For nearly three decades Vietnam has haunted Americans, first as a far off Cold War engagement that probably couldn't be won, and since 1975 as a war that was lost. But as Eugene Matthews, a 36-year-old Harvard Law School graduate living in Hanoi since 1990, told author Stanley Karnow in Smithsonian's January cover story, today Vietnam is "a country, not a war." Not only a country but a place widely reported to be growing rich; a likely candidate to become Asia's newest economic miracle.
Karnow, a Pulitzer Prize-winning historian and journalist, has been reporting on Vietnam for more than 23 years. To do our story and to see for himself, he spent weeks in Vietnam, traveling all over, north and south, checking out Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City), which was, as reported, booming with American consumer goods (rock'n'roll, Coca-Cola, Elvis impersonators, and a whole new generation of English-language teachers) as well as businessmen from all over the world wanting to make deals.
Karnow found that, as widely advertised, the Communist regime, after putting thousands of South Vietnamese in harsh reeducation camps, and driving thousands more to flee the country as boat people, has changed course dramatically; up to a point, it encourages private property, capitalism (including such bourgeois distractions as golf courses and fashion shows). It has eased party controls and invented new views of "socialism" attributed, after his death, to Ho Chi Minh: "Under socialism, the poor should get rich and the rich get richer."
But Karnow also reports plenty of Communist bureaucracy still in place, which makes doing business difficult, and concludes that except in Saigon, reports of Vietnam's economic miracle are, at the least, very premature, and the amount of investment capital needed to change things is enormous. The north is way behind the south, and throughout Vietnam, farmers and peasants are still dirt-poor.
For more information on this topic, see our Additional Sources page and explore the Archives of Smithsonian Magazine:
- Yankee Go Home - and Take Me With You! (May 99)
- A Gift of a Garden (September 97)
- Mysterious Pearls (July 97)