All countries have contradictions; countries that have been the subject of centuries of colonization and invasion are even more subject to confusions of identity and values. Please take this blog post in the spirit of what I noticed and what surprised me, not as a judgment on the country I found so welcoming (and where I am aware that I barely scratched the surface of the culture).
Everywhere we went in Vietnam (Hanoi, Da Nang, Hue, the Central Mekong Delta, and Saigon), we saw these two flags: the flag of the country on the left, and the hammer and sickle of the Vietnamese Communist Party on the right.
“Communist country” covers a range of expectations — but my jaw nearly hit the floor when our guide, the son of a North Vietnamese Army soldier, said that the country has no health insurance. He and his wife have employer-paid health insurance, but the government provides none. “If a farmer gets sick, he might have to sell his water buffalo.” This is, of course, tantamount to selling his livelihood. I had no conception of Communism that doesn’t include basic human needs being met by the state.
A couple of days later, at the Museum of Cham Sculpture in Da Nang, the same guide told us that the Cham people (a Muslim ethnic group which has largely migrated out of Vietnam to Cambodia and elsewhere) do have government-paid health care. On further questioning, it turns out that the Cham people put up a significant enough protest to get some basic care. It seems to me that this must create some contemporary inter-ethnic resentment, beyond the centuries-old conflicts, but the guide didn’t want to talk about that. He’s a tourist guide, it’s his job to tell the truth but not dwell on the rougher aspects.
On the whole, the Vietnamese seem fairly prosperous, and very committed to what they call “the free market,” because they can’t call it capitalism in an officially Communist country. Vietnam was united as an independent country in 1975, and until 1991 received a good deal of support and subsidy from the Soviet Union. When the Soviet Union fell and the support evaporated, Communist values like basic income, health care, and real equality for women seem to have disappeared as well. “We are ashamed of Cuba,” said our guide cheerfully when asked, apparently because Cuba offers too much to its citizens for free, and therefore doesn’t encourage a work ethic.
I wrote from Vietnam about the expectations placed on women in the country today, and the stark contrast between the all-too-familiar 21st century “do it all” role of hold a job, and care for the children (and care for the husband’s parents, and the house, and the external religious life of the household). Ho Chi Minh, who fought for (some) gender equality in his army, would have called for similar equality in home responsibilities — but then, he also wanted to be cremated. Instead, his embalmed body is on display in central Hanoi, and respectful visitors (tourists and Vietnamese citizens) file past it every day, instructed not to wear shorts or flip-flops. I wonder whether Ho’s reaction would be laughter, sadness, or both combined.
The Vietnamese are hard-core gamblers; famous worldwide for their love of the tables. Gambling is (almost) illegal in Vietnam, however. Foreign countries have established casinos on the beautiful beaches near some of the big cities–and only people with foreign passports can play. Like the health care of the Cham people, this inevitably must cause resentment, especially if locals work in the casinos, which seems inevitable.
Vietnam is a beautiful, friendly place, where most of the children you see on the streets seem well-fed and happy, where the flowers abound especially before the Tet (New Year’s) festival, when all businesses stop and virtually everyone connects with their family and local community. Oh, and during the five days of Tet, the ban on gambling is lifted.
I am excruciatingly aware of what a comparable post by a Vietnamese person visiting the U.S. might say about my country. Today on the bus in Oakland, it struck me that I saw no tent encampments by the side of the streets of any Vietnamese city. If anyone knows any more about Vietnamese culture and can deepen any of this, please let me know in the comments.