CNHI News Service
September 17, 2008 01:50 pm
— Editor’s note: William B. Ketter is vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., which is based in Birmingham, Ala., and owns 89 daily newspapers including the Cumberland Times-News. The following excerpt is from the journal he kept during a trip in July when he rode a motorcycle down the Ho Chi Minh Trail.
This three-part series on Vietnam is based on the personal impressions of William Ketter, CNHI’s vice president of news, during a recent two-week trip to the country that played a major role in American politics, foreign affairs and cultural change during the 1960s and 1970s.
The trip included an eight-day motorcycle trek down remnants of the infamous Ho Chi Minh Trail with five other Americans. The group covered 850 miles, from the northern mountains of Vietnam to the former American military base at DaNang and China Beach, on the coast of the South China Sea.
It was Ketter’s second trip to Vietnam. His first visit occurred in 1995, when he led a group of American editors on a fact-finding mission.
Vietnam: Land of communist capitalism
Personal Impressions - Part 1
When Ho Chi Minh’s battalions swept into Saigon 33 years ago to establish a reunited Vietnam, the communist conquerors made one critical miscalculation: military victory would make life better for the war-weary nation.
Instead, economic conditions worsened, starvation spread across the entire country, and national sacrifice became the common denominator that defined a long and dark post-war period for the north and the south.
"We struggled through very lean years after the Americans left,” remembers Nguyen Ngoc, son of a decorated North Vietnamese army officer. “The government issued food rations. A bowl of rice had to last a week; shreds of meat a month’s time. You killed a chicken without a sound so you didn’t have to share it with your neighbors.”
Certainly not the socialist dream “Uncle Ho” talked about before dying of a heart attack in 1969 and which his followers strived to fulfill with tight government control over business and commerce upon winning the war in his stead.
Free-market wheeling and dealing, prevalent in South Vietnam during the French and American presence, bid a hasty retreat, crushed by the communist credo of one-for-all and all-for-one. Individual and corporate investment withered.
Until the 1990s, that is. That’s when Vietnam fully embraced the Chinese model of open-market capitalism while clinging to a strict communist political system. Despair turned to daring. Even those Vietnamese who fled the country – known as Viet Kieu -- were invited to invest in the homeland. And they did – at the current rate of $7 billion a year, according to government figures.
Today, Vietnam is still one of the world’s impoverished nations, but a recent two-week vacation there, including eight days on a motorcycle down remnants of the renowned Ho Chi Minh Trail, provided evidence the country is clear-eyed about opening its doors to the world.
“We will never be as rich as you Americans,” said Ngoc. “But we’re now enjoying a better life. We can own property, start businesses, make good money. We have rice, coffee, tea, rubber and oil ” – significant exports that fuel free-market reforms that, in turn, spawn English-language newspapers, magazines and television programs. None, of course, enjoy press freedom as we know it. They do, however, aggressively report crime, corruption and catastrophes. And they did not appear to sugar-coat the country’s economic challenges.
"It is true the communists have ultimate control over the news media,” said Ngoc. “But it is not in the interest of the communists or Vietnam to black out the news of things that everybody knows about anyway through the Internet.”
Ngoc, who served as chief guide and interpreter for the motorcycle adventure, is an example of the new Vietnam, second only to China in economic growth in Asia since 2002.
At 34, he has no personal memory of the war that killed 3 million Vietnamese soldiers and civilians as well as nearly 60,000 American military fighting on behalf of the South Vietnamese. College educated and fluent in French and English, he reads and listens to the news in all three languages, residing with his wife and three-year-old daughter in a modest home in Hanoi. He’s considered a tourism expert, serves as a consultant to travel agencies and is the proud owner of a start-up company (Vietnamontrails.com) that specializes in customized motorcycle tours.
Ngoc loves Vietnam, reveres Ho Chi Minh as the George Washington of his country, lives to ride a motorcycle and raves about the scenic beauty of his native northern landscape. He is not, however, a member of the Vietnamese Communist Party.
Two-thirds of Vietnam’s 85 million people were, like Ngoc, born after American combat ended in 1973. They are reminded of the bloody clash by their elders, monuments and museums – all of which tout victory over “American imperialism.” But the war does not grip the Vietnamese psyche the way it weighs on the American mind.
Furthermore, the country’s communist leaders no longer insist on command and control of everyday life. People are encouraged to show initiative and get ahead. Ngoc estimated there are only about 3 million card-carrying communists.
“You join the party if you want a career in politics or government,” said Ngoc. “Otherwise, there’s no need to belong. As a nation we are comfortable with the arrangement. We all want a prosperous Vietnam.”
Vietnam: Tied to the past, seeking the future
Personal Impressions - Part 2
Vietnam is a country blessed by fertile lands, bountiful seas and an industrious human spirit. Yet the average personal income is less than $500 per year, and nearly one-third of the people live in poverty.
Dreadful as those statistics can seem, they’re a vast improvement from the country’s dark period during and after the Vietnam War and before the adoption of open-market capitalism in the 1990s.
Now, even ordinary Vietnamese appear optimistic about their economic future, pointing to the country’s achieved goal of making the Internet available everywhere, including remote mountain villages.
“We’re on our way to a better life,” said Nguyen Ngoc, a confident 34-year-old entrepreneur from Hanoi who recently started a motorcycle tour business. “Tomorrow will be bigger and better than yesterday.”
Vietnam took a big step toward that goal when it joined the World Trade Organization, two years ago, opening access to more overseas markets and attracting greater foreign investment.
The United States, which refused to trade with Vietnam for nearly 20 years after the war, signed a bilateral trade agreement with its former enemy in 2001, and is now the leading export market for Vietnamese goods, followed by the European Union, Japan and China.
On the home front, a skilled and low-wage workforce competes with China, Indonesia and India for electronic and textile manufacturing jobs. Canon recently opened a large inkjet printer plant outside Hanoi. Sony, Intel, Samsung and other electronic firms are likewise bullish on the land of the dragon. Textile and shoe manufacturing are also on the move. Nike makes more than 80 million pairs of shoes in Vietnam annually.
Still, Vietnam is mainly an agricultural country, with more than 70 percent of the people living on farms and in villages, and the bulk of the economy tied to the fate of rice, coffee, tea, rubber trees, pepper plants and cashew nuts.
It also remains a contradiction between 19th century farming methods and 21st century technology – as witnessed during the 850-mile motorcycle trip from the 10,300-foot high mountains northeast of Hanoi, the national capital, to Hoi An, a charming seacoast community in the southwest.
In the country, water buffalo plough rice fields, and women in conical hats stoop for hours to harvest the crop, one stalk at a time. On their way home, they strap bundles of wood to their back for fire or balance fruits and vegetables on both ends of a bamboo pole for that night’s dinner in one and two-room homes.
But amazingly in remote northern villages like Phu Yen, Mai Chau and Tan Ky -- where our motorcycle group of six Americans stayed overnight -- Internet cafés serve tourists and locals, including teenagers playing Bubble Shooter, Raiden X and other popular online games. Mobile phones are commonplace in country and city.
“It is strange, right?” remarks Hoang Ngoc Minh, 26, a tour guide from Hanoi. “We are a country of differences. The Internet is everywhere. So too the traditional ways of living off the land.”
Dao Quong Binh, an economist and journalist with the Vietnam Economic Times, put it this way during an interview at the upscale Intercontinental Hotel in Hanoi:
“Land is the property of the people in Vietnam and no taxes or rent are required for use in agriculture,” he explains. “As we increasingly transform to a market economy, modernization will naturally take place in the rural regions along with the cities. New, more efficient techniques will be introduced.”
Binh is counting on Vietnam keeping up its fast pace. He has invested in several niche lifestyle publications, and has plans to start an auto magazine even though the Great Wheel of the country is definitely the motorbike.
Cars will inevitably replace two-wheel transportation as people gain wealth in the new Vietnam, says Binh. When that happens, they will need a reliable reference source on what kind of automobiles to buy and how to maintain them, something he expects his magazine to provide.
“It can’t miss,” he asserts.
For now, however, there are more than 20 million motorcycles, motorbikes and scooters in Vietnam, and fewer than 750,000 cars and trucks. The result is an urban sea of cycles constantly honking their horns.
Navigating this chaos is perilous. Traffic rules don’t apply, stop lights and signs are mostly nonexistent, and crossing the street by foot or driving through an intersection puts your life at risk. More than 40 traffic fatalities occur every day, making Vietnam one of the highest road death countries in the world.
The key to avoiding injury and staying alive is “always move forward. Don’t step back or stop in your tracks,” said Margie Mason, an Associated Press correspondent in Hanoi.
Good advice whether you’re walking across the street or riding a motorcycle.
Vietnam: Tourism riches at bloody war sites
Personal Impressions - Part 3
The 1975 photograph of the last Marine helicopter lifting off the rooftop of the American Embassy in Saigon, a long line of luckless Vietnamese evacuees stranded below, created an indelible portrait of human desperation.
Those left behind had been soldiers in the defeated Army of the Republic of Vietnam (ARVN), or friends of the U.S. government. They anticipated dreadful consequences at the hands of Ho Chi Minh’s victorious vassals.
The beauty of Vietnam is evident in the hills and valleys of the northern highlands. The mist rising from the land against the morning sky creates a picture-postcard scene.
They were right. The communist regime executed those considered most disloyal to the nationalist cause. Others were sentenced to long prison terms. But most were sent to so-called re-education camps to embrace the socialist credo of, do as you’re told, toil for the common good, and forget about getting ahead through self-initiative.
Fortunately, for Vietnam’s future, the economic lessons of communism didn’t take hold. And 20 years after the war’s end, Vietnam abandoned strict control over everyday commerce and instead encouraged the awakening of an entrepreneurial spirit not seen since the American presence.
Open-market capitalism spawned new businesses, trade with former enemies, private investment -- and a government ambition to attract hard currency through aggressive promotion of tourism.
The goal: turn the bloody sites of war into tourist shrines that might deliver badly-needed foreign dollars.
Sites such as the Ho Chi Minh Trail, an infamous series of zigzag paths that fed weapons and supplies to the communist troops in the south. Bombed heavily by American forces during the war, it is considered the national symbol of success.
Thus the government committed more than $400 million to restoring the historically important sections of the trail, and expanding it all the way to Saigon, now called Ho Chi Minh City. The highway project is expected to reduce congestion on narrow coastal Highway One, the only other north-south artery connecting the once-divided country.
Riding a motorcycle along the trail requires dodging water buffalo, cows, goats, dogs, ducks, chickens and pigs – and keeping your balance when large transport trucks or buses force you off the road. You also need to be alert to motorbikes and pedestrians darting out from side streets in towns and villages.
Surprisingly, however, construction crews have converted muddy jungle tracks into a shiny black thoroughfare that tourists can traverse by motorcycle, bicycle or foot.
Recommended stops include those sections bombed by American planes, and also sprayed with the powerful herbicide Agent Orange to expose supply and troop movements. The effects of the chemical are still visible as stunted foliage along the foothills and riverbank mangroves of north-central Vietnam.
The original trail extended into Laos and Cambodia, covering more than 10,000 miles. Thick jungle growth claimed most of it after the war. But strategic sections were maintained as a reminder of the communist will for an undivided nation.
The paved trail will measure about 1,000 miles when finished. Our merry band of bikers drove about half of it, starting at Tan Ky in the north and ending at Hue near the 17th parallel, the old dividing line between north and south ironically known as the demilitarized zone. Ironic because more military action occurred within the zone than any other section of Vietnam.
A herd of cows obstructs the Ho Chi Minh Trail in central Vietnam. Driving the trail requires dodging all kinds of farm animals and domestic pets.
War memorials dot the rebuilt trail, including an impressive 12-foot marble monument to the “victims” of Deo Da Deo mountain pass. American B-52s dropped tons of explosives and chemicals on this highest point of the trail near Phong Nha.
Phong Nha is also the scene of the Ke Bang caves, the oldest and largest limestone caverns in Asia. They are part of a huge national park and one of the premier tourist sites in the country, drawing visitors from more than 100 nations.
The spectacular formations have enchanting names like Lion, Fairy Caves, Royal Court and Buddha. During the Vietnam war, they were used to protect munitions from B-52 raids. Phong Nha, in central Vietnam, was a key supply station for the North during the war.
At Khe Sanh, the war’s most publicized battle site, a symbolic “victory” statue juts from a weed-infested field that once hosted a strategic U. S. Marine outpost and airfield. Three bloody encounters, including a 75-day siege in 1968, are recounted in a nearby museum. Captured American tanks, helicopters and other war relics remind visitors that the final triumph belonged to the communists.
More than 10,000 North Vietnamese and scores of American soldiers died at Khe Sanh. The Vietnamese burn incense and place flowers at the stone memorial’s base, which portrays a U.S. Marine raising his hands in surrender.
At Vietnam’s largest military burial ground, Truong Son Cemetery, mourners pay tribute to “heroes of the American war” by burning bundles of fake $100 U.S. bills in incense pots so the soldiers will enjoy a rich afterlife. The dollar, it’s explained, is worth far more than the Vietnamese dong, making it the preferred phony currency to honor the deceased.
“We hold no hostility toward Americans,” said Nguyen Van My, who described himself as a 66-year-old army war veteran during a brief chat at the cemetery. “We respect the dollar. It is a symbol of strength."
By contrast, the dong has been slipping badly as inflation besets the Vietnamese economy. Twice devalued in the past year, it now exchanges at the rate of 16,800 dong for one American dollar. That makes Vietnam one of the few world bargains for U.S. tourists. Hotels, food, transportation, clothes and jewelry are inexpensive. Our eight-day trip, booked through the Hanoi tour company Offroad Vietnam, cost just $850 per person, including overnight accommodations, meals, Honda 160 cubic-centimeter motorcycles, fuel and two guides/interpreters.
We stayed in budget hotels, but the sheets were clean, the showers were hot, and even remote mountain stops featured air conditioning, although power blackouts occurred often during the early evening hours. And it did take a few nights to get used to the three-inch mattresses; a few mornings to develop patience for the coffee that slowly drips from a metal strainer atop the cup. But once done, it jolts you into the day’s activities.
The investment in tourism is paying off because Vietnam offers some of the most charming tropical scenery in the world. The mist rising from the land against the morning sky is resplendent. The lush mountains and gorges and verdant valleys and endless rivers create a colorful landscape. A coast line that stretches for hundreds of miles along the South China Sea makes it a marvel of geography.
It also makes you wonder where the country would be in today’s travel world had it not been mired in war for a half-century against the French, the Japanese, the Americans, the Cambodians and the Chinese.
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Nguyen Ngoc, 34, businessman and son of a decorated North Vietnamese army officer, represents the new generation of Vietnamese. They welcome Americans and are more interested in the country's new capitalism than the politics of communism. CNHI News Service
Visitors enter the Imperial Palace, home of Vietnam's last emperors in Hue, through an elaborate gate. The palace and its Forbidden Purple City have become major tourist attractions. The last emperor yielded power to Ho Chi Minh in 1954. CNHI News Service