Our social science faculty association organized a trip to Vietnam last week. It was pretty fascinating. It was my first trip, and I don’t speak the language, so obviously I am qualified to generalize wildly about it now. As Gabriel Almond once quipped, ‘you should never generalize about a country until you’ve at least flown over it. So guess I meet that test at least. Here are some anecdotal, political science-y impressions:
1. Communist hagiography really freaks me out. I have now been to the ‘holy-site’ tombs of Lenin, Mao, and Ho Chi Minh, and they are some of the most bizarre human artefacts I’ve ever seen. (Kim Il Sung has one too. For analogous thoughts on Communist kitsch in NK, try this.) If you’ve never seen a communist mausoleum, you should visit at least one, especially if you are a political scientist. Modeled on the Lenin tomb of Red Square, Ho’s is a large, raised rectangular box, designed in hideously ugly Soviet-esque grey concrete. Ho is inside in-state – even though he explicitly wanted to be cremated (Lenin too wanted to be buried). And yes, they do refer to him as Uncle Ho to your face. Accompanying the mausoleum are two museums – and a gift shop in which you can buy Ho Chi Minh keychains and playing cards. Wait, what?!
I think attaching a gift-shop to a Marxist tomb (there was one after the Mao mausoleum tour too – I have a Mao Zedong tie-clip no less) captures the truly disturbing and contradictory bizarre-ness of these sites:
a. Communists aren’t supposed to believe in God, but these sites show they are basically catering to the religious impulse for legend and transcendence. In Russia, my host family told me that Stalin took God out of Heaven and placed him in Red Square. But doesn’t that violate the whole rationalist intent of Marx? Didn’t Marxists talk for years about how they were making socialism ‘scientific,’ with ‘iron laws’ and ‘stages’ of history and all that? Yet here is something like worship, another ‘opiate for the masses,’ complete with a cathedral with relics that tells the mythologized story to the masses, no? Doesn’t it fly completely in the face of Marxist ideology to build secular versions of religious stories and myths, complete with mimicry cults, ‘holy relics’ like Ho’s walking stick (pic above), and sacred sites like tombs?
b. On top of this ideological confusion is the transformation of these sites into tourist attractions for capitalist westerners. Gah! So not only do these things violate Marxist-Leninist basics of rationality by creating a new set of myths, they then get so widely disbelieved at home, that the only reason they stay is because foreigners will pay money to see them. Again, when I was in Russia, there was talk of finally burying Lenin, per his wishes, except that Moscow city opposed it because of the tourist value. Isn’t that the ultimate capitalist debasement of these famous anticapitalists? Which leads to…
c. You don’t go to actually fawn over Lenin or Ho (I imagine that the Vietnamese and Chinese hardly believe the ‘secular saint’ ideology anymore either). Instead you go to see the act of a cult of personality itself. Every detail becomes worthy of obsession, and the Ho one seems even thicker than Lenin or Mao’s. Right behind the Ho mausoleum is Ho’s presidential palace-cum-museum in which all sorts of personal stuff is retained – even his exercise handweights (also in the pic above) and used cars. (I read that in NK, they rope off benches were Kim Il Sung sat.) In short, the attraction of these sites for us is to see just how awful and perverse communism was in practice, not actually learn anything about Mao, etc. We go to see this completely freaky communist-quasireligious myth-making – and then buy Ho Chi Minh paperweights as Christmas gifts.
2. I guess the first thing you notice as a political scientist is not ‘socialism,’ but the rapid-developer feel of the place. Its evident as soon as you get off the plane, if only from the odor. Unless it rains, the air is always thick with ammonia and carbon; facemasks are everywhere. In fact, it was so bad, it activated my allergies and gave me headaches; it was worse than China, which is the worst to date I’ve experienced. Gridlock, a common curse among second-world developers, is extreme; Hanoi traffic is the most terrifying I’ve ever seen after Cairo. The density of Hanoi is extreme – not India, but close. The streets are filled with people selling everything imaginable. Like other Asian developers, there is a massive small retail sector of mom-and-pop corner stores selling textiles, toys, pirated discs, tchotchkes, home appliances and other gizmos, etc. Scooters are everywhere. Everyone seems busy and is talking on their cell phones. The bustle is palpable. This was in great contrast to what I saw in southern Africa. It seemed to me that we were looking at Korea 40 years ago, which general impression my colleagues confirmed to me.
3. The poverty did not look as bad one would expect from the numbers. Average GDP per capita is only $1000 per annum, but I was pleasantly surprised to generally see straight teeth and bones, healthy looking skin, reasonably middle class attire (jeans, tennis shoes, socks, baseball caps, etc), cell phones and headphones, scooters and bicycles, etc. Women wore make-up and heels. Even the cops were wearing Ipods. No one seemed to be living on the street, wearing everything they own, as is immediately evident in India; nor did we see any massive shack-slums as in Mumbai. Even in the countryside, where infrastructure was noticeably worse, this basically held-up. I imagine that deeper in the jungle and mountainous regions, like the central highlands, it is much worse. But Hanoi was more bustling, wealthy, and functional than places like Mumbai, much less Windhoek or Maputo. The difference between the countryside in Namibia and Vietnam was huge.
Part two will come in 3 days.
I tweeted a series of these sorts of political science impressions from Vietnam here.
Cross-posted on Asian Security Blog.