Vietnam is powering full steam towards the future
These days, I get nostalgic every time I make a trip to Hanoi. This time around, it was about Vietnam's street food scene. When I first came to Hanoi in 1986, my favourite eating place was at the corner of Ly Thuong Kiet and Pham Chu Trinh streets, where one could have bun cha on the pavement of the street, which was lined with numerous haircut booths.
In those days, the area around Ly Thuong Kiet was much less crowded and much more smoky. But the grey billowing pillars of smoke did not come from engines -- they came from the wood-fired, open-air pits where petite pork patties and pork belly strips were being grilled. The wafting aroma of barbecued meat, the street noises and the continuous ringing of bicycle bells -- all made casual dining in Hanoi's nooks and crannies a very exciting pastime.
Today, it is a different story. Eating out poses a health risk due to the heavy pollution from the all-day traffic jams. Middle-class Vietnamese and foreigners now prefer to go high-end local restaurants such as Bun Cha Huong Lien, where former president Barack Obama dropped by to eat bun cha with the late TV personality Anthony Bourdain. I think my local bun cha stand at Le Thuong Kiet was much better, not only in terms of the taste but the price as well. But on my last visit, the stand was no longer there. Shop owners nearby said the owner went back home to Haiphong.
The standard of living in Hanoi is pretty high, and eating out in the city these days entails better service, higher quality and much higher prices. Gone are the days when a bowl of pho cost between 5-7 baht -- these days, the prices are closer to 70-75 baht.
These days, trendy hangouts and eateries are popping up by the dozen in central Hanoi. But back in 1986, the most famous hangout in Hanoi was the Piano Bar in the Old Quarter, where one could unwind and have some decent food. Soup luon, or eel soup, was one of favourites on their menu.
Of course, the most famous eatery of all in those days was Cha Ca La Vong. Their star dish -- cha ca, fried hammerhead fish marinated in turmeric and served with dill and noodles -- is so famous the restaurant is often referred to simply as "cha ca". Having been open for over a century, the restaurant also was a local hangout spot where journalists covering Vietnam would go to exchange notes, gossip about the Hanoi scene and eat good food at the same time.
In recent years, Vietnamese cuisine has been making its mark in the regional and international food scene. New restaurants specialising in local and regional flavours are mushrooming in numbers, much to the delight of foodies. The well-known Pho 24 franchise has managed to expand its operations from its base in Ho Chi Minh City to other Asean capital cities -- including Jakarta, Phnom Penh and Manila.
Now that we've talked about food, let's move on to money and politics.
It's interesting to note that most of the news making headlines in Vietnam is centred around how the government should increase the pace of its budget spending on public projects. Indeed, "splashing money around" seems to be the typical theme for Vietnam news -- with numerous pieces published urging local governments to spend money to ensure all planned infrastructure projects are completed within the specified time frame.
This is not a coincidence, as Vietnam is gearing up for its 13th National Congress next year. Therefore, public well-being and continued economic growth is pivotal to maintaining the public's support for Vietnam's Communist Party.
Economically speaking, Vietnam is full of optimism. As a clear winner of the US-China trade war, Vietnam is using this opportunity to pursue further reforms to ensure the new shifts in global value chains will include Vietnam.
The country's economic development has been impressive. In 1986, Vietnam's GNP per capita was only a bit over US$100s (about 3,000 baht), depending on which statistics one referred to. Now, it has reached $2,545. In the coming years, the figure will rise further. Vietnam is a socialist economy that has the world's largest network of free trade agreements, 17 in total. The latest one was with the European Union. In contrast, Thailand has so far signed only six pacts. Now, it is only just starting to negotiate with several more countries, as well as the EU.
Doubtless, foreign investors are pouring their money in to take advantage of Vietnam's membership of the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership and other pacts.
According to the latest update from the Asian Development Bank, Vietnam is the real winner of the US-China war, as its exports rose significantly during the first half of this year, compared to the same period last year. Vietnam's exports to the US increased by 33%.
Among foreign investors, South Korea has chosen Vietnam as the most secure place for its overseas investment. Last year, Seoul invested over $50 billion in Vietnam.
As Thailand prepares to wrap up its Asean chairmanship, Vietnam is already up and running to prepare for the role. It has already set the Asean agenda for 2020 under the theme "Cohesive and Responsive Asean". By doing so, Hanoi hopes to further consolidate "old" and "new" Asean to maintain the bloc's centrality.
Vietnam is ready to showcase itself after more than 30 years of reforms. Along with the Asean chairmanship, next year Vietnam will also assume the role of a non-permanent rotating member of the United Nations Security Council from 2020-2021 -- its second time after a first stint in 2008-2009. After its admission in 1995, Vietnam has risen within the ranks of Asean and now has become one of the most dynamic forces in the region, especially in economic integration and development.
A veteran journalist on regional affairs
Kavi Chongkittavorn is a veteran journalist on regional affairs