By Sam Wyatt, a 2nd Year IR undergraduate, currently working as a English foreign language teacher in Vietnam. Also the editor of the Elections Centre section. He also runs two other blogs which are Tectonics of Diplomacy and Division on the Left
As I write this article I am sitting in the squalor of a bare room in Hotel Democracy – a name that can only be seen as ironic, given that this hotel is situated in Ha Noi, the capital of Vietnam. This thriving and proudly ‘socialist’ state has the pride of saying it is one of the few nations who has beaten the United States in an ideological war with victory due to the resilience of the Viet people. However, with an abundance of fake watches and ‘boom boom’* it is obvious that capitalism and liberal internationalism are slowly eroding the conventional values of the country. Therefore we must ask a challenging question, what is the political culture of the Viet? I would suggest that it rests on 3 factors: legacy, the power of capitalism, and finally amongst the middle class whispers urging for a more democratic and accountable government. This article will examine each factor in turn and attempt to give an insight into the Vietnamese mind in this hybrid capitalist-socialist state.
Legacy is crucial to the Viet mindset, from the resistance of Dai Viet to Mongol expansionism to the many shrines dedicated to ancestors, the culture is steeped in history and tradition. This legacy is often used to show the resilience of the Viet people in the face of adversity with references to the victories from the Mongolian invasions and the ‘American War’** making the average Vietnamese person burst with pride. In both situations the Viets overcame ridiculous odds and managed to defeat the force of the superpower who was challenging its right to sovereignty. With regards to the American war, this led to an idolization of the then leader of the country Ho Chi Minh. Indeed, it is impossible to walk 100m in the city without seeing his face blasted across a billboard, building or t-shirt. No other figure in Vietnamese history has received the level of post-mortem exposure that Ho Chi Minh has, not even the spiritual deity of the country, Buddha. Indeed, when I walked into my first school of the trip I was shocked to see a towering picture of Ho Chi Minh looming over the institution. I was later to learn that every school must have this picture of him with a child in their courtyard and many have his picture in individual classes againshowing how the man has impacted Viet life. This almost devout worship of Ho Chi Minh also brings about an acceptance of the values held by the man, those of socialism, solidarity and Vietnamese nationalism thus creating 3 crucial tenentsof the Vietnamese political culture.
However, the impact of legacy is being undermined by a new threat, the rampant driving force of western capitalism. The effects of this can be seen everywhere, from the flashing neon signs inviting you to go to this ‘hip’ new western themed bar, to the importation of KFC and the prevalence of iPhones in the country (I’d say as many as 7/10 of the people I’ve met so far have an iPhone) leading to a Vietnam which has very quietly embraced liberal free market economics. The street vendors viciously competing to lure you to their tables have the gleam of potential profit in their eyes, something that in a truly socialist state would not exist. Therefore, the state can only be seen as quasi-capitalist state, under the tyranny of a single party. As their revered founder Ho Chi Minh said “When the prison doors [of isolationism] are opened, the real dragon will fly out.
There is also a third force at play in Vietnam slowly making a change in the mindset of the populus, though this is whispered with hushed tones due to the country’s strict laws regarding political discussions. The possibility of a democracy and accountability is slowly ingraining itself in the minds of the middle class Viet. Though the role of the state is small, bureaucracy threatens to overwhelm it within a one-party system and the lack of responsibility has led to a country where blame cannot be assigned to one person or department and this bureaucratic integration leaves the country with many problems that cannot be fixed (the continuous variation in visa rules being one of these). This has led some, influenced by the expat community to secretly wish for a democracy. Democracy, they argue would allow for competition meaning that the ruling party could not rest on its laurels. They do not necessarily want regime change but rather they argue competition would force the party to become more efficient, creating reforms which would benefit the country. However, these whispers will crucially remain as a whisper for the foreseeable, as in most eastern cultures, the family is the main political unit. Therefore, no person wishing a prosperous future for their family will ever publicly express their discontent for fear of tarnishing the reputation of the family as this may reduce the chances of any offspring achieving monetary wealth.
In conclusion, the political mind of the Viet is a complex beast, one that cannot easily be expressed or articulated, but when attempting to foster positive relations with the Cong, it is vital that the subtle changes in Vietnamese society are understood and capitalised on.
*this is a reference to one journey in a taxi where the driver was desperately trying to get me to visit a ‘boom boom’ place or in other words a brothel
** The American War is known as the Vietnam war in the rest of the world.