Beyond these edifices come the city’s latest epic struggles against fate: its screaming, pulsating business district, with hordes of motorbikes—the drivers texting on cellphones in traffic jams—and cutting-edge facades that invade an otherwise cruddy-drab jumble of storefronts. This is pre–chain store capitalism, with cafés everywhere, each different in mood and design, offering some of the best coffee in the world, and no sign of Starbucks. Despite all the history, Hanoi is no outdoor museum like the great cities of Europe. It is still in the ungainly process of becoming—closer to the disheveled chaos of India than to the alienating sterility of Singapore.
Vietnamese are now prying their way into the developed world—for the sake of themselves and their families, obviously, but also to preserve their independence against an equally dynamic China. And as it has been since antiquity, Hanoi remains a city of nervous political calculations, the price of being a potential middle-level power—the 13th-most-populous nation in the world—with a long coastline at the crossroads of major maritime routes and close to immense offshore energy deposits. On my visit there last year, I found a country seized not only with the imperative of economic development but also with the challenge of finding a modus vivendi with its age-old neighbor and hegemon—a challenge that it increasingly looks to the United States, its onetime adversary, to help meet.
That may demand that Americans, at least, shift their historical perspective and try to see the world through Vietnamese eyes. Ngo Quang Xuan, the vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, tells me that the critical year for contemporary Vietnam was not 1975, when South Vietnam was overrun by the Communist North, but 1995, when relations were normalized with the United States, and Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and signed a “framework” agreement with the European Union. “We joined the world, in other words,” Xuan says, admitting that before making these decisions, “we had many hard discussions among ourselves.” For the truth is that despite their successive victories over the French and the Americans, the Vietnamese Communists, as their officials explained to me in a series of conversations over several weeks, felt continually humbled by events thereafter.
Consider: Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in 1978, liberating that country from the genocidal madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Though the invasion was an act of cold-blooded realism to blunt the strategic threat posed by the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge, it had a vast and profoundly positive humanitarian effect. Nevertheless, for this pivotal act of mercy, pro-Soviet Vietnam was embargoed by a pro-Chinese coalition that included the United States, which, ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, had tilted toward Beijing. In 1979, China itself invaded Vietnam, to keep Vietnam from marching through Cambodia to Thailand. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union never came to the aid of its client state. Vietnam was now diplomatically isolated, stuck in a quagmire in Cambodia and burdened by back-breaking poverty, largely as a result of its own militarism. The Vietnamese leaders of the 1970s, wrote Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in his 2000 memoir, were “insufferable,” priding themselves as the “Prussians of Southeast Asia.” But the arrogance, as Vietnamese leaders have told me, didn’t last. Severe food shortages and the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989–91 forced Vietnam to pull its troops out of Cambodia. Vietnam was now utterly friendless, its triumph over the Americans a distant memory. “The feeling of victory in that war was always muted,” a Vietnamese diplomat tells me, “because there was never a peace dividend.”