To be a tourist in Vietnam, as I was last month, is to witness how technology can transform an economy in a single generation.
Ten years after its war with the United States, most Vietnamese lived in “extreme poverty,” according to the World Bank. Three million had died in the war and two million had fled — including 800,000 “boat people” to the United States. Of the 40 million who remained, most earned a meager living in agriculture and got around by foot or bike.
Today, Vietnam’s population is 95 million, 35 million scooters have replaced its bicycles, cities have exploded with growth, and 28 million Vietnamese use smartphones. Life expectancy is only slightly less than for the U.S.
How did this happen?
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In 1986 Vietnam’s communist government opened its economy and let it rip. Agriculture, manufacturing, mass communications and tourism surged, with 10 million visitors last year.
Vietnamese cultured helped. While not a religious country, Vietnam is deeply influenced by Buddhist and Confucian values. After the war, Vietnam chose to live in the present, not the past. It honors education, merit and authority. Its people are young, hard-working, tolerant and cooperative (a necessity to survive its traffic).
Vietnam was also a fitting place to consider the “America First” anti-trade and anti-immigrant sentiments thriving last month here at home. That trade deal we’ve abandoned? It seems likely Asian countries will move along without us, completing the treaty among themselves. China will benefit. Punishing Chinese manufacturing will shift it to places like Vietnam (as is already happening). Those 800,000 Vietnamese refugees from 40 years ago are among our more successful citizens today.
Technology flows around the world like water or weather and flourishes in both command and capitalistic systems. Advanced countries invent technologies but they multiply everywhere. The Vietnam story is like Korea earlier and there will be more.
Technology also creates serious threats. It chews up natural resources, raising temperatures and oceans, a huge problem for Vietnam and the planet. Automation destroys jobs; Google and Facebook provide few new ones.
Then there’s this to be said for spending January in Vietnam: Even at 10,000 feet elevation, on a mountain up close to China, not one flake of snow.
Jerry Brady is a member of Compassionate Boise, encouraging compassion in all aspects of life. firstname.lastname@example.org. This column appears in the February 15-March 14, 2017, edition of the Idaho Statesman’s Business Insider magazine as part of a special section on technology. Click here for the Statesman’s e-edition, which includes Business Insider (subscription required).