January 28, 2014


So the Communists won the war, but apparently we capitalists won the argument. Reforms known as doi moi opened up the Vietnamese economy, leading to membership in the World Trade Organization, the historic visit of President Clinton (one pho eatery renamed itself Pho 2000 to honor the year of his visit), and the transformation of the economy from a rigidly state-run system that barely met basic needs to a more free-wheeling state capitalism that encourages foreign investors, public-private companies and a host of joint ventures in nearly every sector of the economy. While small-bore entrepreneurship is rampant, Vietnam is still a “Communist” country with a one-party system and a controlled media. But in the past decade the portraits of Ho Chi Minh (who died before the country was reunified) seem to have gotten a little smaller, and remnants of what the Vietnamese call “the American War” are harder to find. Yes, day trips to the famous Vietcong underground complex of tunnels at Cu Chi are available, now with expanded passageways for wider-girthed Westerns. But there are also nearby “cultural villages”—a kind of self-conscious theme park to make Vietnamese life fit more easily for Western visitors—and a waterslide park for the kids. The war museums in Saigon still showcase Western atrocities and those by the losing South, but Saigon Tourist promotes these museums less than it does the local markets, musical performances or exotic boat trips on the Mekong.

Along with the opening of the economy, there were to be changes in the education system. The Communist Party promised increased literacy, educational access and a more open marketplace of ideas. As Meat Loaf once sang, “Two out of three ain’t bad.” Today Vietnam boasts a literacy rate above 90 percent and invests a higher percentage of its GDP in education than the United States or France. Quality K–12 schools exist in the major cities, as do private schools whose tuition eclipses average income. Many of these schools are quite rigorous, with standardized testing, international faculty and strong links to U.S., Canadian, British or other nations’ accreditation standards.

On the “open marketplace of ideas” front, however, results are mixed. In the larger universe of learning, a quick scan of the shelves of the major book chain in the country, FAHASA, reveals plenty of books on business, personal growth, technology, English as a second language and vampires. But books on current affairs, politics, history (except government-authorized ones), critical thinking, modern art or anything that might be even indirectly critical of the regime simply are unavailable.

So, like a lot of American colleges, then . . . .

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