FOR the first time in my life, I’ve been feeling rich: the exchange rate here in Vietnam is around 20,000 dong to the US dollar. So for a hundred dollars, I get two million dongs. All these zeros can get a bit confusing, as even a short taxi ride can cost 50,000 dong, and I have to do quick mental arithmetic before I realise it’s only $2.50.
We are now back in Hanoi after a wonderful week in the small, provincial town of Hoi An. After some memorable meals and relaxing visits to the nearby beach, being in the midst of Vietnam’s busy capital needs some getting used to.
I have finally worked out the technique needed to cross the road. Given that the zebra crossings appear only to highlight pedestrians as targets for the thousands of cars, scooters and bicycles, you have to hold your nerve if you are to ever cross over without becoming road kill. Basically, the trick is in walking across slowly and deliberately. If you try and rush across, drivers will try and anticipate your speed and chances are that you won’t make it in one piece.
Even in my brief time here, I have been able to discern the determination of people to better their lives. Our hotel manager told me he would one day have his own establishment as he didn’t want to work for others all his life. A very capable man, I’m sure he’ll do well.
He organised a wonderful Christmas dinner for us: delicious spring rolls followed by a whole grilled fish; and the main course was roast duck that was meltingly tender. The chef excelled himself, and was delighted by his hefty tip. Normally, bills at restaurants are very reasonable, and tips are not the norm. Roadside joints are everywhere, selling snacks for a few dong. Others try to make some money selling trinkets to tourists.
As I observe the entrepreneurial spirit among people here, I can see that poverty will soon be a thing of the past. Already, hundreds of thousands have moved up from bicycles to scooters and motorcycles. Those riding motorbikes a few years ago are now driving cars.
This is clearly an aspirational society, and one going places in a hurry. The English-language daily Viet Nam News informs readers of various projects and policies aimed at improving agriculture. The investment in infrastructure is visible in the sleek steel and glass airports, and the soaring bridges. Motorways are wide and smooth, and there has not been a single power cut while I’ve been here.
More importantly, all Vietnamese children go to school, and people seem healthy. I have hardly seen an obese Vietnamese yet, a phenomenon that can probably be explained by the absence of fast food chains. Long may they stay away, for their products are responsible for more excess weight than any other single factor in the developed world.
Although Vietnam is a single party state ruled by the Communist Party, citizens here enjoy a lot of personal freedoms. The other day, the lifestyle section of the Viet Nam News carried a report about a photography exhibition that highlighted the lives of lesbians, gays, bisexuals and transgender types. Amorous couples can be seen on park benches. And there is no pressure to conform to any particular faith.
But it’s still odd to open a newspaper without reading about the opposition, or seeing any criticism of the government. There is the occasional comment about a particular policy that has not worked, but there’s no mention of the party official responsible.
Two other countries ruled by communists come to mind: North Korea and Cuba. (I am omitting China because its sheer size and its dazzling economic progress place it in another category). In the crazy North Korean dictatorship, people have been paupered to support a huge army and the extravagant lifestyle of the rulers. State control over virtually every aspect of economic and political life has caused misery on an enormous and unforgivable scale. Three generations of the Kim dynasty have not only pushed the country into bankruptcy, but also made it the laughing stock of the world.
Cuba, on the other hand, is now emerging from the dogmatic socialist rule imposed by Fidel Castro. His brother Raul has replaced him as president and is lifting some of the controls the economy laboured under for decades. Tormented by years of irrational US sanctions, Cubans are finally being allowed choices their parents were denied.
Despite all their geographical and cultural differences, one thing all three states share is the focus on education. This includes China: one reason it has done so well in the last three decades is that it had an educated and healthy workforce that was able to take advantage of globalisation. Compare this with India which, despite its rapid progress in recent years, has been unable to pull up the lowest half of the population. An uneducated population is a drag, not an asset, as we in Pakistan know all too well.
Among developing countries, those with socialist governments have, generally speaking, tended to invest more in education and health than the rest. I am not speaking here about countries that simply tack on the word socialist on their constitutions, but about those who have genuinely socialist parties. One reason is that capitalist societies in the developing world expect people to pay for their children’s education; and if they can’t, too bad. State education is a poor option that condemns kids to a mediocre life.
But these are generalisations: countries like Iran and Sri Lanka have done well in educating their children at state expense. In the latter, standards vary from school to school, and from cities to small towns. But there is a system in place. In Iran, despite the Islamic nature of the government, there are more girls than boys in universities.
So when I see young Vietnamese kids in their uniforms, I think about millions of poor Pakistani children, condemned to a life of ignorance and poverty. Will any government pay them any attention? I doubt it.