By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
Luckily for the American passport holders, a U. S. senator stepped in. In an effort to rescue one of his constituents, Cuc Foshee, who was among the detainees, Florida’s Mel Martinez managed to block a key vote that would have normalized trade relations with Vietnam. (Martinez, a staunch anti-Castro conservative, last week was named the next chair of the Republican National Committee.) On November 10, the Vietnamese-Americans all received super-light sentences and are scheduled to be deported back to the U.S. in December. Foshee was released early for health reasons and promptly stated that she couldn't wait to sink her teeth into a Quarter Pounder with Cheese.
Even though disorganized post-election Republicans failed to pass the House version of the trade bill — an embarrassment for President Bush, who hoped to deliver that victory to the Vietnamese in person — it is expected to come up for a vote again next month. Without it, American companies like Intel, which just tripled its investment in Vietnam to $1 billion, will not be able to take advantage of lower tariffs and subsidies the new WTO member will have to offer. Also last week, the State Department quietly dropped Vietnam from the “religious intolerance” list it’s been on since 2004.
While most Americans still equate Vietnam with the war, ask the average Vietnamese what he or she thinks about the U.S. and two names invariably come up: Britney Spears and Bill Gates. (The Microsoft chief was treated like a rock star during his spring visit to Hanoi, with mobs of university students clamoring just to get a glimpse of him.) The 35-and-under set here still reads the national papers, which bear titles like Youth and The Laborer and toe the party line. But they also have Internet access and friends in other countries, and aren’t too concerned with taking sides or hearing their parents’ war stories.
And neither are their Vietnamese-American counterparts, the well-educated sons and daughters of escapees who are coming back in droves and looking to develop the country while advancing their own careers. Even the term Viet Kieu, once synonymous with “traitor,” has started to lose its negative connotation, especially since overseas Vietnamese sent an estimated $16 billion in remittances to the country between 2001 and 2005. As The Economist has noted, “America lost, capitalism won.”
Perhaps, in the end, they’re the same thing. In the 20 years since the Party introduced doi moi, a perestroika-like restructuring of the centrally planned economy that has emulated China’s brand of market socialism, things have been moving fast. Foreign investment is up 41 percent. GDP has grown by 8 percent this year to more than $272 billion, putting Vietnam just behind Malaysia and ahead of Greece. The upshot of all this is that the Socialist Republic of Vietnam happens to be Asia’s fastest-growing market for American products.
Mike Do doesn’t hide his Americanisms as he makes the rounds in Go-Go café, shaking hands with the managers, smiling broadly at the female staff and saying “hello” instead of “xin chao.” It’s spring 2005, and I’ve just met Mike. He chose this spot in the city’s outlying Phu Nhuan District, sufficiently far from downtown to be off the expatriate radar but trendy enough to ensure it’s packed even before the lunch rush. The patrons are well-dressed working women and chain-smoking men conducting informal business or poring over the state-censored dailies.
Mike and his Uncle Ly have invested in the café, which recently won a national architecture magazine’s award for best interior design. Mike gestures for me to follow him, and we float up the back stairs into a yawning open-plan house. Its chef’s kitchen flows into a light-filled living room with a vaulted ceiling, empty but for a black grand piano that’s gathering dust.
“Can you believe nobody lives here?” Mike laughs. “I volunteered to move in, but he wanted to leave it empty.” “He” is the owner, also Viet Kieu, a friend and the architect’s brother-in-law, who spends the majority of his time in Sydney.
We have to blink to get used to the sunlight. A house like this, open to the elements and with windows everywhere, feels like it would be much more at home in Los Angeles than Saigon, where architecture and fashions tend to reflect the population’s efforts to escape the punishing sun. Respectable women cover every bare inch of flesh during the day so as not to develop the dreaded condition known as da den — “dark skin,” a sure sign of peasantry. On the street these would-be Asian dolls transform themselves into dowdy, second-rate gangster’s molls with floppy granny hats, saggy nylon knee-highs and pastel kerchiefs that extend from ear to ear and to just below their eyes. The middle-class men’s uniform rarely varies — long-sleeved white shirt tucked into belted black pants, shiny black shoes and maybe even a baseball cap.
Then there’s the pollution, which has begun to rival Bangkok’s. A Saigon street is the great equalizer, teeming with vehicles of every race and class, each focused on moving itself straight ahead at any cost. Noisy three-wheeled carts with ancient engines or rusty xich lo (cycle rickshaws) carrying towering burdens unimaginable elsewhere chug alongside shimmering BMWs and Mercedes with darkened windows. Although the majority of the traffic is of the two-wheeled kind, the ratio of cars to motorbikes is likely to increase in the near future, when heavy import taxes on automobiles (now at 100 percent) are eliminated.