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.

"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.

The Vietnamese are not immune to the joys of life and the beauty of their country. Everywhere I went, I found Vietnamese, like their American counterparts, enjoying the outdoors, laughing with family and friends, and working hard to survive. Because if Vietnam is beautiful, then it's also difficult. It's not a nation that hands out easy livings. Each day, men, women and children work ingeniously to wrest a living from the next 16 or 17 hours.

They have learned to survive. And when a pollster from the government's Institute for Human Studies arrives to ask questions and record answers about support for the Communists, the Vietnamese smile, open the door and welcome the visitor. They know what to say. Here, too, they know how to survive.

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