The War Nobody Won 16

The annual inflation rate in 1988 had skyrocketed to 800 percent, quadrupling the price of gasoline and tripling the cost of a bowl of pho, the national soup. Entrepreneurs were spurning the dong, the Vietnamese currency, whose value tumbled, and conducting their trans¬actions in gold, dollars and smuggled goods. Then the state banks abruptly increased interest rates, and people flocked to deposit their hid¬den cash. Inflation soon subsided, and the cost of borrowing dropped. The regime further eliminated the currency black market by devaluing the dong, whose rate in relation to the dollar had been fictitious. The following year, their fetters mostly removed, peasants produced a crop that made Vietnam the world’s third-largest rice exporter, after the United States and Thailand.
Nowhere did the attempt to stifle private enterprise misfire more abysmally than in Ho Chi Minh City, which as Saigon had been a com¬mercial hub from the early days of the French period to the peak of the American presence. At the height of the war, the town stunk of decay. Its bars were drug marts, its hotels bordellos, its boulevards a black mar¬ket hawking everything from rifles to hair spray—all pilfered from U.S. warehouses. Soldiers from Illinois and Georgia, black and white, their pockets bulging with cash, strolled streets crowded with prostitutes, beg¬gars, cripples and other war victims. South Vietnamese generals, en¬riched by silent Chinese partners, possessed gaudy villas not far from putrid slums packed with refugees, and officials and businessmen con¬nived continually, shuffling and reshuffling the seemingly endless gush of dollars. It was a city for sale—obsessed by greed, oblivious to its im¬pending doom.
Saigon held a special appeal for me. Vestiges of France’s lofty mission civilisatrice—Catholic churches, a replica of the Paris Opera and the best baguettes east of Suez—fused with the atmosphere of Asia in a uniquely alluring blend. That ambience was still perceptible after the war, though the Communists seemed to be intent on revamping the city. Besides re¬naming the town and closing its bars and brothels, they pinned national¬istic and revolutionary labels on its streets and buildings. An art deco masterpiece of French vintage, the Majestic Hotel, had become the Cuu Long, or Nine Dragons. The Hotel Caravelle, where the foreign press corps clustered during the war, was now the Doc Lap, or Independence. In 1959, the principal artery was called Rue Catinat, for one of Louis XIV’s marshals and a French ship baptized for him, which had partici¬pated in France’s seizure of Vietnam in the nineteenth century. During the early 1960s, the Diem regime dubbed it Tu Do, or Freedom, and the Communists again altered it, this time to Dong Khoi, or Uprising— but to everyone it remained Catinat.
But the Communists went beyond such cosmetic changes. Many pri¬vate entrepreneurs, shunted into labor camps for “capitalist activities” were released, however, when reformers appreciated their usefulness in the economic recovery. An example was Chun Hon, who had contin¬ued to run his bakery after the Communist takeover. He was arrested in 1978 and dug ditches for a year—until the authorities, recognizing the necessity for bread, freed him. They supplied him with flour, and his business prospered. By 1990, he owned seven small factories and planned to open Vietnam’s first supermarket.
By the mid-1990s, as the Communist controls eased, Ho Chi Minh City began to resemble—and even outstrip—the brash, brassy Saigon of yore. The sprawling metropolis of five million was emerging from a tor¬por, and pulsing with renewed vigor. The Vietnamese described the rhythm as song voi—or “fast tempo.” Skyscrapers were rising everywhere, casting shadows over the city’s lovely parks. The streets were an anarchy of cars, trucks, bicycles and, most of all, motor scooters piloted at breathtaking speed by teenagers in jeans, their miniskirted girlfriends clinging behind. Women were sadly forsaking the gossamer silk or cot¬ton ao dai, with its high-necked tunic and loose pantaloons, for snug slacks and sweatshirts bearing American university emblems. Billboards advertised Hewlett-Packard computers, Panasonic and Samsung elec¬tronic equipment. Shops overflowed with television sets, videocassette recorders, stereo systems, cameras, counterfeit Rolex and Piaget watches and garments flaunting such logos as Lacoste and Ralph Lauren, smug¬gled in by land from China or by sea from Thailand. Stalls were stacked with Salems, Marlboros, Johnny Walker,. Remy Martin and Heineken. Though the dong was the official currency, everyone from merchants to cab drivers requested dollars. Behind much of the traffic were the Chinese of Cholon—the mysterious Chinatown. Like the Jews of me¬dieval Europe, they had been persecuted by the Vietnamese for cen¬turies. Many fled, but those who stayed manipulated gold and money rates, and the regime depended on them for services ranging from trans¬acting import deals to supplying scarce parts for vehicles.
A worker or an office employee earning the equivalent of thirty dol¬lars a month could hardly afford to buy foreign cigarettes at a dollar a pack—much less spend two years’ salary on a television set. So the goods that flooded the city were largely confined to Vietnamese who received money from abroad, sold their valuables or had some occult source of income. Officials who jammed private restaurants, where the bill for dinner exceeded their weekly wage, were plainly on the take. The ad¬ministrators at her hospital, Dr. Duong Quynh Hua told me, padded payrolls, accepted kickbacks from suppliers, and looted pharmaceuticals for sale on the black market. The wives of Communist generals regu¬larly flew from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City aboard military planes to buy up antiques, jewelry and other heirlooms from formerly rich fami¬lies who survived by selling their possessions cheaply. I pointed out that the abuse of rank reminded me of Saigon during the war, when the wives of South Vietnamese generals speculated in real estate, gold, im¬port licenses and other ventures. “Exactly,” Dr. Hoa replied. “This is still very much a feudal society, whatever its ideological veneer.”
Party officials who would have once branded tennis as decadent played at the Cercle Sportif, the old French club, now disguised as a recreation center for workers. The racetrack was going strong, with the regime earning revenues by taxing bets. Even quintessentially bourgeois golf had been blessed. A half dozen courses were functioning throughout the country, one in the “iron triangle,” a former Vietcong base ten miles north of Saigon. It was mainly designed for foreign businessmen and cost twenty thousand dollars or more to join—a fee waived for Communist bigwigs.

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