Vietnam: Where Capitalism Thrives, Communists Rule And Dissent Whispers From The Walls

Twenty-five years of “doi moi” reforms have unleashed Vietnam’s economy and solidified one-party rule. Yet in Hanoi, a rare few offer the first signs of rebellion.

Luxury is hot in Hanoi (@Saigon/Flickr)

HANOI - Nguyen Duc Vinh, the ambitious director of a private bank with holdings of $2.5 billion, says he has the "heart of a communist." Pham Xuan Ly, a confidante of former Vietnam Army chief General Giap, is perfectly comfortable with his personal fortune and party membership: "It is not a problem at all for me," he says. "Nor for them."

After 25 years of doi moi, a policy of renewal and progressive liberalization of the economy, Vietnam is glaring paradox: a one-party communist regime overseeing a Wild-West style of capitalism. In the streets of Hanoi, red is still omnipresent, with banners of propaganda celebrating the party's 11th Congress, which concluded this week. "Vietnam is communist only once every five years, during the season of this political ritual," a French businessman says dryly.

"No one believes in communism any more, though the entire country pretends to," Dao Anh Kanh, a surrealist artist, explains. "Vietnam is a theater. Regular people stage small plays of their own, while the leaders put on a grand spectacle."

Before the opening of each Congress, the party delegates receive each other in full force, with briefcases in hand and the hammer and sickle on the heart, in front of the embalmed body of revolutionary leader Ho Chi Minh. But in cafés saturated with the strong aroma of syrup-flavored coffees, one learns how belonging to the party is a stepping stone to power and wealth. People discuss how much it costs to purchase a ministry, with jokes that bagging the prime minister post would be a jackpot for any aspiring clan. The experts do not disagree. "Fighting to replace political leaders is even more bloody than control for economic power currently in play," notes Benoît de Tréglodé, director of the Research Institute on Contemporary Southeast Asia.

Communists by name, capitalists by nature

As the Communist Party grew to 3.6 million members, or 10 percent of the population, Hanoi residents developed a saying: "Communists by name, capitalists by nature." The 87 million citizens, hungry consumers, have thrown Marxism-Leninism to the sidelines.

Today, the pursuit of money is a national obsession. And consumption is ostentatious. The Louis Vuitton store in Hanoi currently boasts the highest sales per square meter within the company's global chain. Luxury cars have joined the buzz of traffic in what, 25 years ago, was an austere capital of people rolling on bicycles down avenues bathed in faint light, flanked by stores of the most humble merchandise.

"We think about money from morning to night," said Ngoc, a student born the same year the doi moi reform policies took effect. In a country that has long symbolized the resistance to a Western vision of the world, Pham Xuan Ly, a formor bo doi (North Vietnamese soldier), who has become a restaurant owner, explains that "success is a beautiful house, a car and studies abroad for the children."

"In 25 years, we have won the freedom to make money," adds banker Nguyen Duc Vinh, 52. In his three-piece suit, the former soldier, who manned the trenches along the Chinese border in the 1980s, went on to attend the prestigious HEC business school in France and learned to be a banker in the United States.

This is the new face of Vietnam: dynamic, open to the outside world, optimistic. A United Nations index of happiness in populations around the world puts Vietnam in third place. Like Vinh, the majority of Vietnamese wonder little, if at all, about the country's political structure. "As long as the Communist Party maintains a satisfactory level of development, people are not interested in getting involved with politics," he said. For artist Dao Anh Kanh, who for 15 years worked as a censor for the cultural police: "doi mo saved the Communist Party. The leaders are clever and know how to adapt." Being decidedly cautious at all costs, the Vietnamese, despite the many corruption scandals at the top, are for the most part confident in their political institutions, especially the Communist Party and the National Assembly, according to a study by Transparency International.

There is currently no viable, organized opposition. "There is no room for dissent. The state apparatus owns the turf," said Matthieu Saloman, Transparency International's Hanoi representative.

"Few artists dare to question power"

Still, the first rays of rebellion can be found. Over tea in her living room cluttered with paintings illustrating the reign of darkness, the writer Vo Thi Hao discussed her "revolt against a regime that has never loosened its grip over political life." She is one of a dozen dissidents closely watched by the regime. She jokes that the walls have ears. "In East Germany under the Stasi, there was one spy for every 50 people. Today in Vietnam, the ratio is one for every 40." As beautiful as she is courageous, Hao is one of the rare Vietnamese to challenge the single-party system. "The majority of Vietnamese are happy with the current regime. They're satisfied with the improvement of their finances."

Some young contemporary artists are starting to push back against this "fear hidden within people that prevents them from questioning power," said Hao. They present a Vietnam torn between doctrinal communism and liberal economic policies. Watched continuously, one of them holds meetings on a sidewalk and confides secrets amidst the din of a crowded café. "Today, word no longer comes from above. It's no longer necessary to be a member of the Artists' Union to get paint and brushes, but few artists dare to challenge power," he said. The cultural police watches them groping through the dark. "In Vietnam, demanding subjectivity and invention is a political act," he sighs, after telling of his weariness over taking down his paintings judged at each art exposition as being "out of step with cultural and moral values."

Lost in the maze of winding streets in south Hanoi, there is a residence as closed off as it is insignificant – and yet it is home to the most incendiary cultural works in Vietnam. Writer Nguyen Qui Duc holds an eclectic collection of censored art. "Out of love for painting, intellectual resistance and the spirit of contradiction," he says. He stands in front of a greenish canvas inspired by pop art. A lascivious woman ignores a man in a suit who stands upright behind her. "Who is more vulgar, the woman, the businessman or the leaders who have absolute power?" he asks. The painter Nguyen Van Cuong works on the theme of dictatorships, which is why he is forbidden from showing his work in Vietnam." With an amused smile, Duc shows a series of vases that the censors failed to appreciate in which "uniforms, bodies and bank notes intertwine ad nauseum."

"After the doi moi, or the opening in 1985, contemporary art began to truly bloom. But today it still is cautious about approaching sensitive subjects," says Duc, the collector. He cites just four artists taking such a bold approach: Nguyen Van Cuong, who plays with the obscenity of women for sale and dictatorships, the artist Truong Tan and his gigantic diaper that takes the form of a police officer's jacket pocket, ready to absorb under-the-table payments. Le Hong Thai, attempts to draw a parallel between leaders and bottles – which make much noise when they clink together but remain empty. Le Quang Ha and his characters have hideous, uncouth traits that wear the uniform of leaders.

In a darkened hallway in Duc's home, a spiral of incomprehensible words eats a blue face. It is a forbidden canvas by Nguyen Quang Huy. The most perceptive could discern the silhouette of a young Ho Chi Minh, the father of the country's independence. Behind the flies' feet, betrayed ideals, the individual chewed up by the machine.

But in Vietnam, the sayings and poems of Uncle Ho have been thrown at people for so long that the cult of personality is now internalized. Daring to shake the image of a deified hero is unimaginable, even if he is systematically surpassed by Bill Gates, the model of American capitalism, in popularity polls. So when asking Nguyen Quang Huy whether this poll result is healthy, he says soberly: "I will not say yes or no." Insolence against this regime has its limits.

Read the original article in French

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!
food / travel

The True Horrors Behind 7 Haunted Locations Around The World

With Halloween arriving, we have dug up the would-be ghosts of documented evil and bloodshed from the past.

Inside Poveglia Island's abandoned asylum

Laure Gautherin and Carl-Johan Karlsson

When Hallows Eve was first introduced as a Celtic festival some 2,000 years ago, bonfires and costumes were seen as a legitimate way to ward off ghosts and evil spirits. Today of course, with science and logic being real ghostbusters, spine-chilling tales of haunted forests, abandoned asylums and deserted graveyards have rather become a way to add some mystery and suspense to our lives.

And yet there are still spooky places around the world that have something more than legend attached to them. From Spain to Uzbekistan and Australia, these locations prove that haunting lore is sometimes rooted in very real, and often terrible events.

Shahr-e Gholghola, City of Screams - Afghanistan

photo of  ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola,

The ruins of Shahr-e Gholghola, the City of Screams, in Afghanistan

Dai He/Xinhua via ZUMA Wire

According to locals, ghosts from this ancient royal citadel located in the Valley of Bamyan, 150 miles northwest of Kabul, have been screaming for 800 years. You can hear them from miles away, at twilight, when they relive their massacre.

In the spring 1221, the fortress built by Buddhist Ghorids in the 6th century became the theater of the final battle between Jalal ad-Din Mingburnu, last ruler of the Khwarezmian Empire, and the Mongol Horde led by Genghis Khan. It is said that Khan's beloved grandson, Mutakhan, had been killed on his mission to sack Bamyan. To avenge him, the Mongol leader went himself and ordered to kill every living creature in the city, children included.

The ruins today bear the name of Shahr-e Gholghola, meaning City of Screams or City of Sorrows. The archeological site, rich in Afghan history, is open to the public and though its remaining walls stay quiet during the day, locals say that the night brings the echoes of fear and agony. Others claim the place comes back to life eight centuries ago, and one can hear the bustle of the city and people calling each other.

Gettysburg, Civil War battlefield - U.S.

photo of rocks and trees in Gettysburg

View of the battlefields from Little Round Top, Gettysburg, PA, USA


Even ghosts non-believers agree there is something eerie about Gettysbury. The city in the state of Pennsylvania is now one of the most popular destinations in the U.S. for spirits and paranormal activities sight-seeing; and many visitors report they witness exactly what they came for: sounds of drums and gunshots, spooky encounters and camera malfunctions in one specific spot… just to name a few!

The Battle of Gettysburg, for which President Abraham Lincoln wrote his best known public address, is considered a turning point in the Civil War that led to the Union's victory. It lasted three days, from July 1st to July 3rd, 1863, but it accounts for the worst casualties of the entire conflict, with 23,000 on the Union side (3,100 men killed) and 28,000 for the Confederates (including 3,900 deaths). Thousands of soldiers were buried on the battlefield in mass graves - without proper rites, legend says - before being relocated to the National Military Park Cemetery for the Unionists.

Since then, legend has it, their restless souls wander, unaware the war has ended. You can find them everywhere, on the battlefield or in the town's preserved Inns and hotels turned into field hospitals back then.

Belchite, Civil War massacre - Spain

photo of sunset of old Belchite

Old Belchite, Spain

Belchite Town Council

Shy lost souls wandering and briefly appearing in front of visitors, unexplainable forces attracting some to specific places of the town, recorded noises of planes, gunshots and bombs, like forever echoes of a drama which left an open wound in Spanish history…

That wound, still unhealed, is the Spanish Civil War; and at its height in 1937, Belchite village, located in the Zaragoza Province in the northeast of Spain, represented a strategic objective of the Republican forces to take over the nearby capital city of Zaragoza.

Instead of being a simple step in their operation, it became the field of an intense battle opposing the loyalist army and that of General Francisco Franco's. Between August 24 and September 6, more than 5,000 people were killed, including half of Belchite's population. The town was left in rubble. As a way to illustrate the Republicans' violence, Franco decided to leave the old town in ruins and build a new Belchite nearby. All the survivors were relocated there, but they had to wait 15 years for it to be complete.

If nothing particular happens in new Belchite, home to around 1,500 residents, the remains of old Belchite offer their share of chilling ghost stories. Some visitors say they felt a presence, someone watching them, sudden change of temperatures and strange sounds. The ruins of the old village have been used as a film set for Terry Gilliam's The Adventures of Baron Munchausen - with the crew reporting the apparition of two women dressed in period costumes - and Guillermo del Toro's Pan's Labyrinth. And in October 1986, members of the television program "Cuarta Dimensión" (the 4th dimension) spent a night in Belchite and came back with some spooky recordings of war sounds.

Gur Emir, a conquerer’s mausoleum - Uzbekistan

photo of Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) i

Gur Emir (Tomb of Timur) in Samarkand, Uzbekistan

Chris Bradley/Design Pics via ZUMA Wire

The news echoed through the streets and bazaars of Samarkand: "The Russian expedition will open the tomb of Tamerlane the Great. It will be our curse!" It was June 1941, and a small team of Soviet researchers began excavations in the Gur-Emir mausoleum in southeastern Uzbekistan.

The aim was to prove that the remains in the tomb did in fact belong to Tamerlane — the infamous 14th-century conqueror and first ruler of the Timurid dynasty who some historians say massacred 1% of the world's population in 1360.

Still, on June 20, despite protests from local residents and Muslim clergy, Tamerlame's tomb was cracked open — marked with the inscription: "When I Rise From the Dead, The World Shall Tremble."

Only two days later, Nazi Germany invaded the Soviet Union, with the people of Samarkand linking it to the disturbing of Tamerlane's peace. Amid local protests, the excavation was immediately wrapped up and the remains of the Turkish/Mongol conqueror were sent to Moscow. The turning point in the war came with the victory in the Battle of Stalingrad — only a month after a superstitious Stalin ordered the return of Tamerlane's remains to Samarkand where the former emperor was re-buried with full honors.

Gamla Stan, a royal massacre - Sweden

a photo of The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden

The red house of Gamla Stan, Stockholm, Sweden


After Danish King Kristian II successfully invaded Sweden and was anointed King in November 1520, the new ruler called Swedish leaders to join for festivities at the royal palace in Stockholm. At dusk, after three days of wine, beer and spectacles, Danish soldiers carrying lanterns and torches entered the great hall and imprisoned the gathered nobles who were considered potential opponents of the Danish king. In the days that followed, 92 people were swiftly sentenced to death, and either hanged or beheaded on Stortorget, the main square in Gamla Stan (Old Town).

Until this day, the Stockholm Bloodbath is considered one of the most brutal events in Scandinavian history, and some people have reported visions of blood flowing across the cobblestoned square in early November. A little over a century later, a red house on the square was rebuilt as a monument for the executed — fitted with 92 white stones for each slain man. Legend has it that should one of the stones be removed, the ghost of the represented will rise from the dead and haunt the streets of Stockholm for all eternity.

Port Arthur, gruesome prison - Australia

a photo of ort Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Port Arthur Prison Settlement, Tasmania, Australia

Flickr/Eli Duke

During its 47-year history as a penal settlement, Port Arthur in southern Tasmania earned a reputation as one of the most notorious prisons in the British Empire. The institution — known for a brutal slavery system and punishment of the most hardened criminals sent from the motherland— claimed the lives of more than 1,000 inmates until its closure in 1877.

Since then, documented stories have spanned the paranormal gamut: poltergeist prisoners terrorizing visitors, weeping children roaming the port and tourists running into a weeping 'lady in blue' (apparently the spirit of a woman who died in childbirth). The museum even has an 'incidence form' ready for anyone wanting to report an otherworldly event.

Poveglia Island, plague victims - Italy

a photo of Poveglia Island, Italy

Poveglia Island, Italy

Mirco Toniolo/ROPI via ZUMA Press

Located off the coast of Venice and Lido, Poveglia sadly reunites all the classical elements of a horror movie: plagues, mass burial ground and mental institute (from the 1920's).

During the bubonic plague and other subsequent pandemics, the island served as a quarantine station for the sick and anyone showing any signs of what could be Black Death contamination. Some 160,000 victims are thought to have died there and the seven acres of land became a mass burial ground so full that it is said that human ash makes up more than 50% of Poveglia's soil.

In 1922 a retirement home for the elderly — used as a clandestine mental institution— opened on the island and with it a fair amount of rumors involving torture of patients. The hospital and consequently the whole island was closed in 1968, leaving all the dead trapped off-land.

Poveglia's terrifying past earned it the nickname of 'Island of Ghosts'. Despite being strictly off-limits to visitors, the site has been attracting paranormal activity hunters looking for the apparition of lost and angry souls. The island would be so evil that some locals say that when an evil person dies, he wakes up in Poveglia, another kind of hell.

Keep up with the world. Break out of the bubble.
Sign up to our expressly international daily newsletter!