- The Washington Times - Friday, May 17, 2002

HANOI Shops packed with illegal compact discs by Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, Sarah McLachlan and other popular Western singers are doing a roaring black-market business.

Thousands of ornate, arm-length, opium pipes, inlaid with mother-of-pearl, bone, etched dragons and other decorative flourishes, are produced in such quantity they are sold in souvenir shops throughout Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, Thailand and elsewhere.

Hanoi's latest culinary attraction is the Suzie Wong Bar, with the slogan: "Don't Wing when you could be Wong delicious Chinese food ambient bar atmosphere [and the] daughter of Suzie Wong."

Vietnam has one of the world's few remaining communist regimes, but it is trying to make money.

The upside of its market strategy has encouraged a blossoming renaissance among artisans making high-quality silk clothing, lacquerware, silver jewelry and other handicrafts. Countless small shops have been turned into galleries offering modern paintings, although they are mostly derivatives of European works. Some fetch high prices among buyers from Paris and New York.

Elsewhere in Hanoi, shops display eccentric, witty or daring styles of clothing, sculpture and other items. Family-run hotels and restaurants also line many streets.

The startlingly low prices for merchandise and services betray the low wages paid to the workers who underpin Vietnam's zigzagging attempt to embrace capitalism. Many foreign investors who rushed into Vietnam during boom years a decade ago have since gone bust or drastically scaled down to survive.

The Bank of America, which arrived in Vietnam in 1993, pulled out this year.

Foreign investors cite corruption, red tape and a lack of infrastructure as the main reasons why Vietnam remains one of the poorest nations on earth. The downside includes pirated goods openly advertised in prime-location shops that sell nothing else.

For example, the "Space CD, VCD, DVD" shop on tourist-oriented Bao Khanh Street near the exquisite Lake of the Restored Sword is a well-lit room displaying three walls papered with attractive reprints of foreign compact disc covers.

A young saleswoman politely hands all customers a thick, loose-leaf binder alphabetically listing hundreds of titles, including the Grateful Dead's "American Beauty" and Tom Waits' "Mule Variations."

Music CDs come individually wrapped in a clear plastic sleeve behind a color photocopy of the original CD's artwork. Price: 10,000 dong, or 66 U.S. cents.

"I've been looking all over for this CD," exclaimed a delighted Australian tourist, who bought a handful of music discs, including one by Blur. While she was paying, an emaciated, elderly man stood in the shop's door, vainly begging spare change.

Across the street, other shops offered the same CD covers on their walls, and the same alphabetized loose-leaf binders. The scene is repeated all over Hanoi and other main cities. Freedom to pirate does not extend to other activities.

The print and broadcast media are tightly controlled. Sanitized, mundane reportage about local and national events smother newspapers and airwaves. Sensational tabloids fill the remaining vacuum.

In-depth analysis of world events is sketchy, though Vietnamese reporters did show up in Pakistan to report the beginning of the U.S.-led bombardment of Afghanistan.

A tamer version of that war appeared on Hanoi's sidewalks in the form of a cheap, GameBoy-style computer toy called "Laden vs. USA," illustrated with a photo of the World Trade Center exploding in flames and debris on September 11.

The hand-held game, made in China, also shows a photograph of a smiling, white-turbaned Osama bin Laden and a scowling President Bush. A similar shallow fixation on celebrities appears in local publications.

A smiling Britney Spears, clad in a sexy red dress, adorned the April magazine cover of Tiep Thi and Gia Dinh or Marketing and Family which is read by parents and others seeking advice about what products are worth purchasing.

The Vietnam News, meanwhile, reported how Jane Fonda helped dedicate a home for unwed mothers in the state of Georgia in mid-April. She is fondly remembered by many Vietnamese communists.

Today, most discussion of the U.S. war in Vietnam is muted in Hanoi.

But in a surprising outburst last month, the Foreign Ministry said former U.S. Secretary of State Henry Kissinger was responsible for the death and destruction of the war, which ended 27 years ago.


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