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Saturday, 5 January, 2002, 15:58 GMT
Modern Vietnam's break with the past
Vietnam street scene
Vietnam's booming cities are seeking to boost tourism
By the BBC's Clare Arthurs in Hanoi

At ten o'clock in the evening, the Apocalypse Now nightclub in central Hanoi is already close to capacity.

It is at least two hours before the bar's owners might expect one of the regular visits from security forces, who will close it down as part of the ruling Communist Party's campaign against what it calls 'social evils', which include prostitution, drugs and gambling.


Modern Vietnam challenges the images many outsiders still hold of the country

But during my night out there's no sign of the ruination depicted in the movie of the same name. There isn't even a sign of the other abominations the nightclub is reputed to host - sex and drugs.

Now a steady stream of young and middle-aged Vietnamese people are cramming through the narrow doorway, past the billiard table with its army helmet lightshades.

They dance or stand chatting, around the bar, or under the booth where DJs are playing the latest Western pop music with a driving beat.

Their booth is attached to the large nosecone of a bomber which juts out into the crowded dance floor, where the wild movements of the revellers are cooled by fans made from propeller shafts.

And just to make it authentic to the enduring image of Vietnam created by the American war, a couple of middle-aged Caucasian men lean on the bar, chatting to young Vietnamese girls.

New image

But these young women don't fit the image.

They're not wearing the graceful ao dais with baggy trousers and figure-hugging long tunics. They are in the latest street gear.

US helicopters in Vietnam
Memories of the war are slowly fading
If they are selling sex, they could well be doing it for money to buy more clothes, or to take extra classes to improve their job prospects in Vietnam's tight employment market.

Recently I attempted to look at the lives of Vietnamese youth, through their hobbies. But the concept of a hobby is strange here. Many young people with spare time will use it to take on a second job.

Or they will attend evening classes, ride their motorbikes in circuits of central Hoan Kiem lake, or listen to music.

Modern Vietnam challenges the images many outsiders still hold of the country.

For decades, films, books and the media have reinforced two images - the jungles of the south where the Viet Cong ambushed fresh-faced American boys, or a sort of colonial idyll from the days of French occupation.

Changing times

Beneath the images and stereotypes this is a country struggling to come to grips with modern times.

The Vice Minister for Justice, Ha Hung Cuong, explained to me the finer points of a new adoption law which aims to stop the exploitation of Vietnamese families by rich foreigners who pay tens of thousands of dollars to adopt a young baby.

At the Chamber of Commerce, a high rise building in southern Hanoi, the quietly spoken Vice President, Pham Chi Lan, still manages to convey her excitement about the opportunities for Vietnamese businesses, poised to enter the US market with the passage of the landmark trade deal.

Vietnamese fishermen
Some Vietnamese traditions remain unaltered
At the Fisheries Ministry, Nguyen Tu Cuong hints at options for retaliation over the lobby of American catfish farmers against Vietnamese imports.

Society here is much more complex and dynamic than the stereotypes allow. The reflection of the country which dominates much of the media coverage focuses on the problems here.

The Communist Party retains an iron grip. Corruption is rife and causes much disaffection.

Poverty - at its worst in rural areas, people trafficking, unemployment, the spread of HIV/Aids, are all significant social problems. The finance and legal systems are weak.

Many writers and religious leaders are silenced by the authorities.

Force for change

But while on one hand power is still centred in the hands of the old guard, diplomats point out that there's a tension here which is a force for change.


I notice frequently the air of excitement and possibility among people who see Vietnam in a time of great change

Reporting on the ratification of the trade agreement with the United States - the last major step in normalising relations between two former enemies, I met business leaders and trade officials.

They say there is a marked difference between dealing with the Security Ministry and working with the Foreign Ministry - the latter staffed with people who have travelled or studied abroad and have been exposed to what is happening outside Vietnam.

I notice frequently the air of excitement and possibility among people who see Vietnam in a time of great change as it opens up to the outside world.

The sense of progress has been reinforced in the last few weeks by new deals being struck with the World Bank and International Monetary Fund, a sign of confidence in continuing high economic growth of around 7%.

Consumer culture

For most people growth means a chance to improve their lives economically.

Motorbikes in Vietnam
Vietnam's streets are clogged with two wheeled transport

For young Vietnamese the symbols are CDs, clothes and their own motorbike.

Vietnam's major cities are choked with bikes and solving the problem is high on the government's national agenda.

Most riders disobey the law on wearing bike helmets and almost all traffic makes up its own road rules.

The morning after my night at the Apocalypse Now nightclub, I joined the queue outside the mausoleum of the founder of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh.

Visiting the tomb of Uncle Ho is as important to many as the rituals of the family altar and traditions which have been revived in the recent years of renovation.


For all their willingness to grasp modernity, the Vietnamese still cherish their past

Ho Chi Minh, who didn't live to see Vietnam enter peacetime, nevertheless lies with a serene expression.

He rests under orange lights in a large grey Soviet-style tomb, visited constantly by long lines of Vietnamese who arrive by the busload to pay their respects.

It is the same here as in other aspects of life in Vietnam.

For all their willingness to grasp modernity, the Vietnamese still cherish their past and the sources of their strength and resilience.

See also:

30 Nov 01 | Business
WTO chief urges Vietnam reforms
22 Apr 01 | Asia-Pacific
Modernising leader for Vietnam
27 Jul 01 | Country profiles
Country profile: Vietnam
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