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APRIL 2015


about anything. Some members of our group concluded that

the South had clearly prevailed in the postwar period—capital-

ism had trumped communism. But the story was much more

complicated, of course.

We were seeing Vietnam as it appeared in 2015, not what it

had gone through in the decades after 1975. In addition to its

reeducation programs, the North had established a Stalinist sys-

tem of political control, implemented land reform, seized private

enterprises and even expropriated houses. By the 1980s, rice-

producing areas were threatened with famine, the economy was

collapsing and inflation had tripled. In 1986, following the lead

of Deng Xiaoping in China, the Vietnamese government began

to open its economy to market forces. The changes were gradual,

but ownership of land, enterprises and homes was eventually

privatized. Often properties were returned to their original own-

ers, although there were more than a few stories about socialist


We were seeing the new Vietnam, a more entrepreneurial

Vietnam, yes. Small shops lined the roads into and out of every

settlement. But often the structures were shabby, even though

they were of relatively recent origin. A very successful business-

man (or somebody with a foreign source of income) might put

up a narrow, one-lot-wide, six-story, brightly painted edifice,

particularly in a bigger town, but most buildings were dingy and

only one or two floors tall. The newer structures were mostly offi-

cial: government offices, schools, hospitals and military camps.

The military presence seemed to be everywhere: on former

South Vietnamese and American bases and the old district head-

quarters, all freshly painted ochre, three or four stories high with

red-tiled roofs and surrounded by walled compounds. The war

was over. Who was the enemy that required such a strong mili-

tary presence? Likewise, similar communist party offices were

part of each district. What were all these party groups meeting

to decide? Nothing seemed overt, but a strong political-military

presence was evident everywhere.

Sprawl is an easy word to define modern urban life in Viet-

nam. This increasingly urbanized country now has about 92

million people, twice the number its two halves had in 1975. Of

course, old Saigon sprawls, but so does every other urban area,

making them virtually unrecognizable to a visitor from the past.

At least the old capital had its landmarks; the cities and towns we

visited in central Vietnam often did not. Not only had old build-

ings given way to new, but the urban centers had shifted and

been extended for miles in every direction. The old town centers

were hard to find.

Heading out of Pleiku and Kontum into areas tradition-

Parker and Anna Borg stand at the crossroads in the center of Tuy Phuoc, the district where he worked from 1968 to 1969.

(He recognized no buildings from the past.) Low buildings like those shown here sprawl along the roads for three to four miles

in all directions outside of every urban area in this part of central Vietnam.