Vietnam’s Road Back From Serfdom

We dropped bombs on their heads, defoliated their forests, and destroyed their villages “in order to save them.” We tore apart the fabric of our own society trying to bring the ill-fated misadventure to a close.  After America’s ignominious retreat, millions fled the bloodbath unleashed by the Communist’s victory. Follow this with years of economic policies based on the principles of Marx, Lenin, and Mao that led to decades of grinding poverty, and Vietnam seemed left with no choice but to try something new. Now, as it rediscovers capitalism with a vengeance, an amazingly resilient and forgiving people can’t line up fast enough to buy Big Macs, iPads, and PlayStations.

This week’s guest on RealClear Radio Hour, Michael Greeley, general partner at Foundation Medical Partners and former chairman of the New England Venture Capital Association, shared all this and more. Michael is no stranger to Southeast Asia; he grew up in Hong Kong, where he witnessed that tiny oasis struggle to absorb a massive influx of “boat people.” A frequent visitor to Vietnam, he offered his insights into its booming economy, unfolding investment opportunities, and those he calls “the friendliest and most hardworking people you ever want to meet.”

With over 3 million killed and much of the country “bombed back into the stone age,” no Vietnamese family that lived through what they call “the American War” escaped unscathed. Yet, Michael was hard pressed to recall a single unkind word on any of his visits as both his hosts and the strangers he met went out of their way to make him feel welcome. (Two thirds of today’s 92 million Vietnamese were born aftet the last bombs fell, perhaps mitigating some of the feelings).

Aside from soaking up every bit of American technology they can get their hands on—one third of the population uses the Internet, boasting over 20 million Facebook accounts—Mike’s stories about the Vietnamese embrace of all things American are truly astounding. His description of the the first McDonald’s to open in Ho Chi Minh City had me shaking my head in amazement – the red carpet and velvet rope lines on opening day, the excited throngs well past midnight, and an army of feverish employees pulling out all the stops to satisfty eager customers after weeks went by speak volumes about the aspirations of a rising people. (Sometimes a hamburger is not just a hamburger.)

What I found most encouraging was to learn of this living example of the resiliency of free market capitalism—even as we abandon it at home. While, in the U.S., self-serving pundits and politicians foment envy over rising incomes among successful Americans, Vietnam is busy closing the gap at the bottom, using its low-wage comparative advantage to attract investment from global manufacturers. Slowly but surely these manufactures are working their way across the planet as wages rise, leaving a growing middle class in their wake.

With so much catching up to do, an industrious people are making a mad dash toward prosperity, with “Sea Turtles”—returning Vietnamese who get their education and initial business experience in the West—leading the way. By bringing with them and replicating business models of successful companies in the U.S., Vietnam is putting itself on the fast track to a better life.

As the pendulum of history swings war gives way to peace, poverty gives way to prosperity, and prosperity gives way to complacency, populism, and self-sabotage. It’s a pity that the lessons of freedom learned during our own pursuit of happiness are so easily cast aside just as they are being discovered halfway around the world.