Tuesday, October 07, 2008

Vietnam: Tied to the past, seeking the future

William B. Ketter

CNHI News Service

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.

Vietnam remains mostly an agricultural nation, mired in the farming methods of the 19th century. Women in conical hats still harvest the rice, one stalk at a time. 

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 work force 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 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 such as Phu Yen, Mai Chau and Tan Ky — where our motorcycle group of six Americans stayed overnight — Internet caf├ęs 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.

William B. Ketter is vice president of news for Community Newspaper Holdings Inc., a news company based in Birmingham, Ala., that owns 89 daily newspapers. Contact him at wketter@cnhi.com. The Richmond Register is a CNHI newspaper.