Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam — A local joke has it that a directive came down from the Soviet Union some time ago urging the Vietnamese to tighten their belts.
The answer from Vietnam went back: ''Send us belts!''
The joke has now been modified: ''Send us belts - and pants!''
Vietnam depends heavily on the Soviet Union. From the Soviets, the Vietnamese get not only their arms and ammunition but also much of their oil and food. According to American estimates, Vietnam costs the Soviet Union more than
But for the Soviets, the gains obtained from Vietnam are considerable. They now have major influence in a part of the world - Southeast Asia - where their presence was once minimal. Their use of air and naval facilities in Vietnam is of strategic importance.
Over the past several years, Vietnamese government officials have indicated that they do not like being as dependent as they are on the Soviets. They have also indicated that they would like to have diplomatic ties with the United States. This might help to reduce at least slightly their dependence on the Soviets and open the door to more Western trade and technology. The Vietnamese clearly view American technology as superior to that which they obtain from the Soviet-bloc nations.
But a series of obstacles stood in the way. At first, it was a Vietnamese demand for war reparations, a demand the Vietnamese later dropped. The exodus of refugees and Hanoi's ever-closer relations with Moscow were cited by Washington as additional problems. The establishment of US-China relations complicated matters. The current obstacle is the Vietnamese occupation of Kampuchea (Cambodia).
Visiting Ho Chi Minh City on a transit visa, on the way to Cambodia, this reporter was unable to obtain from Vietnamese officials their current views on the subject of relations with the United States.
But from what little I saw and heard, I got the impression that the Vietnamese are not willing to go far toward a compromise on Kampuchea, a country they consider of vital importance.
In Ho Chi Minh City, the casualties and hardship caused by Vietnam's occupation of Kampuchea do not appear to be high on people's lists of complaints.
Of course, a foreigner visiting Ho Chi Minh City for just a few days is in no position to make definitive generalizations about the rest of Vietnam. Vietnam is a nation of some 54 million people. Ho Chi Minh City contains some 3 million of them.
Its inhabitants, at least in the past, often did not fully reflect feelings or thinking in other parts of the country. Travelers, both Vietnamese and foreigners, who have visited other parts of Vietnam recently indicate that many of the people in the south of Vietnam, and that includes Ho Chi Minh City, are still better off today than many of those living in the northern or central parts of the nation.
People in Ho Chi Minh City complain, nonetheless, about shortages of food and clothing. Electrical power blackouts in the city are frequent. Unemployment is widespread. Hundreds of young men seem to do nothing all day but earn small fees by pumping up bicycle tires.
The children of ill-paid government employees suffer in some cases from malnutrition. A foreign physician remarked that he had seen more malnutrition in Ho Chi Minh City recently than he had seen in Kampuchea, where the threat of starvation has been much more widely publicized.
Vietnamese government officials have for some time been openly admitting that mistakes have been made. One example: Thousands of people from the cities were forced into ''new economic zones'' and told in some cases to grow crops that turned out to be unsuitable for the soil.
I saw more patched clothing in Ho Chi Minh City than I ever remember seeing during the war years. Fewer women wear the traditional Vietnamese dress, the beautiful ao dai, which billows out from the waist over trousers with a split at the thigh. The ao dai, I was told, is now both too expensive and too impractical to wear.
A combination of factors - storms, drought, war damage, poor planning, and economic mismanagement - seems to be responsible for Vietnam's plight. Vietnam's invasion of Kampuchea, China's invasion of Vietnam, and economic isolation have added to the strain.
By forcing many of Vietnam's ethnic Chinese to leave the country, the government managed not only to get rid of some of the worst exploiters of the economy but also of some of its best technicians.Many of the best Vietnamese technicians, meanwhile, have had to go into the Army. According to some estimates, the government spends as much as half of its budget on the military forces.But Vietnam's difficulties are not just economic. According to the Far Eastern Economic Review, Vietnam entered the past year facing, in addition to an unprecedented economic crisis, ''acute social problems and a dilution of the government's moral authority.''Antigovernment guerrillas are reported to be active in the Central Highlands. In the Mekong Delta, the richest part of the country, many of the rice farmers have resisted moves to organize them into cooperatives and collectives.Despite all this, the communist regime seems to have little to fear in the way of a threat to its hold on power.Yet the regime is still insecure enough, six years after the end of the war, to be keeping some thousands of former military officers and supporters of the old regime in reeducation camps.Large numbers have been set free, but nearly everyone I talked with thought there might be 20,000 to 40,000 still in the camps. Those numbers apparently do not include prisoners who might be held in provincial, district, and village detention centers.So far, Saigon, or Ho Chi Minh City, and its consumer society, simply seem to be too much for the new regime to swallow. Banned books have supposedly been reappearing. I heard the music of a banned composer, Pham Duy, in one of the restaurants.The problem of controlling Saigon is compounded by regional chauvinism. Northern Vietnamese tend to regard the southerners as lazy and slow-moving. Southerners tend to consider the northerners to be too rigid and too aggressive. It is not surprising then that one hears that southern resentment of the northern domination of the country extends even to southern communist cadres who feel that the north has too much control.One Vietnamese claimed that this feeling of resentment surfaced at soccer games. Every time a team from the north played in the south, he said, the crowd pulled wildly for the southern team. The team from the north got the silent treatment, he said, with a gleam in his eye. Such games were one of the few things this Vietnamese seemed to take pleasure in these days.The regime is intolerant of most criticism. Last year, the only independent, nongovernment daily newspaper in the south, Tin Sang (Morning News), was closed down.But the regime's economic failures have forced it to experiment and liberalize. It has encouraged the establishment in Ho Chi Minh City of private import-export companies and a trade promotion center to be run by former businessmen.In mid- 1979, the Communist Party decided to relax central control of the economy and to use incentives to boost workers' and farmers' production.I got the positive side of the story, such as it is, from two Vietnamese who are enthusiastic supporters of the regime, Ngo Ba Thanh and Ly Qui Chung, both former southern political figures who were opposed to the American-supported regime of Gen. Nguyen Van Thieu.Ngo Ba Thanh, a leader of the left wing of the ''third force'' opposition to Thieu, does not claim to be a communist. But she says that in her new role she has easy access to leaders in Hanoi, where she is a member of the National Assembly. In Ho Chi Minh City, she lives in a small house near the old South Vietnamese National Assembly building, where she used to lead antigovernment demonstrations. That building is now a theater.Mrs. Thanh, holder of a degree in comparative law from Columbia University and a fluent English-speaker, argues that on the economic front, the communist-led government has learned lessons from badly planned ''new economic zones'' and other mismanaged projects and is taking corrective action.Ho Chi Minh City is being given special status as a port for overseas exports, allowing it to trade directly with foreign countries. On the political front, she asserted, a new constitution and Ministry of Justice will help to guarantee rights and place checks on a Communist Party that ''did anything it wanted during the war.''As for the complaints one hears from many of the citizens of Ho Chi Minh City, Mrs. Thanh says simply: ''The southerners are still spoiled.''Ly Qui Chung was information minister in the short-lived government of Gen. Duong Van Minh, popularly known as ''Big Minh.'' Minh's government lasted only a matter of hours before surrendering to the communists on April 30, 1975. Ly Qui Chung was not a communist, but he and a number of his colleagues, most of them southerners like him, had worked in parallel with the communists to help overthrow the Thieu regime. He now writes for Tuoi Tre, a youth publication, and for Saigon Giai Phong, the official newspaper of Ho Chi Minh City. He lives in a modest house down an alley near the Chinese suburb of Cholon.
Chung claimed that incentives introduced for workers by the government at the end of last year were causing an ''economic boom.'' If a worker produced more, he got paid more, said Chung. He said that he accepts the revolution in Vietnam because, in his view, it has produced a more egalitarian society.But what is surprising about Ho Chi Minh City is not so much what has changed as what has remained the same. Impressive numbers of people still go to the churches and pagodas, for example. At the same time, however, religious leaders are under pressure to conform to the new system.''The churches are even fuller than before ,'' said a Vietnamese Roman Catholic. ''But most of the seminaries are closed. . . . 200 to 300 priests are in jail. . . . The communists divide the priests and push forward the ones they consider progressive.''The old Saigon rumor mill - rumors passed by word of mouth - still functions. Known to some as ''Radio Catinat,'' it was named after the main downtown street called Catinat during the French period. (The street later became Freedom Street under the American-supported regimes and General Uprising Street under the Communists. A joke has it that General Uprising killed Freedom.)Radio Catinat occasionally tells the truth, but most of the time, as it did during the war, it spreads the preposterous sort of rumors that everyone wants to believe.An example of the latest from Radio Catinat came from a woman who said she had tried unsuccessfully to escape by boat from Vietnam. She said that friends had told her three empty boats had been found recently off the coast of Kien Giang Province in the Mekong Delta. The boats, she said, were believed to have brought into Vietnam soldiers from the old regime under the command of former Premier and Vice-President Nguyen Cao Ky. I told her that was unlikely. Ky is running a liquor store on the West Coast of the United States.''But many people want to believe it's true,'' she said.Escaping from Vietnam by boat was proving to be an increasingly dangerous and expensive proposition, the woman said.She, and others , said that the cost of bribing the appropriate officials and arranging for the boat and trip came to about $1,000 per person these days. Even after all payments were made, much could go wrong. One could be arrested, as she was. Those who made it to sea often encountered pirates.So some of Saigon's middle class live in limbo. Wanting to escape but unable to do anything about it, they wait for something to happen.Sunday night in Ho Chi Minh City is an occasion. Courting couples gather by the hundreds up and down Nguyen Hue Boulevard and around the fountain on Le Loi Boulevard. Young men and women cruise on the edges of the crowd, discreetly, and not so discreetly, looking one another over. The more daring among the young men weave dashing patterns on their Japanese-made motorbikes, abruptly accelerating, then just as abruptly stopping. The sight of a young woman from another era - she is wearing a miniskirt, something not seen here very often these days - reminds you that this is Saigon, not Hanoi.A surprising number of youths once known in Saigon as ''cowboys'' are still here, wearing their hair long and showing off their motorbikes. Their ways are frozen in time. Some persist, for example, in wearing bell-bottom trousers, as though styles had not changed since 1969.No one knows exactly how these youths get their money. Some live perhaps off the black market and from parcels sent by Vietnamese refugees who fled to the United States or elsewhere. According to one estimate, as many as 200,000 of the city's people depend almost entirely on such parcels. At any rate, the youths in the coffee shops have enough to pay for their coffee and drinks. Indeed, some drink far too much.''They steal and they sell,'' said one Saigonese. ''They steal and they sell so that they can get drunk and not have to think.''Some Saigonese insist that corruption is even more widespread now than it was during the war years. If all the stories one hears are to be believed, the system, in the southern part of the country at least, cannot function without bribes.But even with bribes, it is said that it takes as much as a year to get some items through the port at Ho Chi Minh City.Duong Quynh Hoa, a round-faced, vivacious, French-speaking pediatrician, is one of those who continue to accept the system but who also criticize it.In her view, the ''comrades from the north'' have been too theoretical in their approach to the economy. They lacked a knowledge of what makes economies function and thought it enough to try to motivate people, she said.''We've hit bottom economically,'' Mrs. Hoa said. The problem, as she sees it, is still one of reconciling the Communist-led revolutionaries with those who were not on the side of the revolution. Or, as she puts it, ''The difficulty now is to bring together those who made the revolution and those who didn't.''''Motivation came easier during the war,'' she said. ''It was easier to win the war than to win the peace.''