Even before President Obama announced the normalization of relations with Cuba on Dec. 17, our friend Loan Tran was texting my husband, Bob, and me: “Just like when Vietnam opened the door!”
To which Bob answered, “We should all move to Havana and party like the old days in SG.”
SG is Saigon, the former name of Ho Chi Minh City before it fell to communists on April 30, 1975. A week before that, my family escaped and moved to Arizona. I was 9. Growing up, I’d hear my parents resignedly say that they’d never see their homeland again, that the old, hard-line communists in Hanoi had to die first before a new generation could change Vietnam. Looking at us kids, Dad would say, “Maybe while you’re still alive.” My father passed away in 1991.
In February 1994, citing Hanoi’s cooperation on such issues as finding the remains of American MIAs, President Clinton lifted the 19-year-old trade embargo, and the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations that July. By then, Bob and I had left our reporting jobs at the Los Angeles Times and were living in Saigon. It will be interesting to compare Cuba’s transformation with how Vietnam changed in the years I worked there right after it reopened.
On Feb. 5, 1994, I shared a byline on an L.A. Times article about how support by some Vietnamese Americans for ending the embargo muffled the protests of anti-communist extremists. The article noted: “It was not too long ago … that the announcement of renewed trade with Vietnam would have sparked acts of violence against anyone in the Vietnamese community who supported Clinton’s policy. Yet there have been no acts of violence against the many Vietnamese businessmen who publicly endorsed the move.”
That spring, my editor sent several of us to Vietnam for more stories. It was on this trip that I decided to move back to Saigon.
We found an apartment over a bakery for $300 a month, which included meals and housekeeping. Bob taught English and studied Vietnamese. I scoured an English-language newspaper and found a marketing job for a joint American-Vietnamese company developing golf club resorts. Vietnam was rushing to make up for the two prior “lost” decades. From north to south, abandoned buildings and rice paddies turned into a modern money crop: development, construction sites that transformed the drab landscape into glass high-rises, spa hotels and garden villas. As the number of jobs increased, lives improved. On the streets, motorcycles gradually outnumbered bicycles. My relatives renovated their homes, improved their diets, sent the kids to better schools.
Saigon was the new Wild West. Restaurants and bars couldn’t open fast enough to accommodate not only the budding middle class but also all the tourists and expats working there. There was even a term for returning Vietnamese like me, Viet Kieu. Scattered by war all over the globe, thousands of us were now drawn back to our native land. At a Viet Kieu party, Bob and I met Loan, a New Jersey transplant working as a project manager for a food company. Unlike me, Loan was actually living with her parents, who had never left Vietnam. They had sent her away for a better life, but their motorbike business had grown so fast, they no longer wanted to move to America.
This is what we thought of when Obama suddenly announced the U.S. was reestablishing ties with Cuba: how life had improved so quickly for so many of our Vietnamese family members and friends. It has been two decades since Vietnam reopened and, yes, it’s still a communist country that censors bloggers and imprisons outspoken dissidents. But that’s something to work on, not a lost cause. Each time I return to visit, I find more development, and not only in infrastructure. Cars are now fighting motorbikes in traffic. The government is building a subway. Yahoo hired a news editor for its Vietnamese page. And there are even gay pride parades. Do the Vietnamese want to erase all this and go back to pre-1994?
Cuba, here we come.
Thuan Le Elston is a member of USA TODAY’s Editorial Board.
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