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Last Updated: Sunday, 13 July, 2003, 11:32 GMT 12:32 UK
Ho Chi Minh legacy wears thin

By Jonathan Head
BBC, Hanoi

I'm standing in line, waiting to pay my respects to a man I once hugely admired. And it all feels horribly wrong.

When he died in 1969, modern Vietnam's founding father, Ho Chi Minh, was interred against his wishes in a grim Stalinist mausoleum, surrounded by the kind of enormous parade ground so loved by communist regimes.

Thirty-four years later, it seems, nothing has changed.

Unsmiling guards goose-step slowly up to the granite tomb to lay yet another wreath. Others stand by to snap at visitors who violate the sombre etiquette devised by the apparatchiks for the mausoleum.

Ho Chi Minh mausoleum
Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum is a place of pilgrimage - and bemusement
You can't walk on most of the parade ground. You can't photograph the guards. You have to take your hat off - in fact you have to take everything out of your pockets before shuffling inside. And above all, you must look sad and very serious.

That isn't such a problem for the groups of veterans who have come to share memories of their extraordinary struggle, led by the man they called Uncle Ho. But it's a lot harder for the younger Vietnamese who outnumber them.

In the dim light, the embalmed corpse has a ghastly orange hue, and appears to be made of wax.

Two teenage girls in front of me start giggling, and are hissed at by a guard. Then they turn round and see me, the only foreigner, struggling to make sense of the indignity that Ho Chi Minh's successors have inflicted on him - and they collapse in hysterics. Muffled laughter ripples along the line. The guard shoots me an accusing glare and hurries us along outside. Communist decorum is restored.

Everywhere I went in Vietnam I was struck by the Quixotic efforts of the party to keep its moribund ideology alive and its increasing irrelevance to the ordinary people of Vietnam, whose minds are now focused exclusively on getting richer.

Driving force

This country has a restless energy which takes your breath away - at any one time the entire population seems to be on the move, piled three, four or five to a motorbike.

New businesses are springing up all over the place. And the driving force of this economic revolution isn't the party loyalists who won the long struggle against the French and the Americans, but those Vietnamese who fled from the hardships of war and communist rule - and who have now come back armed with the business-savvy they learned in the West.

A billboard in Hanoi extolling the virtues of modernisation and industrialization.
The Vietnamese Government wants to promote modernisation
Like Anoa Dessul Perran, a woman whose irrepressible charm has won her grudging respect from the communist authorities. She told me her story at the beautifully-landscaped resort she and her husband have built on the south Vietnam coast.

Born Vietnamese, she left with her family for France in the 1960s and didn't return until 30 years later. By then, she'd become a successful property developer - and a qualified helicopter pilot.

Determined to overcome the hostility and mountains of red tape that greeted most returnees, she arrived in Vietnam with her own helicopter - and was promptly arrested and branded a "deserter" by the military.

Today she is one of Vietnam's most celebrated business figures.

And Nguyen Ngoc My, who fled in a leaky boat with his family in 1978 after spending 10 months in a re-education camp.

A trained engineer, he settled in Australia and had to work for years shovelling coke in a steel mill before starting his own business. He's now building the interiors of some of Vietnam's largest office and hotel complexes.

Then there's Nguyen Dang Tien, who worked for 14 years for the Pentagon in Washington - and now runs one of Vietnam's most successful software companies.

All these returnees - Viet Khieu as they're known here - displayed the kind of determination to succeed in Vietnam that they must have had to survive in the world outside.

Officially the government welcomes them for their contribution to the national economy. But it still runs a Committee for Overseas Vietnamese to check on their activities - "because they don't always know how to behave appropriately", as one official put it to me. But I suspect it has as much to do with fears they may spread unacceptable political ideas in a country where opposition is still not tolerated.

Consumer culture

Before I left, I went to see one of the veterans of the war to hear what he thought of his country's transformation from socialist backwater to a budding Tiger economy.

Colonel Tong Viet Duong lives in a little house on the outskirts of Saigon, plastered with citations for bravery during his long and exceptional military career.

He fought the French, and has a bullet wound in the back to show for it. He fought the Americans. He fought the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia.

His jacket sags and tinkles with medals as he speaks, his 80-year-old mind still quick-witted.

So what about all his countrymen pursuing material riches - is this what he and his comrades fought for all those years? It certainly isn't communism.

He thought long and hard to come up with the appropriate party line. "The goal of the party today is to create a nation which is prosperous, strong AND equal," he said. "And one day I hope we will be equal."

It's a very faint hope. Vietnam is still a long way from the raucous consumer culture in neighbouring countries like Thailand and Malaysia - but that's where it's heading.

Sooner or later, Saigon will start to resemble Bangkok or Singapore. Its people will pour into shopping malls, unable to afford most of the products on display but happy enough to dream that one day they might.

It is impossible not to be in awe of the sacrifices made by men like Colonel Duong - but if Vietnam ends up like its neighbours, he may be tempted to ask himself just what it was he was fighting for.

Vietnam's returning business pioneers
07 Jul 03  |  Asia-Pacific
Vietnam sees tourism boom
06 Jan 03  |  Business
Vietnam reaps diaspora windfall
03 Dec 02  |  Business
Vietnam pushes for WTO membership
04 Nov 02  |  Business
Country profile: Vietnam
24 May 03  |  Country profiles
Vietnam mausoleum map blunder
21 May 01  |  Asia-Pacific

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