Vietnam (scraps)

My Vietnam is like my China: accessed from the South, from the mega-urban, commercial culture, and from pre-communist traditions. It’s very much the view from Saigon (and that isn’t something I regret). Saigon would be a great place to live (in small part because the idea of calling it Ho Chi Minh City is a transparent joke).

Doi Moi looks like it should work a lot like Gaige Kaifeng (as a local version of generic ‘Reform and Opening’ in a ‘Market Leninist’ regime) — but it doesn’t seem to be quite working out. If rationalized corruptocracy is close to ideal limit of effective government among large states, Vietnam seems to have managed the corruptocracy far better than the rationalization. Infrastructure development — the magic sauce of recent Chinese hyper-growth — has not reached ignition. The country is too small to fund its own ambitions, and too chaotically kleptocratic to bring in foreign investment on the scale required. Despite many excellent things going for it, the country is floundering with a morose economic spirit that is almost Western.

Vietnamese coffee is among the most sublime offerings this tortured planet supplies. Thick, dark, and massively caffeinated, it makes a Starbucks brew seem like dishwater. One cup and the flight has paid for itself, as far as the utilitarian calculus is concerned.

A visit to Saigon’s fine arts museum is a grave disappointment. The building is a beautiful colonial structure, but the contents — once despicable trash had been ceremoniously burned — would fill a small room. There’s no way Vietnam will be setting the world art market on fire in the immediate future.

Cao Dai is very strange. Created as a new religion in 1926, with the obvious brief to make spiritual sense of Vietnam’s peculiar position with cultural history and geography, it canonized Victor Hugo and Sun Yat-sen as signatories of “the third alliance between God and man” (after Moses and Jesus). Cao Dai’s Masonic founder, Nguyen Gia Tri, rounded out the new sacred triumvirate.

“I saw an eye” was the way my seven-year-old daughter recorded her experience of the main Cao Dai temple. That would be the Sauronic Cosmic Eye, repeated obsessively as a motif, overlooking the white-robed devotees during their observances. The quantity of lurid symbolism is quite overwhelming. For anybody with the slightest attachment to a restrained religious tradition, the effect would be one of unbridled spiritual chaos. Apparently good natured, and seriously interesting, though.

Vietnamese water puppet theater — more engaging than I had expected.

[Typing on this device is killing me -- I’m heading out into the fragrant tropical night for a cigarette.]

January 17, 2014admin 30 Comments »
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30 Responses to this entry

  • Murmur Says:

    I recall visiting a Vietnemese restaurant in London that offered ‘weasel poo’ coffee, which apparently is made by forcing weasels to eat a diet of coffee beans; and is supposedly a delicacy over there. You might therefore want to enquire as to how the coffee you are enjoying was made (or perhaps on 2nd thought you might not).

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Yes, ‘weasal’ is widely available — and highly esteemed. It’s too expensive to consume by accident. (Haven’t summoned up the courage to sample this delicacy yet.)

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    Posted on January 17th, 2014 at 5:38 pm Reply | Quote
  • Manjusri Says:

    Is Doi Moi not working out, or is Vietnam simply at an earlier development stage than China? I visited Vietnam last year, and what people who have been in Asia for a long time tend to say about it is that Saigon feels a lot like Shanghai circa 1993-94- right at the beginning of the boom. There’s a lot of energy there, both figuratively and literally, and Japan and SK are making big bets on Vietnam. Wouldn’t shock me if in a few decades they’re the new SK.

    (While Doi Moi began only eight years after Gaige Kaifeng, they had the devastation of the Vietnam war to recover from, were less marketable than China, and lagged in normalization of relations with non-Communist states… so it’s not surprising if they’re still a few decades behind the curve.)

    While Saigon is more commercial, Hanoi actually felt more developed, especially the countryside around it- which looked an awful lot like some of the rural districts around Shanghai and Zhejiang. Big houses, relatively little poverty by developing Asian country standards.

    My old business partner invited me to come down to Saigon and work with him for a few months last fall… I declined because I was eager to get back to the US and start looking for a real job. Given the real job hasn’t exactly manifested itself yet… and the dire winter here on the high plains… maybe I should have taken that offer…

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Judging by the Saigon CBD they haven’t reached ignition yet (into rapid self-propelling growth). My guess is there are deeper problems than just a few years of retardation. Still, places can do a lot worse — even non- ‘communist’ places can.

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    Posted on January 17th, 2014 at 8:10 pm Reply | Quote
  • Alex Says:

    I’m heading out into the fragrant tropical night for a cigarette.

    ( ̄‿ ̄)y~~

    Cochinchina is in the Torrid Zone, in south China. It lies between the twelfth parallel and the eighteenth. I estimate its length at 100,000 paces, but its width is very much less. It has the China Sea on the east side; on the west, the kingdom of Laos; to the south, that of Champa; to the north, Tonkin. It is divided into six provinces, each having its own governor and its own special legal machinery. The town where the king resides is called Kehue. His court there is very grand and the number of lords very large. They are gorgeous in their dress, but their buildings lack magnificence because they build only of wood. They are nevertheless quite comfortable and rather beautiful thanks to the exceedingly well-wrought columns that support them.
    The number of people there is very large. Their natural disposition is very gentle, but they are nevertheless good soldiers. They have marvellous respect for the king, who maintains 150 galleys at all times, which he keeps in three different harbors. The Dutch have experienced to their hurt how they can successfully attack their large vessels, in which they considered themselves masters of the sea.
    Their religion is the same as that of China, of which they at one time formed part along with Tonkin. They have the same laws and practically the same customs. They have doctors like the Chinese, and their mandarins enjoy great prestige among them, but I find them less proud than the Chinese, more tractable, and much better soldiers.

    - Divers Voyages et Missions du Père Alexandre de Rhodes en la Chine et Autres Royaumes de l’Orient

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 17th, 2014 at 8:14 pm Reply | Quote
  • Handle Says:

    And when will you be visiting DC? April 13th would be ideal.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Two words: drone fodder.

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 17th, 2014 at 9:46 pm Reply | Quote
  • spandrell Says:

    2 digit IQs and tropical work ethic. Vietnam isn’t going anywhere.

    [Reply]

    Mark Warburton Reply:

    Spandrell, your bluntness is one of the resident quirks I’ve grown fondly accustomed to. Haha.

    [Reply]

    spandrell Reply:

    I hear that a lot.

    I actually like Vietnam a lot, had a great time when I visited. But the idea that Vietnam is going to catch up with the civilized world or even China is pure fantasy.

    Foreign companies are rushing to start manufacturing there only to find that the local peasants give up in weeks. A Chinese peasant might find work in a factory to be worth it compared to farm labor, but Vietnam produced 3 rice harvests a year with little effort. They just don’t have it in them. Gregory Clark was right.

    [Reply]

    Mark Warburton Reply:

    Hey. I have no bone to pick in this. Although I do like hearing about these contrasting differences in Asia. As for Clark, thanks to my exposure of him and Weiss by Nick, my eyes have been opened a little more.

    admin Reply:

    The ‘national libetation struggle’ was in large part a way to purge the Han business class. Oh well …

    Some Taiwanese came in with Doi Moi to try and repair the damage. The developer of the new swanky District 7 (where we’re staying with friends right now) so enjoyed his cooperation with the Vietnamese authorities that he threw himself out of the window of his Taibei office block during a business meeting.

    [Reply]

    spandrell Reply:

    Heh. The Vietnamese have this little issue with their national identity being based in their ability to kill Chinese people. They can’t just stop now.

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    piwtd Reply:

    “2 digit IQs and tropical work ethic” Here in the Czech Republic we have a very strong Vietnamese minority and they pretty much conform to general Asian stereotypes of high IQ and strong work ethics. They run all the small shops and their children are over-represented in higher education.

    [Reply]

    admin Reply:

    Like the UK, the best leave. Communism is an incomparably effective device for pushing hereditary quality out into diasporas. That’s why rootless cosmopolitans are going to be tough to beat — they’ve been well sifted.

    [Reply]

    Mark Warburton Reply:

    I’m aiming to be one of those entry-level ‘best’ by 40. Although it isn’t predominately the economic situation that’s propelling me away from the UK (it should be), it’s the cultural decadence: the rampant herd-nihilism of the lower-classes, and the cathedral etiquette of the middle that gets my wick.

    Handle Reply:

    The Vietnamese has a sizable Chinese market dominant minority (mainly Hoa, but not all) that arrived in various waves and was also forcibly assimilated in various waves, to include the mandatory adoption of Viet family names. Some of these communities remembered their origins and stayed semi-loyal to them, and others did not, but they tended to be semi-endogamous.

    In the US, you can definitely tell the difference between the two Vietnamese groups, similar to the difference between old-stock Mormons and Jack Mormons. It helps that they tended to settle in different parts of the country. There are the communities with kids who stay in the nail and hair salons, shrimping, massage parlors, underground casinos, and pimping and prostituting with a lot of cultural prole drift (basically doing what the Filipinos and Hmong do), and another community which becomes doctors, lawyers, engineers, and bureaucrats, like the Chinese and Koreans do.

    The lesser Vietnamese get ‘Asian Privilege’ or ‘Sterotype Threat’ or whatever the progressives are calling it these days. They are expected to be smarter and more orderly, so they get to fly further below police suspicion radar than is warranted, but everyone is shocked and surprised when they turn out to be merely average joes or slightly dim bulbs.

    [Reply]

    Peter A. Taylor Reply:

    Would you please elaborate on the old-stock vs. Jack Mormons?

    Handle Reply:

    Thoughts from two years ago here. I should clarify my use of ‘Jack’ is the slang I picked up, and not exactly consistent with what Wikipedia says. I heard ‘Jack’ as being used to describe ‘new convert’ or perhaps the children of converts. They were perceived to be less pious and to possess less genuine fidelity to the LDS scriptures, and more likely to bail from the community.

    Since I wrote what was in the above link, I’ve had the opportunity to discuss the matter further with some of my old colleagues, and they tend to concur with my observation. Presently I work with two Mormons in my small office (like I’ve said elsewhere, they are definitely over-represented in certain parts of the government).

    One never heard of it, but upon reflection, agreed with it as an empirical matter. The other said he was raised in an environment where the stereotype was believed as strongly accurate and even taken for granted because it was so obvious. I’d guess Israeli equivalent would be comparing the talents of Ashkenazi vs. Sephardic’ Jews.

    Of course, both of these guys can trace their Mormon heritage back a long ways, and they’re both sharp cookies, so they might be a little biased.

    On the other hand, I’m not Mormon and don’t have any personal stake in whether its true or not. But it’s something I observed to be true when I was surrounded by a lot of them for an extended period. The organization was almost wholly Mormon, but the leadership was all smart and old-Mormon (mostly derived from ‘founder generation’ stock), whereas a lot of the bottom-rungers were new converts or the children of new converts.

    I would think if anyone would be able to do an empirical study and regression analysis of SAT scores or tithes vs. geneology it would be the meticulous record-keepers of the LDS Church. Who knows, maybe they’ve already done it. Then again, the results might be a bit unpopular.

    Handle Reply:

    @Peter A. Taylor:

    Ah, I don’t know why the link didn’t work. I’ll try again.

    Thoughts from two years ago here.

    John Hannon Reply:

    “2 digit IQs and tropical work ethic”
    Sufficient to beat the Americans.

    [Reply]

    Handle Reply:

    Also the French. And the Chinese, multiple times. The mujaheddin beat the Russians too. African bandit insurgents are pretty good at beating their government forces too.

    But so what? Once you win the war of attrition, then improving the lot of your people and building a competitive economy beyond lethargic rice-paddy plantations takes a lot of bourgeois virtues and talents and the right economic incentive structure.

    You don’t need your Soldiers to have high IQ’s to win at long-duration jungle warfare. You just need weapons, numbers, ruthlessness, fanatical levels of determination, patience, and loyalty. It also helps if you can infiltrate the enemy’s lines, blend in like a local, run a fifth column network, have nearby sanctuaries and supply lines through your neighbors, and get loads of superpower fighting support from other countries.

    Again – reference the Soviet experience in Afghanistan. When you lose your air dominance because your Mi-24 Hind is getting shot down by a Fim-92 stinger, are you getting shot down by some Saudi jihadist adventurer or local Pashtun goat herder, or General Dynamics and Raytheon? Both, obviously. But after the helicopters go away, so do the missiles, and you’re back to herding goats.

    These folks have what it takes to keep killing foreigners (which is adaptive attribute #1 to have to survive as an independent community), but not to do much else when the fighting’s done. And probably, their fighting cultures actively work against the establishment of the structures of civil society that enable forms of commerce that rely on trust and the rule of law.

    [Reply]

    spandrell Reply:

    Good soldiers they make. It also helped that they were willing to die. The Americans killed millions, but they kept going. It didn’t take many American dead for the US military to run away.

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    Kgaard Reply:

    Spandrell … I just don’t agree. The Vietnamese are ENGINES of entrepreneurism. They are very industrious and can think reasonably well. The Flynn Effect is going to take the top third of the bell curve over the 105 IQ mark in a few years and then you’ll have a critical mass of people who can make things happen. Saigon’s CBD looks spectacular — like California. Once people have a scooter and a cell phone they are self-propelling upward on the getting-smart-and-functional chain. It’s almost inevitable that Vietnam will continue to grow.

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 18th, 2014 at 5:36 am Reply | Quote
  • Allen Says:

    Where did you get the 2 digit IQ figure? I haven’t been able to find a source for this. Apparently Richard Lynn posited that they have an IQ of 96 by averaging the figures for China and Thailand, which seems dubious. At any rate, an average of 96 is not that low. It’s higher than a few European countries and in the same ballpark as several others.

    In my experience the Vietnamese have come across as bright and seem more Chinese in disposition and culture than Southeast Asian, despite Vietnam’s climate and geography.

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 20th, 2014 at 9:09 am Reply | Quote
  • Manjusri Says:

    Yes… similar genetic stock to the Cantonese (who propelled the Guangdong boom), PISA scores 30% higher than the OECD average, Confucian cultural heritage… they may be a little darker than the Northeast Asians, but the rest of the recipe is there. What’s really held the country back has been that until recently they didn’t have any selling point that China couldn’t beat them at, and this has held back infrastructure development and industry (Taiwan and SK didn’t have to compete with China and Japan was already ahead of their curve). As Spandrell points out, the three rice harvests a year ARE a factor- but growing rice is a lot of work too. I think the bigger factor is that wages that would have made them competitive with China in the past weren’t appealing when they could make more farming- but now that Chinese wages have exploded twentyfold since the 1990s, Vietnamese workers are beginning to look like a bargain by comparison.

    I’ll put in a long bet on Vietnam- they can at least beat the GDP of Mexico (which would be fourfold growth over where they are now), and probably go a bit further.

    Also, like Kgaard- I was reminded of Los Angeles when I was in Saigon, which probably had the most “American” vibe of any Asian city I’ve ever been to (though I’ve never been to Taipei or Manila, which might be more Americanized). Young population, and a hungry one at that. Whatever problems they’re having getting peasants into the factories, the college-educated Vietnamese seem to have a lot more entrepreneurial drive than their Chinese Generation Y counterparts and my colleagues in business down there have been impressed with their work ethic.

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 20th, 2014 at 5:10 pm Reply | Quote
  • spandrell Says:

    Well a bet has been called, let’s see what happens. My bet is Vietnam still sucks 10 years later, and 20 years later not even the Koreans are willing to do business there.

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 21st, 2014 at 8:45 am Reply | Quote
  • Allen Says:

    Well we’re speaking in such general terms that there’s not much of a basis for a bet here. And people tend to do business in much worse areas than Vietnam, so that’s hardly a good basis for a bet.

    I’m not saying that Vietnam will necessarily become a powerhouse, but I don’t see why it can’t become at least moderately successful. Low IQ and tropical work ethic hasn’t been my impression of the Vietnamese at all. They seem more Chinese in culture, intellect, and disposition than other Southeast Asians.

    [Reply]

    spandrell Reply:

    But they lack the actual Chinese who run things as in other SEA countries.

    Vietnam feels likes hill tribe areas in China. Reasonably pleasant but nothing intellectual about it.

    [Reply]

    Posted on January 21st, 2014 at 7:22 pm Reply | Quote

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