For most Vietnamese, the past 20 years have been something of a golden era. The conflicts of the past century are long over (though not forgotten), standards of living have risen remarkably and the nation's economy is thriving. Virtually everyone can afford a motorbike and a burgeoning middle class now has the spending power to enjoy air-conditioned apartments and overseas travel. Yet Vietnam remains resolutely a one-party state, its leaders very sensitive to protest and dissent.
In May 2016 the hashtag #toichonca ('I choose fish') became Vietnam's most used social media slogan. This somewhat unlikely phrase went viral in response to an industrial toxic spill by Formosa, a Taiwanese company. An investigation confirmed the company had contaminated a 200km stretch of central Vietnamese coastline, resulting in millions of dead fish and thousands of idle fishermen. Formosa's initial response was to suggest people choose either to catch fish or have industry, sparking nationwide protests. But the company later acknowledged responsibility and agreed to pay US$500 million in compensation.
Environmental disasters are not uncommon in Vietnam (forests and fields remain poisoned by Agent Orange used by the USA in the war), but the post-Formosa protests were unusual in a country where the internet is tightly controlled by government and dissent is not tolerated. Nguyen Ngoc Nhu Quynh, who uses the moniker 'Mother Mushroom', is a blogger who campaigns on environmental, social and political issues (such as bauxite mining and police brutality), and was a very vocal protester against Formosa. She's currently in jail: a 10-year prison term was issued to her for conducting 'propaganda against the state'. Human Rights Watch, which has campaigned for the release of other activists in Vietnam, has called for her immediate release, claiming the government is using her as an example to intimidate others. The government's position is that she was prosecuted in accordance with Vietnamese law regarding anti-state activity.
Hanoi maintains close economic ties to China, one of its largest trading partners, and the two countries share a close cultural heritage. But serious differences periodically erupt with Beijing over maritime territory. For the Vietnamese, even the name 'South China Sea' is intolerable as it implies China has a claim to the entire body of water – in Vietnam it's always the 'East Sea'.
In May 2014 there were at least 21 deaths during anti-Chinese riots, in response to China deploying an oil rig in the disputed Paracel Islands. Tourism slumped as Chinese nationals cancelled holidays in Vietnam, though subsequently relations have been patched up.
Something of a personality conflict between the Viets and the Chinese continues, but business is business. More Chinese tourists (over 3 million in 2017) visit Vietnam than any other nationality. And Chinese is the second-most popular foreign language studied in Vietnam.
Walk This Way
Crossing the road in Vietnamese cities can feel like dodging bullets in a firing range, such are the numbers of motorbikes on the road. In a nation addicted to two-wheeled travel, where over 80% of the population own a motorcycle, traffic-free zones have been somewhat slow to get off the ground. But pedestrianisation schemes have now been established in Hoi An, Hue, HCMC and Hanoi (albeit only for limited hours). Negotiating Vietnamese sidewalks is another formidable challenge, as access is routinely blocked by an intimidating combo of missing paving slabs, food stalls, the odd open sewer and, yes, lots of parked motorbikes.
In February 2017, a worthy (if optimistic) initiative to reclaim the sidewalks was launched in HCMC by the city authorities seeking to encourage citizens to take up walking instead. And for Doan Ngoc Hai, nicknamed 'Captain Sidewalk' – the official tasked with keeping pavements clear and orderly – that has meant death threats.
Getting the Saigonese off their scooters will be a tough task; Tuoi Tre (Youth) newspaper reported that many of the city's office workers walk only 600 steps a day. Initiatives are certainly urgently needed to tackle urban air pollution in Vietnam, which verges on the toxic: Hanoi ranked as the second-most polluted city in the world in October 2016 and tens of thousands of premature deaths are caused by high levels of particulate matter.
Vietnam has enjoyed over two decades of consistent growth, matching China as one of the world's fastest-growing economies. Per-capita income has risen from just US$98 in 1993 to US$2290 in 2017, as Vietnam has joined the ranks of East Asian 'tiger' nations. Record numbers of Vietnamese (6.5 million in 2016) are travelling abroad. The country is a leading agricultural exporter – the second-largest coffee producer in the world – and has a strong industrial and manufacturing base. This period has not been without growing pains but, with record levels of foreign investment continuing, Vietnam's future looks bright.