Good shopping, Vietnam!

Despatches from Hanoi

The stage is floodlit, and a spiky-haired DJ is gesticulating wildly. Hundreds of fashionable young men and women shake their bodies to the rhythm of western rock in the warm night air. Suddenly, two young men in police uniforms burst on to the stage to the cheering of the crowd. On a closer look, the uniforms are their party outfits, and the red characters on their sleeves read "Security - the Big One". This is the European Music Festival, held at a park in downtown Hanoi.

Since launching Doi Moi, its open-door policy, in the early 1990s, Vietnam has become the second-fastest-growing nation in east Asia after China, and Hanoi, the capital city in the historically backward north, is showcasing the change. At the brand-new Noi Bai Airport, a large poster greets you: "Visit Vietnam For The VISA Experience". Communist Vietnam has finally embraced the plastic card, and Hanoi boasts French restaurants and American cafes, shopping malls with global brand names, and a six-screen cinema complex showing the latest Hollywood films. Beside its old-world charm, Hanoi has gained a touch of glamour.

Away from the city glitz, however, a bumpy bus ride into the provincial areas of the country reveals a tired-looking Vietnam, still exhausted by war and poverty. The lack of basic infrastructure doesn't stop Chinese businesses from moving in to take advantage of the cheap local labour. Nguyen Thi Huong comes from a village two hours' drive from Hanoi, where farmland is being rapidly taken over by incoming Chinese firms. Like many of her neighbours, 27-year-old Huong abandoned farming to work in a Chinese-owned textile factory.

For $40, she had to work ten hours a day, seven days a week. A few months ago, she lost her job after joining a hunger strike with some of her co-workers in protest against the conditions. Others still consider their job a better deal than toiling in the fields.

The strains of the new market economy are beginning to show in Vietnam: high unemployment, the emergence of illegal labour markets, the level of pollution, and the collapse of the health-care system. But the biggest concern for the one-party state is not in trying to maintain economic growth, but in keeping a tight rein on what it calls religious freedom.

In a quiet building in the Dong Da district of Hanoi, Frédéric Labarthe, a Frenchman, is giving lessons to a group of young Vietnamese. The building is marked as the Unesco office, but Frédéric's teaching is all about spirituality. He is the representative for Brahma Kumaris, an organisation from India that practises a particular type of mental yoga. The group only managed to come into Vietnam under the Unesco umbrella, and has had to identify itself as an educational body. "I have to be very careful not to use the word God," says Frédéric.

Another sensitive word in Vietnam is "demo cracy". The visit by the Vietnamese president, Nguyen Minh Triet, to the US in June this year was overshadowed by the arrest of two human rights lawyers in Hanoi whom the authorities accused of using the label "democracy" to distort the situation in the country.

Discontent about the Communist Party is widespread, and many Vietnamese consider the party deeply corrupt, even those who were once its most ardent followers. In a small courtyard in Hanoi, Mrs Huong, a musician who fought in the Vietnam War with her famous composer husband, looks back on her life with great bitterness. The revolutionary anthems her husband wrote about the war are still favourites in Vietnam, but the spirit of those songs is lost for ever. "I remember the days when we walked through the fields where the Americans had just sprayed Agent Orange," she says. "I will never forget that fear. Our generation sacrificed so much, but what for? I couldn't believe how devoted we were to the party!"

Mrs Huong's son, a musician himself, happens to be the organiser of the Hanoi European Music Festival. His life and music are different from those of his parents' generation, but he is not exactly having an easier time. He has had to ask the authorities for permission to organise such a major public event as this, and promise to wrap up at 11pm sharp. Otherwise, the real policemen will arrive. This is Vietnam, after all.

This article first appeared in the 17 December 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas and New Year special 2007

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Is anyone prepared to solve the NHS funding crisis?

As long as the political taboo on raising taxes endures, the service will be in financial peril. 

It has long been clear that the NHS is in financial ill-health. But today's figures, conveniently delayed until after the Conservative conference, are still stunningly bad. The service ran a deficit of £930m between April and June (greater than the £820m recorded for the whole of the 2014/15 financial year) and is on course for a shortfall of at least £2bn this year - its worst position for a generation. 

Though often described as having been shielded from austerity, owing to its ring-fenced budget, the NHS is enduring the toughest spending settlement in its history. Since 1950, health spending has grown at an average annual rate of 4 per cent, but over the last parliament it rose by just 0.5 per cent. An ageing population, rising treatment costs and the social care crisis all mean that the NHS has to run merely to stand still. The Tories have pledged to provide £10bn more for the service but this still leaves £20bn of efficiency savings required. 

Speculation is now turning to whether George Osborne will provide an emergency injection of funds in the Autumn Statement on 25 November. But the long-term question is whether anyone is prepared to offer a sustainable solution to the crisis. Health experts argue that only a rise in general taxation (income tax, VAT, national insurance), patient charges or a hypothecated "health tax" will secure the future of a universal, high-quality service. But the political taboo against increasing taxes on all but the richest means no politician has ventured into this territory. Shadow health secretary Heidi Alexander has today called for the government to "find money urgently to get through the coming winter months". But the bigger question is whether, under Jeremy Corbyn, Labour is prepared to go beyond sticking-plaster solutions. 

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.