My Vietnamese Grandfather – Winter 2013

In November, Nancy and I took a “bucket list” trip.  Nancy wanted to visit Vietnam. I wasn’t crazy about the idea, but I was curious as to what had changed since I was a teenager and 500,000 US soldiers served and suffered there.   When a flyer came in from the World Affairs Council promoting a Vietnam/Cambodia trip, we were hooked.

The Philadelphia WAC (there are 93 chapters across the country) is the flagship chapter for travel. We expected to see not only the attractions but to gain insights into politics and culture.   We were not disappointed- for our first event, we enjoyed cocktails and a briefing at the chancellery in Hanoi by the US Ambassador to Vietnam, David Shear.

The word Hanoi conjured up sinister communist headquarters when I was growing up. It was like North Korea today.  But things have changed.  Our guide referred to the 10 years after the war, from 1975 to 1985 as the “dark days”. Under strict communism, everyone worked for the state.  Without self-interest, no one was very productive. In response to the shortages and hardships, the country opened up – it had to.  Outside businesses were invited in, and free enterprise was permitted.  We couldn’t force them to be less communist, but on their own, they became that way; a good thing to remember before future US entanglements.

Napoleon called the British a nation of shopkeepers. Today this might be applicable to Vietnam. Everyone seems to have their own business, whether pumping up motorbike tires or peddling fruit from the back of a bicycle.

My grandfather came to the United States from Russia in 1904, and his second profession was as a peddler with a pushcart.  Neither he nor the Vietnamese had much experience with having their own businesses, but they learned quickly.  My grandfather went from buying and selling rags, bottles and bones, to scrap metal, to iron and steel fabrication and erection.  I sadly note the passing of his company, Acorn Iron and Supply Company (founded in 1906) in 2012.   In recent years, the company fabricated and sold heavy welding tables and related equipment, but with the decline of heavy industry in the United States and failure to innovate, sales dwindled.

In Vietnam, sidewalks are for business, not for walking. The sidewalks were covered with merchandise spilling out from storefronts, and with vendors of all types of services and wares.  My grandfather would have felt right at home.

Since the country opened up, quality of life has improved for the citizens.  The average wage is about $1,200 per year, although that is somewhat misleading since farmers grow most of what they need. We went to one idyllic farming village, and the farmers watered their crops using two buckets on a shoulder yoke. I read in my grandfather’s autobiography of him carrying water home with buckets and a shoulder yoke.

The main job of many people in Vietnam is to earn enough to buy food for the day.  There are no support services. If your family can’t provide for you, you get nothing. On the other hand, there are some very rich and successful Vietnamese.  Oddly, we may be more socialist in the United States than they are in Vietnam now.

We also had a briefing from the Executive Director of the American Chamber of Commerce Vietnam.  Herb Cochran, the head of this industry group, warned that increases in mandated wages and benefits by the government would push businesses to do more work in other countries and less in Vietnam. Nike and other big companies also have factories in neighboring countries.  It seems that everyone is competing, everyone wants jobs, and everyone wants to grow. The real threat was not communism, but being too self-satisfied.  If you are that today, a person in a foreign country or an immigrant will pass you by.

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