Vietnam... Cautious Openness and Promising Prosperity

Vietnam... Cautious Openness and Promising Prosperity

In the land of legendary steadfastness we saw three ages engaged in the battle for survival: The bloody past with its glories and national dignity in the struggle against superpowers; the present, which is divided between loyalty to the Socialist era and the spirit of the times; and the future which borders on the threshold of the laws of inevitable change.

From there, the last stronghold of the hammer and sickle, we explore chapters of the struggle of ages in Vietnam, the land of war, patience and Ho Chi Minh.

We won,t start where we ended or from conclusions and assumptions, but before we go into detail about the current situation in Vietnam, let,s review certain facts. Since 1986, just ten years after the reunification of the North and South, this Communist Asian state has adopted a policy of reform similar to the one introduced by Gorbachev in the former Soviet Union, but the former policy has been a success, whereas the latter was a failure and brought about the fall of Communism in its entirely.

Like the Chinese model, the Vietnamese policy of reform has been economic in the first place. The Communist party has continued to hold the reins of political power and adopted an open-door policy. Decision-makers were aware of an extremely important matter: Food security for the people who would suffer from the absence of the State. They adopted an agrarian reform policy allowing farmers to own and manage their own land freely, a policy which proved very successful by all standards, making Vietnam the world,s second largest exporter of rice, which it used to import in the past. In this way, doors were closed to the possible evils of the policy of openness.

Hanoi widened the scope of its open-door policy to cover diplomacy and regional and international relations. It established diplomatic relations with over 160 countries around the world, particularly old enemies with whom commercial agreements were signed. Two American presidents visited Vietnam during the last ten years. It is keen to host the ASEAN meetings. There is no siege, boycott or a nuclear programme at the expense of the people,s welfare.

Hanoi, a rural capital

The middle point between the beginning and end of our journey was Bangkok, from which we travelled to Hanoi,s international airport, which has been equipped to cater for this new stage in Vietnam,s history: Modern, clean and well organized. We took a taxi which drove off at a breakneck speed to old Hanoi, where we preferred to stay to be in close touch with people and their real life. On the paved road with extensive paddy fields on both sides the car bumped a little over some holes... grassy fields and workers wearing leather boots and three sided caps wading into the shallow water in the paddy fields. I looked through the car window to see everything around us. I tried to make the first international call on my mobile but to no avail. That was the first weakness I spotted in Vietnam, for without an elaborate communications network, businessmen can,t do business rapidly enough. But the moment I entered my modest hotel I knew that a free cordless, high-speed. Internet service ws available not only in Hanoi but also in Ho Chi Minh City which we travelled to later.

In Hanoi I felt as if we had still been in the countryside which spread all over the city Paddy fields, and vegetables and fruit sold on wooden carts and carried on sellers, shoulders everywhere in the city, and an active cock which received me warmly at the hotel entrance and kept moving between my feet. I didn,t know whether it wanted to welcome me or drive me away from its sphere of influence.

Motorcycles, an impending danger

I wasn,t aware of the danger of motorcycles until we reached the city. I first noticed that car drivers found difficulty in moving among a huge number of motorcycles with some reckless cyclists climbing on pavements! These motorcycles are a real problem and the cause of constant terror. Our companion on the river cruise told us that motorcycles cost not more than $300 each and were payable by instalment. That,s why three million people in Hanoi alone owned private motorcycles, easing traffic congestion in the main cities. I wonder how these cyclists find parks. I saw that anyone who owned enough space hired it for a few dongs (Vietnamese currency). Interestingly, a fast food restaurant owner hired part of the customer area in front of the cash register.

Hanoi... history, culture and beauty

Exploring a city like Hanoi by car took many days, but the most enjoyable tour was on foot, like the one round Han Kim, a large lake a 20-minute walk from the hotel, called the Green Lake because of its breathtaking beauty and green all year round. It formed part of the Red River in the past but was turned into a lake following geographical transformations over the ages. Today it has become a popular destination for joggers in the early morning and an ideal place where newlyweds in wedding clothes are photographed. The 18th-century Tugok Temple lies on a small island in the lake and is accessed across a short, bent wooden bridge.

Next, we visited one of Hanoi,s oldest landmarks, which is as old as this 1000-year city-the Institute of Literature, which is regarded here as the oldest university in Vietnam, built in 1070. It first served as a Confucian temple and a school for the children of the nobility and senior officials, and was later open to the general public. This university was known for the difficulty of the study of medicine there and therefore only a very few students completed their medical studies. This old university stands on a flat piece of land with gardens on both sides of its entrance area which leads to a gate behind which the first group of classrooms and several places of worship are found.

The exhibits in the Archaeological Museum outline Vietnam,s ancient and modern history, different nationalities and fifty ethnic groups and their lifestyles in mountains, fields and cities. Samples of houses, traditional clothes, tools and old documents are also displayed.

Having passed through crowds of tourists and school-children who were leading to the mausoleum of the late Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh, whose body is still preserved in a glass coffin, we went to his museum which houses all his available pictures, belongings and relevant film clips. This leader (1890-1969) is loved and admired by all the people of Vietnam. He came from a poor family, fought against the French until they were defeated, succeeded in establishing the Republic of North Vietnam, from which he waged a war for the reunification of the country, but he died before his dream came true.

On our way out of old Hanoi we stopped by Al-Noor Mosque, the only one in Hanoi, which, unfortunately, was empty, but we took some pictures inside it. Outside Hanoi we saw the new part of he city, which is still under construction, near the Conference Centre, which looks like a part of Paris.

The floating marionette theatre

From the depths of the sad history of Vietnam, and from among the paddy fields and lakes which cover most of Vietnam, the art of floating marionettes was created by simple villagers from their environment to be a sort of entertainment for themselves and their children after the harvest in the Red River delta. This art has over the ages become a folkloric one representing Vietnam,s cultural identity, mixed with comic stories and cultural heritage.

One Hanoi relatively cool evening we sent to the marionette theatre on Han Kim Lake, which was fully booked, reflecting its popularity with the old and the young alike; only a few children were among the audience. Fortunately, we were seated in the middle of the theatre and in front of us was a 4mX4m water basin with small military ships floating on the surface.

The performance began with music and song by a group who sat on the left. We didn,t understand the sweet songs in Vietnamese, of course, but the rhythm made us emotionally involved. With the gurgle of the first floating puppet, the group became narrators and actors, with a brief explanation in English. The floating marionette theatre is a unique art. Puppets are moved by long bamboo sticks from under the water, and the operators stand behind a curtain and are only seen after the performance to greet the audience. The puppets are made of thin wood and painted in bright colours, then covered with clothes appropriate to the story presented.

Many colonists and successive tragedies

Vietnam, s wealth-crude oil, coffee, rubber, rice, tea and clothes exposed Vietnam to external dangers and invited old and neocolonialism. The inhabitants of Indochina came from the mountains and plains of Asia Minor and the southern part of China and Indochina forming the eastern part of a long peninsula up to the South East River. The region contains three countries today: Vietnam, Cambodia and Laos. The Viet nationality is the biggest in Vietnam, and its members came from the coastal plains of southern China and formed independent entities in the Red River delta in the north. These entities were untied in the third century BC in Nam Viet Kingdom, and in 111 BC the Chinese Han Empire captured the region which remained under their control for a thousand years, In 939 the Vietnamese attained independence from China after many revolts and established great Viet , but it continued to pay an annual tribute to China in return for peace. In the modern times the Vietnamese started a new journey of agony with French colonialism.

France,s gold egg

The missionary work aimed at converting the Vietnamese to Catholicism marked the early beginnings of French colonialism, but the murder of some missionaries led Emperor Napoleon III to wage a campaign under the guise of revenge, but its real motive was revealed when the Vietnamese were forced to surrender a vast territory in the south, in addition to Hi Tonkin in the north and Anam in the centre in the period 1874-1884, but the colonies were administered from Hanoi.

Vietnam remained under French rule until France,s defeat by Hitler and surrender on 22 June 1940. The Japanese replaced the French for a brief period, but the French came back soon after Japan,s defeat, which caused the Vietnamese to launch an all-out war which lasted for eight years (1946-1954) during which Ho Chi Minh played a key role and earned unrivalled reputation. He declared an independent Republic of Vietnam and began a heroic struggle against the French who lost control of the rural areas which make up the majority of Vietnam,s land. They used major cities as their strongholds and suffered successive defeats, the most crushing of which was in the battle of Dien Bien Phu on 8 May 1954, two months after which a ceasefire agreement brokered by high-level international bodies was signed in Geneva. The agreement caused division and new suffering as it partitioned the country and entered a new player into the divided territory-the USA.

Revenues from French investments in Indochina came in second place after Algeria, amounting to about nine million gold francs in 1940. They held a monopoly on everything, even drug trafficking and exploited Vietnam,s products tea, coffee, coal, rice and pepper, and the French tyre Michelin industry was based on Vietnamese rubber. France enjoyed a period of prosperity and economic boom which ended with the global depression crisis at the end of the 1920s.

Strike was the first weapon used by the Vietnam in their resistance to French presence, particularly in view of the fact that they worked as slaves under very harsh conditions. A Parisian newspaper reporter described these conditions as she accompanied the then French Colonial Minister Paul Raymond. They work from the early hours of the morning after an exhausted sleep because of insect bites and dormitories which look like animal barns. During their working hours they are not allowed to contact their relatives. Their food is a small bowl of rice as if they were on a long fast. They look miserable and old for their age, and all they want is to return to their villages with a small amount of money, but on the contrary, they return totally broken to die there from malaria and skin disease. They also returned indebted to the French who deducted the cost of food and penalties for mistakes from their meagre pay, she wrote.

Civil War

The pro-American government of South Vietnam didn,t sign the Geneva agreement, and that triggered fighting which escalated into a full-scale civil war, during which American financial aid and military advice showered on Saigon, and the first American forces arrived in early 1955. In an attempt to avert the civil war an initiative for the reunification of Vietnam was rejected by the South on the pretext that the north didn,t enjoy any freedom. Increasing border clashes paved the way for a new bloody war against a world superpower causing a massive loss of life with three million Vietnamese killed. The war culminated in the North,s domination of the South and defeat of the American forces and their evacuation from Saigon.

Saigon-Ho Chi Minh City

For the duration of our stay in Hanoi there was no rain at all, but as we were leaving it and on our way to the airport it rained heavily for two hours. I didn,t like that it because it is an inland city and I am a sea lover.

The different weather was he first thing we noticed as we were going out of Ho Chi Minh airport, from Hanoi,s moderate, relatively cool weather to hot, damp equatorial weather, a temperature of 25-309ْ C in Ho Chi Minh; it is a really east Asian city.

I was careful not to say "Saigon" thinking that using this name would offend those Vietnamese whom I met, but I soon found out that I was wrong. That name existed before South Vietnam was established and it could continue, but it was replaced with a better name, that of the Vietnamese leader.

A comparison between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City will be unfair to both; the latter excels the former in everything. Ho Chi Minh City is bustling with life, its streets, buildings and restaurants have a French-like character. It has good infrastructure and is widely expected to boost Vietnam,s economy, particularly in view of its unique geographical position. The adjacent Saigon River is deep enough to receive ships coming from or going to the sea.

Arab diplomatic representation in Ho Chi Minh City is limited to a consulate of the State of Kuwait. This demonstrates the need for an economic vision to gain a foothold in that promising region. Kuwait has investments of $2 bn in eight large projects, mainly a petrochemical refinery.

The Gucci Agreement, a Vietnamese invention

During the war with the Americans, the Vietnamese, or Viet Cong, devised a guerrilla war launched form deep tunnels in the damp jungles. The tunnels were furnished with the necessary means of survival and were used as stores for weapons and food and for medical treatment. They prolonged the war and demoralized the American soldiers. Thin fighters would emerge out of small camouflaged openings like worms and shoot the American soldiers, then disappear as if they were ghosts. The American forces tried in vain to block these countless tunnels, dropping tons of explosives on them, and set up special forces to destroy them from the inside, but to no avail either. Today 121-km long tunnels are still there as a tourist attraction, a legacy of that bloody war. These tunnels did not cause the only difficulty of fighting in Vietnam,s jungles, as harsh physical conditions and traps were most likely to destroy the morale of even the most relentless fighters, especially as they were engaged in an unavailing war which was irrelevant to them as well. We went through a two-hour exciting experience in a jungle treading on the famous Gucci tunnels and saw how rodents pierced the thickest clothes to suck blood.

The third and most serious difficulty were booby traps, some of which were hidden in the ground or fixed to pointed bamboo sticks. Others fell to the ground and penetrated the chest, and if the victim escaped then a smaller trap would destroy his abdomen. Finally, the Vietnamese devised shoes on whose soles they put false signs to mislead pathfinders who were killed instead of the Viet Cong.

Romance at first

We went on a river cruise filled with dreams, fascination and the beauty of nature to a small village called Shwa Hiung, 70 km from Hanoi in the Hai Tai region. The village has a special religious significance, as with its temples and shrines it is a sacred place to Buddhists, who go on annual pilgrimage there in hundreds of thousands in February and March, and many marriage ceremonies are performed there by way of blessing and hope of a happy married life.

We woke up at 6 a.m. and had breakfast in a hurry because a long journey awaited us. We all packed together into a small bus which travelled for one hour among paddy fields until we reached the outskirts of a small village where hundreds of small metal boats are hired. We stopped for a while during which I saw women selling strange things: banknotes of small denominations in exchange for a small amount of money. The job was created in reaction to the problem of the astronomical figures millions and half millions of dongs, which is an obstacle to the trade transactions and even cash sacrifices.

It was fine with mild sunshine. The tour conductor bargained with boat owners for the best price for a round trip, then the thirteen of us got on the boat, including two women who did the rowing job at the front and rear. It is worth noting here that Vietnamese women are engaged in all kinds of jobs, however demanding or hazardous they may be. A Colombian passenger who sat in front of me complained to the tour conductor about the lack of life jackets, but he stopped suddenly when his female Singaporean companion gave him a light kiss and promised to rescue him in case we sank into the water. The cruise covered a distance of three kilometres passing by similar boats, but others were engine powered, which we knew later that using them meant doing without oars and consequently the loss of extra income for many families.

At last we reached Shwra Hiung after an uncomfortable journey which took a full hour. Like all religious sites which attract thousands of people, business mingled with worship thoroughly, for in that remote place visitors need food, beverages, comfort and sacrifices to the goods, such as flowers, incense, animals and even soft drinks. All these items were available all along the complex of Buddhist temples.

The coming generation will be better

Over twenty years have passed since the open-door policy was adopted during which Vietnam realized its mission for the future. As Lee Dang Dwan, Chief Economic Advisor to the Ministry of Planning and Investment and Economic advisor to the Vietnamese Communist party in the late 1980s, told us, the Vietnamese people were more aware of the importance of business and employment in the private sector and that the younger generation enjoyed more freedom and openness, but hadn,t established liberal and democratic values yet, hoping the coming generation would be better. He pointed out that farmers, ownership of their land and sharing the income with the State helped the government devote its energy to commercial activities, encourage the private sector, liberalize business and diversify investments. Vietnam sought to bridge the economic gap separating it from the countries which suffered as a result of the global financial crisis.

Everything for sale as a souvenir

Despite the profound transformations which Vietnam has undergone, we believe that was just the beginning and further transformations are on the way. The Stalinist firm hold on power is still there, but has become gentler, and the weaknesses of the huge bureaucratic government machine are still a problem. In addition, the price of the peaceful shift to the market economy must be paid in full sooner or later.

I still remember the antiques and souvenir shop near our hotel in Hanoi whose speciality were remnants of the Socialist era, such as medals, suits and flags of the former Soviet Union. I kept on saying to my companion: "Oly Allah is the Everlasting."


Ibrahim Al-Mulaifi


A panoramic view of bustling Ho Chi Minh City, with great business activity and infrastructure. It is widely expected to boost Vietnam,s economy greatly

A Vietnamese girl in a Hanoi street selling farm produce. Farmers now share the handsome profits with the State, which was formerly the exclusive owner of he land

The agrarian revolution made Vietnam the world,s second largest exporter of rice. A farmer sprays a pesticide to protect his produce of rice

Three million motorcycles travel down Hanoi,s streets from the early morning to sunset daily. Cyclists try to find suitable parks to avoid traffic congestion and pollution

Three million motorcycles travel down Hanoi,s streets from the early morning to sunset daily. Cyclists try to find suitable parks to avoid traffic congestion and pollution

The influence of Western culture is clear on the faces of these two students at the oldest university in Vietnam

French-style 800-seat Opera house in Ho Chi Minh city, a remnant of the French colonial era

Tourists and students never stop visiting the mausoleum of the Vietnamese leader Ho Chi Minh where his body is preserved in a glass coffin

Economic expert Lee Dang Dwan

The Muslims Mosque in Ho Chi Minh City

The inside of Al-Noor Mosque, the only one in the capital Hanoi

The entrance is Ho Chi Minh museum, which houses all his available pictures and belongings and relevant film clips

A newly-wed couple start their married life pictured near Han Kim Lake, one of Hanoi,s significant landmarks

Rex Hotel in central Ho Chi Minh City, internationally famous during the war with America as it was the accommodation of the foreign journalists who covered the war

Ho Chi Minh Municipality, built by the French in the early 1900s

A popular market bustling with life in Ho Chi Minh City where all local products are sold at reasonable prices for limited-income

Many visitors to Shwra Hiung Village spend a pleasant time among the mountains, rivers and woods in addition to religious practices, as the visit time is long and beautiful places are many

The charge d,affaires at the Kuwaiti consulate in Ho Chi Minh City receives a bouquet of flowers in recognition of State of Kuwait,s sponsorship of the creative works of disabled students

French building style is dominant in many parts of Ho Chi Minh City, particularly as far as road engineering is concerned

An exhibition held on the fringes of a celebration in honour of the sponsors of a school for the disabled, one of which was the Kuwaiti consulate in Ho Chi Minh City

These objects, particularly incense burners associated with supplications, are found in every Buddhist temple. This collection is kept in the Archaeological Museum

Samples of the exhibits at the Archaeological Museum which outline the old and modern history of Vietnam and all Vietnamese nationalities and their lifestyles in mountains, fields and towns, with examples of traditional clothes and tools

Samples of the exhibits at the Archaeological Museum which outline the old and modern history of Vietnam and all Vietnamese nationalities and their lifestyles in mountains, fields and towns, with examples of traditional clothes and tools

Samples of the exhibits at the Archaeological Museum which outline the old and modern history of Vietnam and all Vietnamese nationalities and their lifestyles in mountains, fields and towns, with examples of traditional clothes and tools

Samples of the exhibits at the Archaeological Museum which outline the old and modern history of Vietnam and all Vietnamese nationalities and their lifestyles in mountains, fields and towns, with examples of traditional clothes and tools

A statue of the leader Ho Chi Minh leading Vietnamese soldiers in the war of liberation

Pointed bamboo sticks under a hole waiting for victims

Like a worm emerging out of a camouflaged opening leading to a chain of tunnels. A demonstration of the body traps which the resistance used against the American forces in Gucci jungles

A Vietnamese music group performing to the accompaniment of a floating marnionette theatre scene

Two musicians performing pieces of Vietnamese heritage in Ho Chi Minh City

Two musicians performing pieces of Vietnamese heritage in Ho Chi Minh City

The unique Vietnamese art of floating marnionette theatre. Puppets are moved by long bamboo sticks from under the water, and the operators sand behind a curtain and are only seen after the performance

The unique Vietnamese art of floating marnionette theatre. Puppets are moved by long bamboo sticks from under the water, and the operators sand behind a curtain and are only seen after the performance

This and the opposite photo show tourists and pilgrims on their way to Shwa Hiung Village on a river trip from the early morning to sunset using rowing boats

Remnants of the Communist era which were sacred in the paste are just souvenirs today sold in this shop along with flags of the former Soviet Union and old banknotes and coins

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