Power Lines and Politics in Ho Chi Minh City

Hi Chi Minh City Sandiso Ngubane


Only a few modern skyscrapers reach above the Ho Chi Minh City skyline in a sea of old, largely worn buildings. Some, in a few pockets of the city, have been transformed into modern hipster bars, salons and restaurants. Not too many are any taller than two or three stories, as one would expect of a big city. Not one who comes from a place that models itself after the Western world in the way that South Africa has developed with its Sandton, even Cape Town City Bowl, cityscapes.

This is the direction, I would argue, Ho Chi Minh City could be headed if the properties advertised at construction sites is anything to go by. It’s a city in transition; however slow the pace of change.

On the ground, there’s no shortage of a rush as scooters zig-zag across large streets, often making an uninitiated Saigon streetwalker like myself a little nervous as bikers seem to be coming from each and every direction in droves. Walking on smaller streets, often lined by street food stalls and the like, power lines hang from above, crisscrossing the streets, and from every direction, people are shouting, calling for one to come to their stall to try out whatever street food they have on offer.

They can often be forceful, and often ignore any attempt at rebuffing them – a hand up, a “no”, even a “no thanks” – sometimes grabbing you by the arm to lead you to a table, and a chair, while plonking bowls of soup or a cup of tea before you. ‘Fine, I’ll eat,’ was often my response after being essentially bullied into it. Not that I minded it much. I quickly learned while in Thailand that, in Southeast Asia, it is rather difficult to find bad street food. It’s actually close to impossible, so why the heck not?


Hi Chi Minh City Sandiso Ngubane


Ho Chi Mihn City felt rather different to any place I have ever found myself in. At first, I didn’t think I would enjoy it. It lacked the modern, cosmopolitan feel of Bangkok and just felt like a seriously busy, but uninteresting large town. But on my first night, a walk just around the corner from my hostel took me to a street where the party came alive, and tourists mingled with locals at noisy bars, and clubs. This is my kind of vibe, I thought. But there was something else that had piqued my interest – the fact that there were Communist symbols hanging on street poles and plastered throughout the city. I was in a socialist country run by the Communist Party of Vietnam.

Socialism is interpreted in different ways, and maybe its meaning has become obscure in the face of rampant capitalism, and even its demonisation by those who see it as a path to Communism. Research shows that my generation has no understanding of socialism, yet we find the term quite appealing for reasons I suspect have a lot to do with how much we value community, even if its for selfish reasons like getting a few social media likes.

The idea of a sharing economy, in my view, has socialist leanings, even though its functions, like Uber or Airbnb, can easily fall into the abyss of capitalist greed. The latter, among other factors, is making affordable accommodation impossible to find in Cape Town, something Berlin and other cities have sought to crack down on. In any case, I interpret socialism as a sort of middle ground between capitalism and communism. It advocates for a system where the means of production, distribution and exchange in a society, are owned, controlled and regulated by the community as a whole – read: government.


Hi Chi Minh City Sandiso Ngubane


What I wanted to know, in Ho Chi Minh City and Vietnam, is how an ordinary young person feels about the whole situation. Luckily, at my hostel, was a young Vietnamese lady who described herself as “non-traditional”. She often spoke about the conservatism of Vietnamese society, how she, for instance, is faced with familial expectations to find work, marry and become what I presume is the patriarchal ideal of what a woman should be. She, on the other hand, had different aspirations for herself. For one, she liked traveling the world, and hated full-time employment. In that sense, she is no different to most people I know.

According to Tr√¢m, the Vietnamese generally accept the one-party state set-up, and most people, herself included, do not see any reason to participate in the political discourse in their country. It might even get one into trouble, she seemed to be alluding. People generally continue with their lives and hope for the best. Although elections come around every few years, many feel voting is useless because the leaders have been decided on in any case, by some powers that be, so why be bothered?

Was it all that bad, though? I asked. I had to. Where I come from, we hold the idea of democracy quite dear. Yes, apartheid died only a little over two decades ago, but those of us who grew up at the tail end of that system can’t imagine not being able, or not being allowed, to decide who we want running government. Then again, many would argue we don’t anyway.

During my travels, I encountered countless Americans who felt Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump have been forced onto them, and some who went as far as saying they feel indifferent to who is running the country. It’s all the same. Except it isn’t. Apathy, I often argued is what gives the world the likes of Donald Trump, or Brexit, and some would argue, Jacob Zuma too. Would he really be president had he not been on an ANC ticket?

Whatever the case may be, my short discussion with Trâm illustrated to me how we take our privilege as citizens of democratic societies very lightly. She spoke of the stifling of democratic debate about governance that has led many in Vietnam to be apathetic. Yet for us, our apathy is directly influenced by the fact that we can have these discussion openly – what we want, what we don’t want – but decide not to be active citizens regardless. Ultimately, living passively, hoping for the best, is no different to what young Vietnamese people like Trâm are doing.


Hi Chi Minh City Sandiso Ngubane


My stay in Ho Chi Minh City was not long enough for me to seriously explore living under the socialist, one-party regime, but I did find it quite fascinating being in this environment at a time when the rise of Bernie Sanders in the United States has helped to remove the stigma of socialism. Polls taken in the US ahead of the Democratic Party presidential primaries showed that a large number of registered Democrats described themselves as socialists. A New York Times poll from last November showed that 56% of Democrats polled had favourable views of socialism. Pundits conclude that the rise of socialism in the US is directly related to the failure of capitalism that has left many young people without jobs, and with huge debt.

Being a young person myself, angry about capitalism and how it turns everything, people included, into mere commodities, I find myself fascinated by the idea of socialism. I consider countries in Western Europe that have embraced it, and how they suffer from far less economic inequalities than the US, and of course, us, South Africa. I wonder what is it they are doing right that we are not.

Vietnam might not be in an ideal situation according to Trâm, but for some of us, seeing the skyscrapers rising from the ground in Johannesburg doesn’t make us giddy because our lives and incomes are not rising with it. We don’t feel like we are any better off. We see gentrification revamping parts of our cities, and ask ourselves how soon before these places – the hipster joints, and such – become inaccessible to us, as capitalism rampages on and on.


Hi Chi Minh City Sandiso Ngubane


Sandiso Ngubane is a writer, trends analyst and the co-editor of Skattie. 


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