HANOI, Vietnam -- The spirit of a new nation comes to life in the offices of FPT, one of Vietnam's handful of Internet service providers.
All the employees are under 30 and speak English. Not one believes in communism. The "American War" -- as it is known here -- is something they read about in history class.
"We had better forget the past," says Le Hien, a 26-year-old marketing executive, with a pragmatism typical of the times. "I hope American people can help Vietnam to improve our economy and technology."
"Especially with software," adds Nguyen Minh Hoi, a fellow 24-year-old marketing director who wears a lapel pin in the shape of a cell phone and drives a Honda Dream II motorbike.
Nearly a quarter-century after the last American chopper lifted off from Saigon, the Communist regime thattook over is still in charge, but the economy has opened up. And Vietnam's postwar babies are emerging as a generation of cool-headed capitalists who associate the United States more with Microsoft than the horrors of war. While ration coupons and B-52s defined the lives of their parents, the Internet, motorbikes and admission to U.S. graduate schools define theirs.
They constitute more than half of the nation's 75 million people. They listen to Mariah Carey, cry over "Titanic," join after-hours English clubs and -- in Hanoi's latest craze -- they go bowling. Theirs is a complicated world where Western values clash with Confucianism and both abortion and heroin use are on the rise.
Some of the middle-aged and elderly who fought for a common goal of socialism complain about young people's thirst for money as well as a loss of national identity and culture. The younger Vietnamese counter that their elders are slow to adapt as Vietnam tries to shake off the hangover of isolation and a command economy.
Separated by two generations and two wars, Chu Thi Thanh Ha, the 25-year-old manager of FPT, and Nguyen Don Tu, a retired major general in the Vietnamese army, illustrate the chasm that divides the generations.
Ha used to work for the state's hidebound tourism sector, which hasn't figured out how to exploit Vietnam's rich resources, including sandy beaches on the South China Sea and the lovely French colonial architecture of Hanoi.
She wanted to update 3-year-old brochures and offer visitors their own personal video travelogues, but her middle-aged supervisors saw no need for change. Now she oversees FPT (Financing and Promoting Technology), where her 28-year-old boss gives her a free hand and the laid-back corporate culture includes after-work soccer and table tennis games.
For General Tu, the past is always present in the form of his 25-year-old daughter, Ha Lan, who has cerebral palsy. Physicians suggest she developed the illness because her father was exposed to the U.S. defoliant Agent Orange while serving in the Demilitarized Zone that divided North and South Vietnam.
"If my daughter was normal, I could have a very happy family," says Tu, 73, who speaks English with a French accent from the days when Vietnam was a French colony. "Someone must stay with her, [or] she can destroy everything. So, many of my friends say: 'The war has not ended for you.' "
Tu, who has four daughters -- just "like Karl Marx," he says -- complains that Hanoi has too many cars, too many motorbikes and too much materialism.
"We have to teach the basic thinking of patriotism to our young people, but now they like dollars," says the general, who commanded a battalion during the decisive defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.
Others who suffered through the war echo Tu's criticisms in newspaper editorials and conversations along the streets of Hanoi. In those days, Vu Quang Man went from house to house warning people to prepare for air raids. Now 84, he runs a small shop where he sells T-shirts that read "Good Morning Vietnam!"
"The young generation must believe in socialism because our generation sacrificed to make the country free," Man says.
Once a rigid socialist state, Vietnam has been developing a more market-oriented economy since 1986. Citizens can run private businesses, but the government maintains firm control over most other sectors.
Marxist-Leninist ideology has been fading for years, but the Communist Party remains very much in charge. Vietnamese are now able to criticize the government privately, but the regime shows little tolerance for public dissent.
Last month, the party threw out retired Gen. Tran Do for observing that "the confidence of the people toward the party has seriously deteriorated, if it has not totally disappeared."
Despite strong economic growth in the 1990s, Vietnam remains one of the world's poorest countries. Two-thirds of the work force is in agriculture, and the typical wage for unskilled laborers runs from $35 to $70 a month.
Modernization has yet to overwhelm the past in Hanoi as it has in many Asian cities. The result is perhaps the most pleasant capital in Southeast Asia and a stark contrast between old and new.
With a population of about 1 million people, Hanoi is a city of quiet lakes, palm trees and oddly angled streets with lampposts that look as if they were lifted from the sidewalks of Paris.
Just outside the airport, water buffalo loll in muddy pools as farmers in conical hats tend rice and cornfields. Downtown, young boys pester tourists in English to buy postcards and photocopies of Graham Greene's Vietnam novel, "The Quiet American." An old man pumping up bike tires on a street corner addresses foreign men as "monsieur."
One of the city's newest hotels, the Meritus Westlake, has outdoor glass elevators but partially overlooks a shantytown. A few minutes' drive south, the smells of spice and fresh seafood fill Hanoi's 1,000-year-old commercial district, the Old Quarter.
Amid the green shutters and ocher walls of the rundown French architecture, artisans decorate marble headstones with etchings of the deceased as vendors ride past on bikes with ducks tucked into the wire baskets hanging from their handle bars.
Despite such traditional scenes, the pace of urbanization can seem dizzying. The latest rage to hit Hanoi is the sport of Middle America -- bowling.
Phung The Hung, 29, works as assistant manager at Hanoi Star Bowl, where he oversees 30 modern Brunswick lanes with Day-Glo bowling balls and a sound system that plays such 1980s dance classics as The Weather Girls' "It's Raining Men."
Bowling arrived in town just a few months ago, so most people aren't sure how it works. The alley has distributed instruction books. An instructor roams about with a hand-held radio to assist people.
It's a steep learning curve. Many approach the lane and then hurl the ball into the air only to watch it smash onto the alley and roll into the gutter.
Hung's parents, who live in a provincial city an hour's drive away, have yet to see the bowling alley, and that's probably just as well. During earlier visits, they've been overwhelmed by the capital and their son's modern lifestyle.
"They were afraid of everything: the motorbikes, the traffic, the prices," says Hung, who sports a stylish haircut with long bangs that drape down over his eyebrows. "I rode the motorbike very slowly. They sat behind me and said, 'Stop! Stop!' "
The party adjusts
In a changing society filled with outside influences, it's not easy to keep up with young people -- especially if you're the Communist Party.
Twenty years ago, the party's message was abstract and unexciting: Liberate men and work collectively to rebuild the country in the wake of war.
After the Soviet Union's collapse in 1991, the number of new Communist Party youth members hit an all-time low. The party rebounded.
The new message, which sounds more like a campaign slogan from a county council race, may have something to do with it.
"It's welfare, prosperity, equality so that people can enjoy themselves," says Tran Dac Loi, who wears a double-breasted gray suit and serves as an official with the Youth Union. "It's not something obstructive."
For all the complaints of their elders, the youth of Vietnam, unfettered by war and freer than Vietnamese have been in years to pursue their dreams, are working furiously to catch up with the rest of the world.
"They are much better educated, they are much smarter and they have more opportunity," says Khuat Thu Hong, a 40-year-old sociologist and mother of two. "I think they will do many things better than our generation."
Pub Date: 2/21/99