thousand friends are not enough. One enemy is too many.” Half of the nation’s 82 million population was born after the United States pulled out its troops in 1973, and the rest see the “communist takeover” of 1975 as just the end of a long continuous struggle for independence against first the French and then the Americans. Nobody is saying that no bitterness remains from all the years of blood and death. The most visible reminder of what Vietnamese call the American War is the War Remnants Museum in Ho Chi Minh City, which describes its mission as providing exhibits of “war crimes and aftermaths.” This was largely photographs from Life and Look that we who’d lived through that era had already seen, along with a new display on the long-term effects of Agent Orange on Vietnamese children. The museum was a sobering reminder but not shocking. I saw nothing not to believe about that dark chapter.
Still, getting my picture taken with a bust of Ho Chi Minh under the hammer and sickle gave me pause. I enjoyed a young party bureaucrat’s enthusiasm for the economic future of her beloved Thai Nguyen province, until she said the source of her inspiration was “Uncle Ho” and I realized that I was sitting next to a cult member. I shuddered when I read in the newspaper that the party Politburo had met to review the performance of the news media. I chafed when I heard Mennonite church officials describe the elaborate regulations they must satisfy to earn from the government the right to worship. I can’t help it; I was raised in the anti-communist era and still have some John F. Kennedy idealism in my bones. Though military might doesn’t seem to work anymore, bearing any burden for the success of liberty still sounds good to me. My hope is that the Internet-savvy young professionals of Vietnam will eventually act on their growing realization that there’s more to freedom than the freedom to make money. At dinner, one of them — a Hillary Clinton fan who had not yet heard of Barack Obama — was complaining to me about Bush. He said that when he traveled to Denmark once there was a street demonstration against Bush’s Iraq policies. “I joined it!” he said with a guilty grin, looking around to see who might be listening. I asked whether there are ever protest demonstrations in Vietnam. His smile faded: “Not yet.”

Fletcher Farrar and his wife, Mary, traveled to Vietnam Dec. 31-Jan. 12 with a 13-member delegation from the Church of the Brethren. They visited Church World Service school construction and sanitation-development projects.
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