Sunday, April 15, 2012

Vietnam and "Easygoing Communism"

In 1986, a new president took over Vietnam, and he instituted financial reforms, split up government monopolies, and allowed private ownership of land.  Since then, Vietnam, while still nominally "Communist," has really had a largely capitalist system.  It is a system that one of our tour guides refered to as "easygoing communism."  Click the link to read more.

Above is a video of a tour guide explaining that Vietnam's combination of capitalism, communism and freedom of religion is what he calls, "easygoing communism."  Based on our discussions with various people in Vietnam, the economic system sounds similar to what we find in the U.S., with private ownership of most land and businesses, and a progressive income tax system that begins at 5% and goes up to 35% for those making over $500,000 a year.
Vietnam has an almost nonexistent unemployment rate, and the Vietnamese are known as hard workers, who work from dawn to late at night on a regular basis.
Vietnam is usually the #2 exporter of rice in the world, but it is #1 this year thanks to the floods in Thailand (the usual #1 rice exporter).  Vietnam was first introduced to coffee farming after the end of the Vietnam War (aka American War) in 1975.  In that relatively short amount of time, Vietnam has grown to be the #2 exporter of coffee in the world, behind only Brazil.

Prior drinking the cup of coffee shown in the above photos, I had only had two cups of coffee in my life (one in Panama at a coffee plantation, and one at Cafe du Monde in new Orleans).  My cup #3 was "weasel poo coffee," where the bean is first digested by a weasel and then processed and roasted after the weasel has, ahem, finished with it.  As you can see from the photo, I likely won't be ordering weasel poo coffee again.

The above video shows our tour of a house-turned-coffee-factory.  There are weasels on hand for making the premium "weasel poo coffee."  (Look it up--it's called Kopi Luwak.)

It's easier to have nearly zero unemployment when a guy sitting on the side of the street trying to sell street massages to tourists counts as "employed."  Above, see a series of videos showing a guy succeeding at just that job.  By the way, if Shane seems a little hostile toward the guy in the videos, it's because while Shane sat at a table for lunch that day, the same guy grabbed Shane from behind and started rubbing Shane's shoulders.  Shane told the guy to stop and said he didn't want a massage.  The guy stopped, but then demanded money for the two-second, unsolicited "massage." Judging by the painful-looking red marks on the tourist's back, Shane was happy his massage only lasted two seconds.
One of the recent changes in Vietnam is that, as income has increased, ownership of domestic pets like dogs has increased.  Compared my first trip to Vietnam in 2003, this time I saw many more dogs as pets and far fewer instances of dog on menus.  This cute puppy definitely likes the change.
Part of "easygoing communism" is freedom of religion.  Hence, we saw numerous bustling Buddhist temples, as well as a few Christian churches.
There also are efforts to spruce up numerous cities to make them appeal to foreign tourists.  The town of Hoi An is a great example of this, with a thriving riverfront that lights up at night and features many restaurants serving cuisines from around the world.

Another change from my first visit in 2003 is that we saw many more domestic tourists at the popular tourist sites.  During this crowded but fun boat trip in the Trang An region, we only saw tourists who looked Vietnamese--other than ourselves, of course.

One thing that is likely to change in the coming decade is the area of intellectual property protection in Vietnam.  Due to nonexistent and/or non-enforcement of trademark and copyright laws, imitation is rampant in the business world of Vietnam.  For example, the above photos show a bottle of the famous brand of bottle water, Aquafina (owned by Pepsico), along with two imitators.  As another example, we arrive at night in the town of Ninh Binh, looking for a hotel called the "Queen Mini Hotel," which was well-reviewed in Lonely Planet.  We went to the street where the hotel was supposed to be located, and we found three hotels on that street (two side-by-side, and the third directly across the street) all called the "Queen Mini Hotel," but owned by different owners.  It was difficult to figure out which was the hotel which had received the good review and which were the imitators.  As another example, the U.S. government estimates that 90% of the software for Windows operating systems in Vietnam is pirated.
Although intellectual property may not be safe in Vietnam, our valuables were safe.  The only time someone tried to steal from one of us was when I tried to swipe Beth's camera while she posed for the above photo.

Presumably because of the lack of intellectual property protection, many businesses have only the most generic names.  For example, notice the generic names of the two restaurants shown in the above video.  Of course, as you can tell from the very nice family owners of the restaurant pictured in the video, as well as our loyalty to that particular restaurant, the lack of a distinctive name did not mean that the restaurant itself was generic.

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