Keep Your Trap Shut

Traveling through the new Vietnam

"I think that it [the report] is Communist propaganda. You can see for yourself how poor we are as a country. We are struggling," said Tu (not his real name), a 44-year-old tour guide. "We think we are lucky if we make $45 a month and work long shifts in a Nike factory."

The facts support Tu. Average annual income for the Vietnamese is $380—barely above $1 per day. There is no visible middle class, only extreme wealth and, by even the most minimal standards, abject poverty. Middle-aged and elderly women sit on filthy street curbs, swatting flies and urging passersby to buy their homegrown fruits and vegetables. In rural areas, tens of thousands live without electricity or indoor plumbing in shacks reminiscent of 1930s Mississippi. The archaic road system is riddled with holes the size of trucks; some stretches end abruptly without warning in trackless dirt or jungle. So maybe it's fortunate that automobile ownership is rare (unless you're a Communist official); most people rely on motorcycles, bicycles or their feet for transportation. It's not uncommon to witness men, women and children urinating without embarrassment on major public streets. Others sleep on cardboard boxes in alleyways and beg for food. Still others—desperate for money—risk their lives to work for ruthless but well-paying organized-crime families. Street vendors believe they've won a major victory if they can squeeze an extra 1,000 dong (the equivalent of about 6 cents) from a customer. Some Dickensian urban streets are populated by shoeless, grime-covered children who graduate from begging to pickpocketing. People try to earn extra money gambling at bloody nighttime cockfights on city streets.

 

But there's not even a whisper of such economic injustice in the misguided if well-intentioned UCI report. And when it comes to issues of morality, the university's findings depict a world 180 degrees from reality. In the World Values Survey, Vietnamese condemned homosexuality (82 percent) and prostitution (92 percent). Forget for a moment the study's gaffes in this regard (the question about homosexuality, for instance, comes under the category "ethics" and was lodged between questions about bribery and prostitution). Travel in Vietnam reveals a far different world. Gay clubs thrive in Ho Chi Minh City, and if media accounts are accurate, so does prostitution. One can buy female companionship for an entire night for $10 or less. Narcotics use—especially of Ecstasy and the hallucinogen Special K—is rampant in nightclubs. Police corruption—though reportedly less blatant than in the past—remains widespread. Money is so scarce that, in just one month (December 2001), police arrested 39 women in Ho Chi Minh City for trying to sell their newborn babies to foreign tourists for $400 each.

The government itself, in an inadvertent daily admission of trouble in paradise, agitates incessantly against public disorder. In December, officials launched a PR effort to warn of upcoming government crackdowns on people who "disrupt the social order." Deputy Prime Minister Kheim Gia Pham, for example, described Ho Chi Minh City as "a hotbed of vice and villainy" and said citizens can expect tougher police surveillance. Chief Inspector Ton Thanh Nguyen of the government's Culture and Information Department promised an "all-out assault" on "social evils," beginning with efforts to curtail the distribution of unapproved entertainment videos, music and magazines. The government doesn't allow imported books or magazines—or, for that matter, any artwork that they think might undermine their power or their sanitized portrait of Vietnamese life. Nguyen explained to the English-language, government-controlled Vietnam News that access to unsanctioned mass communications causes "extraordinary spending, partying, drugs, sex—even savage murders." Officials demonstrated their abhorrence to freedom of expression in the post-Christmas arrest at Tan Son Nhat airport of a Vietnamese filmmaker whose only "crime" was to ignore the government's authoritarian script guidelines. On Dec. 28, 2001, Communist officials bragged that they had destroyed six metric tons of confiscated books they described as "poisonous."

"The state needs both effective and weighty measures in its fight against depravity," said Nguyen. "The state must focus policies on the preservation of the country's values so that it may guide people's thinking and lifestyles."

 

Vietnam is not a dark country. The white sand beaches of Nha Trang and its nearby islands rival those of popular Hawaiian resorts. Hanoi's Hoan Kiem Lake is a breathtaking mélange of human and natural art. Once the horrific site of earth-scorching U.S. military bombings and napalm attacks, the famous Ho Chi Minh Trail today could pass for a sleepy national park in Virginia. In a Bien Hoa restaurant, a twentysomething father gently caressed his infant daughter's head and proudly smiled at his wife while his five-year-old son bragged about his computer-video-game scores. In Ho Chi Minh City, a family of six—who live in a dilapidated but tidy 350-square-foot apartment—served me tea and fretted about offering the best advice on where to go and what to do on my trip. I stood at the base of a 40-foot waterfall near Da Lat, home to spectacular pine forests and rubber tree plantations. I saw an elderly, robe-clad monk smiling devilishly as he wove wildly on his motorcycle through Buon Ma Thuot traffic. I sipped delicious coffee in Bu Dang as a young man walked by with his arm tightly around his feeble grandfather's shoulders. With palm-tree-lined rice paddies and hills covered in thick, green jungle as background, I watched teenagers in one dirt-poor village happily battle one another in a soccer match as older community members cheered from the sidelines.

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