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Nhi's Vietnam

Vietnam now has one of the world's fastest-growing economies. For young people like Nguyen Song Nhi, 16, the "American War" is ancient history; their focus is on the future.

May 9, 2005
Nguyen Song Nhi
Nguyen Song Nhi

When Nguyen Song Nhi's parents were teenagers in North Vietnam, the main image of the United States was of warplanes raining bombs from the skies. But ask 16-year-old Nhi what America means to her, and the first thing she thinks of is Hollywood.
"Lindsay Lohan, I like her a lot," she says. "She's very pretty, and she makes a lot of films for people our age. And Britney Spears—she's good too."

It's Saturday night in Hanoi, and Nhi and her cousin Thao, 14, are waiting their turn to be photographed at the "Cute Photo Stickers" shop. For just 15,000 dong—about $1—each can become a cover girl for Vogue or Seventeen, magazines Nhi is barely familiar with, though she did flip through a copy of Seventeen once. She wasn't much impressed.

"American girls have a natural, relaxed style," she says with a shrug. "But Vietnamese girls dress more fashionably." What

The photo shop is just a stone's throw away from Truc Bach Lake, where Senator John McCain crash landed when his plane was shot down in 1967 during the Vietnam War. The badly injured McCain spent more than five years as a prisoner of war in the infamous "Hanoi Hilton," where he and other American P.O.W.'s were tortured.

But Nhi and her friends rarely give a thought to the lake's history. To them, it's just another leg on the weekend circuit of cruising around on their motorbikes, drinking juice and coffee in cafés, and finding some precious privacy by paddling around the lake in two-seated swan boats.

"No one really thinks about the war much now," Nhi says. Even her father, a shopkeeper who is now 43, was too young to fight against the Americans, though he did later serve in the army, as all young men are still required to do.

It's not that Nhi doesn't know about her country's past. What's referred to as the "American War" is taught in schools. It's just that for Nhi and millions of other young people in Vietnam, the war might as well have been centuries ago. Some 60 percent of the population were born after the war ended with a Communist victory in 1975, and 28 percent are younger than 15. And these days, there are so many other things to think about. Clothes, for instance. And the future.

Nhi hopes to become a flight attendant. She's never been on a plane, but she has another, older cousin who works for Vietnam Airlines and describes a life of travel and glamour. So when she finishes high school next year, Nhi hopes to pass the tough university entrance exams and study foreign languages in preparation for a career of world travel.

U.S. Involvement

It's a lofty dream. Only one in five Vietnamese students who apply get a coveted university spot. Plus, applicants for prestigious jobs in state-owned companies like Vietnam Airlines often have to pay bribes to get hired. Nevertheless, the future for Vietnamese teens today is brighter than it has been at any time in the last 50 years.

America's involvement in Vietnam began in the early 1960s, with the U.S. sending military advisers to support the government of South Vietnam against the Communist forces of the North (and the guerrilla forces of the Viet Cong). By 1969, there were more than 500,000 American troops in Vietnam fighting alongside South Vietnamese forces. The war, in which 58,000 American soldiers died and some 300,000 were wounded, became increasingly unpopular in the United States.

End Of The War

Two years after American forces withdrew from Vietnam in 1973, the North defeated the South, unifying all of Vietnam under a harsh Communist rule.  

Hundreds of thousands of Vietnamese from the south fled the country (many as "boat people") and hundreds of thousands more who stayed in Vietnam were sent to "re-education camps," where they endured forced labor and indoctrination until they were determined to be sufficiently loyal to the new regime.

The Communist government collectivized farms and banned most private businesses, and for years Vietnam suffered from crushing poverty. Almost anything people wanted to buy had to come from government stores with long lines and severely limited choice. Vietnamese who lived through the times of the "subsidy economy" describe how a bar of perfumed soap or a tiny vial of MSG seasoning would be hoarded as an unbelievable luxury. American goods, especially, were rare since the U.S. imposed an economic embargo on Vietnam after the war.

By 1986, the country was so impoverished that the Communist government decided to change course. The government introduced a series of economic reforms known as <i>doi moi</i> (renewal), which allowed limited private business. Small restaurants and cafés started opening. Collective farms were broken up and farmers were given long-term leases to the land they lived on (though all property is still officially owned by the government), and they were allowed to sell surplus food. Foreign investment was also encouraged.

In 1994, the U.S. lifted the trade embargo and the following year re-established diplomatic relations. (In 2000, Bill Clinton became the first U.S. President to visit since the end of the war, and President Bush just visited in November.)

In the past decade, Vietnam has been transformed. Poverty has been cut in half, down from nearly two thirds of the population in the early 1990s. Nationwide, the average income is still less than $1,000 a year, but in Hanoi, and in the larger Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in the south, people are earning more—and spending it on consumer goods like motorbikes and cell phones. A decade ago, there were barely 500,000 motorbikes registered in Vietnam; now, there are 14 million. (Motorbikes still outnumber cars by 10 to 1.)

Nhi drives a red Honda motorbike that her parents gave her, and she's decorated it with stickers of teddy bears. Thao has a similar motorbike and also has a cell phone.

In Vietnam, the official school day lasts from 7 a.m. to noon Monday through Saturday, with classes in math, literature, science, history, geography, and civics. But like most students, Nhi and Thao take extra private tutorials in the afternoon.

"Basically we study the whole day," says Thao.

Political Repression

After school, Nhi and Thao sometimes help out in the watch-repair shop their parents own together. They also spend time online. Thao's family has Internet access at home, and she has a blog and instant messages her friends all the time.

Both Nhi and Thao say they don't pay much attention to their country's government, an attitude encouraged by the ruling Communist Party. As in neighboring China, Vietnam has loosened up on economic activity and stopped trying to control every aspect of people's daily lives. But any form of opposition to the government is dealt with severely. At least a dozen people who have criticized the government online have been jailed in the past few years.

"I don't really think at all about politics," Thao says.

Most evenings, the girls spend their free time meeting friends in cafés, singing karaoke, and shopping at Hanoi's two new air-conditioned malls, where Thao recently thought about buying a pair of Converse sneakers for 500,000 dong ($30)—about three weeks' income for a rice farmer.

For now, Vietnam has almost no international chains like McDonald's or Starbucks, but that could change soon: Vietnam is about to enter the World Trade Organization, which will further open the country to foreign companies.

The only time Nhi is reminded of the old Vietnam is when her parents balk at giving her money for something fun.

"They say that when they were in the subsidy economy, life wasn't as good as it is for us now. They suffered through many hardships," Nhi says. She pauses. "They scold us like that—but they still give us money."

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