Our visit to Hanoi's Vietnamese Museum of Ethnology included all the requisite colorfully embroidered and woven clothing, agriculture tools, religious artifacts and sample living quarters in an ample demonstration of Vietnam's surprisingly wide and diverse variety of ethnic minorities. The extraordinarily honest and introspective exhibition on the difficulties of life under Vietnam’s Subsidy Economy between 1975 and 1986 – now that was exceptional!
During this period, food, goods, and services were purchased with coupons or food stamps. Those with a position in government received more coupons and had access to special shops. For those without special status, they could expect to spend almost a day waiting in line to buy rice and other basic commodities. Everything was controlled by the government. Having a bicycle – even one that was ancient and on the verge of breakdown – was considered a luxury. If you were fortunate enough to own one, you'd be on a special list of bicycle owners allowed to buy parts (such as inner tubes, nuts, bolts, etc.).
The exhibition booklet explains this period best:
The period of the “Subsidy Economy” (Bao cap) (1975-1986) has been known as a time of hardships, when mechanism for socio-economic management was inappropriate, causing privations in people’s material and spiritual life. Material life was poor due to a sluggish and inefficient production system, but the constraints also applied to people’s creative and spiritual endeavors.
“Beo cap” was a period during which both the courage and intelligence of millions of people were suppressed and were anxious about liberation. It was a dramatic period, and a profound lesson about the law of social development.
What was most interesting was how openly this exhibition explained how government-controlled economies and societies do not work. This, in a museum run by a communist government. Mind boggling. We haven’t seen this much honesty and open kimono in exhibitions in “free and democratic” countries…
This extended moment of circumspection was unusually informative and educational, and worth checking out. Rumor has it that the exhibition will continue through June 2007, but Vietnam and Hanoi's tourists would be well-served if they continually extended the visit. It's not often that societies talk about their own systemic failures in such an open manner. Perhaps this exhibit could serve as an example to others.
We found ourselves repeatedly forgetting we were in a communist country while in Vietnam. Sure, communist propaganda and symbols are up on every street corner, but Hanoi’s streets are a bustle of capitalistic and entrepreneurial activity. People spoke openly to us about government bureaucracy and corruption.
As one Vietnamese tour guide put it, “What does communism really mean? We young Vietnamese don’t know.”