Courtesy Reuters

Vietnam's Contradictions

NOT A SYNDROME, BUT A COUNTRY

In November, President Clinton will become the first U.S. president to set foot in a unified Vietnam. His visit will finally draw American attention to a country that is vastly different from the one many remember. Contemporary Vietnam is characterized by paradoxes and contradictions. The bustling streets of Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are packed with youth on Honda Dream motorbikes, weaving between the bicycle-taxis and the many peddlers balancing enormous pyramids of vegetables or other wares. The energy is palpable: 60 percent of Vietnam's population is under 30 years of age, and 85 percent is under 40.

But first impressions are often misleading, and appearances frequently deceive. The vibrant and hard-working younger Vietnamese love to congregate at the many "cybercafes" or more modest street-front computer rental shops. But this country of 80 million people -- the 12th most populous in the world -- still has fewer than 60,000 Internet subscribers, two-thirds of which are ministries and other governmental or Communist Party institutions. An hour on the Internet costs more than the average Vietnamese earns in a day (per capita GNP in 1999 was $320). When one looks into those cybercafes and sees very little "surfing" going on (a lot of word-processing and games instead), the Internet revolution appears a long way from opening Vietnamese society to the outside world.

In the early to mid-1990s, the Vietnamese economy seemed to be opening, and many foreign investors rushed in with high expectations of future growth. But as a result of Vietnam's three-year-old economic decline, these investors have mostly disappeared. The newly built hotels and office buildings that now stand empty starkly symbolize the lowered expectations.

Many Vietnamese would welcome the economic opportunities that increased foreign investment would create. But the country's leadership has been hesitant to open the economy. Frequent warnings cite the dangers of "peaceful evolution," a term used to deride those perceived as seeking to discredit communism by advocating the "Western" values of capitalism, democracy, and human rights. Vietnam

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