- The Washington Times - Tuesday, November 11, 2003

HANOI — If you took a large beehive, shook it, and then watched the bees fly out in droves, you would have an idea of the traffic in today’s Hanoi.

Along with ubiquitous construction sites and humming commercial districts, the thousands of mopeds that clog the streets — some carrying families of three or more — represent a thriving informal sector that has helped make this Asia’s second fastest-growing economy after China.

Trade opportunities created by that growth, together with an easing of central control, have contributed to the improved U.S.-Vietnamese relations evidenced by this week’s visit to Washington by Defense Minister Pham Van Tra, who met at the Pentagon on Monday with Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

The mopeds, testimony to the growing middle class in this communist country, crowd the streets from morning until evening, beeping incessantly as they skirt within inches of pedestrians, occasional cars and tourist-toting minivans.

They have almost totally replaced the once-famous “cyclos,” or bike-powered rickshaws, which survive mainly as tourist attractions — even the bicycle is becoming a rarity in this once sleepy capital city.

A few years ago, Hanoi was a quiet military town with few lights and far less excitement, surrounded by an even less-developed countryside. Now mango- and pistachio-colored houses are springing up everywhere, their wedding-cake designs replacing the graying facades of socialist-architecture-inspired buildings.

Hundreds of thousands of shops do a brisk trade from early morning to evening, selling everything from Vietnamese “pho” soup and cheap Chinese toys to designer silk dresses.

The informal sector, operating outside state control, has helped Vietnam to outpace all its neighbors except China with what Vietnam’s Ambassador to the United States Nguyen Tam Chien says is a 7 percent growth rate — albeit from a low baseline.

Le Dang Doanh, a senior economic adviser to the government, says the economic expansion is the result of the government’s policy of having a “market economy with a socialist orientation.”

But he admits the reform process begun in 1986 is mostly crisis-driven and not well coordinated, and that purchasing power still lags far behind that in neighboring Thailand.

There are moves to catch up, however. The throbbing club scene that lights up Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, in the south, is beginning to be seen in the north.

Just minutes away from the communist cultural building is one of Hanoi’s trendiest new bars: Here the young and wealthy reserve their bottles of scotch and watch as dancers in tiny white hot pants gyrate on moving platforms to the latest pulsating beats.

For those with different tastes, there is at least one concrete-floor bar in the seedier part of town where the entertainment ranges from salsa bands to a young Ukrainian rocker hoarsely belting out his angst.

“The Communist Party is now a different Communist Party than before,” said Mr. Le. “The expectations of the people of the Communist Party are also different.”

Vietnamese can now speak to foreigners, something they couldn’t do 10 years ago. But the party still maintains tight political control: In June, the courts slapped a 10-year jail sentence on a doctor who posted an essay on democracy onto the Internet.

Vietnam’s Supreme Court later cut the sentence in half, but human rights agencies were far from impressed.

“You speak of human rights; we speak of human duties,” said Huu Ngoc, a writer and cultural researcher in Hanoi.

Vietnam may have emerged from its pariah status since it pulled its troops out of Cambodia and opened up its economy, but it has much left to do if it hopes to attract foreign investment and join the World Trade Organization, diplomats say.

“Their efforts to control information and monitor the use of the Internet are not helpful,” one U.S. official said. “It’s not only a human rights issue, but an economic issue. It’s not the way to go to become a first-class economy.”

Some 3 million tourists a year now visit Vietnam, and officials hope that number will rise to 4 million or 5 million. Visitors to Hanoi find a relatively unspoiled city dotted with willow-tree-framed lakes and latte-serving cafes, temples, a turn-of-the-century French opera house, spectacular water puppet shows, and hundreds of crowded shopping streets.

“Vietnam has very good potential: landscape, culture, historical sites,” Mr. Le said.

Evidence of Vietnamese communism — or nationalism as some officials prefer to call it — can be hard to find as tourists arrive in the shiny new airport and are whisked into any number of three- to five-star hotels.

But for those who seek them out, a few reminders remain of the successive wars that cost thousands of French and American lives, and left millions of Vietnamese dead.

The infamous “Hanoi Hilton,” the prison in which Sen. John McCain, Arizona Republican, spent six years during the Vietnam War is now a museum. And the city has its own war museum boasting the uniforms and helmets of killed or captured Americans.

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