In 1989 I watched Back to the Future, Part II by Robert Zemickis, a complicated story about a youngster who from 1985 time travelled to 2015. Within the movie I spotted a poster from the imaginary 2015: US AIR Surf Vietnam. Back in 1989 I associated Vietnam with the war that lasted from 1955 to the fall of Saigon in 1975 and by different media was brought into the homes of millions, radicalising and engaging youngsters, not the least me.
Catching sight of the poster I associated it with a scene in Francis Ford Coppola´s masterpiece Apocalypse Now, where a gung-ho US Colonel ordered his troops to attack a fishing village so he and his men could go surfing on its beach. Like the entire movie the episode commented on the absurdity of a high-tech superpower using bewildered youngsters to wage war on people who with primitive means defended their homeland. Of course, reality was more complicated than that, though the Vietnam War was soon turned into a mythological fight between good and evil.
In 1989, a poster advertising Vietnam as a tourist destination for American surfers seemed to be quite absurd. Many Americans still feared the Vietnamese as merciless enemies and the country suffered from a US imposed trade embargo. At the time I watched the movie, I could not imagine that I in the near future would move to Vietnam with my family.
Then, just like now, Vietnam was a one-party state governed by the Communist Party. Being a member of other political parties was not allowed. Human rights were severely restricted and long prison sentences were meted out to those who criticised the regime, or the widespread corruption. Nevertheless, Vietnam was in those days a completely different world from what it is now. Back then it was a poor country, scarred by the war, with veterans who told stories about abuse and terror, both from American invaders and their own Government. Hanoi was infested by rats, its streets clogged by bicycles. When I drove our heavy Soviet Volga (it was first after a year we bought a Toyota) I felt like a shark swimming through shoals of small fish.
We lived a privileged life, we were free to move around in the town but had to live in Van Phuc, a fenced area peopled by foreigners working for international organisations. Our entire time in Hanoi was overshadowed by dealings with The People's Committee (Uy Ban Nhân Dân) and other governmental organisations, several of them infested by corruption.
I was fascinated by the pragmatism surrounding us. People seemed to be working every day of the week. I remember a carpenter who made beautiful mahogany furniture. I talked with him with the help of our friend and interpreter, Luan. Since he had several foreign customers I asked the carpenter why he in spite of that lived like a poor man. He answered:
- I have money, but with a predatory government like ours it is not advisable to expose any wealth. Better times will come and then I will build a house and give my children an excellent education.
Once I saw a beautiful cupboard in his workshop telling him I would buy it if he made some minor adjustments, while asking him why he had not made it perfect from the beginning. He answered:
- Why should I make such an effort when a foreigner like you would buy it anyway?
When I came back the following week and asked about the cupboard, he told me:
- I sold it to a Chinese gentleman. Like you he appreciated an excellent work. Thanks to your suggestions I improved the cupboard and asked for a higher prize. I will give you a cup of tea instead.
I was also fascinated by what I perceived as a strong thirst for knowledge, even the street beggars could be seen reading books. I used to visit a bookshop to buy cheap, but lavishly illustrated, Russian art books. One evening the shop administrator told me:
- I and my colleagues have seen that you often come here. Since you speak English we wonder if you could not stay one hour after closing time and teach us all English. We will pay you by giving you the books you want.
People in the street, as well as government officials, seemed to share the same interest in gaining knowledge. At a party at the Swedish embassy I had been talking with a Government official. The day after the embassy received a call from the Institute for Foreign Relations. They asked if the embassy could bring me to the Institute. On our way to the Institute a somewhat bewildered Secretary of the Embassy told me:
- I really don´t know what they want from you. It´s not likely they want to know anything about religion, which is somewhat of a taboo here. I´ll tell them you may speak about Swedish culture.
Four serious men, in the typical green uniforms and high peaked hats of the Vietnamese military, sat smoking while listening to the embassy secretary. One of them suddenly stubbed out his cigarette, stating:
- We don´t want anything of that. We know this Swede is a historian of religions and what we want from him is something we don´t know much about. We want him to lecture us about Muslim fundamentalism and the organisation of the Jesuits.
By the beginning of the 1990s Muslim fundamentalism was not yet such a great concern as it is now, but the Vietnamese government probably had an inkling about what would come. But, why were they interested in the Jesuits? Maybe this was also some kind of foreboding? Yesterday, a Jesuit friend of mine told me that the Society of Jesus enjoy its fastest growth in Vietnam. The country has now more Jesuit priests per capita than any other country. An amazing development considering that it was not until 2003 that the Society of Jesus began to function there as a religious institution.
When I visited the country again in 2011, I found Hanoi to be a completely changed town, modern and prosperous. An impression which was reinforced when I met friends I had known during my first stay in Vietnam. They were all better off and considered the future with optimism. Could there after all be a relation between prosperity and authoritarianism? I hope not.
A market economy reform, Doi moi, was launched in 1984, making almost all farmers self-employed, transforming a rice importing country into the world's third largest exporter of rice. The US embargo was lifted in 1994. Membership in the World Trade Organisation has attracted over 22,000 direct investment projects, global groups like Samsung, LG, Toyota, Honda and Canon have selected Vietnam as a manufacturing base. A wealth of bilateral and multilateral free trade agreements has been signed. Tourism has become an important industry, but also manufacturing of shoes, textiles and food.
In spite of all this I am inclined to consider the go-ahead spirit of my Vietnamese friends to be an outcome of their pragmatism, a result of war and the hardship suffered under totalitarianism, combined with state-sponsored education and health care. I hope all this finally will result in a democracy and an unrestricted adherence to human rights.
Jan Lundius holds a PhD on History of Religion from Lund University and has served as a development expert, researcher and adviser at SIDA, UNESCO, FAO and other international organisations.
—Inter Press Service
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