Saturday morning we said goodbye to our butler at the Metropole (his name was Juan and we never did figure out what we were supposed to do with a butler) and set off on a 3.5 hour drive from Hanoi to Ha Long Bay. The drive led us through many small towns and rural areas and, even though the road was choked with traffic and riddled with pot holes, we took advantage of the time to learn more about our guide, Thuan, and the recent history of the country.
Thuan was born in 1976, during the population boomlet following the War with America. Like almost all Vietnamese at the time, he grew up on a farm, working in the communal rice fields with his family and neighbors. At the end of every month his family would get their allotment of subsidized coupons from the Communist government. They had coupons for meat, coupons for washing powder, coupons for bread. If they had friends working at the meat shop, maybe they could get a better than average cut of meat, less fat and gristle and more actual meat. There really were no shops, nothing to buy (assuming one had money) except for the essentials provided by the government. When Thuan was 10 years old, in 1986, there were almost no bicycles, let alone scooters or cars, in the country. The head of the Communist party did have a bicycle and a car, but it was a Russian car. Electricity had reached some of the farms but only the areas near the cities. Thuan and his friends went to school, but his future under the Communist government and their command economy did not look very promising. Then everything changed. The government was bankrupt, inflation was out of control, and the country’s big brothers, China and the Soviet Union were clamoring to have their loans repaid. Instead, in 1986, the government devalued the currency, stiffed its creditors, and opened up the economy to free enterprise. More economic reforms followed in 1991 that encouraged foreign investment. The results of unleashing capitalism have been phenomenal, producing truly staggering change and progress in only 25 years. That’s the thing that impressed us most about Vietnam, its amazing dynamism.