GRACEFUL (BUT TOUGH) HANOI
Roland G. Simbulan
(This article was originally published by the Philippine Daily Inquirer, June 20, 1999; the Manila Standard June 9, 1999 and Bagumbayan, July issue)
The serene capital city of Hanoi, located in the interior of northern Vietnam, strikes a Filipino visitor as similar, infrastructure-wise, to Cotabato City or a rural Filipino town. There is hardly a building or apartment standing taller than four stories. Generally, most of the structures, especially the residential ones, must be at least 15 years old and are discolored and undistinguished.
When I visited Hanoi last March(1999) as a speaker at the World Peace Council Regional Meeting on the Asia Pacific, little did I expect to see an Asian city not yet fully recovered 24 years after the end of the Vietnam War. Our hosts, the Vietnam Peace Committee and the Vietnam Union of Friendship Organizations, did little to raise our expectations. Instead, they emphasized that until recently, Vietnam was still undergoing a renewal process(moi doi).
Hanoi — and Vietnam — withstood it all: Kosovo-type saturation bombings from B-52s, food blockades, and worse, chemical warfare by the United States. The constant bombings had discouraged the construction of high-rise buildings or anything that could attract or serve as magnet for attack.
But Hanoi today is a bustling city of motorbikes and bicycles. The best way to experience Hanoi is to go around the city on a motorbike, as this writer did, especially at night. Day and night, the narrow streets which are beautifully lined with trees are busy with countless motorbikes and bicycles. (These make the roads not exactly pedestrian-friendly. There are hardly any pedestrian lanes for crossing, and even if there were, the bikers do not seem to care.)
Visitors not used to a highly devalued currency will get the shock of their life. With the Vietnamese currency valued at 14,000 dong to the US dollar, one can easily be a millionaire with US$100. Try checking into Hanoi’s new hotels where you can be charged a million Vietnamese dongs a night!
In Hanoi, everyone is busy trying to earn a living or to make money. A pertinent question is: How can Vietnam’s socialist state encourage people to make money, but not at any price?
“Can socialist values flourish in a market economy?” I asked a Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) Politburo member.
His reply: Ethics and morality are being carefully guarded by the VCP, which manages the government. And yes, “people can get rich in the proper manner”, where “individualism is carefully guarded, the state economy is dominant and the VCP is for the people and by the people.”
But observing the long queues at Hanoi’s shopping stalls, you will be moved to ask whether socialist politics can still be in command in a market-oriented socialist economy. Family-run shops and turo-turo-style eating places, with small stools and short-legged tables, line the busy sidewalks. There is also a profusion of small “karaoke bars” and beer houses which cater mostly to foreign tourists.
Anyone harboring notions of socialist central planning will be disappointed to see that no one in Hanoi walks around with a gun. Policemen and fatigue-uniformed soldiers of the Vietnam People’s Army, who are seen constantly mingling with the population, do not carry any type of weapons, whether long or short arms. Surely, there are criminals (mostly Vietnamese nationals returning from the United States, or corrupt officials) in Hanoi, but I really missed Manila’s policemen and security guards who are always armed to the teeth.
At the center of Hanoi’s cultural and social life is the continuing reverence for “Uncle Ho” — the late President Ho Chi Minh. A major showcase in the city is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum at the Ba Dinh Square, where the late leader’s preserved remains are viewed everyday by literally thousands of people from all walks of life.
The mausoleum was inaugurated in 1975 to ” express the profound feelings of the entire Vietnamese people toward the late President Ho Chi Minh” and ” to express their determination to follow the revolutionary path he had charted to build a peaceful, united, democratic and prosperous Vietnam.”
It was at the Ba Dinh Square where Uncle Ho, as he is still fondly called by all Vietnamese, read the Vietnamese declaration of independence from France on Sept. 2, 1945.
The Ho Chi Minh Museum stands next to the mausoleum, where through documents, exhibits, documentary films and artistic works, Uncle Ho’s life and revolutionary activities are shown intertwined with the Vietnamese people’s struggle for independence and freedom — first , against the French, then the Japanese, and finally the US aggressors who were defeated in 1975.
In the same vicinity is a wooden house on stilts, where Ho Chi Minh lived and worked as president of the Democratic Republic of Vietnam from 1958 to 1969. This dar, two-room house is surrounded by hundreds of plants and trees spread in a garden where he loved to play with visiting schoolchildren.
It is a house that mirrors the humility and simplicity of the great Vietnamese leader who once sent shock waves down the spines of five presidents of the most powerful nation on earth.
The ground floor of this house has no walls. But it was where the VCP Politburo regularly met, the meetings presided over by Uncle Ho and attended by Defense Minister Vo Nguyen Giap, VCP General Secretary Le Duan, Truong Chinh and Le Duc Tho.
Lenin Park in the heart of Hanoi is a continuing reminder that Vietnam is still socialist. Another reminder is the red flag emblazoned with a yellow star in the middle, which is prominently displayed all over the city.
Has Vietnam recovered from its war trauma? According to a VCP cadre, 400,000 Vietnamese soldiers who were sent to the war front during the US aggression from 1962 to 1975 are still missing, perhaps obliterated by all the experimental bombs dropped on Vietnam. This is in addition to the more than two million Vietnamese Liberation Army soldiers killed in action and fully accounted for. But the effects of Agent Orange and other chemical weapons used by the United States in warfare against the Vietnamese people are still being suffered both clinically and economically.
At a briefing on internal and international policies given by a ranking VCP official who is in charge of a special ministry on ideology and culture, we were told that Vietnam had to transform itself froma largely subsidized war economy to a self-reliant multi-sectoral economy with the state economy kept dominant.
Vietnam is still poor, he said, with visible disparities between the urban and rural sectors. For instance, urban people earn six times more than rural folks because of the additional sources of income in urban areas.
The market mechanism is supposed to widen existing markets, increase productivity and encourage competitiveness. But, he admitted that Vietnam’s integration into the world capitalist economy — i.e., the globalization of Vietnam’s economy — was fraught with great danger.
Still, Vietnam is moving toward the “comprehensive normalization” of its relations with the United States, with the latter opening an embassy in Hanoi. The US ambassador was a prisoner of war in Vietnam for six years.
In many ways, Hanoi is a Vietnamese cultural mecca. There is a Literature Museum, which houses original classics written by great Vietnamese writers and poets. This museum has preserved some of the oldest collections of original Vietnamese literature.
Popular literature is also being encouraged at the newsstands and bookstores. The works of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Dostoevsky, among others, are being popularized through comic books in Vietnamese, so that even workers and peasants can appreciate the classics.
This is part of the large-scale postwar literacy campaign being waged and brought into the remotest village. I have never seen anything like it.
Our visit was highlighted by a courtesy call on Vietnam State President Tran Duc Luong at the presidential palace. The president impressed me as an economic manager who is handling the delicate and formidable task of leading Vietnam’s socialist economy into the 21st century.
The reunification of and reconciliation between North and South Vietnam have been slow. But a number of former officials of the South Vietnamese government now serve as ranking officials of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, especially in the areas of national economic planning and finance.
In all, what I liked best about Hanoi is that it is a well-planned city with a special graceful character.
It was once the bastion of French colonialism in Indochina, but it soon became the capital of North Vietnam, that bedrock of resistance of the Vietnamese struggle against US intervention. One gets the feeling that behind its charming simplicity, its parks, gardens, rivers and lakes, and beautiful trees, there is sturdiness, there is toughness, there is resilience to endure all challenges and seemingly impossible odds.
After all, even before the Vietnamese defeated the French and Americans in battle, they were already an inspiration to generations of freedom fighters in underdeveloped countries.
Indeed, Vietnam is an enduring tribute to Ho Chi Minh, one of Asia’s most respected revolutionary leaders. Under his leadership, the Vietnamese people built an independent nation.
The date posted here is due to our website rebuild, it does not reflect the original date this article was posted. This article was originally posted in Yonip in Sept 26th 2005