Vietnam: The scooter boys in a booming Communist state with a widening wealth gap 

Imagine being dropped in the centre of a huge, unfamiliar vibrant place like Ho Chi Minh City without any local currency or understanding the language. The first thing you might do is look for an ATM to get some local cash. But there is not one in sight.

Then a friendly young guy on a motor scooter who speaks English suggests he can direct you to one which turns out to be round the corner.

You successfully get the money. Then he asks for payment. In the end You give equivalent of £3 and he goes away. As a tourist to the city this happened to me. I was politely fleeced.

The incident is symbolic of the current state of affairs in Vietnam. The loss of £3 was not a huge matter for me but it was a small fortune for him. It illustrates both the gulf between first world tourists and third world countries and the internal divide between the rich and poor in an emerging nation like Vietnam.

The young motor scooter rider is one of the enduring features of Ho Chi Minh City.There are thousands of them desperate and anxious for work and they dominate the roads and the pavements. Trying to negotiate a wheelchair along the pavements I found they were my main competitors for the few ramps that made the streets accessible. The traffic in the city is anarchic and you take your life in your hands to cross the road. Many of scooter riders use the ramps for the disabled to mount the pavement to avoid being held up by traffic lights.

They are at the bottom of a very large pile with shoe shine cleaners and people selling fans to tourists. At the top are wealthy entrepreneurs and property developers in the new Asain tiger.

And a visit to Ho Chi Minh city and a popular seaside resort Nha Trang confirms this. Both are booming with new tower block offices and apartments in the former Saigon and new multi storey hotels in the seaside town.

Ho Chi Minh City still has a number of its original French colonial buildings including the old post office, a Roman Catholic cathedral and an opera house that would not look out of place in Paris.But any idea that the writ of Macron runs here is out of the question. France has left an architectural legacy but not much else.

Instead it is the Japanese,Chinese, Americans and British ( in the shape of banks like HSBC and accountants like KPMG) that dominate the city alongside growing new Vietnamese entrepreneurs.

In Nha Trang a seaside resort that was a favourite relaxation destination for US troops during the Vietnam war it is US and Japanese hotels that are dominating the seafront with at least six new tower block hotels under construction when I visited.

After the American troops left it became a holiday destination for the Russians and Chinese. Now it is seeking a wider tourist market from Asia and even Europe. The resort is not just a cruise ship destination but a major tourist centre in its own right.

The present beautiful uncrowded beach could in future become as crowded as one on the Costa del Sol.

Small shacks with corrugated roofs are cheek by jowl with new luxury hotels in Nha Trang. And in Ho Chi Minh City huge swathes of modern apartments are going up in the city centre which are well beyond the reach of the average Vietnamese worker.

Communism comes in is over property ownership. The concept of private freehold property does not exist. Instead people buy a state licence to occupy the house or flat which can be revoked if the state requires the land for development. People are compensated for having to move and foreigners are restricted to a 50 year occupancy. Some, the guide suggested, get round this by getting a Vietnamese person to “own” it for them.

Most companies expect their staff to work a six day week . Japanese employers are rated the best as they offer staff a five day week.

Vietnam is a country in transition and is aping China. It is an inexpensive holiday destination if you ignore the poverty gap.

By the way the country plans to ban motor scooters from the Ho Chi Minh City by 2030 to combat smog. I wonder where they will go or whether they will succeed.

The day I shook the hand of Fidel Castro

fidel-castro-pic-credit-bbc

Fidel Castro who died today. Pic Credit: BBC

CROSS POSTED ON BYLINE.COM

Today’s death of Cuban leader Fidel Castro at the age of 90 brings back an extraordinary memory of an event that took place nearly 40 years ago when Cuba hosted the 11th World Youth Festival.

The event  was organised by the left wing World Federation of Democratic Youth under the banner ” For Anti Imperialist Solidarity,Peace and Friendship ” and  some 17,000 participants from 145 countries attended.

At the time in 1978 it attracted a fair amount of criticism from the Establishment even though we had a Labour government with questions in Parliament on whether the government was funding the British delegation ( it wasn’t).

It also became  ” the event to be seen  at” for the rising  elite of  the British student movement – whether from the Left or the Right – who formed the British delegation.

I hitched a ride to report the event for the Guardian – therefore adding to the view that this was a Leftie event. I also conned the Cuban Communist authorities- by bringing along my wife, Margaret, by getting accreditation through a friend as representing the youth wing of British electrical engineers ( she wasn’t). I can’t remember whether I told the Guardian newsdesk, I probably didn’t.

Not only was this a rare opportunity to get to Cuba which then had no tourist industry but it gave me an insight into a generation of British students who went on to become part of the country’s elite.

Cuba was the place that Peter Mandelson honed his dark art of plotting before going on to advise Tony Blair and damage Gordon Brown. He was then the master of arranging meetings in dark rooms to weaken any support for the world Communist order. I had his measure then.

Charles Clarke, who went on to become a pretty establishment Labour home secretary, was seen  then as a dangerous Red Marxist, who had gone out to Cuba in advance to organise everything for the British delegation. His biggest achievement was probably to obtain a huge supply of  British stainless steel cutlery ( knives and forks were in short supply in  Cuba) and they got there despite US sanctions.

Tom Shebbeare, then of the British Youth Council  who went on to advise Prince Charles through the Princes Trust, was another big player.

So was Sue Robertson, a SDP follower when the handsome David Owen was the pin up boy for the moderate left,and went on to become a director of Channel Four, was also in the moderate camp.

And Young Tory  David Hunt, who went on to become a government minister under Margaret Thatcher, was in the delegation. He became closer to ” Tory wet” Peter Walker. He was coal minister during the miner’s strike of 1984-5.

As for Cuba itself there were certain facts at the time that no one wanted to know. The Foreign Office could not believe that you needed no vaccinations to go there because of its standards of health care. And education was a huge thing.

As remarkable  was that it was then trying to be a Communist state but was far too  Caribbean laid back for the Russian allies who despaired at its lack of Stalinist efficiency.

I remember chatting in halting Spanish to a Russian soldier ( it was neither our first language) who despaired at the laid back ways of the Cubans after living in the ruthless world of Moscow. I could see neither Russia nor Cuba were natural bedfellows.

The inefficiency was shown when Margaret and I gave our female minder the slip and wandered off to see laid back Havana for ourselves one evening. We got told off later but nothing happened.

The final image I have was a huge rally of thousands of people listening to Castro’s oratory  for over two hours  and later meeting him and shaking his hand.  Eat your heart out Jeremy Corbyn  your mass meetings have a long way to go  to beat Fidel’s.

There is rare footage of this rally here .