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Last Updated: Monday, 25 April, 2005, 16:50 GMT 17:50 UK
Vast changes in postwar Vietnam

By Brian Barron
Former Vietnam War correspondent

Motorcyclists ride past national and communist flags on a street in Ho Chi Minh city, 24 April 2005.
The centre of Ho Chi Minh City is now clogged with motorbikes
Night after night in the late 1960s, if you stood near the French colonial cathedral in the heart of Saigon, you could see the American star shells exploding mid-air and their parachute flares floating down to the ground.

The dead white light they cast lit up the jungly marshes just across the river.

These defensive measures were punctuated by the periodic thump of howitzers - random shellfire into the darkness surrounding the US army outposts.

It must have been nerve-wracking for the nocturnal wildlife.

Thirty years on and you have to pinch yourself at the transformation.

The jungly marshes are fast disappearing, pumped out by a steel forest of cranes and engineering equipment hired by South Korean, Taiwanese and Hong Kong development companies.

The area where the Vietcong fired their 122mm rockets is now a rapidly expanding executive housing estate, decked out in the sort of pastel colours favoured in Florida coastal resorts.

The concrete blocks are fronted by neat lawns and ornamental lakes with neo-classical statues.

Maybe the best gauge of economic health in a country held back for far too long is the number of motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

Traffic thunders past on its way to the Mekong Delta, and a mile away a new bridge takes shape across the Saigon River, with Vietnamese engineers precariously balanced on steel girders as ships slip by far below them.

Fluttering from one bridge pylon is Vietnam's red flag with a yellow star.

But nearby there is a real estate sign and a pizza parlour.

Saigon South, as this vast development is called, is designed for middle-class Vietnamese such as Communist Party officials with a decent income, or managers in the growing private sector - along with foreign businessmen back in Vietnam after the last recession.

Newfound wealth

I have seen earlier attempts at economic reform in Vietnam come to grief, usually because of resistance from the revolutionary generation, the men who scooped up Saigon with the barrels of their guns.

But this time the scale of the changes is so vast it will be difficult to block them.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh never lived to see his troops' final victory

Maybe the best gauge of economic health in a country held back for far too long is the number of motorcycles in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi.

There could easily be as many as seven million - a sort of anarchic cavalry, with each machine often carrying a complete family of four sandwiched between handlebars and rear wheel.

The motorbikes are a sign that money is trickling through society, even in the habitually frugal north - and a pointer, perhaps, as to how the Communist Party is striving to stay ahead of public expectations.

Today the Politburo has endorsed the path to economic reform blazed by the nation's giant neighbour, China.

But the Vietnamese comrades still retain absolute political control - hence the Soviet-style mausoleum in Hanoi for Ho Chi Minh, the veteran revolutionary who led his country first against the French and then the Americans.

He died in 1969 without seeing the final victory over the pro-American southern half of the country.

Gradual change

A party member solemnly assured me there were no political prisoners today.

But in actuality, diplomats from European Union embassies in Hanoi try to keep tabs on 21 dissidents, whom they call "persons of concern". There could be more.

A Cobra helicopter gunship pulls out of an attack on a Vietcong position near Cao Lanh in the Mekong Delta on Jan. 22, 1969
Where once they dropped bombs, Americans are now discussing rice

These people are either in jail or under house arrest for opposing the government.

I asked to see one prominent critic of the communist regime who has been in and out of prison, and was told that no-one knew his address. That was pure evasion.

But in recent years, Vietnam has shown a more tolerant approach to religion, including evangelical churches, and during our visit a prominent Buddhist monk who had been in exile for 40 years was invited back home.

He made the most of his return by parading through Hanoi's oldest quarter at the head of a column of his followers, all from abroad.

The Politburo now takes a pragmatic attitude towards America, once its nemesis but now Vietnam's biggest trading partner.

In the Mekong Delta town of Ben Tre, where Graham Greene probably conceived part of his IndoChina masterpiece, The Quiet American, I ran into a group of US non-governmental advisers looking at the rice export industry.

Near the same town 35 years ago I recall a spine-chilling night in an American encampment, listening, over many cold beers, to CIA and military personnel discussing gruesome counter-terror measures.

Now the delta is at peace, and even the Americans are back, albeit in small numbers.

That's a wonder in itself after the horrors of war.

From Our Own Correspondent was broadcast on Saturday, 23 April, 2005 at 1130 BST on BBC Radio 4. Please check the programme schedules for World Service transmission times.


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