By Shastri Ramachandran*
Transitions are easy to recognise, difficult to define and describe. Vietnam’s transition is no different: easily experienced by the visitor but hard to express adequately in words.
New Vietnam is most visible at the historical sites of Old Vietnam, such as the Ho Chi Minh complex in Hanoi and the Cu Chi Tunnel complex, 70 kms northwest of Ho Chi Minh City.
The flow of tourists to these places has not ebbed. To the contrary, with more tourists, the queue of people to see the revolutionary leader’s body in the Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum is getting longer. Similarly, there is a swell in the number of visitors thronging Cu Chi, the 250-km web of narrow, twisted underground tunnels used by the Resistances as passages to liberation from French and American occupation.
The difference is that in Old Vietnam, those visiting these sites were political pilgrims. And, they were moved by one of the 20th century’s most extraordinary revolutions, the effects of which reverberated across the world: made people in the occupying countries rise against their own governments with protests stretching from America across Europe to Australia; and, triggered the upheavals of 1968 with a plethora of consequences including the students’ revolts in the U.S. and Europe, the resistance to military service, the emergence of the hippies, the peace movement and peaceniks, a radically different articulation of cultural politics, and new genres in music, arts, literature and films.
Going to the Ho Chi Minh Complex brought forth these memories; it meant reflecting on that watershed in history when the meek in Vietnam inherited the earth as well as newspaper headlines to be hailed as Heroic and Unconquerable. A visit to the site meant a mission to pay tribute, to recognise a people’s war, celebrate its triumph against U.S. and French imperialism’s dirtiest wars and remind oneself of the lessons of history.
In Old Vietnam, the Cu Chi tunnels stirred a sense of awe: at the spectacular feat of a peace-loving, small-built, unarmed people’s resistance that defeated the mighty U.S. army’s bombs, tanks and weapons including chemical and biological horrors. Old Vietnam is the memory of Agent Orange and napalm pitted against the forgetting that New Vietnam favours.
New Vietnam is in the time of the selfie, where arrival is signified by the photo and photo-ops. These sites of history are today settings for selfies, a stage for vanity and mere ‘background scene’ for a photo.
There is scant regard for the sanctity of history and the sacrifice of a people among the tourists who stand atop captured U.S. jeeps and tanks for that selfie to be posted on Facebook; the Cu Chi Tunnel Complex is more of an amusement park where visitors mimic and parody the acts that made the difference between life and death to thousands of Vietnamese revolutionaries.
The Ho Chi Minh sandal is just another mass-produced memento for sale to the acquisitive tourist. The memorabilia industry is flourishing with tourists coming in droves to the land of the Temple of Literature and Ho Chi Minh Complex where history, tradition and the revolutionary are fast losing to the market that wants Vietnam to achieve the status of “the go-to place for business and leisure travellers”.
In fact, any recall of Vietnam’s historic struggle is brushed away by its officials with the stock phrase “But you are talking of Old Vietnam. We want to focus on New Vietnam. We want to draw the world’s attention to the New Vietnam that has attractions galore for every type of tourist.” It goes without saying that there is no climate for socialism of the Vietnamese kind in the globalised economy of today’s world. Only that which sells is sustainable. Thus, Vietnam, too, inevitably has to shed its old avatar and rise anew.
Heart breaking as the transition may be, the passage from the Old to the New is unstoppable. There can be no clinging to the past, no going back. In time, history fades from memory, new forces rise and new interests dictate the direction of an economy premised on present-day needs and wants where tradition and culture have little value unless they can be marketed and monetised in the consumer-driven world. And, Vietnam has to adapt. New Vietnam is doing precisely that.
For that reason, it is no less attractive. New Vietnam is opening up to the world like never before. And, the world is discovering the wonders, the beauty and the joys of a captivating landscape: rich in scenic beauty with lakes, rivers, forests, valleys, mountains, bays, beaches, old towns, enjoyable festivals, traditional villages with colourful ethnic cultures and a variety of cuisines, feeding on which is certain to make the appetite grow.
Vietnam offers great diversity for the tourist: from sea and island, cuisine and cruise, heritage and village tourism to adventure, sport, agriculture and ecological tourism. There is no dearth of choices and possibilities.
If Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam’s richest and most attractive, has a range of diversions and distractions for the urban pleasure seeker, from dance and music bars to water shows, theatre, cafes, cuisine and street food, capital Hanoi still carries a rustic charm, and street scenes are not very different from what one sees in Darya Ganj or Chandni Chowk. The best way to see Hanoi and get a feel of it is to take a cycle-rickshaw or scooter, unless one chooses to walk.
Tradition is not a casualty in the transition from Old to New, which also signifies Vietnam moving up from a less developed country to one of the fastest developing economies in the region.
Although, along with Laos and Cambodia, it belongs to the poorer of bloc in ASEAN, Vietnam is growing. Poverty is declining, standard of living and quality of life is improving. State-supported welfare measures are not expanding, also because today people have to find employment and opportunities in the private sector.
Foreign capital flows and investment are increasing, and industry and business are thriving. The economic upswing has been robust in the past 10 years. There is a vibrant transformation underway. Vietnam’s projection as a must-go destination for tourists of all types and classes is, perhaps, the most conspicuous facet of the change sweeping this beautiful land that unfailingly casts a spell over the visitor.
*Shastri Ramachandran is an independent journalist writing on politics and foreign affairs. He was recently in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on the invitation of the Vietnam National Administration of Tourism. This article first appeared in The Citizen, and is being reproduced with the author’s permission.