Capitalist Communism

Vietnam remains a communist country (for those who don’t remember their history classes: the US lost the war, the North Vietnamese Army took control of the South, the country was reunited, and there has been a one-party state in Vietnam ever since). Socialist-style propaganda abounds:


But this socialist country is now a hotbed of exuberant capitalism. Here’s the Hoi An night market:


There are things for sale everywhere in Hoi An…



… and you can even watch people making some of them:


The sidewalks flow over with scarves and pearls, lanterns and knick-knacks, bowls and shoes and a whole lot of clothing. This banana print was a particularly popular sale item:


We saw people all over the place wearing banana hats, tops, pants, dresses — you name it. We found this a puzzling fashion choice.

T-shirts abound, of course, and this shirt was a particular favorite of ours (as it probably would be of anyone who has dealt with traffic in Vietnam for more than five minutes):


Bags are big business in town, and we had a couple made at Friendly Leather Bags (Dad also had them engage in a complicated wallet creation project of his own design).


Prescott got bored with the bag-making experience and found himself a used bookshop (and a cat — one of the few things not for sale).


Signs offering spa services (sometimes with interesting misspellings) also abound:


I also liked this observation (and I have friends in Singapore who might take it as their own personal motto):


The question of what it means to be communist country in the face of so much rampant purchasing became the topic of much idle speculation over the course of our vacation. I’ve tried reading about it since we returned home, but I’m still not sure I understand how communism and capitalism live together in harmony.

Hoi An boasts traditional markets too, of course — and while plenty of tourists are hanging around, the wares at these stalls are clearly meant primarily for the locals.


In a country where many families could hardly get enough to eat in the 1970s (we had a conversation with Dad and Prescott’s lovely tailor at Nhi Trung about this), food now abounds.



I am always interested in the people (usually women) who sell the wares at the wet markets:




Food is a big deal in Hoi An, which is known for its high-quality restaurants and cafes. We went to our fair share of coffee shops. I recommend the chai tea at Mai Coffee …


… Dad loved the yellow bourbon arabica coffee at Phin Coffee (which is lighter than most Vietnamese coffees) …


… and I am a huge fan of the coconut milk mung bean smoothie at Cong Caphe (a hipster reminder that the war, while remembered, is now firmly in the past):

Our favorite restaurant — we went twice — was the Red Gecko, where Dad had the stuffed squid…


… Prescott ordered the grilled fish (wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked in foil on a stand on the sidewalk across the street) …


… and I loved the tofu hotpot:


Alcohol at Red Gecko was crazy-cheap — Dad’s local beer came to about sixty cents US — and we had a good laugh at the title of this drinks page:


My other favorite restaurant was the Thai Kitchen, where the pomelo salad was especially delicious. Though it felt strange to be ordering Thai food in Vietnam, I would go there again in a heartbeat — it was some of the best Thai food I’ve had. Other memorable food along the way included the grilled pineapple-watermelon salad at Nu and the lotus root salad served in a cucumber “bowl” at the elegantly-situated Secret Garden:



While Hoi An is clearly geared toward everything tourists might want, the profane often lives cheek to jowl with the sacred:


While the communists worked on repressing religion for a while in the 1970s, the Vietnamese never took the abolition of religion as seriously as their communist counterparts in China and the Soviet Union did; then a Communist Party resolution granted freedom of religion in 2003. This means that most families continue to practice some mix of Buddhism and ancestor worship. Small altars dot shops, streets, and rice paddies. This, for example, is one of the first things that we saw when we entered our hotel (note the stack of fake Benjamins in the lower left):


We were in town on the eve of the full moon, a night when locals have traditionally lit incense and built small, makeshift altars to celebrate. We came across offerings to the gods and ancestors in storefronts …


… on our hotel veranda…IMG_9893

… and right out on the sidewalks:


Hoi An also celebrates the full moon with a Lantern Festival. This means that they turn out most of the streetlights, the motorbike noise dies down for a few hours (phew!), and the world is lit by lanterns and moonlight.


Tourists (ourselves included) take sampan boat rides …


… and send hundreds of lanterns down the river:


It’s crowded — extra tourists turn out for this every month — but it’s also very beautiful.


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