Eclipsed again – this time by the Vietnamese
BY THE WAY - Max V. Soliven () - November 12, 2006 - 12:00am
Yesterday, I bumped into Manila Mayor Lito Atienza at a market. He said he was fielding his son Ali – not his son Kim – for Mayor of Manila. Ali is tall, handsome, a Taekwondo champ and even has a campaign song already. But how will he fare against heavyweights like former Manila Mayor, currently Senator Fred Lim? Even if it’s true that Senator Panfilo "Ping" Lacson recently indicated he won’t weigh in for the mayorship fight, there are other candidates to contend with.

However, we mustn’t discount the power of City Hall. Hizzoner and his ruling group hold not only the purse, but usually control each barangay from the "captain" to the tanod.

The May election, however, is not the major concern of Lito Atienza nowadays. It’s to unite and take possession of the Liberal Party. The Supreme Court, on a motion of his foes, has put a TRO on the holding of "elections" for LP president and the party’s other officers. Lito says that his group are the true LPs, while his opponents are the "pedigreed" Liberals who believe, he grumps, they are by birthright the leaders of the LP.

These pedigreed types, he scoffed, are (former Senate President) Franklin Drilon, Manuel "Mar" Roxas, Butch Abad and their ilk. "They regard us as mongrels," Atienza merrily complained, with a wink to emphasize his point, "but we’re the Liberals with our feet on the ground – the ones who bring in the vote."

Hizzoner was wearing shorts, a rumpled T-shirt (less colorful by far than his usual loud Hawaiian shirts) and a cloth cap. I didn’t recognize him until he nudged me in the chest, laughing at my look of surprise. Almost nobody in the crowd, until they took a second look, recognized him either. The market, of course, was in Salcedo Village, Makati – not Manila. It was a snooping expedition, Lito admitted to me, into Jojo Binay’s territory. He plans, he said, to establish an upbeat food "market" similar to the Salcedo Village one – on a one-hectare property on Roxas Boulevard.

The owner of the proposed site, he grinned, is the Manila Hotel’s and Bulletin’s Don Emilio Yap. What will it be called? The National Patrimony Market?
* * *
La Presidenta is off for Hanoi, Vietnam, today to attend the Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) summit of leaders there.

Hanoi may not be bustling with modernity – which is really its charm – but to me it is one of the world’s enchanting little cities. Saigon, which almost nobody calls by its Communist-styled official name of Ho Chi Minh, may be my home town – I spent years in my younger life there, covering the war – but Hanoi (which was founded in the eleventh century, making it one of the oldest capital cities in Southeast Asia) is a town which reeks of "the remembrance of things past."

It is a place nestled in the embrace of lakes which are irresistibly romantic – the great Western Lake, or Ho Tay Lake (formerly dubbed the "Lake of Mists"), the Lake of the Restored Sword, the unique Pagoda on Stilts, then there are the ancient carvings on the lintels of the Temples of Vol Phuc and Quan Thanh.

The colonial French, too, put their graceful stamp on the city, with an Opera House, wide, tree-lined boulevards and St. Joseph’s Cathedral (similar to Notre Dame in Saigon) which was dedicated on Christmas 1886 by Monsignor Puginier.

The Cathedral still stands there, where it was erected on the site of an earlier old Pagoda, razed by the French occupying power to be substituted by the Catholic church. Even in Communist Vietnam, Catholicism remains surprisingly strong, it must be said – and Buddhism flourished, not having been stamped out by the atheism of the Communist rulers.

In truth, Hanoi and Vietnam itself have turned very capitalist although the red flag with yellow star still proudly flies over all. I was last in Hanoi about three years ago to pay my respects to retired Defense Minister (General) Vo Nguyen Giap – the military genius who had humbled the French at Dienbienphu, battered the Americans and South Vietnamese with the "Tet" offensive in 1968, and supervised the taking of Saigon and the defeat of South Vietnam in 1975.

I was in a hurry to see General Giap, who was then 92 before he withered and died. I found him still eloquent in speech although shrunken in aspect – indeed, he looked like Yoda in "Star Wars," but there was still the old sparkle in his eye as we relived old battles, and reminisced over old strategies, hardships and victories. By golly, that little history teacher had made history! He autographed three of his books and gave them to me, along with a greeting card. Things to be treasured, indeed, by an old war correspondent himself on the verge of being put out to pasture.

What a contrast those decades of Socialist struggle were with the Vietnam of the new middle class, and the growing Western-style outlook and consumerism.

"FORTUNE" Magazine, that bible of rampant capitalism, paid tribute to the New Vietnam on the cover of its November 20 issue. The cover depicted a hand-made Minnie Mouse doll, with the cover banner: "MADE IN VIETNAM." The subtitle blared forth: "Toys, shoes, coffee, shrimp – Asia’s second-fastest-growing economy takes the global stage."

By gosh, we’ve been upstaged again: this time by the once dirt-poor Vietnamese.
* * *
Inside, FORTUNE’s 14-page section on Vietnam is entitled: "VIETNAM – VROOOOOOM!"

The covering photograph shows young Vietnamese on motorbikes in their version of the fast and the furious. Six years ago, Vietnam’s Soviet-trained leaders, "overcoming decades of disdain for markets (the magazine said), signed an agreement rolling back trade barriers with the US."

Exports, led by big gains in textiles, seafood, and furniture, surged threefold to $32 billion, generating millions of new jobs and "sucking in billions of dollars in foreign investment." In the past five years, Vietnam has enjoyed average GDP (gross domestic product) growth of 7.4 percent. FORTUNE called this performance "better than any Asian economy’s except China."

The business magazine reports that "investors are hailing this communist bastion as Southeast Asia’s most dynamic tiger and clambering to be listed on its fledgling stock exchange."

In a separate report in the "International Herald Tribune" last Friday (Nov. 10), Grant McCool stated that "the middle classes of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam have taken quite well to capitalism."

He pointed out that "whether its families dining at fancy restaurants, businessmen buying luxury cars, or people shopping for vanity items, conspicuous consumption is popular, especially in Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi."

Indeed, McCool noted, "Vietnam is wealthier than what we believe," and quoted a research paper by TNS, a market researcher based in London, to the effect that people spent 2.5 to 7 times more than what they earned. Measuring this is difficult since Vietnam is still largely a cash economy (meaning that credit cards and plastic are not yet popularly in use). I remember the bad old days when we had to tote elastic-bound bundles of cash to pay for each lunch or dinner.

In fact, IHT was more generous than FORTUNE in saying that Vietnam’s GDP grew by an estimated 8.2 percent this year, "second only to China."

In the case of Saigon, TNS market researchers found that annual per capita gross domestic product in households was about $2,400, three times the official nationwide figure of $720 for this year.

In contrast, more than 70 percent of the 84 million Vietnamese live in the countryside and work in agriculture, in some places still struggling to make the equivalent of $1 per day.

Yet, for the increasingly affluent, extravagance has been escalating. "Living well is the best revenge," – was it one of the Fitzgerald crowd who said that? Those who’re living well are taking their best.. uh, revenge on their previous half-starved Socialism.

Car sales are growing, despite murderous import tariffs going as high as 90 percent. Honda, Mercedes, BMW, GM, Daewoo and Toyota sedan sales jumped 15 percent in the first ten months of the year – with 14,114 units sold. Now that Vietnam has joined the World Trade Organization (WTO), the tariffs on cars will progressively be lowered to 70 percent, it’s calculated.

In the meantime, supermarkets like the German "Metro" and the French "Big C" throng with customers. In once Spartan Hanoi, suburbs teem with Singapore-style highrises and apartment towers, designer shops, trendy bars and restaurants.

The National Convention Center, where La GMA and her fellow APEC Summiteers will convene, was built for $260 million over the last two years.

And here’s the worst: They say that "McDonald’s" and "Starbucks" are coming – soon. Uncle Ho must be restless in his Marble Mausoleum in the heart of Hanoi. Whatever happened to his Revolution? It has become a Revolution of Rising Expectations.

As for us, Vietnam’s rise – in truth its rocket to success – must be a wake-up call. Once upon a time desperate Vietnamese "boat people" fled in the thousands aboard fragile craft to Palawan and had to be resettled in Bataan. Today, Vietnam is, next to China, Asia’s rising star.

What are they calling us? The Eclipsed, quite possibly. We’re a nation obsessed with petty political strife, and our newest celebrity seems to be Atong Ang. It’s time we reset our priorities to the things that matter, and the things that count.

ALI AMERICANS AND SOUTH VIETNAMESE ASIA-PACIFIC ECONOMIC COOPERATION ATONG ANG BIG C BUTCH ABAD HANOI SALCEDO VILLAGE SOUTHEAST ASIA VIETNAM
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