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The Kids Are All Right
A generation of Vietnamese, born after the end of the American War, set their eyes on the future
By TERRY MCCARTHY Ho Chi Minh City

The air is crackling with electricity this Tuesday afternoon in Saigon. Monsoon clouds are moving in from the west. People are hurrying along sidewalks, newspaper vendors are getting out plastic sheeting, cyclo drivers are making for shelter.

On Ng Trai Street, Kieu Viet Lien has brought her new moped indoors. The 25-year-old designer is kneeling on the floor of her shop surrounded by paper patterns and pieces of green silk, preparing for a fashion competition in three weeks' time. From his second-floor office in an advertising agency across town, Pham Phu Xuan, 31, can see the storm approaching, too. He is on the phone setting up a TV shoot later in the week for a shampoo commercial. Hong Nhung, 30, one of Vietnam's most popular singers, is working out at a gym in the Saigon Center on Le Loi Street. Drops of rain are starting to splash on the windows—and she soon has to get to a rehearsal for a concert she is giving on the weekend. Only Nguyen Quang Huy is oblivious to the coming deluge. The 21-year-old bar manager and music promoter is inside a soundproofed recording studio in his home, coaching a new band for an album he is producing.


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Shortly after 5 p.m., thunder cracks over the center of Saigon and people run for cover from the cloudburst. Lien and Xuan keep working indoors. Nhung gets a car through the downpour to her rehearsal. Huy is still recording: the lead singer is temperamental, needs work. The rain falls in tropical quantities, then abruptly stops. Life returns to the sidewalks. By the time Huy emerges from his studio at 8 p.m., the streets are dry again. It is as if the storm never happened.

Lien, Xuan, Nhung and Huy have never met, but are from the same generation—the one that grew up after the American War. Children of one of the starkest generation gaps in the world, they have no interest in hearing about the hardships their parents endured in the fighting that ended a quarter century ago. They are determined to get on with their own lives, to make up for lost time since the communists took over and dumped Vietnam at the bottom of Asia's economic league.

Theirs is a world of mobile phones, mopeds, long days at work and long evenings dating in coffee shops. All four have complicated, busy lives, careers they forged on their own and ambitions to take them to the top. Two are still struggling, one has made it, the fourth wants to leave the country to work in the U.S. They have grown up to be self-reliant in uncertain times, with little guidance from their elders. Sex before marriage—"eating rice before the bell," as it was sometimes called—is now the norm. All have acquaintances who do drugs, the final haven for those who don't know where else to go. All four have ambivalent feelings about Vietnam, a country no longer communist but not yet democratic or free.

Things are starting to move in their favor. After several years of indecision, the Vietnamese government finally signed a trade deal with the U.S. in July. This should lead to a sharp increase in business between the two countries, more investment in Vietnam and better-paying jobs for Vietnamese. Also in July, the country's first stock exchange opened in Saigon. There is even talk of President Clinton's coming to Vietnam this fall. If the trip comes off, he will be the first American president to visit the country since Richard Nixon in 1969.

But there is still far to go—Vietnam's per capita gnp is a paltry $350 a year, according to the World Bank, compared to $510 for sub-Saharan Africa. In a country of 80 million, there are only 67,000 Internet users, thanks to government restrictions and high access charges. Much of the investment that flowed in after the U.S. normalized diplomatic relations in 1995 has gone sour, tied up in bureaucratic red tape by a government still paranoid about security. In February Le Kha Phieu, the 68-year-old Communist Party chief who runs the country, lashed out at "imperialist forces [who] have expanded the world market everywhere for maximum profit." Such rhetoric flies right over the heads of the younger generation; they are reading from a different script, one they had to write themselves.

Kieu Viet Lien was born in prison, on Christmas Eve 1974. Her mother had been jailed as a Viet Cong agent. They were not released until April 1975, when North Vietnamese forces overran the South. Lien was schooled in Saigon, renamed Ho Chi Minh City by the victors. When she was 18 she got lucky—her application for a visa to study fashion in Australia was accepted. After three years in Melbourne, she went to Canada in 1996 for two years and then spent a year in Paris. There she fell in love with French style: "Christian Lacroix, Galliano—I have a taste for the elegant," she says, pointing to a rack of sumptuous $200 wedding dresses in the back of her shop. "I want to make Vietnamese look beautiful." But in a city where a college graduate would be happy to land a job paying $100 a month, her $12 shirts and $30 dresses are only for a small number of young people with money. It is hard going.

Lien works every day—and her fiancE, Thieu Anh Duong, a lawyer, is as busy as she is. They make time to have lunch together in Dang Xua, one of their favorite restaurants, on Sunday. But as the banana flower salad and fish steamed inside vegetable marrow arrive, Duong gets a call on his mobile phone from a client. "Maybe in 10 years I will be able to tell clients I don't work weekends," he says, and Lien sighs. She has to go back to her shop in the afternoon to meet a fashion journalist who wants to do a shoot using her clothes. "Sometimes I feel I don't try enough," she says, getting on the back of her boyfriend's motorbike. "But still I try. Try, try, try—all your life you have to try."

The manic pace of Saigon carries over to the streets, where swarms of motorbikes zip unharmed across intersections, according to some invisible law of circulation. Cars are too expensive, but the motorbike—preferably a sporty 150cc Yamaha Majestic for $3,200—is at the top of everyone's must-have list. Young bloods race them after dark, and couples use them as a place of intimacy: Vietnamese don't kiss in public, but girls hug their boyfriends tightly from behind.

Pham Phu Xuan borrowed money to buy his motorbike the day he got his current job, as production manager for the international advertising agency J. Walter Thompson. "I was so happy, it was the first thing I did," he says about that day four years ago. There were 1,000 applicants for just five jobs, and Xuan had neither a college degree nor money to buy a suit and tie for the interview. His friends told him he was wasting his time. They didn't know him well enough.

The eighth of 10 children, Xuan was brought up in a poor village seven hours from Saigon. He realized early there was no future for him in the countryside. In 1985 when he was 16 he moved on his own to Saigon, got a job repairing videocassette recorders and taught himself English at night. "I knew I must be successful—I could not afford to lose." Many of the boys he left behind in his village still have no jobs, he says, and at least half have started smoking heroin. Xuan had nothing to go back to.

Xuan dazzled his interviewers with his enthusiasm and determination. Full of self-confidence, Xuan began coordinating TV and photo shoots for the agency, and after a while made some business trips around Asia. He was shocked at the relative prosperity of Bangkok, Singapore, Seoul. "Vietnam is the slowest country in the region. We are very far behind."

So Xuan decided to move to the U.S.—home to more than 2 million Vietnamese. This month he married a childhood sweetheart, Sem Veacha, a girl from his village who had managed to get a rare exit visa to the U.S. in the 1980s. She flew back to Saigon for the wedding, but Xuan knows it will still take one or two years for the U.S. consulate to process his visa request to join her. "I know it will not be easy in America. I will always miss my family here. But I need to try something bigger."

Vietnam's relationship with the U.S. is highly complex. Hatred, betrayal, envy, admiration, fear, suspicion, superiority, inferiority—it covers every point on the compass. For the postwar generation, worshipping American culture became a convenient tactic of youthful rebellion—until it snapped back in their faces. "Until four or five years ago, young Vietnamese preferred Western music," says Hong Nhung. She is sitting in her house putting on makeup for the concert that night while Hollywood's You've Got Mail plays on the vcr. "Then came the Viet kieu [overseas Vietnamese]." Washington's diplomatic recognition in 1994 set off a wave of returnees from the States, bringing with them an overdose of American culture, fashion—and pockets full of money. Exposed to the brash onslaught of loud-spoken, dollar-toting Vietnamese-Americans from Orange County, Saigonese instinctively reached deeper into their own culture—and Vietnamese pop came of age. "Now young people probably listen to half Western, half Vietnamese music. And that is good: people should have more choice."

Nhung was born in Hanoi, deserted by her mother before she was a year old and brought up by her grandmother. Her father was a bohemian figure who drifted in and out of her life, never contributing much money for the food and clothes she was so short of. Nhung had a good voice, though, and when she was 11 she sang her first song on Vietnam Radio. At 17 she made her first album, and by 21 she was starting to make a name for herself. So she moved down to the bigger city of Saigon, which she calls "a mess, but an interesting mess." With the boom in Vietnamese music, the "cute little northerner," as she was dubbed, became a star in both Saigon and Hanoi. And if the Viet kieu offended with their vulgarity, they also brought with them a lot of American know-how. "We artists now have better equipment to record on, so we sound better."

The government is still ambivalent about the returning Vietnamese, welcoming their dollars while wary of their potentially subversive politics. In fact, if any revolution is coming from the Viet kieu it has more to do with transforming the individual lifestyles and expectations of younger Vietnamese. But that realization hasn't dawned yet among the cadres in charge in Hanoi.

Nguyen Quang Huy sees a lot of Viet kieu in his bar, the Hot Club. "The younger ones we can get on with," he says. "It is the older ones who are difficult sometimes, with their memories of before." He is leaning against the counter, drinking a Corona and watching one of the bands he is promoting come on stage. They begin with a love song, Start Again. Huy frowns. "Now that could be a problem for us, if the police come in." The song is by a Vietnamese band in the U.S, and "not allowed here." But he doesn't stop them; his doormen will tell him if there are any police about.

Younger Vietnamese are frustrated but resigned to the government's attempts to control information. Internet firewalls block most overseas Vietnamese sites, and foreign newspapers and magazines still arrive on the streets with stories about Vietnam blacked out by the country's censors. As for the domestic media—forget it. Huy shrugs. "It will take Vietnam 30 years to change."

In the meantime, he wants to make money. And he makes no secret about it. His parents' generation dislike America because everything there is about business, he says. "But I say business is good. Artists paint so many pictures—why? To make money. Singers write songs—to make money. With money you can live." Huy's father is a pianist, but old-school. Huy wanted to study in the U.S. but couldn't get a visa. He says it doesn't matter much. "I can get what I need from the Internet." He coaches bands and records their albums in his studio at home. The bar is going so well he plans to open a second one. He is also learning about video so he can shoot music videos of his best acts.

"You know the real problem with Vietnamese bands?" asks Huy. "They don't smile. When an American band is on stage, everyone is smiling." Sure enough, the lead guitar, bass and keyboard players look as if they are waiting for a bus. Huy drains his Corona. "I have to teach them that."

It's a whole new world. Vietnam's younger generation has escaped from under the very eyes of the government, which didn't even see them going. The party's authority no longer reaches across the generation gap, and a huge empty space has opened up in society for youngsters to prosper—or self-destruct. A 15-minute mobile phone call in Saigon costs the same as a single hit of heroin in one of the city's public parks. Almost unknown until five years ago, heroin and accompanying levels of hiv infection are now becoming a national scourge.

The rain held off over the weekend. Lien and her fiancE went out for dinner with some friends to a restaurant where the waitresses sing as they deliver the food. Xuan took time off work to be with his future wife; it was his first holiday since 1996. Nhung was on stage in the Long Phung theater, singing the songs of Trinh Cong Son to a rapt audience. And Huy was back in the Hot Club, coaxing along another new act, looking for that smile.

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