Platt Perspective on Business and Technology

Vietnam, doi moi and the search for business and economic strength and global relevance 2: an agrarian world and a business and commerce world 1

Posted in UN-GAID by Timothy Platt on March 4, 2015

This is my second installment to a series that I started writing yesterday, January 30, 2015 on the New York City side of the international date line and a day later in Southeast Asia because of that line of demarcation (see: Part 1 to this series, which I shoehorned into the February 23 position in my publications schedule, moving the posting that would have gone live then to a later, April 30 position.)

I decided to post the balance of this series in what are nominally my off-days for posting live so as to get this series out more quickly without disrupting everything else in my posting queue, and begin that with this installment.

At the end of Part 1, I stated that I would address three broadly stated, complexes of issues in this series:

• Vietnam’s growing role in international commerce and the business systems that make that possible,
• Their active and still expanding programs of basic infrastructure development that would make this possible, and that would facilitate their country’s active participation in the global community as an equal and a peer,
• And the closely related issues of how other countries relate to and interact with Vietnam. And in anticipation of that, I note here that I will discuss at least some of the complex partly positive, partly negative realities of the relationship between Vietnam and China, and the likely emergence of closer alliance between Vietnam and the United States as it is being shaped by China’s and Xi Jinping’s emerging policies regarding the South China Sea and their immediate neighbors there.

And I will do that, but as is usual for this type of series for me, I will make a few digressions along the way to put what I have to say into a broader and more connected context. So I begin addressing the first of the above-repeated three points here, but from what at first might be considered an unrelated point: agriculture and the tradition of the land and of farming in Vietnam. And I begin that with a brief recounting of an origins story and with a brief and selective discussion of the ongoing struggle to find unity in the diversity of Vietnam’s varied peoples, cultures and heritages.

What we know of as today’s Vietnam consists of 54 different and distinct ethnic groups with the Viet people a majority group, but with 53 separate minority groups represented too. The borders of this land have changed repeatedly and both from foreign rule and the forces of foreign domination that have recurringly held sway and across all of the recorded history of Southeast Asia, and from more internal governance changes and challenges. I write this thinking of two stories: a story that seeks to explain the origin of the Vietnamese people that I made note of above, and a widely known (in Vietnam) story about Ho Chi Minh and his wishes for the disposition of his body after his death.

According to legend, the Vietnamese people all sprang from the union of a dragon and a fairy. They met and came to mate and the fairy laid 100 eggs. When these eggs hatched, fifty of their offspring went with her and fifty went with their father the dragon: one half of these many offspring and one parent going to live in the coastal regions of this land and the other to the central highlands. The point here is that while historically and culturally, these two peoples have often seemed more different than similar, more divergent than united they all lay claim to a common origin and inheritance and to shared ancestry. The history of Vietnam has often been one of struggle between divergence and disunity, and convergence and unity and both in times of outside influence and domination, and when challenged by more internally arising voices and visions as well.

When Ho Chi Minh approached his last days he made it very clear that when he died, he wished to be cremated. And he wanted for his ashes to be divided equally into three portions, with one third scattered in the North, one third in the South, and the remaining third scattered in the Central Highlands. I could not help but think of this when visiting his Lenin-style mausoleum in Hanoi to see him in his “eternal rest” of public display as if he were a museum holding. When Uncle Ho, as he is still affectionately known in his country died as a man and as a human person, he lost his humanity and became a figurehead and an abstraction. He wanted his ashes scattered in thirds across the span of his country in hopes that this might help to keep his newly reunited country unified as one, where he had come to be seen as a voice and image of unity and oneness. And he became an object of veneration: a communist religious relic and an icon in a display case instead. And this, like the origins story of legend tells to the struggle to find identity and meaning in Vietnam and it tells to the story of the struggle to find unity out of diversity and differences of opinion and perceived need.

And with this I come to the crux of this installment: the dichotomy of Vietnam as an agrarian society and nation, and as an emerging business and commerce society and nation. When you travel around Vietnam, and certainly in and around its urban hubs like Hanoi, Saigon and Da Nang where you see massive ongoing infrastructure development, you see two very different worlds that seek to coexist productively in spite of their many fundamental differences. On the one hand, Vietnam has traditionally been a farming and agriculturally oriented country. And seemingly every square inch of available, potentially workable land that is not under infrastructure and building development looks to be under agricultural development, including every square inch of land that could conceivably be farmed in every nook and niche adjacent to every highway and overpass, or around any other infrastructure development – except within the hearts of their larger urban centers themselves. Every Vietnamese citizen has a legal right to farm a plot of land of their own and many do, and even if on the side or through arrangements with others. This is in their blood. And while the ongoing current trend is for their dead to be buried in community cemeteries now, everywhere you go and see cultivated fields, you see rising from them as islands connecting that land to its past, small family burial plots where those who worked this land are buried there by their family successors who live with and work this land now.

How this land is allocated, under the current government’s program for renewing land ownership to those without, is byzantine in its complexity and I do not even pretend to know or understand the details of that. I simply note here that this land is roughly dividable, and perceived there to be divided into two categories: good and bad, and that what can be good land in principle as being fertile and readily flooded, for example for rice production, might be bad because of its location. I cite by way of recently emerging example, farm land that is on one side of a new major north/south highway, but where the people who work that land live on the other side of that roadway – and it is an uncrossable barrier with fences and high dividers between lanes that carry traffic in opposing directions, and the crossing points that they would use to reach their fields are still in early stage development.

I write here of a collision in fact between agricultural tradition, and I add at least potentially a large fraction of the food production of this country, and infrastructure development aspirations, at least as are playing out in one small part of this diverse country. And I write here of a perhaps small but variously repeated example of the still unfolding story of disunity and divisiveness and of unity and coordinated oneness as a nation. In my above highway development example, the farmers who live on one side of this barrier but who farm land on the other side of it are currently challenged in being able to work their land – but an effort is being made to build underpasses for them and their equipment and animals (e.g. their water buffalos for plowing and other labor, their cattle, et cetera) to cross this barrier through.

Vietnam has a long and often troubled history and past, and the goals of unity and identity run through all of it, along with challenges to both. They still do, challenges included, as this country seeks to reinvent itself through business and infrastructure development into the 21st century.

I am going to continue this discussion in my next series installment where I will look more directly into that, and more particularly into the business and commerce side of this new and still unfolding development, as Vietnam seeks to become a major global provider of finished goods and not just of raw materials for other countries’ manufacturing. After that, I will more explicitly turn to the second, infrastructure development bullet point issues from the top of this posting, and the end of this series’ Part 1. Meanwhile, you can find this and related postings and series at the UN-GAID directory.

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