Review published on December 18, 2014.Reviewed by jj redfearn
Viet Nam is a country, not a war. There was the French war, various other wars and then the American war, but Viet Nam was not a war. It wasn’t really even two different countries. North and South Vietnam were parts of the same place, sort of akin to the US Northern and Southern states in the 1800’s. Differing ideologies perhaps, but not different countries.
Today Vietnam is one country and a fast growing tourist destination. Amongst others there’s a Dorling Kindersley guide, a Rough Guide and a Lonely Planet guide; there’s no Blue Guide and if you look for books about the country rather than the war thats about all you can find. Rising Dragon is the book that makes up for it.
Hayton’s Vietnam describes a country full of contradiction, in transition. Transition from being broken by war to an integrated whole, from ultra poverty to contained poverty, from traditional to modern, from off-limits to tourist destination, from rural to industrial, from deep-seated family-first control to deep-seated family-first control, from napalm and agent orange to natural beauty, from natural beauty to heavily polluted ecological desert, from centrally managed communist to centrally managed ‘free-market’ capitalist. The latter is a case study in itself.
He tells a story of a country where the Party has total ultimate control but can only exert it occasionally, when it matters strongly. Where contradictory laws are enacted but not enforced, there to be used if necessary so that capitalism and democracy and corruption and dissent can flourish but be stamped on whenever they might disturb the status quo or get out of party control. A place with control delegated right down to the lowest community levels so that fitting in and conforming is managed by a small group of neighbours, and then of neighbourhoods, and of villages, towns, cities and regions. Work and benefits depend on conforming, yet if you conform the capitalist sky’s the limit. Where bribery and kickbacks are the norm for everything from getting good marks from the teacher to getting billion dollar contracts for state industries. Where people who are not corrupt are seen as dangerous, anti-social, not to be trusted. And where because its all illegal the Party can stamp on anyone, anytime, if they pose a threat. Everything changes, everything stays the same.
This book is a mirror. Bankers, trade unions, expenses, coverups, pollution, candidate selection processes, ethnic minorities, vote rigging, immigration, its all there. See it now before it disappears. Vietnam is a case study for the world.
Hayton’s ultimate question is where next for Vietnam. It could as easily be a question for the whole planet.
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