Vietnam has made a remarkable recovery from war and penury, says Peter Collins (interviewed here). But can it change enough to join the rich world ?
Alongside the wreckage of an abandoned M41 tank another friendly guide demonstrates a dozen types of improvised booby-traps with sharp spikes that were set in and around the tunnels to maim pursuing American soldiers. The Vietnamese not only welcome the tourist dollars Cu Chi brings in, but are also rather proud of it. They feel it demonstrates their ingenuity, adaptability, perseverance and, above all, their determination to resist much stronger foreign invaders, as the country has done many times down the centuries.
These days Vietnam also has plenty of other things to be proud of. In the 1980s Ho Chi Minh's successors as party leaders damaged the war-ravaged economy even more by attempting to introduce real communism, collectivising land ownership and repressing private business. This caused the country to slide to the brink of famine. The collapse soon afterwards of its cold-war sponsor, the Soviet Union, added to the country's deep isolation and cut off the flow of roubles that had kept its economy going. Neighbouring countries were inundated with desperate Vietnamese “boat people”.
Since then the country has been transformed by almost two decades of rapid but equitable growth, in which Vietnam has flung open its doors to the outside world and liberalised its economy. Over the past decade annual growth has averaged 7.5%. Young, prosperous and confident Vietnamese throng downtown Ho Chi Minh City's smart Dong Khoi street with its designer shops. The quality of life is high for a country that until recently was so poor, and its larger cities have retained some of their colonial charm, though choking traffic and constant construction work are beginning to take their toll.
An agricultural miracle has turned a country of 85m once barely able to feed itself into one of the world's main providers of farm produce. Vietnam has also become a big exporter of clothes, shoes and furniture, soon to be joined by microchips when Intel opens its $1 billion factory near the capital, Hanoi. Imports of machinery are soaring. Exports plus imports equal 160% of GDP, making the economy one of the world's most open.
Having made peace with its former foes, Vietnam hosted Presidents Bush, Putin and Hu at the Asia-Pacific summit in 2006 and joined the World Trade Organisation in 2007. This year it has one of the rotating seats on the UN Security Council.
Vietnam's Communists conceded economic defeat 22 years ago, in the depths of a crisis, and brought in market-based reforms called doi moi (renewal), similar to those Deng Xiaoping had introduced in China a few years earlier. As in China, it took time for the effects to show up, but over the past few years economic liberalisation has been fostering rapid, poverty-reducing growth.
The World Bank's representative in Vietnam, Ajay Chhibber, calls Vietnam a “poster child” of the benefits of market-oriented reforms. Not only does it comply with the catechism of the “Washington Consensus”—free enterprise, free trade, sensible state finances and so on—but it also ticks all the boxes for the Millennium Development Goals, the UN's anti-poverty blueprint. The proportion of households with electricity has doubled since the early 1990s, to 94%. Almost all children now attend primary school and benefit from at least basic literacy.
Vietnam no longer really needs the multilateral organisations' aid. Multilateral and bilateral donors together have promised the country $5.4 billion in loans and grants this year, but with so much foreign investment pouring in, Vietnam's currency reserves increased by almost double that figure last year. At least the aid donors have learned from the mid-1990s, when excessive praise discouraged Vietnam from continuing to reform, prompting an exodus of investors. Now the tone in private meetings with officials is much franker, says a diplomat who attends them.
Vietnam has become the darling of foreign investors and multinationals. Firms that draw up a “China-plus-one” strategy for new factories in case things go awry in China itself often make Vietnam the plus-one. Wage costs remain well below those in southern China and productivity is growing faster, albeit from a lower base. When the UN Conference on Trade and Development asked multinationals where they planned to invest this year and next, Vietnam, at number six, was the only South-East Asian country in the top ten.
Much of the praise now being showered anew on the country is deserved. The government is well on course for its target of turning Vietnam into a middle-income country by 2010. Its longer-term aim, of becoming a modern industrial nation by 2020, does not seem unrealistic.
But from now on the going may get tougher. As Mr Chhibber notes, few countries escape the “middle-income trap” as they become richer. They tend to lose their reformist zeal and see their growth fizzle. A study in 2006 by the Vietnamese Academy of Social Sciences concluded that further reductions in poverty will require higher growth rates than in the past because the remaining poor are well below the poverty line, whereas many of those who recently crossed it did not have far to go.
The Communist Party leadership openly admits that the Vietnamese public is fed up with the endemic corruption at all levels of public life, from lowly traffic policemen and clerks to the most senior people in ministries. In 2006, just before the party's five-yearly congress, the transport minister resigned and several officials were arrested over a scandal in which millions of dollars of foreign aid were gambled on the outcome of football matches. The leadership insists it is doing its best to clean up, but a lot remains to be done.
Almost as bad as the corruption is the glacial speed of legislative and bureaucratic processes. Proposed laws have to pass through all sorts of hoops before taking effect, with endless rounds of consultations to build consensus. The dividing line between the Communist Party, the government and the courts is not always clear. The justice system is rudimentary. Lawyers have no formal access to past case files, so they find it hard to use precedent in legal argument.
The government is part-way through a huge project to slim the bureaucracy and streamline official procedures. It recently cut the number of ministries from 28 to 22. Yet for the moment the bureaucratic logjam is stopping the country building the roads, power stations and other public works it needs to maintain its growth rate. Nguyen Tan Dung, the prime minister, says that if growth is to continue at its current rate, the country's electricity-generating capacity needs to double by 2010. That seems a tall order, to put it mildly.
Soaring car-ownership is leaving the country's underdeveloped roads increasingly gridlocked. In an admirably liberal attempt to limit price distortions as oil surged above $100 a barrel, the government slashed fuel subsidies in February. But one effect will be to stoke inflation, already worryingly high at 19.4% in March. Bank lending surged by 38% last year as firms and individuals borrowed to speculate on shares and property.
The government is finding it much harder to manage an economy made up of myriad private companies, banks and investors than to issue instructions to a limited number of state institutions, especially as the public sector is currently suffering a drain of talent to private firms that are able to offer much higher pay.
What could go wrong
All this leaves Vietnam's continued economic development exposed to a number of risks:
• Rising inflation—which is hurting low earners in particular—and a growing shortage of affordable housing could create a new urban underclass among unskilled workers who have left the land for the cities. Combined with rising resentment at official corruption and the increasing visibility of Vietnam's new rich, this could cause social friction and bring strikes and protests, chipping away at the political stability that has underpinned Vietnam's strong growth and investment.
• Trade liberalisation and increased domestic competition will benefit some firms and farmers but hurt others—especially inefficient state enterprises. These could join forces and press the government to halt or even reverse the reforms.
• The slumping stockmarket or perhaps a property crash could cause a big firm or bank to fail. Given the country's weak and untested bankruptcy laws and financial regulators, the authorities may find it hard to deal with that kind of calamity.
• Natural disasters, from bird flu to floods, could cause chaos.
• The economy could come up against the limits of its creaking infrastructure and the shortage of people with higher skills. Jammed roads, power blackouts and the inability to fill managerial and professional jobs could all bring Vietnam's growth rate crashing down.
Vietnam has set itself such demanding standards that even if some combination of these factors did no more than push annual growth below 5%, it would be seen as a serious setback. The foreign minister, Pham Gia Khiem, notes that Vietnam's current growth of around 8-9% is lower than that in Asia's richest economies at the same stage in their development.
Despite the risks ahead, Vietnam has already provided the world with an admirable model for overcoming war, division, penury and isolation and growing strongly but equitably to reach middle-income status. This model could be followed by many impoverished African states or, closer to home, perhaps by North Korea. If it can be combined with gradual political liberalisation, it might even offer something for China to think about.