THE MAKING OF VIETNAM 4

We made our way through streets congested with bicycles. The mar¬kets were bustling, and shops sold a wide array of secondhand electronics from South Korea and Taiwan. Economically Vinh seemed to be doing fine. But I didn’t share Ngoc’s enthusiasm for the potential of tourism. First, Vietnam Airways had cancelled its Hanoi-Vinh flights due to lack of demand, leaving Vinh’s airport idle save for three flights a week to Danang by a propeller-driven plane. Second, I didn’t know what tourists would do or want to see in Vinh. Hanoi was an anomaly with its charm and beauty. Vinh, like most of Vietnam’s towns and cities, was architec¬turally uninspiring and, everything considered, decidedly forgettable. But Ngoc would have none of such pessimism.
He had spent his entire life in and around Vinh, although he dreamed of one day visiting Hanoi. “I might even take the train, but I doubt I’d want to stay more than a few days,” he said. I asked him what he thought tourists might like to see in Vinh. “The market,” he said. “It’s got vegeta¬bles you can’t even find in Dalat. And the port. You know some of those ships come from Japan? Of course, the house where Uncle Ho was born. And I imagine they’d want to stay at the Huu Nghi if they can get a room.”
The Communist Party occupies the grandest, and often the newest, structure in almost every Vietnamese city, and so it is in Vinh. Some of the buildings, as in Ho Chi Minh City, had been inherited from the French. Others were built after the war, and their gaudy elegance is a re¬minder of the Party’s role in daily life. At first I found them distasteful, a flashy advertisement for communism. But their presence isn’t much dif¬ferent than the stately city halls that overlook downtown squares in so many American towns, and I entered the People’s Committee headquar¬ters in Vinh with hardly a second thought. Ngoc introduced me to the three members of the Party chosen to welcome me.
Foreign journalists do not make spontaneous visits to towns outside H anoi, and my trip to Vinh had been arranged well in advance, after I submitted a written request to the government press department saying where I wanted to go and what I wanted to talk about. I didn’t find the restriction particularly burdensome because over the course of four years I usually managed to get where I wanted to go. And I wasn’t bothered by the government’s requirement that foreign reporters could set up offices only in Hanoi, even though Ho Chi Minh City was more spirited and economically significant. The fact is that Hanoi was a much more pleas¬ant place to live, even if being there made it easier for the government to keep tabs on me and meant that my stories were more apt to reflect the Northern perspective than that of the South.
So I had told the press department I wanted to talk about the recon¬struction of Vinh, and the three Party members who awaited me carried stacks of blueprints and a thick twenty-year master plan and had filled up the chalkboard with graphs and information that offered considerably more detail than I wanted. We drank tea and bottles of springwater. They talked, each in turn, at great length until I felt in danger of nodding off. But I admired the inclination of Vinh’s residents to plan and dream be¬cause it would have been easier to simply walk away and leave Vinh the pile of rubble that it was. I came to think of Vinh as a feisty place. And I could understand the gratitude the residents felt for their deposed com¬munist comrades in Berlin.
In 1972, after the United States quit bombing and three years before the war officially ended, East Germany proved to be Vinh’s only outside friend. It sent in scores of engineers, technicians, planners, and laborers to haul away the rubble and build a new city. Unfortunately, that’s how Vinh came to be known as Vietnam’s ugliest city. The first project that went up comprised twenty-one five-story concrete apartment buildings, including a kindergarten, schools, and a food market, for 6,000 Vietnamese work¬ers. The Vietnamese like to live close to the ground, with doors open to the street and breezes that blow unencumbered through their homes; no one was happy living in these bunkerlike concrete blocks. Still, month af¬ter month, square look-alike buildings sprung up, block after block, until Vinh resembled a Soviet gulag.
The problem was no one factored in maintenance costs, and when communism collapsed in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, Vietnam lost $1 billion a year in assistance. Bonn had little interest in underwriting the Vinh project. The sprawling housing complex soon looked like some¬thing born in the Bronx. “This is a problem, no doubt about it,” Nguyen Van Luc, one of my hosts, said after the briefing had mercifully ended and we’d left the office to drive around the city. “We’ve talked about raz¬ing the project, but you can’t just make 6,000 people homeless. If we can get the money it’d be better to renovate.” Luc took me inside one of the buildings. Scores of children appeared out of nowhere. They were clean and neatly dressed and eager to try out the few English phrases they knew: Where are you from? What is your name? Do you like Vietnam? Luc and I were careful to avoid the electrical wiring that protruded from stair¬wells.

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