The Republic of Vietnam has come a long way since kicking out the French in 1954, defeating the Americans in 1973 and repelling an invasion by China in 1979. Often referred to as “South East Asia with decent bread”, Vietnam is currently on an economic fast track propelled by tourist development and the legacy of its past.
Last month I flew into Da Nang Airport, formerly the US Airbase on the edge of the DMZ, famous for its ugly sprawl of tents, trucks and spare parts … and more notably its leaky stockpile of Agent Orange. However, in a reversal of the defoliation process the old helicopter landing zone has been re-turfed and turned into a luxury golf links.
Vietcong tunnels dating back 50 years were being used to store New World wines at ideal temperature and humidity. Across the road, without the formerly ubiquitous tidemark of plastic straws and bottle tops, lay the pristine China Beach, where the first American Marines waded ashore on the 8th of March 1965.
A uniformed taxi driver in a spanking new Toyota ferried me down the coast to Hoi An where the old city centre has been turned into a UNESCO World Heritage theme park. The town’s beauty frames aspects of the poverty that still exist. It is similar in character to more seasoned favourites of the brand, such as Antigua in Guatemala and Cuzco in Peru.
Sitting at any number of trendy restaurants – every second building is an eatery- you can upload holiday selfies to Facebook while enjoying a better broadband speed than you get at Hong Kong’s Cyberport. But how the liberator of modern Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh, would be turning in his mausoleum if he saw the going rate for a pumpkin, rocket and goat’s cheese salad.
The narrow streets are mainly full of Western flash-packers on extended R. and R. rushing between the morning’s cookery course and their afternoon eco tour. A couple of Irish bars lurk awkwardly in the shadows while the music of the Café del Mar permeates the air.
Delicious Franco-Vietnamese dishes dominate the gastronomy, although pizza and the full English breakfast are never far away. Cocktail menus stretch over several pages and wine lists are generous, but don’t be tempted by the false economy of the local grape, which is second only to Egyptian wine in its unfitness for human consumption.
Even for a mathematician the Vietnamese Dong is a confusing currency, with an orgy of zeroes on every banknote. Transactions are conducted in millions and the bristling financial activity of the town resembles more the trading floor of the New York Stock Exchange than any form of centrally managed Communist economy.
The Coca Cola Company in particular appears to be one of the more obvious economic beneficiaries of the Vietnam (American) War, despite never having paid for a single B-52 bomber or ever been on the receiving end of one of its payloads.
The absence of the “Golden Arches” in Hoi An is refreshing. However, the fast food chain has been in country since 2014 competing with the more established Burger King and KFC. Their conspicuously late presence is probably linked to a US Aid deal to help clean up the huge amount of dioxin contamination around Da Nang, a municipality that is seeking the label of “Vietnam’s most liveable city.”
Win or lose, globalization appears to be the inevitable consequence of war, a case which is convincingly made by the social activist Naomi Klein in her 2007 book “The Shock Doctrine.” Given this it will be interesting to see how long it takes and how many more lives will be lost before Syria, another UNESCO World Heritage favourite and — don’t forget — former member of George Bush’s Axis of Evil, opens its first McDonald’s branch.