Vietnam: The South, 25 Years Later

2000

Professor Richard Broinowski

At 6am on 25 April 2000, the weather in Ho Chi Minh City was warm and still. A thunderous pre-monsoonal storm had drenched the city the night before, but the streets were now dry.

In front of the old presidential palace, renamed the Reunification Palace, 5,000 party faithful and invited guests had come to commemorate the Liberation of Vietnam, also known as the fall of Saigon, 25 years before. In his key-note address, Vo Viet Thanh, Chairman of the Municipal Peoples’ Committee, listed the achievements of the city since 1975 - a 5.5 fold increase in its GDP, a 96-fold increase in construction, and a 4.4 per cent growth in the service sector. The city had produced 40 per cent of the nation’s exports - $US8 billion in 1999. Per capita among city residents had risen from $360 in 1995 to $1,350 in 1999.

But Vo’s speech was hardly congratulatory. He said much more could have been done, but for ‘errors of management in every economic sector, and at every government level.’ There had been, he asserted, ‘arbitrary and imperious behaviours, wasteful spending, embezzlement, bribery and capitulation to social evils ... these problems make us feel restless and guilty at heart towards those who have laid their lives for national independence, freedom and the peoples’ well-being’.

A minute’s silence was observed for the dead from the war - over three million soldiers and civilians had perished at the hands of the French, the Americans and its allies, and the Vietnamese themselves between the end of the Second World War and 30 April 1975.

A parade then followed from the Palace through the early morning streets. This comprised about 20,000 people in four groups - the armed forces, uniformed men and women soldiers carrying infantry weapons, business groups active in the city, including representatives of foreign (Western) companies, veterans’ groups - mainly old men and women in their uniforms weighed down with enormous numbers of medals, and the youth and ethnic groups which are standard fare at every parade organized by the Vietnam Communist Party.

But it was altogether a low-key affair. No tanks or artillery. No big bands. No aircraft flying overhead. Not even many onlookers - it was too early in the morning. (Despite a report by Huw Watkin in The Australian of 1 May to the contrary, the police had not barred the public from witnessing the parade). In fact, little hubris of any sort. An affair that underlined the Party’s view that the war is over and done with, and that future growth and reconstruction is what must be concentrated on, not the past.

Any observer who was in Saigon and its environs during the war, and came back for this ceremony and parade, could easily see the dramatic economic improvements Vo was referring to. Saigon is a transformed city, not just through its new hotels, office buildings, golf courses and restaurants that serve the newly affluent, but in the way some of the worst and most fetid slums, such as those along the notorious Nhieu Loc-Thi Nghe canal, have been replaced by parks and modern flats.

Meanwhile, trips outside Ho Chi Minh City, to the previously poverty-ridden villages of Phuoc Tuy Province (now renamed Dong Nai), where the Australian Army had its bases, as well as in Tay Ninh Province to the west of Ho Chi Minh City, indicate that the houses are better, the streets wider, the fields more productive. Water and electricity are more extensively reticulated, and the children seem, at least on visual inspection, to be decidedly healthier.

Like Communist Parties still governing in a few other States since the collapse of the Soviet Empire, the Communist Party of Vietnam has much to worry about - how, particularly, to maintain its control and moral authority whilst allowing market forces and foreign capitalists increasingly to influence its markets and investments.

But Vo Viet Thanh shouldn’t be too reticent about what the Vietnamese Party and Government have achieved in 25 years. Here is a society incomparably improved, a people much better off, a future full of economic and social potential. Its amazing what well-motivated people can achieve when they are not being napalmed, shelled and shot at.

WATCHPOINT: The question of how the South’s prosperity will affect the unity of Vietnam is becoming more pressing.

 

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