Social and Pastoral BulletinNo. 86Oct. 15, 1998

What do you Know About Vietnam?

Ando Isamu
(Jesuit Social Center, Tokyo)

It took me a lot of energy to plan and execute my first visit to Vietnam back in January 1991. Since then I go to Vietnam every year and my last visit in August was almost a routine one. When people hear about me going to Vietnam tend to think that it is something non-enjoyable and painful. I met an official of the Japanese Embassy in Hanoi three years ago and his first greeting was: “Taihen desune. Gokuroosama desu”. (It comes to this: “I feel sympathy with you for spending some weeks here in such difficult conditions”.)

To tell the truth, I always enjoy my stay in Vietnam where I learn so many new things every time I go there. My main handicap is that I do not know the Vietnamese language, but I manage to get along with Japanese or English translators and from time to time even speaking in French.

The small group of people with whom I usually go have clear goals as a small organization assisting programs for poor communities there, and we usually meet many people like medical doctors, local government officials, citizen volunteer groups, Catholic church personnel, and literally hundreds of ordinary people especially in the rural areas.

Mass Media and Information Business

Television and newspapers are quite wide-spread in Vietnam now. Although I arrived in Vietnam, this time, after the French Soccer World Cup, soccer games were televised all day long. Mini-hotels have now cable television systems, not available to ordinary people, but there was practically nothing else but sport programs. They often show Chinese and Indian films with an over-presence of military and police personnel. The same is true of local Vietnamese news programs and plays. It was a surprise to watch sometimes even NHK news in Japanese As a matter of fact, all newspapers and mass media are run by the State, or by the communist party. There is a popular newspaper, “Cong an”, published by the Vietnamese police. Private organizations do not have any access whatsoever to means of public information.

During my stay in Ho Chi Minh city 5 years ago, a journalist, good friend of mine, brought me once a well-read Vietnamese newspaper (SAIGON giai phong).

One of the main articles in its front page (22-9-1993) attacked the Catholic Bishop Huynh Van Nghi of Phan Thiet, who had been nominated bishop of the diocese of Ho Chi Minh city. The article criticized the Catholic Church and the Vatican for interfering in Vietnam without consulting the government in the appointment of the bishop. This official opposition continued till a new bishop was finally appointed this year. Of course, neither Bishop Huynh Van Nghi nor the Catholic Church ever had an opportunity to react in public. The same situation remains and things have not changed.

I was keen to know how people in rural areas get information about Vietnamese issues or global problems, what newspapers they usually read. TV sets are still rare in villages and people gather around them to watch sports, films and news programs, but there are no newspapers in the villages. In rural areas the use of loud speakers by local officials is still common, and in places where the Catholic church has a stronghold, priests are the unique sources of information.

Economic Life in Vietnam

Japanese people tend to think that Vietnam is doing well economically, and that the Vietnamese economy is healthier than that in most Asian countries, but this is due to the influence of a controlled mass media. One clear thing I found in Vietnam is that people do not trust public opinion and the given information any more, and when it comes to important issues they look for the true facts themselves. Since this is not easily done many remain skeptical.

Rural areas, where over 70 per cent of the population lives, provide a quite different picture about reality than the one the main large cities present. In the country-side living conditions are very hard, and there is a lack of many basic needs, like primary education, health, water, vital roads and transportation. Basic infrastructures are still very outdated. Although farmers work hard they have to face so many structural problems that it is difficult to notice real development there.

On top of that, natural disasters like floods, drought or typhoons are common in many parts of Vietnam, and farmers themselves have usually to find their own solution without any possibility of relying on outside assistance. Nevertheless, as different from urban centers, visitors can not see beggars or street children, drug addicts and homeless there in spite of so much existing hardship in rural life. The amazing fact is that people look happy to the outsiders as if they live with joy in an environment I like to call of natural happiness.

Every year half of the members of our group visiting Vietnam change and the new members are always deeply impressed by the joyfulness of the people and the vitality Vietnamese children have.

Most of the dynamic economic activities take place within the informal Vietnamese sector that is spread all over the nation. An example would be the market places which are the ordinary sites, not only of economic activity, but also the natural environment for getting and transmitting all kinds of information.

There is where people naturally interrelate and exchange their goods . The "morning market" is at the same time, everywhere, the suitable site for reliable or gossip information about local and national events. It can be rightly said that the majority of the population, certainly in the rural regions, are somehow linked as producers, sellers or buyers in the daily markets. This is the traditional Vietnamese business way, since the old times when big shops, refrigerators and transportation means were non-existent. But even now that electricity is available, refrigerators are still a luxury. I know of an old Vietnamese lady who came to Japan to visit her family's daughter but she was unable to remain living in Tokyo even for a few weeks, because she could not eat vegetables and food always neatly kept cool inside the refrigerator of her daughter's home. She was homesick and had to go back to Vietnam.

Another example would be the bicycle and motor bike industry. The Japanese Honda motor bike is, by far, the ordinary means of transportation for the Vietnamese people, but they are, in fact, made in Thailand or in Singapore. One can also see many motor bikes made in Russia or in Eastern European countries. A Vietnam without Honda motor bikes can not even be imagined.

Bicycles, even in the cities, are also the common transportation means for ordinary people. They are produced in Vietnam, but especially in North Vietnam many people use bicycles made in China which are of better quality. This is most probably the most valuable economic activity in Vietnam now. The needs of the people are met and this has provided a network web of thousands of side business that give employment and needed income to, most probably, hundreds of thousands of people in Vietnam now.

People usually measure the Vietnamese growth of economic development by new construction building, increase in the number of cars, road building and new factories constructed. In other words, this is practically linked to the increase in foreign investment. The “ doi moi ” policies are usually taken as the starting point in Vietnam for the industrial“take off ”. Cities like Ho Chi Minh, and to some respect even Hanoi, show for the last 8 years visible economic development. The industrial zone outside of Ho Chi Minh on the way to Thu Duc, where the construction of new factories is going on, is a sign of that. But, how much of that development affects in good ways (jobs, salaries, etc.) the ordinary people is still doubtful.

For instance, the development of the tourist industry has been a long dream and as a result many new hotels of all sizes are still been built, but many are empty all year long. In August, a good tourist season, our group of 7 people staying in a mini hotel with a capacity for about 30 beds were practically the only guests.

Foreign investment started to enter Vietnam around 1988 and reached its peak of about 1,000 million dollars in 1994, but it slowed sharply down in 1996, and it dropped to half during the present year. But since the political role is always the priority in Vietnam information about economic or industrial growth is, often, filtered by political motives and it is difficult to get true and reliable facts. A point in case is the drilling of oil in the South China sea with large capital investment from Japan. There has often been a clash of contradictory information regarding the possibilities of finding profitable oil deposits. Since much of foreign investment in Vietnam comes, seemingly, from middle and small-size enterprises there is an atmosphere of business precaution with regard to industrial involvement there. Groups of Japanese business have in the past voiced this clearly.

University students of economics in Hanoi were telling me 3 years ago that they were only taught economic theories, without concrete figures, in their University, but, then, one day I showed them the official national budget as it had just appeared in one of the Newspapers, approved by the Congress. Their reaction was that this was the first time that such figures were published.

The Catholic Church, Citizen Groups and the Private Sector

Vietnam is a young country with 75 million people, of which over 60% are under 25. These young people were born under the new system and their possibilities and capabilities have been much reduced because of lack of a good education suitable to the changes the “doi moi” policies try to achieve. Vietnam has also entered the era of globalization and internationalization but lags basically behind. Education is a vital factor that has not been given enough attention not even in the urban centers. There are some studies done by international institutions like the World bank or the Asian Development bank which corroborate this.

Visiting rural areas for the last 7 years one can observe the big educational needs there and the lack of basic facilities even for primary education, not to speak of secondary. Of course, University level is totally out of reach. Poverty and the increase in the number of children are some of the main causes. Speaking from the Japanese experience, which is valid for the point I want to make here, education should not be the monopoly of the State. There are many private organizations well prepared and able to run educational institutions and citizens should have the free option to select the education they want to provide to their children; young people should also have a free choice for education. Of course, this is impossible in Vietnam now and people can not say this openly. Nevertheless, the educational needs are so obvious that symbolic changes are occurring now.

Many villages are, practically, without classrooms. Education is in the hands of the peoples` committees, which, for one reason or another, are often unable to solve the problem. In many instances there are people linked to church organizations, for instance, who find ways to build classrooms for the children and are able to provide teachers, but this is boycotted by the committees. My impression is that this is not an exception.

Churches and other private groups are running "charity classes", as they are called, where children get practically all primary education, but in order for those children to proceed to secondary school they are obliged to pass official examinations.

One of the main social scandals publically exposed in Japan these days is what we call “Amakudari”, in other words, the appointment of former government officials to a responsible position in a private company. This is the common practice in Vietnam, at all levels. Presidents of companies are “officially” sent party members, directors of hospitals are people sent by the communist party, welfare institutions with an expert as a director must have a different director person sent by the party. Officially recorded ngos have to employ some official person(s), who are to be paid by the ngos. The same is true of other institutions like language schools, no matter the expertise of the person “officially” sent.

The country still has good human resources and possibilities of getting more cooperation from the outside to try solve urgent educational and welfare needs, but those resources can not be put to use and they will totally get lost if there is no substantial change.