I just returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam. It is a country I wanted to learn more about. Names of cities like Da Nang and Hue were familiar, but only because – as someone who grew up in the 1970s – they were on the nightly news as part of the reporting on the Vietnam War.
I expected to see some remnants of the war, but there were almost none. In the 47 years since that conflict ended, Vietnam has transformed from suffering under oppressive communist rule to a bastion of free market capitalism.
How it got there is remarkable. Vietnam traces its history back roughly 3,000 years. It has never had a 100-year conflict-free period. It has fought various invaders: the Chinese, French, and most recently Americans.
Following the withdrawal of American forces in 1973, the country was reunified in 1975. An authoritarian, Stalinist regime took power. Many of its citizens, particularly those who sympathized with the Americans, were given long sentences in “reeducation” camps – prisons with primitive conditions. Others fled the country in an exodus known as the “boat people.” Of the 800,000 Vietnamese who fled, nearly half perished at sea.
The communist government nationalized agriculture and industry. In a tragic move, it executed thousands of landowners to distribute farms to the workers.
Farmers worked for the state and had little incentive to produce more than was necessary to satisfy their immediate needs. This led to severe underproduction. A shortage of rice developed, and diets were supplemented with noodles produced from Russian-made flour. According to our tour guide, Yang, those noodles were largely inedible.
The turning point came in 1986, when Nguyen Van Linh was appointed general secretary of the party, overseeing economic policy. Linh had been the mayor of Saigon, where he had experimented with free market policies. Linh quickly liberalized the economy, first by giving landowners and farmers ownership of their properties. No longer subject to communist constraints, rice production soared. This was timely, since the collapse of the Soviet Union in 1989 ended the Russian subsidies upon which the Vietnamese had become dependent.
Starting in the late 1980s, Vietnam’s economy grew at 7% or more and poverty declined rapidly. The U.S. lifted its trade embargo in 1994 and a series of trade agreements between the countries followed.
Vietnam today is one of the fastest developing economies in Southeast Asia. It is a major producer of rice, rubber and oil, and benefits from a large tourism industry. It sill has a one-party, communist government. But that is distinct from the position of general secretary, who controls and maintains its free market economic policy.
Traveling around the country, the ubiquitous motor bikes are the first things you notice, which seem to outnumber cars by about 20-to-one. This is the primary mode of travel for the Vietnamese, and it was common to see families of four riding on a single bike, often without helmets. Traffic patterns are haphazard, with motor bikes sometimes driving on the wrong side of the road. Crossing the street means weaving through the onflow of motorbikes, hoping they have the skill to avoid hitting you.
Colorful outdoor markets are everywhere, with vendors selling produce – meat, fish, vegetables, fruit and even insects – as well as clothing and household goods. Often an individual sells only one type of produce – a fruit or a vegetable.
I expected the food to be exceptional, and it was. Meals typically included summer rolls, with proteins and vegetables wrapped in rice paper. We had pho – soup with protein and noodles – and various dishes with rice or noodles. Dessert usually consisted of a fruit salad, which should mean the Vietnamese are healthier than their American counterparts. Our hotels were exceptional – on a par with a four- or five-star American chain – and offered a sumptuous buffet for breakfast.
The communist political party seemed to have some influence on our trip. I suspect it was not coincidental that the first place we were taken to see was Ho Chi Minh’s mausoleum, and the last stop was the Viet Cong tunnels outside of Saigon, at Cu Chi. Those stops suggested a reverence for the communist government and its triumph in the Vietnam War. But, unlike my visit to Cuba nine years ago, we were not exposed to anti-American propaganda. Indeed, Cu Chi was organized in a playful manner, where we could take turns climbing through the tunnels once used to ambush U.S. troops. That was regrettable, considering the many on both sides of the conflict who lost their lives there, sometimes victims of lethal booby traps.
The overriding story of Vietnam is the triumph of free markets over communism. That could not have happened without the bold leadership of Linh, who is the second most revered person in the country’s history (after Ho Chi Minh).
But economic transformation alone was not enough for Vietnam to achieve the success it has. It required its citizens to forgive its former enemies, and that spirit of forgiveness seems to be built into its culture. We were told a story about the Vietnamese hosting a going-away party for the Chinese after defeating them in battle long ago.
The same is true of the forgiveness extended to Americans.
On the last day of our trip, Yang told a story that illustrated this attitude. Some years prior, he was with a group and visited a village. There was a woman outside a small house who insisted that the group come inside to visit. He was reluctant at first but agreed to the visit. Once inside the house, he realized where he was.
In the early 1990s, the government had constructed those small homes for what it called “heroic mothers” – women who had lost a son or husband in the Vietnam War. In this case, the woman had lost her husband and two sons. (There is a statue in Da Nang of a heroic mother who lost her husband and nine sons.)
There was a Vietnam War veteran in Yang’s group. He was in his late 60s, traveling with his son. He asked Yang to tell the woman that he was once a 19-year-old soldier fighting in her country.
Her response was to give him a hug.
Emotions could not be contained among those in the group. It took a great and merciful heart for a woman who had suffered as she had to embrace her former enemy.
That spirit of forgiveness is why the United States is now the best ally of Vietnam.
Robert Huebscher is the founder of Advisor Perspectives.