Purpose one: writing a travelogue to describe my various trips.

Purpose two: muse.

Thursday, April 9, 2009

The Poor Vietnamese

That should be taken literally. The Vietnamese economy is a shambles. I knew that decades of communism had devastated their economy, but I thought they were escaping that and joining the tigers. I did see some new buildings and construction around Saigon and Hanoi, but it seemed haphazard.

Picking up the pieces

I spent an evening with Tiet, who works in Saigon translating to and from Japanese for a Japanese company running a factory there. He makes $300/month, while the factory workers make $100-$150. That's well below the per capita GDP, which is $2600. GDP captures more than national income, so a difference is not unusual, but it should not be by several factors. It suggests that little of what wealth there is gets into the hands of ordinary people. Tiet told me that the policemen around Saigon are well off, better than even doctors. They get bribe money and lots of special favors.

I spoke with another woman in Nha Trang making $3 working in a guesthouse. That's barely double the UN poverty threshold.

Like in other underdeveloped economies, activity follows the sun. Nightlife is scant, but the Vietnamese are bustling shortly after first light.

Eking out a living

What's extra sad is that in addition to poverty, Vietnam shows stark inequality. Contrasts between paucity and opulence are everywhere. In Hanoi, you'll see street vendors like the one on the right, selling meager pickings straight out of a basket in front of a big, marble government building. Another example was my hotel in Hue, where I literally stepped from a dinky gravelly alley into a clean, air-conditioned hotel with flashy floors and shiny mahogany furniture.

Pollution is palatable. The cities are covered in a visible haze. A long ride on a scooter, and you'll rub guff from your eyes and cough up crud from your lungs for at least two days.

The Vietnamese deserve much better. My every impression is of a hard-working, conscientious people. Judging from all the police checkpoints I saw, it seems that, like other communist countries, they also lack civil liberties.

Middle Class Living

This style socialism results in poverty, inequality, pollution, and a police state.

I don't see the upside. I understand Scandinavian style socialism. My Danish friends don't have to worry about whether they can retire in comfort, send their kids to college, or will go bankrupt from a big medical procedure. They may choose a reduction in choice and effeciency to gain this tranquility. I don't agree with it, but I understand it. If there is a benefit to Ho Chi Minh socialism, I haven't seen it.

It doesn't stop the Vietnamese from revering him, still.

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