Hard News by Russell Brown


Dinner in District 2

District 2, Ho Ch Minh City, is only a five-minute ferry ride across the Saigon River from the central city, but it's another world: a farming village and market street accreted over the last two or three decades, it has not a jot of the bustle of the city across the water. In the evening, kids play, delicious marinated quails sit on a hot plate, and everyone seems relaxed.

But not for much longer. In three years, all this will be gone: the government is taking the land, paying the compensation it sees fit to owners (ie: about a third of its real commercial value) and laying the foundations for a shining new city. The ferry will be joined by a tunnel.

We crossed the river on Saturday night to the home of Mitchell's parents, two lovely, enterprising people whose compound has been the base for a string of businesses over the years - from ice cream to electricity infrastructure.

The same system of dams that allow residents to manage floods (they are barely above river level) can also be set to usher little fish into the pond surrounding the pagoda built by Mitchell's father to house the family's Buddhist and ancestral shrines (Vietnamese Buddhists do not worship their ancestors, but, like Maori, they do remember and consult them). We caught the fish with lumps of bread on little fishhooks, and they became a delicious entrée: deep-fried till crunchy and eaten whole.

Being welcomed into someone's home is precious when you're travelling - hotels, restaurants and meetings drive you a bit mad sometimes - and I was grateful both for the fabulous meal and the genuine hospitality.

I think I'd like to go back to Vietnam. It's an interesting place, and every conversation I had made it seem more interesting. I had a couple of beers with Kevin Miller, an ebullient Japanese-American former Peace Corps volunteer who came here to teach IT courses, evangelises Linux, writes a blog and is now starting his own company (that's what everyone does here; in the South at least).

He reeled off so many observations about social culture that I was moved to observe that this endless peeling of layers of the onion seemed to be the basis of his affection for the place. In terms of blog culture, it seems the young Vietnamese start out with MySpace and step up to Yahoo 360. Blogger's not really a factor.

We met at a bar in the backpacker area. Later on when I strolled around the same part of town, I was offered, in a conversation with a personable young man (which took place two metres away from two of the green-uniformed trainee traffic police who no one seems to respect), I was progressively offered marijuana, opium, mushrooms and ecstasy ("from Amsterdam"). It appears that if it's not heroin, the government's not too bothered. If I was 23 and with my mates, I'd probably think I was in party heaven.

I am surprised at the degree of admiration I felt for the communist Vietnamese government. This is a government of authoritarians, but not plutocrats, and what they have achieved since the Doi Moi (Renovation) reforms began in 1986 is in so many ways remarkable.

Less than two decades ago these people were pretty much starving: now Vietnam is the second biggest exporter of rice in the world; the government subsequently concentrated on coffee, and Vietnam is now the world's second-largest exporter of that too. But last week, the government ordered exporters to stop taking new orders - farmers are making 80% margins, but the country needs the rice to fill domestic demand. You keep coming across something akin to a rehabilitation of the command economy in Vietnam.

A local venture capitalist I spoke to had 16 companies, all developing consumer-focused internet ideas, on his books. He said the government made it clear it had learned from its neighbours' experiences and did not simply want to be the next cheapest destination for IT outsourcing. It knew that someone cheaper would eventually come along. Vietnam, with its 90% literacy rate, wants to be higher up the value chain.

Yet set against this new enlightenment has been this year's crackdown on dissidents - the worst in years. Last month, two human rights lawyers were jailed for four and five years respectively, after a court found them guilty of spreading propaganda intended to undermine the government. A Catholic priest got five years, along with three members of a banned political party.

Strangely, this happens at a time when the leadership is young and from the South, where revolutionary fervour has never been as strong. And the voice of pluralism has come, ironically, from one of the old men of the revolution, former prime minister 87 year-old Vo Van Kiet:

Mr Kiet, a former Politburo member, said the authorities must not avoid "talking to those who have a different view" on Vietnamese politics, and he added that "the dialogue should be honest".

He warned the government "not to execute administrative measures" in its dealings with the dissidents.

As it stands, in their daily lives, people have rights and protections, but that does not extend to the right to rock the boat: you can criticise the fulfilment of policy, very occasionally policy itself (a wave of wildcat industrial action in 2005 induced the government to raise the minimum wage), but not the party. There is no real free press.

Will it change? It seems inevitable. So many young Vietnamese (and this is a young population) are being educated, some in democratic countries, and being exposed to the marketplace of ideas. There were 74 channels on the TV in my middling Saigon hotel, and I was unable to trigger any sort of blockage from the hotel's internet connection. The comparison with other countries in the region - China, which last week blocked all images from Flickr in case someone saw Tiananmen Square; Malaysia, whose communications minister summarily banned YouTube; and Singapore, which engages in various petty acts of internet censorship - is instructive.

The other looming problem is the environment. The environmental problems brought about by poverty are being compounded by the environmental problems of prosperity. With material wealth comes motorised transport, and even with the government's deliberately prohibitive 200% sales tax on cars, the streets are teeming with motorbikes and air quality is deteriorating. Yet it will only be prosperity that pays for a proper sewage system for Saigon.

So now we're in Singapore: tidy, sleek Singapore where the streets do not teem and the footpaths are clean. If you're ever thinking of staying at the Royal @ Queens Hotel, think about staying somewhere else. And if you can't, be prepared to demand a room change. My conference-rate booking got me a room where the hotel air-conditioning system hummed gratingly through the wall, but where neither the air-conditioning or the fridge actually worked, and where the towels in the bathroom were so threadbare that I tore one drying myself after a shower. I got myself moved. Card-readers in the left and room doors work only fitfully. This is a tired, tired hotel trading on a four-star rating it will not deserve until its owner spends some money renovating it. Still, can't moan. Much.


Elsewhere, it appears that the people around Tony Blair have started to talk. The Observer has led with the sizzle from the two-part TV doco on the Blair years by its own columnist, Andrew Rawnsley. That sizzle being that while he was publicly expressing his resolve before and during the Iraq project, Blair was, with his advisors, despairing of the incompetence, pig-headedness and lack of planning of the American leadership. Everything you thought was true apparently becomes patent: Bush was in charge on only a token basis, and Cheney and Rumsfeld didn't listen to anyone. The final paragraph of Rawnsley's accompanying column sums up the tragedy of Iraq quite well:

The casualties of war are to be found not just in Iraq. The deaths will also be counted in Darfur and future Darfurs, Rwandas and Bosnias, where murderous regimes will put people to the slaughter with much less to fear from western intervention. That is the most rending victim of Iraq.

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