Our Man In Vietnam

In his first feature letter to the LIP, Will Shaw ponders Vietnam’s transition from socialism to Disneyfication.

Feeling somewhat disillusioned with the political ideologies currently prevalent in the West, I decided that now would be as good a time as any to travel further a field for a glimpse of political alternatives. Two months ago I arrived in Vietnam, one of the four last strongholds of communism, along with North Korea, China, and Cuba.

Needless to say, Vietnam’s situation is also alluring to anyone wondering about the affects that fighting a lengthy war with America might have on a developing nation. Have the Vietnamese continued to resist the values of the nation that led so many gratuitous bombing raids against them – or have they been swept away like so many others on a wave of Coca-Cola flavoured imperialism?

In the capital, socialism initially appears to be still in full swing – heavily armed statues of glorified workers still adorn the pathways of Lenin Park and a Lenin-style Ho Chi Minh still sits with a glazed expression in a heavily guarded glass box.

For a decade the Vietnamese people (though specifically those from the North) fought courageously at the cost of over 5 million lives for the right to be socialist, and needless to say many seem proud of their victory.

However, in 1986 the Communist Party was forced to open up its borders in response not to outside pressures, but to its own bankruptcy. Consequently, the communist values that have dominated the nation for the past decades began to subside. The changes permitted by the Party focused on greater personal freedom, more openness towards the West and – perhaps most significantly – the transition to a market economy.

Perhaps because free trade was forbidden under Communist rule until 1986, the Vietnamese cities seem to have embraced capitalism and corporate culture with a surprising zeal. On arrival in the capital I began work teaching at a commercial language centre in the heart of the city. The school is privatised and there are neither state scholarships nor statues of glorified workers here. Instead of quotes from Karl Marx adorning the walls, there are abstract and baffling nuggets of corporate wisdom such as ‘quality is tenacity of purpose’, alongside framed adverts for the hi-tech multi-nationals that sponsor the centre.

The centre recently put on a staged production of a popular fairy tale that was one of the first to be turned into a film by Disney. Rather than asking for parental assistance with the provision of costumes, they decided they wanted the show to be as impressive as money would permit, and turned straight to the corporation for sponsorship.

Property is clearly no longer theft in Hanoi, and the first two rows of the audience were the exclusive reserve of the business representatives without whom such a lavish production would not have been feasible. Immediately after the curtains came down on the final act, speeches were made in cordial thanks to the honoured commercial guests.

The influence of the powerful corporations is not only felt in the centre’s extra-curricular activities. In a detail that seems to surpass any of the predictions made for the West in Naomi Klein’s No Logo, one of the school’s classes is paid for by a leading Asian brewery, and carries the company’s name.

The language centre is flourishing and its success is no doubt providing those who can foot the bill with skills crucial to the country’s development. For those who cannot, around whom socialism is supposed to revolve, it is offering very little. America may have had its values defeated in Vietnam when it used more heavy-handed tactics during the 60s and 70s, but perhaps they will have the last laugh as Vietnam begins to move quickly and of its own accord towards an elitist era of free trade and capitalism.

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