It amazes me that 30 years after the Vietnam War ended, this string bean Socialist Republic has picked itself up by its bootstraps and made a mockery of those who once dared to get involved in its business.
Any traveler can’t help but stand in awe at this incredible nation. Over the past three decades Vietnam has re-established most of its diplomatic relations that all but crumpled and died during and after the war, shuffled up the Human Development Index to sit comfortably at a Medium level, and sparked an economic boom that the rest of us can just gawk at.
We traveled to Vietnam in April ’09 and I was shocked by the transformation since my first trip to the country in 2004. This time around though (December 09), I was absolutely spellbound – especially coming from Phnom Penh. It’s less than 300km between Cambodia’s capital and Saigon, but the changes are like night and day.
I think that Vietnam has risen at a more even level than its neighbour. Mind you, Cambodia’s really only been at peace for about 10-15 years compared to Vietnam’s 30. Regardless, Vietnam is way more than 10 years past Cambodia. I don’t know whether its communism or just a different approach to development, but Vietnam takes the cake and is making me think a lot about development practice, NGOs, and war.
Here is what I saw with my own two eyes:
- not one single lexus (Phnom Penh’s streets are choked with luxury cars)
- double lane highways and overnight buses
- a roaring economy and strong export networks to the global market.
- bustling and busy people
- no garbage
- not a single NGO or Aid Organization
I have a hard time seeing what so frightened the world (and America in particular) 40 years ago to dive into the senselessness of the war in Vietnam. In terms of development – it sure looks like communism has been good to the country. Or at least, they came to the same conclusion as most of the world, just on their own (in 1986 Vietnam opened its doors to the free market) and became a thriving and growing economy in Asia all by itself.
Of course that doesn’t take into consideration freedom. Of religion. Of thinking. Of association. Vietnam’s human rights record isn’t too hot. Religious persecution is common. And freedom of the press is controlled…Facebook was even blocked on certain computers at the hotels and internet cafes I tried out. I also don’t think that the purchasing
power of a nation predicates happiness. I’m certainly not an advocate for materialism and out of control consumerism.
But it has made me think about why us in the West get involved in other people’s business in the first place. The general consensus is that Vietnam was a failed war. The USA went home with its tail between its legs, millions of dollars in the hole, and with the looming responsibility of caring for broken and severely disturbed soldiers who experienced the horrors of combat against the fierce and battle-hardened Viet Cong.
Are we going to look back 30 years from now on Iraq and Afghanistan and think the same things I’m thinking now? I also know that I wish Cambodia would take a few more cues from Vietnam – like spreading the wealth, stronger government controls on foreign investment and development (curbing corruption and all sorts of other evils), and starting to take more responsibility in providing critical social services to its own people (since right now NGOs provide nearly all of the country’s social services).
The question I am now pondering is how to balance Jesus’ command to care for the least of these, while leaving room for each people group’s inherent creativity and without crippling people by creating dependency on foreign aid.