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
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. …