Vietnam saw off the US, but the last word went to capitalism (The Independent)

Troops in dress uniforms goose-stepped and dancers pirouetted on the 40th anniversary of the fall of the old Saigon regime yesterday, in an elaborate holiday display from which ordinary citizens were banned.

Security was tight all along the parade route of less than a mile that ended at the gates of the former palace of the US-backed South Vietnamese government, in what is now Ho Chi Minh City. The new Vietnam’s top leaders clapped approvingly and Prime Minister Nguyen Phu Trong praised the country’s revolutionary exploits as floats of plywood tanks rolled by – a reminder of the day when real tanks burst through the gates and on to the wide lawn of the palace.

A military band blared loud music to celebrate the “Giao Phong” or “Liberation” by the North Vietnamese army, but on nearby streets, nobody was cheering. “I don’t care about politics – only business,” said one shopkeeper, confirming the ambivalence of many here despite new prosperity under Communist rule.

Down the same avenue, Vietnamese security guards waved me away from the locked steel doors of the American consulate on the grounds from which helicopters had airlifted the last US ambassador, marine guards and journalists on the eve of the final victory of Communist forces on 30 April 1975.

“No photographs,” one of them said as they glowered at me from where hundreds of Vietnamese had tried to escape on that fateful day. Torn down 10 years ago after Vietnam and the US restored diplomatic relations and America opened a new embassy in Hanoi, capital of Vietnam, the embassy was the last bastion of US power before the final downfall of the old regime. Now the city of 10 million people glitters with new skyscrapers and brightly lit overflowing markets.

“Do you think this is still a Communist country,” a foreign businessman asked rhetorically, in a swanky shopping centre in a “new urban district” of up-market condominiums, exhibition halls and schools that teach children from Korea, Japan and English-speaking countries.

The answer is surely no in a system that’s gone from Communist to capitalist in the quarter century since the late Nguyen Van Linh, general secretary of the victorious party, pronounced the policy of Doi Moi or “renovation” and set about overhauling the economy. As long as no one complains, I am told repeatedly, you can do business in a system whose capitalist instincts date from the era of French colonial rule that preceded “the American War.”

Just as striking is the attitude to China, whose support for North Vietnam was essential to its victory over America. Admiral Tran Thanh Minh, deputy chief of Vietnam’s small navy, described its border war with China from 1979 to 1991 and talked of the threat posed by China’s claims to the South China Sea.

“For thousands of years, the Vietnamese people have been fighting invasions from China,” he said. “We defeated China with endless spirit.”

China once provided Vietnamese forces with rifles, machine guns and ammunition, but the admiral now believes “the sale of US weapons would be a good way to modernise our weapons and increase our strength.” He cited port visits by US warships and lauded the “comprehensive partnership” between President Barack Obama and Vietnam’s President Truong Tan Sang which had led to naval exchange programmes.

At a complex of underground tunnels and bunkers at Cu Chi, 40 miles to the west, an old Viet Cong fighter whose right arm was blown off in a tank battle, talked about his war to visiting journalistic veterans. “Every day we came outside the tunnel to fight,” said Huynh Van Chia. “Then we hide.”

In a thick mangrove swamp from which Viet Cong guerillas fired rockets into the heart of Saigon, 50,000-ton freighters now unload cargo containers on a dock 80 per cent owned by a company from Dubai. “There was bombing all around,” said Trinh Quang Tuan, business development manager, looking across at jungle that was largely impenetrable to US troops. Upstream, he pointed to oil tanks that the Viet Cong occasionally blew up, sending shockwaves across the capital. Here, one morning in July 1968, I saw black plumes of smoke rise after rockets had whistled overhead. It was part of “the rocket belt” from which the Viet Cong could fire at will despite their heavy losses.

Now I am just as shocked by the shining signs of foreign and Vietnamese companies over coffee shops, car rental agencies and fashion firms. Wherever you go, the talk is of construction, projects to tear down the old and build the new. But reluctance to talk about the government continues. Freedom of speech, of choice and freedom to elect opposition leaders remains out of the question. You sense the contrasts on a visit to the modern Vietnam National University, which opened 10 years ago with a mission to provide inexpensive education to a new generation of bright, eager students to whom the war is not even a memory.

“I was on the losing side,” said one student, meaning her father was in the South Vietnamese army or worked for the old regime. “We have to whisper.” Another student, asked how much freedom a journalist is likely to have, said: “That’s a question that we are worrying about every day.” Carefully, she added, “I’m not sure I can answer.”

Nguyen Thi Ngoc Diem, bold enough to give her name, said, “We cannot really talk about sensitive problems” but added: “We are fighting for our national sovereignty. Life is better.” As for whatever happened decades ago, she pleaded, “I don’t really know about the past.”

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