Free Enterprise System Sweeps into Hanoi

Article excerpt

JUST a few years ago profit was a dirty word in this tropical capital. But today Vietnam is embracing sweeping economic reforms, intended to move the country from Marx to market. This has transformed profit and enterprise into symbols of excellence, not excess.

So the people of north Vietnam are undergoing their own re-education. Having lived under doctrinaire communism for nearly four decades, they are now becoming familiar with consumerism.

Most of the country's relatively small amount of foreign investment heads to what was South Vietnam, as does much of its thriving foreign trade. Ho Chi Minh City, still commonly called Saigon, leads Vietnam's halting efforts at economic development.

But Hanoi is proving a quick, though not always model, study. In the past year alone, the city has enjoyed a surge of private start-ups, mainly shops and restaurants. Avoiding the strict United States trade embargo, Western-made goods are increasingly commonplace. This lucrative trade - not all of it legal - is enriching many Vietnamese.

It is almost as easy in Hanoi to buy a can of Coca-Cola or 7-Up as it would be at any convenience store in the US. The drinks are canned in Singapore and either shipped via middlemen to Ho Chi Minh City or smuggled through Cambodia.

New color television sets made by JVC of Japan are offered at any one of several shops on Hang Gai Street, in the city's old quarter. Shiny Honda motorbikes are sold on a nearby street. Merchants appreciate US dollars, rather than the inflation-ridden and non-convertible Vietnamese dong.

The North may be open for business, but it still lacks a sharp business acumen inherent to the South. Observes a Vietnamese who left the country and has now returned to pursue real estate and other investment projects, "In Hanoi, if you open the door, they don't know what to do. In Saigon, if you don't open the door, they'll kick it down."

Visa credit cards are an example. Due to the trade embargo, only cards issued by non-US banks are valid in Vietnam. Visa is slowly gaining acceptance in Ho Chi Minh City since its recent introduction, but it is regarded with wonder in Hanoi.

A foreign visitor was told it would be possible to cover a hotel bill with a Visa card, and tried to use it. A hotel employee took the card in both hands and, expressing great surprise, confessed that she had never before seen a credit card. …