- The Washington Times - Friday, November 11, 2005

HO CHI MINH CITY, Vietnam — This city, formerly Saigon, provides a firsthand look at the invigorating hustle and bustle of Vietnamese life: street markets, street cafes, loud stereo music and sleek new pubs where tourists chat over beer, coffee and croissants.

A young woman in the native ao dai dress maneuvers her motorcycle in rush-hour traffic, her long hair flowing and high heels working the brake pedal. This truly is the place to get a feel for the spirit of Vietnam.

Five years ago, Hanoi was the city of bicycles and Ho Chi Minh City was the city of motorbikes. Today, Hanoi is the city of motorbikes, Ho Chi Minh City is the city of cars. The traffic in Ho Chi Minh City has become unmanageable, as there are few traffic lights and what few exist are considered oddities, not to be heeded.

High-rises that were nonexistent a few years ago are commonplace in the cities. Mercedes-Benzes and BMWs weave in and out of noisy traffic on streets clogged with bicycles and motorcycles. The country’s first upscale department store comes as a shock compared to shopping in the old Central Market. An emerging middle class buys $400 Nokia cell phones and $7,000 Honda cycles.

In this dynamic nation of 82 million people, communist propaganda is blared daily over public loudspeakers and has become background noise to the bustle of new entrepreneurs and businessmen. The 7.7 percent annual growth rate is second only to China’s among Asian nations.

Major change has occurred in the past 10 years since the country decided to open its markets and become part of the global community. Vietnam is on an upswing, and there is tremendous optimism that life will be much better tomorrow.

The young generation has always known peace, and I’m impressed by young adults’ vast knowledge and desire for better careers and lives. Hanoi and northern Vietnam have thrived since the end of the war. Southern Vietnam has made every effort to heal the wounds of war and to boost its economic growth. The transformation has been remarkable.

A major change is in the attitude toward capitalism. In the past five years, an estimated 140,000 private businesses have been registered in Vietnam. Private companies are virtually the only job creators in the nation, where 1 million young people join the work force each year.

Nike, the country’s single largest private employer, with about 130,000 workers, produces about $700 million worth of footwear, making Vietnam the third-largest supplier after China and Indonesia.

Communism is losing its grip as young people are becoming better educated and seeking an enhanced lifestyle that is derived from an entrepreneurial focus on individually owned companies and businesses. Internet access has opened a whole new world of information and relating with peers overseas.

Three-fourths of Vietnam’s population is younger than 30, too young to remember the war but old enough to have seen its consequences. Earlier this year, I attended the 30th reunion (in Ho Chi Minh City) of journalists who had covered the war and was amazed and impressed by the transformation of public opinion.

A little more than 30 years ago, the future that awaited young Vietnamese was war. Today, young people have capitalized on the dividends of peace. Meet the new generation reaping newfound opportunities and reshaping their country’s future.

Vietnam’s first postwar generation is coming of age, and these young adults — in their 20s and 30s — are seizing opportunities unimaginable in their parents’ time. Communism is rapidly losing its grip, the doors of a free-market economy are opening, and memories of the war are fading into a distant past.

This new generation (80 percent of the population) is making up for lost time, exploring the benefits and costs of their country’s new economic and cultural future. Doi moi (the new openness) has boosted Vietnam’s status among foreign firms, and licenses have gone to investors from 41 countries.

Young Vietnamese who once worked in the rice fields now believe living standards will be better tomorrow than they are today. Many are working on college degrees when they finish their day jobs as waiters and head off to study English in evening school. They flood into the cities from the country villages, and the money they send back to their villages keeps millions of families from poverty.

Yet prosperity is not close at hand for all the young people. This new generation is perplexing to the old-guard leaders in Hanoi, showing the immense challenges the communist government faces in meeting the aspirations and hopes of the young.

How much freedom can the Communist Party give this young generation without inciting demands for political change? How can the government create 1 million jobs a year, which will be needed to accommodate each year’s graduates?

Communist Party leaders struggle to define what economic model they are using, but the capitalists aren’t waiting for party approval. The market is on full display as Vietnam churns out Nike athletic shoes and Gap clothing.

The social and economic answers ultimately will lie with this generation, the future leaders of Vietnam.

While their parents’ lives may forever be clouded by memories of devastating war, this generation looks forward.

There is a stark contrast between the young entrepreneurs in the cities and those who work in the countryside at jobs such as farming, road building and construction. Vietnam is still a communist nation and very tightly controlled alongside all the frantic economic activity.

A short distance from Ho Chi Minh City are the famous Cu Chi Tunnels, which were built over a period of 25 years, beginning in the late 1940s. They were the improvised response of a poor peasant army to the enemy’s high-tech weapons.

The Viet Minh built the tunnels during the war against the French. In 1960, the tunnels were repaired and extended. The tunnels assumed strategic importance, and the Cu Chi district came under firm Viet Cong control. Cu Chi was used as a base for infiltrating intelligence agents and sabotage teams into Saigon, the capital of South Vietnam. The tunnels are a tribute to Vietnamese tenacity.

Cu Chi has become a place of pilgrimage for Vietnamese schoolchildren. Parts of this remarkable tunnel network are open to the public and well worth visiting.

Numerous war cemeteries can be seen all around Cu Chi. An organized tour is the easiest way to visit the tunnels and is inexpensive, about $4.

No trip to Vietnam would be complete without a visit to Hanoi. Hanoi is a city steeped in tradition and in the arts of Vietnam; the Grand Cheo Theater presents a combination of folk music, dance and narration, and water puppetry among the unique art forms not to be missed.

The city is built around the enchanting Hoan Kiem Lake at its heart. Legend has it that in the mid-15th century, Heaven gave Emperor Ly Thai To a magical sword that he used to drive the Chinese out of Vietnam. One day after the war, while boating on the lake, he came upon a giant golden tortoise swimming on the surface of the water. The creature grabbed the sword and disappeared into the lake.

Since that time, the lake has been known as Ho Hoan Kiem (Lake of the Restored Sword) because the tortoise restored the sword to its divine owners.

A stroll around Hanoi’s Old Quarter offers the chance to see 1,000 years of history and one of Vietnam’s liveliest and most unusual places. Exploring the maze of back streets is a great adventure. The area is known for its tunnel (or tube) houses because of their narrow fronts and long rooms. They were designed to avoid taxes based on the width of the street frontage.

French-style cafes are popular for coffee or a cold beer, and there are plenty of delightful restaurants. Visitors to Pho Hang Gai (Silk Street) shop or browse for beautiful silk and embroidery and go to the tailor shops for clothing and items such as silk sleeping-bag liners. I had a lovely silk suit tailor-made for $35, including the fabric.

Not to be missed is a visit to the colorful Dong Xuan central market for all sorts of goods, including reasonably priced souvenirs. Hanoi is peaceful and beautiful and a walk through history, but see it soon, as development will forever change this lovely town.

The Temple of Literature is a pleasant escape from the bustling street traffic of Hanoi. The temple is a rare example of traditional Vietnamese architecture and a wonderful escape from daily life. It was founded in 1070 by Emperor Ly Thanh Tong, who dedicated it to Confucius to honor scholars and men of literary accomplishment.

Another highlight is the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum, a traffic-free area of parks, monuments and pagodas.

A must-see activity in Hanoi is the water-puppet show. The tour bus picking us up happened to leave a few minutes early, and I was the only one to miss it. Having no intention of missing the show, I climbed on the back of a motor scooter with a Vietnamese friend and had the ride of my life weaving through the maze of two-wheeled traffic.

My driver was definitely skilled, but when we took a shortcut down a one-way alley with traffic coming toward us, I was more than a little concerned. However, I arrived on time and in one piece.

The ancient art of water puppetry (roi nuoc) was unknown outside of northern Vietnam until the 1960s but is at least 1,000 years old. The art form originated with rice farmers who spent much of their time in flooded fields, saw the potential of the water surface as a dynamic stage, and adapted conventional puppetry during a massive flood of the Red River delta.

The farmers carved the puppets from water-resistant fig-tree timber (sung) in forms modeled on the villagers themselves, animals from their daily lives and mythical creatures such as the dragon. Contemporary performances use a square tank of waist-deep water for the stage. The wooden puppets can be up to 20 inches long and weigh as much as 33 pounds.

The considerable skills required to operate the puppets were traditionally kept secret and passed only from father to son — never to daughters because of fear that they would marry outside the village and take the secrets with them.

Music is provided by a band of traditional and contemporary instruments. The performance consists of a number of vignettes depicting pastoral scenes and legends that explain the origins of various natural and social phenomena. There also are fire-breathing dragons with fireworks and other memorable scenes.

Dinner at the Wild Lotus restaurant in Hanoi is an event to be remembered and repeated. A huge villa was gutted and renovated; the new entrance is like a beautiful Oriental sanctuary.

In the upstairs lounge, guests can chill out amid exotic decadence, having a drink at the upstairs lounge bar and reclining on luxurious sofas. There is a large outdoor terrace for balmy evenings. The food is contemporary Vietnamese and Asian with a European twist — a stunning combination of countries along the spice route from Asia to Europe.

After visitors have seen the large cities, they should take at least a few days off to enjoy the country’s beautiful resorts. Dalat, about a five-hour drive or half-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City, is a mountain retreat, particularly enjoyable from June through August, when the heat and humidity can become oppressive. A few days in the coolness of Dalat are welcome, indeed.

For beach lovers, China Beach near Danang — or Vung Tau or Phan Thiet — are pristine beaches in protected inlets. Vung Tau is about a two-hour drive from Ho Chi Minh City, and Phan Thiet takes about another 45 minutes.

All three beaches offer a variety of hotels and inns ranging from spartan to world-class.

A unique beach resort with a history is reached by a half-hour flight from Ho Chi Minh City: Con Dao Island, which was a prison colony under the French and later the old Saigon regime. Despite its past, the island has been developed as a resort because it has miles of beautiful, idyllic beaches.

The stylish Anoasis Beach resort, one of Vietnam’s most splendid beach-side retreats, is the creation of French-Vietnamese helicopter pilot Anoa Dussol-Perran, who with her husband created this small slice of paradise. It has a swimming pool, private beach and an excellent restaurant.

One of the keys to Vietnam’s future will be the relationship it cultivates with the Viet kieu (returning Vietnamese). Once treated as traitors for having fled the country, the estimated 2 million Vietnamese living overseas are being courted back for their investment capital and business expertise. As Vietnam becomes more prosperous and better educated, the communist rulers see the Viet kieu as less of a threat.

I met with several of these young businesspersons in Ho Chi Minh City and was impressed with their enthusiasm, confidence, linguistic ability and understanding of the local business and cultural norms.

Although the Vietnamese are poor, their mentality is, “I have the money, and I want good quality.” Million-dollar business showrooms around Ho Chi Minh City say a lot for the prosperity of successful entrepreneurs.

A startling change I noticed are the multitudes of newly prosperous Vietnamese with their cell phones, imported motorcycles and Internet cafes. Former refugees are being welcomed back as business investors. About $5 billion a year in exports to the United States makes us Vietnam’s biggest customer.

There is no good or bad season for visiting Vietnam. When one region is cold, wet or steamy hot, there is always another that is sunny and pleasantly warm.

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