Though renamed following the fall of the city at the terminus of the Vietnam War, I was surprised by the number of shops, companies, and people who still used the old name of Saigon.
This city, shaped by the long French rule, also showed some influence from the shorter time when it was central to American operations in the country. People are a bit louder and accostive in the streets in comparison to Hanoi in the North. Food has more spice and richer flavours.
We met up with a friend, Kevin, who grew up in the city and also spent 10 years overseas in a Western country for university and work. He was kind enough to show us the local Ben Than?__ market, his favourite rooftop bar, and give us a local’s understanding of Vietnam.
His perspective was different than what we had heard other places, partly because he had spent such a long time out of the country that he now understood a bit better the alternative lifestyles, government and economic systems, and narratives that exist concerning Vietnam.
Growing up, Kevin attended public school. In Vietnam, public schools are not entirely government funded and still require parents to come up with almost half of the necessary funding. Many children alternatively go to private schools since unlike in Canada, both systems still require parents to provide funding.
Yet, Kevin attended public school and as part of the curriculum learned about the history of Vietnam. When he came home with homework or questions about what he was learning, Kevin's father would provide an alternative perspective as he was well read in the biographies from the generals who served in the Vietnam War (locally called the American War), politicians, and other history books.
Like others we spoke to in Vietnam, Kevin spoke fondly about Ho Chi Minh. Minh was the intellectual and political leader of the Vietnamese independence movement for over 50 years since first studying under French communists and petitioning to meet and discuss the independence of Vietnam from French colonial rule with US President Woodrow Wilson in 1919.
Over the following over 50 years, Minh pushed politically and militarily for this objective succeeding with the 1954 unconditional surrender of American supported France, the complete retreat of American armed forces from the country in 1973, and the April 30, 1975 surrender by American supported South Vietnam. Minh has been memorialized with the renaming of Saigon, former capital of South Vietnam, to Ho Chi Minh City and remains present in the daily life of all Vietnamese on their currency and on government billboards.
Kevin noted that in recent years the government had begun to allow more "complete" biographies of the late leader to be published. When we asked what "complete" meant, Kevin asked if I had read Walter Issacson's biography of Steve Jobs. I had, and he continued that in the book a reader grasped the complexities of Jobs. With some stories that made Jobs look like a visionary leader and others that brought to light his personality faults and mistakes, a reader could have a more realistic understanding of Jobs, the man and the myth.
Up until recently, the only biographies of Ho Chi Minh allowed to be published covered the myth, and now there were accounts of the man.
Communism comes in a new flavour in each socialist people's republic where it is put into practice. After the Vietnam War, Kevin told us, a rigid collectivist economic policy was put into place that included governmnet takeover of private industry, private property, and the issuing of government rations to provide the people with food. This policy failed and left much of the population hungry and the country with minimal national economic growth.
In 1987, governmnet leaders began an economic liberalization that began to usher Vietnam into the more developed world. Vietnam was opened to international investment and trade restrictions were loosened. Private enterprise and capitalistic style markets were allowed to run to manage the production and demand for consumer goods, food, and industrial outputs.
Similar to China, Vietnam now has a primarily liberal capitalist economic policy but still holds onto the single party authoritarian rule that maintains tight limits on many fundamental freedoms that citizens in the West take for granted.
Freedom of speech and expression is still limited and a prosecutable offence Kevin told us. As someone who has lived in the West and enjoyed freedom of speech for many years before returning to Vietnam, he is excitedly looking for opportunities to return to a free country where worries of government prosecution for speech are not present.
He did note though that there have been improvements in recent years.