What Vietnam doesn’t want us to see
The charms and delights of the country that handcuffs champions of freedom of speech.
“Time to adventure back to the sea”, the fishermen are getting ready. They load their repaired nets back to the boats, anchored at Da Nang Bay. The smell of the breeze blends with exhaust fumes from the busy road, whereas the waves fight to drown out the noise of the engines. With vigor, some boats are pushed out of the shallows at the routinely scorching sun. This everyday scene takes place against the backdrop of skyscrapers situated 10 km away from the city center.
But, can the Vietnamese people simply shrug off the past and build a free market country under the authoritarian regime?
I settle down for three months in Da Nang, Vietnam’s most livable city that has become the symbol of the rapid transformations.
Vietnam’s tourism sector is an important pillar of the country’s economic development, contributing six percent to the country’s GDP. Before the Coronavirus spread, the rising number of visitors has been a reason to take pride in the communist party’s reforms which were meant to change the country’s image.
However, despite these marketing campaigns, there is no guarantee that the natural resources and 90-kilometer-long seacoast will be exploited sustainably. In 2016, the neighboring provinces saw the marine life disaster of unprecedented sizes, causing a number of protests, which the government tried to suppress.
Glancing toward the Annamite Mountains, I observe the excavators arduously pouring heaps of sand to develop the seaside. Workers are covered from head to toe to shield themselves from the beams of light when painting in white the balustrade between the beach and the cement pavement. When the sun sluggishly goes down, the ocean of vehicles rushing through the highway will shelter a few individual sellers in the seclusion of the roadside.
Packed with the newcomers from villages, Da Nang bursts at the seams. Mushrooming construction sites claim increasingly more land. Plants retaliate and often win the battle, where humans forgot the purpose of cementing the surroundings.
Vietnam, remaining strongly agricultural, gets stuffed with high-rise buildings housing Chinese-oriented hotels and business centers. Thay Thoi, the 21-year-old student approaches me to practice English. Despite inflated prices, he found affordable accommodation away from Da Nang’s city center. Kneaded in the countryside, but baked in urbanized areas, migrants need to adapt to the new environment. Faithful to their habits, they proudly hang out the washed underwear and trousers in front of their houses to the display.
The forest of cables stretched across electricity poles shapes the industrialized landscape. At their feet, rat families play around the scattered garbage bags forming a new geometrical harmony with abandoned furniture. Place of action: narrow streets with movable market stalls every few steps.
The rising pile of trash on the streets proclaims that waste collection poses a cumbersome undertaking for Da Nang. Low fees for residential waste collection do not encourage waste reduction. This additionally aggravates the issue of the limited capacity of the local landfills.
Suffocating smoke spreads all over the streets and the smell of fridge-sized hog, roasting at the crammed pavement hits the nostrils of every passerby. Karaoke music thunders through the speakers, stifling other voices indiscriminately.
Slipping away to the tiny streets of the neighborhoods, I am greeted by the elders of the family guarding the house gates in full serenity. Venerated almost as saints, they will be commemorated after death at the special altar in the interior of the house.
Many other customs remain so-well-preserved like their food. As in the bygone times, Danangese people parch all kinds of products. And much to the bewilderment of a random onlooker, even the birds seem to follow the newly established rules of urbanized space, by not pecking at it.
Young generations of entrepreneurs are not willing to miss the economic boom.
Small businesses have sprouted everywhere. Every morning I am called up for a seemingly endless chit chat by accommodating locals. They give me a taste of how Da Nang honors the Confucian notion of time.
But life is not as sweet without the sour. The robust bureaucracy and corruption curbs their ambitions. Those who already succeeded take into account the possible loss of their fortunes.
“The people with connections to the party have stolen the property of my friend in Da Nang”, a local real estate agent, Vo Lynh discloses. “And there is nothing we can do about it”, his hands drop with resignation.
Over the years, the government has appropriated land for the reasons of infrastructure, urbanization, and economic development. In Vietnam, the Constitution does not recognize the private ownership of land. All land was nationalized and the wording of the 1988 Land Law decreed that land is owned by the people under the management of the state.
Roaming around Da Nang, I bump into Tai, a local policeman who eagerly takes me to his house for lunch. Black streaks adorn the ceiling above the Buddhist altar in the corridor, the evidence of his zealous passion for burning the incense sticks.
Officially committed to the Marxist-Leninist doctrine, the Communist government funds the construction of splendid Buddhist temples in public spaces, making it de facto state religion. “Religion may be the opium for the masses but it turns out that it is useful in promoting values such as public order,” Tai admits. He adds that the members of the party must be atheists but Vietnam has an open policy toward religion.
“In the past, the churches of Da Nang had lost a chunk of its land and properties to the government without compensation,” Vo Lynh says. “Nowadays, we experience some limitations when we celebrate Christmas; but more importantly, we never envy Buddhists.” Ethnic minorities living in Vietnam’s countryside have been enjoying a much less favorable policy. Montagnards, indigenous, largely Christianized tribal people from the central highlands, not far from Da Nang, suffer persecution for their religious beliefs.
Not dwelling in the past, but instead focusing on the present moment determines the core of traits of the Vietnamese psyche. The United States offers money to the victims of Agents Orange, which still causes deadly diseases. The endeavors to wash off the shame of this chemical used during WW2 are observed stoically.
Predictably, the current problems inflame the minds much more ferociously.
Unconstrained when speaking to a foreigner, Danangese folks declare they are unsettled by the Chinese influence on their government and economy. The fact that many strategic projects are assigned to them has been stirring murmured protests.
“Nowadays, people not affiliated with us anticipate that our Catholic leaders will find a way of dealing with the local and central government in crisis situations.” Vo Lynh also stresses that the doubt in the state news agencies is omnipresent.
It is the social media that plays an increasingly vital role in discussing relevant subjects. The Internet serves as an outlet for political activism, and Vietnam has one of the highest rates of social media. Notwithstanding, the party seeks ways of limiting social activism, by drafting laws aimed at news sites and blogs with dangerous content.
The crackdown on critics has been executed in line with a penal code prohibiting “making, storing, disseminating or propagandizing materials and products that aim to oppose the State of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam”.
As a result, the number of prisoners of conscience has peaked up by a third, as reported by Amnesty International.
Truong Tran, a 39-year-old engineer and other interviewees, whose real identities, I need to keep confidential, still remember Nguyen Ba Thanh, their only beloved Communist party leader from Da Nang. In a hushed voice, they reveal that he died unexpectedly. Presumably the outcome of his anti-corruption actions…
Danangese people are fraught with hardships and sacrifices but continue their struggle with every dawn. The worst is behind them and the future belongs to the brave ones. As they say, the wind is on the side of the ablest sailor.
Robert Bociaga ( www.robert-bociaga.com ) is a traveling photojournalist specializing in International Affairs.
He was featured in The Diplomat and Nikkei Asian Review.
Based in South East Asia, his focus lies on economic and social issues around culture change, urbanization, political marginalization, poverty, religion and destruction of nature.
He holds a master’s degree in Law.