February 26, 2019 | 11:03 pm GMT+7

Vietnam opened to the world, and has gained its trust

The decision was not easy, but the open-door policy Vietnam adopted has been a tremendous force for the good.

Dang Hung Vo, former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment.

Dang Hung Vo, former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment.

Before the second summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, I asked two questions of students at universities I work: "What do you think when Vietnam is chosen for the Trump-Kim summit?" and "What are your feelings about our country after more than 30 years of Doi Moi (the economic renovation policy adopted in 1986).

My students were all born in the second half of the 90s, which means they are aged 19-23.

For the first question, even the youngest could answer that Vietnam had been through many fierce wars and has now presented an image of a peaceful land that can cultivate peace for other places.

The deepest answer is that Vietnamese have sent to other peoples a message of building and strengthening trust, and this latest event proves that we have truly gained the trust of others.

For the second question, every student talked about how they were born and raised in a period when the nation has developed in a stable manner and that almost all of their material and emotional needs are affordable.

Some of them said they’ve heard that in the past, northerners once lived in difficulties as North Koreans do these days, and then Vietnam opened its doors to the world for economic reform and everything has changed for the better. They said that it’s hard for them to imagine the tough life that previous generations had been through.

They are right. Young people today can hardly picture the rough journey that Vietnam has taken to become what it is now. Like several other nations in the world, Vietnam used to be divided into two opposing sides like opposite magnetic dipoles that could never exist in parallel. Blood was shed for generations to make the nation reunite. And just when we thought that we were done with wars and could focus on building the nation, wars returned, with battles in the northern border, in the southwest and in the East Sea (known internationally as South China Sea).

The period between 1979 and 1985 saw the peak of our difficulties. 

The wounds of war, which had yet to heal, got worse. The entire nation faced a serious food shortage. During that period, I saw groups of people from rural areas gathering in big cities, asking for help with official documents from their commune authorities. The only source of support Vietnam had back then were the communist states from the Eastern Bloc in Central and Eastern Europe, but that bloc was in financial crisis and on the verge of falling apart.

Vietnam was lonely.

Hatred from the wars was still there and former enemies could not easily become friends, and old friends were all busy handling their own troubles.

Our generation knows all the bitterness that life threw at us. Every family had to suffer poverty and hunger.

The collective housing area where I lived with my family, as a preferential treatment for teachers in those days was a group of huts built of bamboo on public land that was supposed to be used for farming on the outskirts of Hanoi.

A family lived in a hut of 10 square meters (12 square yards). We did not have enough electricity and most of the time, we had to use oil lamps. Some could afford themselves a radio, but it was a handmade affair, built with a ferrite rod and an inductor.

There was the "rice book," in which a family’s monthly food ration was specified, but there were days we had no rice to buy, and people had to eat just millet instead. We were given coupons to buy meat, but most of the time, there was no meat available, just dried fish.

I was a teacher. My income could only afford a used military hammock. From that hammock, I made myself two trousers to show up properly in class. I even heard my students betting each other on how many trousers I had. One of them got an idea to find out the answer: Pretending to slip and push me into a pond. If I skipped class the next day, it meant that I had only one.

The salary of a teacher was not enough to meet my daily expenses. But I was lucky that some of my friends invited me to take extra classes, where I tutored students for the university entrance exams.

The 6th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1986 when Vietnam decided to go on with Doi Moi. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

The 6th National Congress of the Communist Party of Vietnam in 1986 when Vietnam decided to go on with Doi Moi. Photo by Vietnam News Agency

Born in 1974 and 1976, my two children grew up in poverty. When I could save something from my extra classes, I bought two hundred grams of meat, braising it as salty as I could so that we could preserve that meat for several days.

My first impression about Doi Moi was the removal of coupons and rice books, free trade in the local market and no ban on overseas trade. The market had a way to balance itself, moving naturally from suppliers to those having demand. Every family was "over the moon," free from the daily worry of having no rice or meat to buy. Our meals got more complete each and every day.

Step by step, the state made key decisions to overcome difficulties. In 1986, Vietnam decided to implement Doi Moi with three major economic programs for food, consumer goods and exports. In 1991, it decided to adopt a state-managed multi-market mechanism. In 1994, it decided to industrialize and modernize the country. Throughout, the process was underpinned by the policy to integrate, widely and deeply. Gradually, Vietnam became an active member of the international community.

From 1990 onwards, cultural life became an essential need. Middleclass families would have televisions, video players and motorbikes ... Foreign movies were broadcast at state agencies and public cultural venues. Later, European technology was imported into Vietnam, and state agencies were the first to be equipped with computers.  

In order for all this change to happen, none of the initial decisions were easy to make, given the orientation of subsidy economics. For example, the policy of allocating land of cooperatives to households for long-term use was a difficult decision as it all went against the rules of collective economy.

During this period, Vietnam had sent tens of thousands of workers to the Central and Eastern Europe. They became the major supply source of consumer goods. I have met and talked with many of those laborers when doing scientific research in Poland. They worked eight hours per day in factories and spent the rest of the day buying goods to send back to Vietnam. They led a tough life in Europe only to ensure a decent life for their families in Vietnam. And it was not sweat and tears that they shed; sometimes, they paid with their lives.

I could go on and on with tragedies of those workers in Europe but I would like to stop and label them as "positive tragedies" because it was that suffering that took our people to a higher level.

And today, decades after we stepped out into the world, we have gained the world's trust.

Young people wave flags, of North Korea, U.S. and Vietnam, on the street in Hanoi, February 26, 2019 as they welcome U.S. President Donald Trump coming for the second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Young people wave flags, of North Korea, U.S. and Vietnam, on the street in Hanoi, February 26, 2019 as they welcome U.S. President Donald Trump coming for the second summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Photo by VnExpress/Huu Khoa

Our old friend, North Korea, believes us; and on the other side of the Korean peninsula, South Korea shares that trust. The U.S., once a foe, now looks at Vietnam as a friend. Trust is the foundation that can sustain any relationship, from business to politics, national to international, society to families.

Vietnam took on the path of internationalization much sooner than other countries in the same situation after realizing that globalization was an inevitable trend, although a lot more still needs to be done.

Let’s imagine, if in 1986, we’d decided to close our doors instead of opening them. What would it be like for us, now?

A friend of mine keeps complaining about there being too many issues to deal with. Why can’t Vietnam reform more thoroughly, he asks. I tell him that everything needs time to change and for that change to happen, it needs contributions from both him and me. And you.

*Dang Hung Vo is a Vietnamese scientist and former Deputy Minister of Natural Resources and Environment. The opinions expressed are his own.

Dang Hung Vo