Monday, July 9, 2007

4th of July

On Sunday the American community of Hanoi celebrated Independence Day. The American Chamber of Commerce threw an extravagant picnic for the event and Americans came out of the woodwork to attend. It was held at the American Club, a walled facility where Americans and their friend hang out, mostly to play volleyball.

I walked to the picnic with Desaix and several of our group and was stunned when we approached the American Club. The outer wall was covered in flag bunting and bulging strings of red, white and blue balloons. A big sign announced the event to all. My first reaction was, “my God, we’re going to get bombed!” These days Americans are so resented in the world that it would be ludicrous to advertise a 4th of July celebration in most places. Almost every country has people who would love a chance to attack a congregation of Americans. But there aren’t any in Vietnam, so the mini flags were flying high on the wall. That’s the way it should be.

We passed through a metal detector on the way in. It beeped but the guard glanced at my shorts and sandals and waved me along. It opened up into a packed courtyard, full of black heads. For some reason I had imagined the picnic being full of old American businessmen smoking cigars. In fact, 80% of the people were Vietnamese. I learned that many were embassy employees. Still others were the attractive wives or girlfriends of expatriates. Mixed blood children ran around everywhere, stopping to gape at the snake handler who played with two massive boa constrictors.

And over in the corner was food. Fried chicken! Catfish! Cole slaw! Quesadillas! Barbeque ribs! Corn! I was really hungry and it was like seeing a bunch of old friends again. The meal completely justified the $20 entrance fee.

The picnic slowed down when four marines came out to present the flag, supported by an awful rendition of the Star Spangled Banner. People cheered and then a few average-Joe looking guys came out and talked about how pleased they were with the improvement in Vietnamese-American relations. It’s a truly remarkable time to be in Vietnam. The Vietnamese are completely infatuated with America and all the real and perceived things it has to offer. For our part, we have just about the best relations that we could hope to have with any country. Our businessmen get to make fortunes helping Vietnam become a mid-income country. Our diplomats are free to prod the friendly government to democratize. And our NGOs are doing great work in the field. It’s the ideal relationship, one that we’d like to have with every developing country. Sadly, that won’t happen anytime soon.

I met a few interesting people at the picnic. There was Alfonso DeMatteis, one of Desaix’s friends from the ‘90s. Alfonso was a construction manager in Brooklyn but things weren’t going so well and he came into debt. Somehow he landed in Vietnam and now he provides Vietnamese work crews with the technical know-how to build modern towers and hotels. He’s doing much better now, boasting to Desaix about how he bought a new Vietnamese beach condo two years ago for $200,000 and just sold it for $600,000.
It’s a good time to be in construction, but James Kim, a young acquaintance of Desaix, was wary of real estate speculation. While foreigners make long-term, cash intensive investments in infrastructure and factories, locals tend to build smaller structures on the outskirts of cities. These ventures bank on the assumption that the city will soon reach the new developments, but nobody can actually predict something like that. James is a pretty credible source on this. A trained lawyer, he partnered up with a Vietnamese friend to form a company that brokers foreign investment into Vietnam. Americans come to him with a chunk of capital but know little else except a desire to make money in Vietnam. James’ firm finds promising Vietnamese investments and they take care of the bureaucratic procedures to get the venture started. The fact that serious investors are pouring money into Vietnam without having an advance idea about what they want to build is a sign of a true boom.

On the other end of things, was Jeff, a genial Californian who some of us already knew from the gym. He’s teaching English at a university and having a nice time in Vietnam. At the picnic he drank too many Budweiser’s and in the middle of the conversation realized that he had lost his wallet. “Oh, shit! My girlfriend is going to kill me. This is the third time I’ve lost my wallet this month. Oh maann. And her mom’s here too.”

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