Keep Your Trap Shut

Traveling through the new Vietnam

Photo by R. Scott MoxleyHO CHI MINH CITY—It's Sunday, Dec. 16, moments before 6 a.m. I'm sleeping like a dead man. In my suitcase on the credenza in my hotel room is a copy of UC Irvine's "World Values Survey 2001—Vietnam." Back home in Orange County, the study, released in late November, has become a Little Saigon controversy for its conclusion that Vietnamese are overwhelmingly content with their lives and with the Communist regime that controls their country and its Third World economy.

I'm blocks from the bright lights of the tourist district—curious American ex-GIs in their late 40s and 50s and expense-account businessmen from South Korea, China, Japan and the West. They're told as often as they're awake that modern Vietnam is vibrant, free, democratic. And with your American Express card, you can accomplish the miraculous: you can make all the counterevidence disappear, transforming Vietnam into a consumer-oriented, cell-phoned, Internet-ready, BMW-driven advertisement for the New Economy.

I'm far from all that, in the second-floor room of a modest government-run hotel in a Ho Chi Minh City neighborhood tourists rarely see. Outside, the littered streets are still dark; on the next corner, a brooding statue of an American War-era Communist soldier carries what looks like an AK-47.

I am asleep.

Until precisely 6 a.m., when I am awakened by a harsh, metallic voice that fills every space, indoors and out. It's like wake-up call in a maximum-security prison.

I am instantly awake—and alarmed. I wrench at the balcony door like a disheveled, disoriented Martin Sheen in the opening scene of Apocalypse Now. I expect tanks in the streets below.

But the streets are still empty. Later, I discovered the source of the ruckus: a loudspeaker tethered to a pole outside. Then I learned that my loudspeaker was just one of thousands, perhaps tens of thousands, broadcasting every morning and again at 5 p.m.

I am not a native Vietnamese speaker; I've only recently begun to decipher the language. But even a rookie could detect in that first broadcast a hectoring, admonitory tone. Vietnamese told me the messages are almost unvarying: 30 minutes of Orwellian doublespeak, patriotic songs and morality messages seemingly culled from Mothers Against Drunk Driving, the Reverend Lou Sheldon's Traditional Values Coalition and California's ham-fisted anti-smoking campaigns.

The concern for moral fitness is a phantasm. People here say the Communists' real message is: we're watching you, so stay in line and keep your trap shut.

But no one is really listening. Wherever I was, whenever I asked, Vietnamese told me the diurnal broadcasts are nothing more than annoying background noise. One businessman, who said he would never openly criticize the government, described the messages as "VC trash"—a reference to the Viet Cong, the outgunned guerrilla soldiers who drove American and U.S.-backed soldiers from the country in 1975.

The broadcasts are the same throughout the country, except in Vietnam's sacrosanct tourist districts. Even the Communists understand that visitors from the West wouldn't appreciate Big Brother's wake-up calls. But rice farmers, hog tenders, shop owners, teachers, infants and hospital patients can't escape the cloying reminders: work hard for the glorious state, don't stay out late, don't do drugs, don't hang out in bars, don't employ prostitutes. The messages are delivered from speakers on every street and in almost every hamlet, no matter how remote. Perhaps nowhere else in the world is it so obvious that the state is a mother.

 

In the nearly three decades since American soldiers retreated from this place, Ho Chi Minh's successors have worked assiduously to regulate every aspect of human behavior. The ubiquitous street speakers are just one ugly manifestation. On bright billboards and in relentless radio and television programming, the government of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam reminds its citizens that their first allegiance is to the state and that dissenters will be punished. One TV broadcast—shown repeatedly during prime time in December—recounted the 30-year-old death-or-glory tale of a captured female VC soldier who preferred to bleed to death rather than allow an American medic to administer life-saving care. Long before Sept. 11, when it became fashionable for Americans to parade the flag, Vietnamese in even the rudest huts flew the state's gold star on a red field.

Such expressions of nationalism are everywhere, and they are perhaps necessary for survival—signifiers of loyalty in a country whose leadership protects its image with the zealousness of Disney trademark lawyers. "Zealous" barely describes it: in one Hanoi park, armed soldiers blocked me from taking a photograph of a tree.

Communist Vietnam is hardly the environment for an honest opinion poll, in other words. Buried deep in their report, the UCI researchers acknowledge that salient fact: "Some respondents may [have felt] hesitant to express their opinions fully."

But that nod toward the real Vietnam had no influence on their conclusions. UCI has steadfastly defended as "scientific" findings that suggest Vietnam is a paradise:

•More than 90 percent of Vietnamese are "quite or very happy with their [life] situations."

•A jaw-dropping 98 percent enjoy their Communist form of government.

The UCI report comes as startling news to people living in Vietnam. The Weekly interviewed more than three dozen citizens throughout that country—from relatively well-off shop owners to poor cab drivers, housewives, students and laborers. While our results were hardly scientific, it's fair to say UCI's weren't either. Fieldwork for the UCI study was conducted by Hanoi-based pollsters under the supervision of the Communist Party. These, of course, would be the same apparatchiks who program their country's morning wake-up calls.

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