By Bernadette Moloney
Vietnam is cautiously removing administrative controls over its economy. BERNADETTE MOLONEY describes impressions of a recent visit.
TG682 from Bangkok to Hanoi was full of former refugees from Canada and the US returning to Vietnam for Tet. Another flight from Germany choked the baggage retrieval for over an hour ... as many TVs, videos and stereos as suitcases had to go through one x-ray machine. "These people want to help their families", a waiting guide explained.
Fifteen years of Soviet-assisted reconstruction have not lifted Vietnam from among the world's poorest nations.
Crises in 1985 and 1988 contributed to a liberalisation of the centralised economy. Moscow's renegotiation of bilateral trade agreements provided further impetus.
Thai newspapers in December and January ran almost daily reports of proposals for joint projects in fisheries, oil and gas exploration, financial services. Now blue and white posters in the foyer of the Cuban-built Thang Loi Hotel reiterated that message.
A spokesperson for the State Committee for Cooperation and Investment in Ho Chi Minh City, organising a business forum, confirmed that more than 300 people were to attend, mostly from Asian countries, including Taiwan and Japan. But US businessmen were also among the participants — investigating possibilities in anticipation of Washington's removal of the trade embargo. The forum was held in the Saigon Floating Hotel, operated by the Australian South Pacific Hotel Corporation, rather than in one of the city's comfortable state-owned hotels.
Out on Highway One — the connecting route between Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City — you immediately appreciate the lack of infrastructure that is allegedly keeping business people sceptical about the prospects for trade in Vietnam.
But now the occasional cars and trucks have to weave their way past laden cyclists; farmers drying rice or shrimps at the roadside; seas of women in pointed hats selling vegetables in the villages. Will the investors provide cycle lanes? How many farmers, as in Thailand, will lose their land as the highways are improved?
The vice-president of Da Tan commune, just outside Hanoi, boasts of their 500 motorcycles, every other house having a TV — signs of wealth in Vietnam. Now Da Tan leases the rice fields and orange orchard to commune families instead of farming them
The commune still provides a certain amount of seeds, technical advice and services like water, free. Families are assisted to develop integrated farming — rearing pigs, growing vegetable gardens, building fish ponds — to diversify production. The Women's Union encourages women selling produce in the market to form collectives to resist exploitation by middle men.
The commune also provides creches in each of the villages for children from three to 36 months, kindergartens for the 3-to-6-year-olds and housing for lone elderly people and orphans.
Vietnam is one of the few countries whose constitution address inequalities between men and women. Women workers now get six months' paid pregnancy leave; they can even leave two hours earlier on the first two days of menstruation. (Though the Labour Department representative became confused in his efforts to explain why women were still often paid less than men.)
Vietnam's minimum wage is already being questioned, however, in the proposed plans for a free trade zone on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City. As privatisation takes hold here, what else will have to go?
Describing the introduction of the market economy, a woman in Phu Nhuan says, "It was literally walls coming down". Across the street, in the front room of one of the newly built army houses, young men play pool for a small fee from 7.30 in the morning. Next door, a woman cooks noodles for breakfast, another sells cigarettes and soft drinks.
Even the streets of Hanoi were thronged with women selling small amounts of vegetables, meat or other household goods. Open-fronted shops sell imported Thai denims or parts for motorbikes; videos to rent are everywhere.
But the impact of market forces can be harsh. As the government cuts back on expenditure, collectives like the Ho Guom Tailors in Hanoi find themselves unable to compete. They earn more selling sweets from a stand in front of the workshop, one of the workers says. A Vietnam Tourism guide elaborates: if she loses her job, she also loses her home. And accommodation is expensive in towns.
Gifts and money from overseas Vietnamese are regulated by the government now rather than restricted or forbidden. Out in the countryside, the new tiled brick houses interspersed through traditional coconut-leaf thatch are ascribed to the same source. Even families which appear to be doing well — selling imported shoes in Ho Chi Minh City's market, for instance — depend on overseas assistance.
Having even one relative abroad provides the opportunity for others
to follow. Very few — like the man who repaired typewriters and was imprisoned for being in the South Vietnamese army in his youth — if offered orderly departure, would refuse to go. But wasn't there the possibility that things would now improve, I asked repeatedly. Maybe. But too slowly. They knew they could earn twice as much in the US or Australia. They couldn't go on depending on their relatives forever.
The problems are enormous — not only internally, reducing the bureaucracy and army — but also with the return of thousands of workers from Eastern Europe and Iraq, not to mention refugees in camps in Thailand, Malaysia, and Hong Kong whose repatriation is bound up with those countries' and EC investment proposals.
One of the ironies is to see that small, white, sandy beach at the centre of the wide arc of Danang Bay, where the US troops first landed — how stunningly beautiful it is. At what cost this time, an economic invasion of Vietnam?