MIGRATION IN SEARCH OF OPPORTUNITY or safety is nothing new for the Vietnamese. When the country was divided in 1954 after the First Indochina War (against France), more than 1 million people crossed the DMZ, going both north and south, to relocate under new flags. During the Second Indochina War (against the United States), millions of Viet-namese fled from the Northern cities into the countryside to escape the U.S. bombing campaign, while in South Vietnam millions more moved into cities to seek protection from ground fighting in the rural areas. After the war, there was the flight of 1 million Vietnamese abroad and the in¬voluntary resettlement of 2 million Vietnamese in the government’s ill- conceived “economic zones” of the Central Highlands and Mekong Delta.
By the time I returned to Vietnam, another migration was under way, resulting in the most significant demographic change since the adoption of doi moi. This one involved mostly young, single, unskilled Vietnamese moving from the villages to the cities, in search of jobs, education, excite¬ment. More than 5,000 every month were pouring into Hanoi, twice that many to Ho Chi Minh City. A similar migration had fueled Europe’s In¬dustrial Revolution in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. In South¬east Asia the economic boom of the 1980s and 1990s had pushed the pop¬ulations of Jakarta, Manila, and Bangkok past 10 million each. The cities filled up because that’s where investors put their money and built their factories—and thus created jobs. But not enough of them in Vietnam.
The tide of new residents strained Vietnam’s urban social and housing services, created environmental problems, disrupted the cohesion of the family structure, led to increases in crime, prostitution, and the use of drugs. Traffic clogged city streets: in Hanoi, 2 million bicycles, 1.5 million motor scooters, and 60,000 four-wheel vehicles competed for space amid a cacophony of blaring horns. But demographers agree that migration is a rational act, that the search for opportunity and security is universal, whether one is moving to a new neighborhood in New York City or packing up his family in Los Angeles and resettling in Colorado. And in Vietnam, the impact of the migration wasn’t entirely negative. The un¬married city workers sent much of their income back to their families in the rural provinces, and that helped reduce the disparity between Viet¬nam’s rich and poor areas. I knew kids who had come to Hanoi to shine shoes or sell postcards and who sent their money home to put a little brother through the village school or buy their parents a water buffalo.
“There’s no job I won’t do,” said twenty-eight-year-old Hoang Pham, who hunkered with a group of former farmers on Hanoi’s Giang Vo Street, playing cards and hoping a passerby would offer him a day’s work as a casual laborer. He said his daily expenses for shelter and food were about 5,000 dong, or thirty-five U.S. cents. For lugging bricks or digging ditches dawn to dusk he might earn a dollar, maybe a little more. He sent half to his parents in northern Phu Tho Province.
It is said in Vietnam that if your face is to the earth and your back to the sun, your work is hard. I bicycled from Giang Ho Street to the far bank of the Red River. The temperature hovered in the high nineties, and heat bounced off the pavement in shimmering waves. Many of the middle-class women I passed had donned white gloves that extended to their upper arms; they did not want their skin to darken, as had the skin of peasants who had spent a lifetime in the sun. There was a grimy fac¬tory at a bend in the river. Barefoot young men with rolled-up pants and soot-covered faces stood there in shin-deep muck, sweating, shirtless, molding mud and coal together to make the cooking bricks that fuel the crude stoves millions of Hanoians use on the sidewalks outside their homes. Each cylindrical brick sold for three cents and burned for up to two hours.
Tran Tien Dat, twenty-one years old and a high school graduate, said he had long dreamed about the wonders of Hanoi: the arousal of city life, the brightly lighted streets and late-night cafes, and, most important, a steady job. He could not shake the dream. A year earlier, despite his par¬ents’ reservations, he had left the rice paddies and made his way to Hanoi where he hired on at the factory and now toiled for $2 per day, sunup to sundown, seven days a week, in the shadow of the rebuilt Long Bien Bridge, which U.S. bombers had attacked repeatedly—and finally de¬stroyed—during the American War.
“I came to Hanoi to establish myself,” Dat said. “You know, save money, study some more, then get a really good job. I’m studying English two nights a week but I’m usually too tired when class starts to do well. This job is only temporary. It has no future. It’s dirty and low-paid. Hanoi isn’t as exciting as I thought and actually life is pretty lonely here for me. But my life in Hanoi is still better than what I had in the country¬side, because between crops there’s no work.”
Among the sprawling peasant shantytowns that have sprung up on the outskirts of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City as a result of the rural exodus, one can hear the ticking time bomb of population growth. Vietnam’s population doubled to 80 million between 1970 and 2000 and could reach 150 million within another generation, the head of the government’s Na¬tional Committee for Population and Family Planning told me.
North Vietnam was one of the world’s first developing countries to formulate a family planning program, in 1961, but Government Decree 216 was quickly made irrelevant by the American War. Hanoi needed more young men, not less. On top of that, the casualties Vietnam suffered in the war left the country with a gender imbalance—fifty-one women for every forty-nine men. So many childless widows and never-wed young women had difficulty finding a husband in the early years of peace that the government said there was no shame in bearing children out of wedlock.

Leave a Reply

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