A poll of Vietnamese in five cities, commissioned by the U.S. Informa¬tion Service, found that more than 80 percent of respondents believed their living standards would improve in the year ahead. Nearly half said they were better off than they had been a year ago. Six in ten thought the economy was healthy. The younger Vietnamese were the most confident. Part of their optimism was easily explained: Life had been so terrible for so long, through the 1970s and most of the 1980s, that by comparison Vietnam really was enjoying a renaissance. The government walked a tightrope, trying to toss out enough amenities and incentives to keep young Vietnamese content, but not so many that they would get uppity or independent-minded.
The young bought into this, without apparently realizing that in doing so they and their countrymen had not yet truly won their freedom, at least from my Western perspective. No one called for multiparty democ¬racy. Few seemed dismayed that the government decided what they should read and know or that it kept access to the Internet so prohibi¬tively expensive most people couldn’t surf, unless they went to an Internet cafe. I asked a young doctor who was headed to the United States for fur¬ther medical study if he wasn’t annoyed that a student in, say, Singa¬pore—where the government promoted the Internet as a tool of national learning—had access to the latest medical information and advances that were denied him. Wouldn’t that make him a lesser doctor? “No,” he said, “we have all the information we need. When we need more, the govern¬ment will make sure we get it.”
The government had scored a lopsided triumph. It owned the minds of the young. But the victory was temporary. My friend, the doctor, had intended to stay in the United States only one year, but three years after he left Hanoi, he was still there. Like other Vietnamese who studied abroad, he would come home a changed person, less tolerant of being told not to ask “why” or “what if.” It was fear of this attitude that ex¬plained why the government seldom allowed its young people to go to the West to study journalism. Such exposure could encourage inquiring minds to challenge the Party’s legitimacy.
In its special Tet edition for the year 2000, the magazine Tuoi Tre (Youth) asked a sampling of the postwar generation what individuals it most admired. Former President Ho Chi Minh was the most popular (39 percent), followed by General Vo Nguyen Giap (35 percent). But one man had been dead for more than thirty years, and the other was nearly ninety. Only one nonretired Vietnamese made the list, Prime Minister Phan Van Khai (3 percent). Hillary Clinton received as many votes as Khai did; President Bill Clinton got twice as many. Bill Gates was seven times more popular than anyone in the politburo. The Party was appalled. State censors destroyed the print run of 120,000 copies within hours of the magazine appearing on the newsstands.
PHAM BA HUNG’S GRANDFATHER had been a shipping magnate dur¬ing colonial times, running vessels out of Haiphong to Macao, Hong Kong, Jakarta. His father had studied in France and fought in the war against the United States. The Phams’ big house in Hanoi and their priv¬ileges as members of the moneyed class disappeared as soon as the com-munists came to power, but the family thought that a small price to pay for independence. They had, in fact, paid a bigger one; at the family dinner table a place was set every evening for Hung’s uncle, who had been listed as missing in action in the Central Highlands for more than thirty years.
Hung came as close to representing the face of the new generation as anyone I knew. He had studied Russian for seven years and now spoke flawless English. His eyes sparkled, and he had that wide, generous Viet¬namese smile I found so enchanting. He bubbled with enthusiasm for everything: life, his girlfriend, the opportunities dot moi had provided, his job as a freelance photographer. He was twenty-five and like many Viet¬namese his age looked no older than a teenager. He thought he had life figured out. “For my years, I think I understand many things,” he said in a tone that did not sound cocky. He would continue to invest most of his income in Nikon cameras and lenses, he said. He would not get married until he was twenty-nine because he did not want his bride moving in with his parents, as most newlyweds did for financial reasons, and being bossed around by her new mother-in-law. He considered his father among his best friends. “I can tell him anything,” he said. He was fasci¬nated with my wife’s work as a documentary film producer and peppered Sandy with questions about her Avid editing system. Sometimes he took her on the back of his motor scooter for rides through the paddies and would wax poetic about rice and the harvest and how they reflected the moods of the nation and the seasons.
“Hello, Mr. David,” Hung would say when he bounced into my office, a Nikon around his neck, hand clutching a cellular phone. “Everything okay today with you?”
“Hi, Mr. Hung. Yeah, everything’s fine. You?”
One day, after exchanging greetings, he stopped midway en route to Sandy’s next-door office and came back to my desk. “We’ve known each other for three years, Mr. David,” he said. “You don’t need to call me Mis¬ter Hung any more, you know.”
From then on he was Hung and I was David.
Hung had been trying to digitize the photo archives at a state-run magazine where he worked. I knew he had found the effort frustrating and I asked him over lunch one day how it was going.
“What I want to do,” he said, “is digitize and cross-reference everything, so, for example, a researcher could put in the words corn and agriculture and Lam Dong Province and come up with a picture he needed. But I have to say, the old people who run things don’t care about or know anything. They say, ‘We’ve got the pictures in boxes. Why do we need to digitize them?’ If I tell them I need a picture of a beautiful apple, they understand that. But I tell them I need a picture that evokes a particular mood, they have no idea what I’m talking about. They don’t know what art is. That’s old thinking. They’re too proud as victors to admit that they don’t know anything. They don’t realize they’re not of international standard.”