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Wednesday, 7 February, 2001, 15:42 GMT
Vietnam's new clothes
Man writing New Year messages
Vietnam has its traditions, but is changing fast
Derek Wilson returns to Vietnam 25 years after reporting on the war there - and finds much has changed.

I have a thing about trains, so when I flew up to the coastal city of Nha Trang to roast on the splendid beach there, I checked out the local station one night.

Woman walks past US shop
Capitalism has finally made it to Vietnam
A packed diesel train for Ho Chi Minh City, formerly called Saigon, was about to begin a journey of 430km that would take 12 grinding hours. But strangely, as it pulled out, a line of inspectors suddenly squatted on the platform and started training powerful torch beams at the undersides of the carriages.

They were after stowaways, they explained. Quite a few apparently tried it on.

The scene brought home to me just how desperate some people must now be to get down to Saigon, a goal they seem to regard as the new eldorado of Vietnam, an enticing place where they can find a job, escape poverty.

Communication gap

I met some from the north who had settled in the south - because of its plenty, its balmy climate. One was a barman, an ex- soldier from former North Vietnam. During the war, I had conceived of being killed by such a man, never of one serving me a drink.

It is far more Americanised now than it ever was under the Americans

You can see the appeal of the place. Oh but how it has changed. It has swollen to a big city of six million and it tore my heart out to see them tearing down old red-roofed, man-sized, colonial Saigon, and dwarfing it by towering high-rise, anonymous tower-blocks, commercial centres and palatial hotels, with names like Chancellor Court, Diamond Plaza, the Norfolk.

Yes, everything is in English now. The old language, French, has vanished. I neither heard, nor saw, nor uttered a word of it.

This has left a communication gap because the people are not yet wizards at English. I asked an eager 21-year-old what he thought of the new skyline. He liked it.

"In 10 year (sic), we same, same Kuala Lumpur," he beamed.

Quite, I thought.

Rapid changes

The explanation behind the new-look Saigon is foreign money, mainly from Japan, Singapore and Taiwan, and it has now been pouring in for 14 years, under a so-called 'open-doors' policy towards outside investment. It has saved the place from disaster.

Tourism is flourishing
But it means that 30,000 foreign firms today operate in the country and that communist-run Saigon is now gaily decked out in all the trappings of capitalism, which during the war, of course, was one of the big bogeys.

It is far more Americanised now than it ever was under the Americans, so the shops are bursting with all the latest consumer-goods.

There are internet cafés, mobile-phones, fashion boutiques, good restaurants, dollars galore and as many as two million purring scooters that move down the clean streets all day like great lava flows.

The average income of the Saigonese is $1,500 a year, four times more than in the rest of the country.

I began to wonder what was left of communism.

A young Vietnamese woman who worked for the British answered that for most people of her age, communism was not important. They were more interested in learning English and about computers, though of course the Party was the only one, very much in charge, and controlled the press.

The Party did realise, I heard elsewhere, that open doors attracted dust, and was trying to make sure the stuff did not settle on anyone.

I thought I saw bits of it doing just that. It is literally true, for instance, to say that people are now going to the dogs.

One night, for instance, in the distant resort town of Vung Tau, where British Petroleum is about to bring off-shore natural-gas to the mainland, I sat in a brand-new greyhound stadium and watched people betting. Then I dropped by a crowded pub where the kids were glued to the televisions, watching English Premier League soccer.

Things like that took me aback. Was this the kind of society Vietnam's anti-American communists had fought for so long?

That is why I sometimes wondered what the point of it all had been. Could you really boil it down to a forgotten proxy war between two big powers at some long past stage of the Cold War?

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See also:

11 Nov 00 | From Our Own Correspondent
Self-censorship in Vietnam
16 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
Vietnamese journalists 'sold secrets'
18 Oct 00 | Asia-Pacific
US planes return to Vietnam
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