Vietnam: Hammer, Sickle, and Starbucks

Fifty years ago in 1967 my father was just a child, the youngest of four. He, his parents, and his three older sisters lived in a small house in Bethesda, Maryland. During the evenings around 6:30 they would gather in the living room and watch the evening news. Typically the top stories came from the war being waged in the South Pacific in a tiny country called Vietnam. “The Living Room War”, they called it, because it was the first time the horrors of war could be witnessed en masse in the comfort of people’s homes.

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It is December 2016 when Dad and I touch down in Saigon for the first time. Though officially known as Ho Chi Minh City, we agree that its former name, Saigon, is infinitely cooler.

In 1975 the city fell, marking the end of the Vietnam War, or the “American War of Resistance” as the Vietnamese call it. The last of the US troops left via the Tan Son Nhut Air Base. Today the very same facility is used as an international airport, where Dad and I arrive at night to torrential rains. As our taxi navigates through the heavy traffic of downtown Saigon, Dad asks me a question I hadn’t yet asked myself.

“Is this your first time in a Communist country?”

Indeed it was.

Over the past five years I’ve been to a number of formerly communist states. Germany, Hungary, Romania, Bulgaria, Bosnia, Serbia, Slovenia and others. Just days before touching down in Vietnam, I witnessed the horrors of the communist regime in Cambodia, which I detailed in my last post. But this was my first time seeing a one-party socialist state at work firsthand. I ponder this as we crawl our way through the streets. Our hotel is only a few miles from the airport, but it takes almost 40 minutes to get there due to the congestion of the roads.

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At least someone was happy to be stuck in traffic.

Private vehicles? Skyscrapers? Flashing billboards? *Gasp*…Starbucks? This is certainly not the picture of communism I had painted in my head. Given my experience in formerly communist countries, I expected more obvious social ownership and a less in-your-face market economy. A little more “seize the means of production”, a little less “triple, venti, half sweet, non-fat caramel macchiato to go, please”.

Despite evidence to the contrary, Vietnam is still very much a hammer-and-sickle state. The infamous communist symbol looms large in the streets, as we would see the following morning.

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That day Dad and I set off on a tour that would take us by speedboat to the Cu Chi District, a pivotal location of the Vietnam War due to its proximity to Saigon.

Our guide, Lin, is a bubbly and enthusiastic twenty-something who, like me, knows only what the history books, films, and our respective countrymen have told us of the war. She gives us some tea and fruit for the ride and announces that there is free Wifi on the boat. She drops some humor on us before we take to the waterway.

“If you want to know how big Vietnamese crocodiles are, just stick your arm in the water!”

Barges and fishing boats pass us by as we make our way down Saigon River away from the honks and smog of the city. I see villages and farms and people at work along the riverside.

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I imagine what it must’ve been like for troops taking this route to the frontlines, what must’ve been going through their heads. Despite having prepared with world-class combat training and toting the very best in military grade weaponry, they knew they were in for a fight, pitted against an enemy that had mastered lurking in the shadows.

Once we reach our destination, Lin leads us to the main attraction, the tunnels of Cu Chi. These were a vast and complex series of interconnecting tunnels that the Vietcong used to wage their guerilla war tactics against the Americans and South Vietnamese. The 75 mile web of tunnels in Cu Chi were part of a much larger network of tunnels that spanned hundreds of miles across the entire country.

We walk inland through a thick forest. Lin explains to us that, during the war, none of the trees surrounding us would have been here. The whole area was decimated by carpet bombing. Over the next few hours she would lead us to points of interest along the tunnels, explaining to us how they were used for stealth combat while detailing what day-to-day life was like when they were in use.

American soldiers called the tunnels “Black Echo”, for good reason. Life was hard for the Vietcong soldiers and their families who called them home. Basic necessities like water, food, and even clean air, were difficult to come by. Whole families would live and sleep in extremely small areas. It was not safe to come out during the day, so they often had to hunker down until nightfall when it was safe to venture above. When the US was conducting bombing campaigns, they were forced to remain underground for several days at a time.

Still, the tunnels gave the Vietcong a necessary edge over the far numerous Americans: stealth. It was their home-field advantage, and they exploited it to the fullest.

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Lin standing in one of the original tunnels. They would cover the entrances with leaves and foliage, so they could linger in secret and then attack as unknowing soldiers walked by.
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I was one or two dim sums away from not being able to fit in this tiny tunnel, also one of the originals, now used for tourist photo ops.
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A display featuring a number of different kinds of hidden traps, all resulting in some sort of stabbing, impaling, severing, etc, for whoever was unlucky enough to fall in
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An American tank left behind. Despite all their power, tanks couldn’t touch the Vietcong unless they emerged from their tunnel sanctuary.
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Lin treated us to some yuca, a tree root that was an important part of a nutritious diet in the tunnels.
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One of the tunnels has been expanded to handle taller, larger tourists who want the experience of crawling through them. Here’s dad descending into the subterranean maze.
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Don’t let my smile fool you…the tunnels are hot, dusty, and difficult to maneuver through. Nevertheless it was a fun experience. How people spent days at a time in them is astounding; it’s an example of how resilient humans can be in life or death situations.

As we peruse through the forest and admire the complexity of the tunnel network, we hear loud firing noises in the distance. Lin explains that there is a shooting range at the end where tourists can try out a variety of firearms used during the war, including M-16’s and AK-47’s.  Really added to the wartime ambiance (that said, it seems cruel that veterans returning to the site would be subjected to potential flashbacks).

In addition to the shooting range, above-ground features of the complex included monkey cages, people selling trinkets, and a variety of souvenir shops.

Generating cash flow from a former communist stronghold? The irony is louder than the deafening gunshots.

This curious marriage of social ownership and a free market would continue to intrigue me. In the afternoon we were taken back to Saigon by van, on the way we stopped at several points of interest. Lin took us to a countryside store, rubber tree farm, a local vegetable farmer, and a cricket farm.

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This very friendly women operates a small store where she makes her own rice paper and other homemade goods.
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Trying my hand at it…
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Steady…steady…
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Placing my second attempt (on my right), my first attempt (to its left) evidently didn’t go so well.
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Rubber tree farm. The whole thing reeked of latex.
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Lin showing us a small local farm.

As best I gather from Lin’s explanations and my own research, Vietnam has evolved over the past couple decades into socialist-oriented market economy. What does this mean?

For the case of the rubber tree farm, the government owns it entirely and as such all profits go to the government. They provide the land to the farmers and pay them a standardized wage to maintain, cultivate, and gather the rubber produced by the trees. Lin explains that rubber is a declining industry and that this land will soon be converted to rice fields. Such dynamic control by the state allows the economy to adjust to modern trends. Other nationalized industries include rice and coffee.

The government also owns the land of the woman who makes rice paper, and that of the small farmer, but they lease it out to the workers each month at a predetermined rate. As best I understand, they can keep their profits and even use them to improve their land or build new structures, provided the government approves such projects.

It is a unique structure, one that gives the government considerable control in certain key industries, but allows the free market to dictate others. It seems to be working, Vietnam is one of the fastest growing economies in the world.

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The cricket farm was our last stop with Lin. Operated by a single family, it is housed indoors and consists of dozens of these deep chambers, each filled with thousands and thousands of crickets.
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Crickets are a delicacy in Vietnam and can be sold at a higher price per ounce than beef.
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We were treated to some cricket spring rolls. Crunchy, salty, and nutritious. Don’t knock it til you’ve tried it!
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The owner of the farm told us, via Lin, that he made contacts in North Vietnam many years ago, where the conditions for cricket farming are less ideal. He has had great success selling them there. Another example of the free market at work.

GDP has been growing astronomically in Vietnam since the 1990’s. Poverty has declined, education has improved, and foreign investment has increased as the country opened its doors to the world’s markets.

Vietnam does have its share of difficulties. An aging infrastucture has made life more difficult for city-dwellers. Roadways are often clogged to the point of standstill as evidenced in the top of this post. The same can be applied to other public works like schools, hospitals, and their telecommunications system. Expanding their infrastructure to accommodate for economic and population growth will be an enduring challenge.

But if there’s one thing I learned in Saigon it’s that Vietnamese people are resilient, creative, and innovative, in their combat tactics and otherwise. Despite untold amounts of resources put in by the US during the war, the Vietcong and their allies emerged victorious through cunning and finesse. Moreover, despite resisting democracy and capitalism for so long, the past few decades have proven the ability of the Vietnamese to adjust systematically and fit the demands of a global economy. I have a feeling things will only keep getting better.

Fifty years ago my father was watching the Vietnam War unfold on the television in his living room. Fifty years later he traveled there for the first time with his son. He collects Starbucks mugs, one from each country he goes to. He found his in Saigon as well.

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On our last night dozens of costumed figures were seen walking around downtown Saigon. Nothing says capitalism quite like Pikachu, am I right??

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