A postcard from Hanoi
The must-have badge for the 'emerging' economy is to have that status endorsed in one of those whizzy acronyms that abound. BRIC is of course the brand leader but the bright lads and lasses who dream up these things continue to stir their alphabet soup - Vietnam sits along with Columbia, Indonesia, Egypt, Turkey and South Africa in a group dubbed CIVETS. ( Before we quit acronym-land can I just stake a claim for ABUSED - Anywhere but United States and Europe, Dummy - Eurozone, if you prefer).
Vietnam has experienced some pretty rapid growth in recent years and has moved to a more mixed economy. It has also has bouts of eye-wateringly high inflation -some of the consequences of which become readily apparent to the visitor. A trip to an ATM for cash could have produced a spasm of financial vertigo for even a pre-crash banker. Typically you'd be told you can't withdraw more than 4 million dong. Making sense of even the most modest restaurant bill requires juggling with 'powers of ten' that only particle physicists are likely to be really comfortable around.
Away from the dining table and perpetual recourse to a calculator, the other lasting impression that Hanoi creates comes from the relentless flood of motor pikes and mopeds that parp their way through the streets all and every day. There genuinely seem to be more people on two wheels than two legs on the street - particularly allowing for the thousands parked everywhere on pavements. Rush hour arrives when the moped traffic driving on the pavement exceeds the vehicles parked there.
Navigating a road crossing for the occasional pedestrian is made a little more fraught by the novel element of the local highway code which seems to regard driving while not using a mobile as some sort of traffic offence - best seen to date was a pillion passenger grasping handlebars around the driver while the driver himself used both hands to send a text message.
The proliferation of mobiles and moped suggest there is some unreachable law of development that charts the move from feet to bike to moped to car. The bright young things of Acronym land probably have it taped. As they will also have mapped the rule that measures the precise level of moped penetration that stimulates the migration of the tower cranes and the eruption of high rise development.
Hanoi maybe hasn't quite got to this yet - there are some super tall buildings but they sit on the skyline with awkward and bashful demeanour of the first few kids in class to experience a puberty growth spurt.
Another of the universal benchmarks of development is the eruption of 'Christmas' - that's 'Christmas' the universal consumerism epidemic as opposed to Christmas the less obvious religious festival.
At present, 'Christmas' stirs Hanoi fairly lightly - say about level 4 on the Beaufort scale - the baby reindeer, the three wise snowmen and the choirs of Santa Clauses are making occasional appearances but do not run riot.
What is however being very publicly celebrated here at this precise time with red and gold banners strung across the main boulevards and posters in every street are the last stages of United States involvement in the Vietnam War in late December 1972. The United States launched a major bombing campaign hitting Hanoi heavily. North Vietnamese air defences brought down a number of the old lumbering B52 bombers. In January 1973 a treaty was concluded on terms North Vietnam had proposed - and the United States ( and South Vietnam) had rejected a month or so earlier. This ended the US involvement in the conflict - Saigon the South Vietnamese capital was finally captured by the north in 1975 and a unified Vietnam emerged.
The Vietnamese people are astonishingly friendly and tourism from backpacker basement level to higher reaches is a growing part of the country's economy but I have to admit that with cartoon B52's in flames on the streets I am content not to be an American here today.
The passage of time however sees a growing closeness between Vietnam and the US - a process driven by the position each adopts to China. China is in fact Vietnam's largest economic partner and sees Vietnam very much as a part of its natural sphere of political and economic influence. However Vietnam as for centuries viewed its massive northern neighbour with some misgivings and is deeply wary about a growing economic over -dependence.
The mopeds and the mobiles are maybe a manifestation at a very individual level of a hunger for self- determination that sustained a previous generation of Vietnamese through a thirty year war for independence - they are perhaps unlikely give up on that in the near future.