A Tiger Unleashed

"My son Matt and I decide it's pointless to continue to trudge on foot under a blazing sun if we want to get a feel for the sprawling city. We opt for taxis and, on one or two occasions, the backseats of motorbikes..."
Dan Southerland, Executive Editor
2005-07-01
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Second in a series

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The author in Vietnam during the 1970s. Photo courtesy Dan Southerland
In the 1960s and 1970s, RFA Executive Editor Dan Southerland reported on the Vietnam War. He went back recently for 30th anniversary of the fall of Saigon.

SAIGON - My son Matt and I decide it's pointless to continue to trudge on foot under a blazing sun if we want to get a feel for the sprawling city.

We opt for taxis and, on one or two occasions, the backseats of motorbikes.

Saigon has grown into a huge metropolis with a population estimated at eight million. The city, according to the London-based Economist, produces 17 percent of Vietnam's economic output.

The Communist Party chiefs' early economic experiments here and elsewhere in the country failed, so they have unleashed a capitalistic-looking tiger in Saigon, formally known as Ho Chi Minh City.

The Party and the state, however, can still interfere in the economy.

Late one night at an Internet cafe run by a female businesswoman from northern Vietnam who has obviously caught the business bug, Matt and I meet another entrepreneur from Singapore who is in the cosmetics business. She says the local authorities have loosened their grip on the Saigon economy.

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Shops now line a street from where the Viet Cong would fire rockets on Saigon, across the river. Photo: RFA/Dan Southerland
"But," she adds, "they keep finding new ways to tax us."

Meanwhile, cosmetics and other luxury items are being advertised wherever you look. And outlying districts of the city that used to be swamps and rice fields, as well as rocket-launching sites for the Viet Cong, are now tied into the city's commercial and construction boom.

We visit a swampy spot on the southeast side of the Saigon River where the Viet Cong used to slip in before dawn and fire rockets into the city. Both sides of one street are now lined with small businesses.

Northeast of Saigon, tall buildings and new housing projects loom where more than two decades ago I saw farmers toiling in black pajamas. Today, a sign directs us to a golf course just off the road.

And I'm constantly reminded of the small businesses I saw taking hold in China in the mid-1980s when I was a correspondent there. The hard-working Chinese entrepreneurs were sometimes threatened and harassed. But in the end, they were unstoppable.

Returning from the outskirts of the city, we meet with an old colleague, Jim Pringle, who draws our attention to an attempt by Party authorities to censor an article in The Economist dated April 30. The censors have blacked out, by hand, three segments of an article titled "America lost, capitalism won."

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High rise buildings go up near shantytowns in Saigon. Photo: AFP
That's the kind of thing that the Chinese authorities did perhaps 20 years ago, but Chinese censors are now more sophisticated.

When I finally obtain an uncensored copy of the magazine in Bangkok, I am able to decipher what offended the authorities. First, they blacked out a section suggesting that Vietnam worries more about potential threats from neighboring China than any possible threat from the United States.

Then they deleted sections of the article dealing with tensions between Vietnamese in the northern and southern parts of the country.

The northerners have lived under communism for nearly five decades. The southerners have had more experience with capitalism. And well-to-do overseas Vietnamese are pumping more money into the south than into the north.

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Workmen put the final touches on the building of a new company in Saigon. Photo: AFP
On top of that, Singapore, Taiwan, Japan, and South Korea invest heavily in Saigon. Not surprising that the city's growth rate easily surpasses that of the rest of the country.

I've heard complaints about how Party bosses have profited from the Saigon boom. Not long after North Vietnamese tanks arrived to "liberate" Saigon on April 30 1975, the new leaders and their supporters began to take over the best land, buildings, and jobs.

"They took this villa, that building, and that property," says one of our taxi drivers, gesturing to the right and left as we drive through downtown Saigon.

A former South Vietnamese journalist whom I'd known during the war, and who turned out to be a Viet Cong spy, tells me and colleagues that the communists are "much more corrupt" than the old, U.S.-backed South Vietnamese leaders.

He is, of course, a native southerner who had hoped the communists would live up to their rhetoric about socialist morality. They didn't.

Now, mostly noncommunist southerners are leading the country's drive toward economic prosperity, at least in the south.

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