Vietnam 'on the point of takeoff' Recovery: A decade ago, food supplies in Hanoi were desperately low. Today, with a free-market economy and U.S. trade, the Asian nation is returning to prosperity.

Sun Journal

February 22, 1997|By David Lamb | David Lamb,LOS ANGELES TIMES

HANOI, Vietnam -- Even now, in the dreary days of winter, Hanoi moves with a sense of purpose: This is the springtime of the city's renaissance, and you can almost taste the commerce in the air.

Nothing and no one is idle. Along the banks of downtown lakes, residents by the thousands gather before sunrise to exercise, and by breakfast time the streets are filling with bicycles and the symbol of the emerging middle class -- Honda Super Cub scooters -- moving in free-form chaos.

From shoeshine boys who hawk copies of Graham Greene's "The Quiet American" -- a prophetic 1954 novel about the perils of foreign involvement in Vietnam -- to shopkeepers on Hai Ba Trung Street, whose TVs and appliances are piled ceiling-high, to entrepreneurs with cellular phones at the Metropole Hotel, Hanoi is caught up in the giddy expectations of opportunity created by the introduction of a free-market economy and the end of the U.S. trade embargo.

"Ten years ago, I had to queue for hours for a handful of rice," says economist Do Duc Dinh. "Now, anything I need is in the stores, from refrigerators to rice. Everything's better, and I'm convinced Vietnam is on the point of takeoff."

It was, in fact, only a few years ago that Hanoi's streets were empty save for bicycles and a few Russian trucks. The country's rice production was falling, and Vietnam was facing starvation. The stately Metropole -- now renovated and offering live music in each of its four restaurants -- had fallen into such rat-infested disrepair that you could see the floor above through holes in the ceiling. The only stores were run by the state, and they were mostly empty except for the rations of rice that Dinh stood in line for.

But even in these bleak days, even as Singapore and Bangkok, Thailand, and Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia, were being transformed into 21st-century cities, Hanoi stood its ground and, because of circumstance as much as anything, never lost its character. It endures today as Asia's loveliest capital, a crime-free city of tree-lined boulevards, sidewalk cafes, low French architecture and streets kept spotless by women with bamboo brooms.

If bustling, money-driven Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is New York, Hanoi is Boston. It is smaller and more refined than its sister city, a 21-hour train ride to the south. The arts flourish here, and who your family is counts more than what your salary is. Ho Chi Minh City has glitz, Hanoi style. Battered by war, invaded, occupied, colonized over the course of 1,000 years, it is a city whose people move with the confidence of being victors, time and again, against more powerful outsiders.

Many Americans may think of Vietnam as a war instead of a country and Hanoi as the enemy capital. But the conflict that took the lives of more than a million of Thu's fellow Vietnamese seems, strangely, to have become a brief chapter of history, set aside, if not forgotten, in Hanoi. Scant physical evidence remains as a reminder.

The bridge over the Red River, destroyed by U.S. bombers, has been rebuilt, and Kham Thien Street, turned into rubble in 1972 by giant B-52s, again teems with cyclists and pedestrians and youths who sing on corners. The "Hanoi Hilton," a former colonial prison where U.S. POWs were kept, has been razed to make way for a luxury high-rise development.

"For a long time, when I was still thinking about the war, I hated the Americans," says Le Van Chien, a government driver who lugged war supplies down the Ho Chi Minh Trail for five years and was wounded in one air raid. "But little by little, I got over those bad feelings. I have met many Americans who come to Hanoi now -- some of them have ridden in my car like you -- and they are here to help us and I consider them my friends."

Wary U.S. tourists and business people visiting Hanoi are often startled to be accepted here with genuine warmth. But the war may linger in the American psyche far more than it does in that of Vietnam, the world's 13th most populous nation with 75 million people, nearly half of whom weren't even born when Saigon fell to (or was liberated by, depending on one's point of view) Communist soldiers from the North in April 1975.

Wandering the street bazaars of Hanoi and hearing officials talk about the possibility of a Vietnam stock exchange, it is difficult to believe this is the country that in 1978 tried in effect to destroy capitalism. But that year, truckloads of soldiers and volunteers wearing red armbands descended on Ho Chi Minh City, searching houses and shops to inventory goods to be confiscated by the government. Two weeks later, the South's currency was abolished, wiping out the assets of the rich.

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