In Praise of Communism

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From: John Boyer (
Date: Sat Feb 26 2000 - 21:20:54 PST

Sorry we missed you guys in LA, Maybe next time.

Having just returned with my family from trip to Vietnam, I find before me
the task of sorting and commenting on some 1200 photographs of our
experiences. Since most of these photos are digital I plan on eventually
publishing them all on the web. Really I'm doing this mostly for myself to
galvanize my memories. But I do I hope that they will be a record for the
kids as well as provide some insight to those who might consider traveling,
or returning, there.

Whoever said that a picture is worth a thousand words hasn't seen my
photography. But, my pictures are worth at least a couple of words each.
And since those that know me can testify that the sum of those comments
will reflect negatively on the government of the host country, I have
decided to begin my task by trying to recall all those things that I
actually like about Communism, Vietnamese style.

1) The place makes me feel not just rich, but dirty stinking rich.
2) The place makes me feel divinely blessed.
3) If you ignore bribery, pick pocketing, and prostitution, there is
almost no crime.

OK, that was easy.

It's a nice place to visit, but you wouldn't want to try to make a living
I don't claim to know a thing about economics, but here are some of my
observations. In the seven years that have passed since our last visit
things have greatly improved. I suspect that no small part of that is the
lifting us the US embargo. The embargo was something that I wholeheartedly
agreed with in principle but disagreed with in practice. What good is an
embargo when there is only one participant? Can you say Cuba?

Medium sized businesses are relatively rare. The vast majority of large
businesses are at least partially government owned. Any small business that
ekes its way into a modicum of success is quickly taken over in a
euphemistically phrased "joint -venture". My wife has an uncle who had a
successful business when the communists took over. When they finally
released him from "reeducation camp" he was told to run his now government
owned business for a small salary. He complied, and after saving his money
for a few years he was given the opportunity to buy his business back as
part of a government reform program. He took the bait and soon his business
flourished. He did so well that the bureaucrats decided it was time for a
"joint venture". So now he is an employee again, running a business that
he does not really own. Well, nobody wants that. Some entrepreneurs choose
to walk a tightrope of kickbacks and bribery to stay independent as they
grow, but the vast majority work very hard at doing just enough to get by.

The result of this is twofold. The wages of the working class are kept
artificially low. This in turn has an effect of keeping prices of
consumable goods also very low. So low in fact that, to a foreigner like
myself, things like food are practically free. For example, since we have
family in country, most of our outings are done with an entourage of, say
25 to 30 people. We can treat them all to a very nice meal at a relatively
clean restaurant for about $50 US. Or we can eat marvelous sandwiches of
roasted pork on French bread from a curbside stand for just a few dollars.

Even better for me, the lack of traditional western employment
opportunities means that most people opt for self-employment in small,
almost microscopic business ventures. The low-end market is so buyer
oriented that cab drivers for instance, often work 24 hours a day, every
day! To take a quick trip across town with a guy surviving on catnaps can
be quite interesting. When you want a cab, there is not one but three
eagerly waiting for you. And if I want to pile my 200-pound butt into a
pedi-cab built for 125 I can find enthusiastic takers. Even in District 1
of Ho Chi Minh City, which is the closest thing Vietnam has to a tourist
trap, where there is one dealer of something as obscure as Soviet night
vision equipment there are five more within easy walking distance. Once you
have engaged in conversation with a shopkeeper, the last thing they want to
let happen is for you to leave without buying something. Bargaining
typically starts at 1/2 to 1/3 of the asking price. Generally you can buy
things at 1/2 to 3/4 of the price. However, after sitting down and getting
to know a few of these vendors we modified our buying strategy to just
going through the motions and then paying close to the original price. It's
just that things are so cheap to begin with. My wife and I realized that
what we were saving by bargaining translated to pocket change to us; but to
the vendors it translated directly to meat and potatoes, uhm fish and rice,
to their families.

Since most people can't afford much, its seems that low pricing has
"trickled up" in most sectors of the service industry. A three star hotel
like the historic French colonial Hotel Continental [1] where we stayed in
HCMC can be had for $65 US. More modest accommodations, but still with a
real toilet and air conditioning, will set you back a whopping $10 US in
some places. A nice 15 passenger van with a driver costs about $150 US
per day. Domestic flights on Vietnam airlines are also very reasonable.
About $150 US will purchase a round trip fare from HCMC to the beautiful
central city of Hue. And if one were so inclined, a quick inquiry
determined that an engagement with a practitioner of the world's oldest
profession would cost you 100,000 VND, or about seven bucks.

But forget the economics for a moment. It is the people that make Vietnam
so special. Everywhere we went people were friendly. Children played with
my children as if they were best of friends. Shopkeepers would offer me a
seat in the shade and then sit and stare and smile, because neither they
nor I had much of anything to say. Even the "true believers" were very
hospitable. In the city where my wife was born, I had the occasion to play
tennis with the local communist party president and his deputy. A few days
later I drank beer and sang Karaoke with the Police chief and his lead
detective. As far as I can tell, the police and the army are almost
indistinguishable one from another and they both enjoy immense power. The
reason why I became involved in the Karaoke and beer drinking episode was
that my friend the local hotel operator was wining and dining them to keep
in good favor. He invited my brother-in-law Paul and myself along. We two
Americans had the advantage of quite a few pounds on the policemen. So we
proceeded to get them, and eventually us, drunk by continually toasting
them with "Cham-Cham", which seems to mean, "Bottoms Up". By the end of
the day Paul and I were singing "Louie Louie" at the top of our lungs while
the cops were leaping around the room in full uniform doing something best
described as being like Elaine Bennis doing The Macarena and Tai Bo at the
same time. Surely a scene I will never forget. Unfortunately they insisted
that there be no pictures. You see, this was an all day affair and they
were on duty.


"Anyone who cannot tell the difference between authoritarianism and
totalitarianism could not tell the difference between Saigon and Ho Chi
Minh City" -- Peter Berger

"Finally, however tragic the outcome, I will argue to my dying day that
this was the most idealistic war we have ever fought, fundamentally a war
for an abstraction: the freedom of a bunch of unfamiliar Asians at the end
of the world"
-- Professor John Roche, Advisor to Lyndon Johnson


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