WHEN I NEXT RETURNED to Vietnam, living in Hanoi for a semester in 1991, the frigidity of the Cold War still lingered. Any Vietnamese who tried to visit our guest-house was severely questioned by the police posted at the entrance, and travel continued to be restricted. There was still no U.S. embassy. Inflation was at 67.1 percent. There was little food; we often found ground up newspaper baked in with our bread. The Temple of Literature, since then completely restored, was a shambles. The roof had fallen down, and a picture of Ho Chi Minh rested at an angle on the floor. However, in Ho Chi Minh City the watch-repair people on Pasteur Street were joined by establishments renting videos. Bicycles still dominated the streets, but now big white United Nations vehicles managed to cause minor blockages at intersections. The number of motorcyles grew monthly.
Russians were by far the most dominant foreign presence in the country, numbering in the thousands -- though they were very unpopular. A Russian friend never admitted he was from the Soviet Union; he said he was Polish. At the time, there were approximately 50 Americans in Hanoi -- aid workers, journalists, lawyers, a couple of English teachers -- most working for organizations of other countries. Today, there are about 500 Americans in Hanoi, many of them to make money. More than half the foreign non-governmental development agencies in Vietnam now are American, according to the U.S.-Indochina Reconciliation Project.
I returned to the U.S. to finish my degree at Penn. At the graduation ceremony in 1993, where Hillary Rodham Clinton spoke, I was proud to receive the national award from the Phi Delta International Honor Society for promoting cultural relations between Vietnam and the United States. Soon after the U.S. trade embargo against Vietnam was lifted in February 1994, the American Chamber of Commerce in the Socialist Republic of Vietnam was founded. In the absence of an embassy, this group of pioneer resident American businesspeople answered the questions of visitors and newcomers and met monthly to discuss challenges in Vietnam's business environment -- such as an undeveloped legal system and the lack of U.S. governmental support. In February 1995, I returned to become the chamber's first executive director in Ho Chi Minh City, which had become a boomtown. Former president George Bush during his visit likened the city to Odessa, Texas in the 1950s. New office buildings, hotels, and restaurants displayed tremendous use of resources. Vietnamese friends complained that schools were being knocked down for the overbuilding of offices and hotels.
In some respects the mainstays of Vietnamese life remained the same -- street cafes, delicious local food establishments located far down alleyways. During the Season of Tet, the lunar new year, families still gathered to gamble over cards. But mobile phones had sprouted among the foreign and local community alike; Vietnamese had new jade buddhas on gold necklaces, where they had worn none before; and on Pasteur Street, the watch-repair and video-rental industries were now over-shadowed by a massive trade in color television sets (and, more recently, by construction of one of the first and tallest international standard office high rises in the city). Vietnamese friends -- who, though exceptionally talented and bright, had been unemployed for three years -- were now able to find work with foreign firms. Wealthy Vietnamese families paid Americans up to $20 an hour for English tutoring and began to send their children to the United States for college. The money was coming out from under the mattresses -- and out of foreign investors' pockets. Continued...
December Contents | Gazette Home
Copyright 1997 The Pennsylvania Gazette Last modified 12/16/97