Vietnam Vacation: Comparing Communist Countries

29 04 2012

When friends and family back home heard about our trip to Vietnam, we got a lot of questions on one particular subject: Communism. To be honest, having not lived through the Vietnam War, modern day communism was not one of the things that I immediately associated with Vietnam. However, once it was brought to my attention that Vietnam was, indeed, still a communist country, it dawned on me that I was about to see my second communist country (I had visited Cuba previously), of only a handful left in the world. So, naturally, an alarm went off in my head, telling me it was time to start mentally comparing and contrasting the two places.

When arriving in Cuba for a brief research trip in 2010, I remember that Havana didn’t immediately appeal to me in many of the same ways that Latin American countries had in the past. There was a sense of magic of course– there always is when landing in a new country– but something was missing. I eventually realized that what was missing for me was the energy and the spirit of people in the streets, walking around selling fried bananas, setting up small shops to sell soda, offering you a ride in their taxi. The so-called entrepreneurial spirit that I had witnessed in so many other Latin American countries didn’t seem to exist in Cuba.

Cuba: Oh no! Where are all the vendors selling me stuff I don't need?

Vietnam: Taxis, moto drivers and vendors at the front of the market









Vietnam, on the other hand, is stuffed to capacity with street vendors and shop owners. Private businesses, and especially small businesses, were apparent everywhere we turned. This was one of the things that made me fall in love with Vietnamese cities, Hanoi in particular. You couldn’t walk more than a few steps without a woman wanting to sell you fried dough balls or a man offering to take you to your next stop on a moto. On the few occasions that we felt hassled by the street vendors, we would generally just look at each, laughing at the irony, and say something akin to “Communism in its purest form, huh?”

In fact, traveling through Vietnam, there were very few visual indications that it’s a communist country. Beautiful Christian churches stood next to Buddhist pagodas. User fees were posted outside of public clinics. In fact, the only real indication of communism was the string of stereotypical propaganda posters lining the streets, including many pictures of Ho Chi Minh himself.

This part was very reminiscent of Cuba. In Havana, pictures of Che Guevara and Fidel Castro are ubiquitous. It’s impossible to take a stroll without seeing some tribute to one of the country’s two most iconic leaders. And, like in Vietnam, every last billboard you would see was a government sponsored billboard, touting the accomplishments of the country or honoring the revolution.

Cuba: The ominous face of Che

Vietnam: Friendly 'Uncle Ho'

Figuring out Cuba was a challenge for me– the ration booklets, the dual currency system,  the government-led tour. It was all mind boggling. Vietnam was less so. The economic reforms the country made in the eighties left it looking suspiciously capitalist, surprisingly familiar. Vietnam didn’t feel  different in the way that Cuba did. I wasn’t able to see the negative effects of communist policy in Vietnam the way I was able to see it in Cuba.

As a tourist, though, I can’t see everything. I can’t provide any insight into what people’s lives are really like– how happy, healthy or free they feel. This is just my perspective as an outsider, visiting these two countries for a short time. Like many in my generation, I’ve never had the gut reaction to automatically categorize communism as being terrible. I’ve always been of the mindset that just as capitalism is not the same in the US as it is in France, Colombia or Saudi Arabia, communism does not look the same in every context. Our recent trip has helped solidify this idea for me. At least on the surface, Vietnam and Cuba looked and felt like very different places with very different governments.





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