They were everywhere. And there were plenty of them, division upon division of twenty- and thirty-somethings whose destiny a genera¬tion ago would have been to schlep down the Ho Chi Minh Trail and who today had been turned loose on a peacetime banquet of opportunity unimaginable in their parents’ time. They worked feverishly, considered education a sacred obligation, often starting on a second university degree before they had even finished the first, and thirsted for marketable skills and knowledge. Every morning in Hanoi when I stopped for coffee at Au Lac Cafe, my waiter approached with a list of four or five English phrases that mystified him. He was reading Jane Austen, who had been beyond my own comprehension as a student. “I don’t understand this at all,” Lap would say, showing me his notes that included “needle in a haystack,” “pop the champagne cork,” and “benign demeanor.” “Why do you say, ‘I finished reading’ instead of ‘I finished to read’? Don’t you use an infinitive after the verb?” No one could accuse these kids of asking for a free ride or blowing the opportunities the end of war had provided.
Lap’s grandfather had spoken French as a second language, his father, Russian, and the twenty-two-year-old Lap, like multitudes of his contem¬poraries, was in the process of mastering English. Whether the Old Guard of the Party would ever reach out to Lap’s generation and incorpo¬rate it into the tapestry of government and policy and national priorities was a moot question. Personally, I doubted it. Lap’s age group represented the challenge of new ideas and new influences and new demands and was, I thought, going to have to muddle through a confusing transition on its own. But the generation after his will be born and reared in an era of doi moi liberalization. The grip of those shaped by war and sacrifice and ide¬ology will have atrophied by then. And in a country where a whopping 80 percent of the population was under the age of forty, there was every rea¬son to believe that once Vietnam tapped into the potential of its youth, the nation would find the treasures of freedom and prosperity that the revolutionaries had promised but been unable or unwilling to deliver.
Often I asked middle-aged Vietnamese what they thought of the post¬war generation. Their response was about what I would have expected to hear had I raised a similar question in the United States: The twenty- somethings had it too easy; they hadn’t known war; they were too materi¬alistic, cared too much about money and themselves. There was no deny¬ing they wanted their cellular phones and Nike sneakers and Honda motor scooters, but that didn’t make them unique. After lagging so far behind the rest of Southeast Asia for so long, they were just discovering what other kids in the region already knew: The only thing money won’t buy is poverty.
I was delighted when the Vietnamese surprised me with an unpre¬dictable response, which they did regularly. I asked my standard question about the young one day when I went to interview a Vietnamese busi¬nessman about the new economic order. Nguyen Tran Bat was fifty-five, a former North Vietnamese soldier who had started studying Marxism as a teenager. Given his credentials I was pretty’ sure I knew what he’d say. But he said:
“The young today love their country no less, I think, than my genera¬tion, but they love it in different ways. We wanted peace, unity, security. This generation wants Vietnam to be football [soccer] champion of South Asia. It wants its singers to perform like Michael Jackson. It’s material¬istic. It complains about the pace of reform. The kids are restless, impa¬tient. If they live in the Highlands, they probably want to go to Hanoi for action and opportunity. If they live in Hanoi, they want to go to Ho Chi Minh City. And if they live in Ho Chi Minh, they want to go to California.
“And you know what? I don’t blame them for complaining. It’s the re¬sponsibility of the young to complain. How else do things improve? Cry¬ing for the past is an instinct but the reasons my generation gives for wanting back the beautiful past are not persuasive to the young. You can’t prevent the young from doing their own thing. They have their own val-ues and principles and whatever you think of them, those values are going to be the values of this nation ten years from now.”
“How about twenty or thirty years instead of ten?” I suggested.
“No, ten,” Bat said. “We’ve turned a corner. There’s no going back. Things are moving fast in a lot of subtle ways, faster than people notice.”
One of the things that surprised me about Vietnam’s first postwar gen¬eration was how apolitical and accepting of tradition its members were. No one would think of talking back to his father or teacher. Young men still expected their brides to be virgins. They didn’t get tattoos or dye their hair purple or wear their baseball caps backward. Attitude was not a problem in Vietnam’s culture. Conformity was the norm.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *