I grew up as the Communist empire withered and parched. I was a toddler when the Berlin wall went down, something that my mind didn’t register if not for the notion that, somewhere, it was OK to tear down walls and wear hair à la MacGyver. I was attending elementary school when the whole house of cards collapsed, and the first waves of migration showed us that the homo sovieticus we had been fearing was exactly like us, but for the poverty that led him to board, with thousands of others, crumbling ships to Apulia.
Despite that, despite having spent the rest of my life learning about the legacy of wrecks that Communism left in its wake – poverty, war, ecological disasters – I’ve never been able to shake off a feeling of bewildered fascination towards the mysteries lurking behind the borders of Communist countries. The endless expanses of Siberia and of the Gobi, secret cities, martial statues and inscrutable domestic policies gave the other side of the Iron Curtain a certain flair of unknown that, definitely, was window dressing, hiding persecution and despair. But that was enough to fascinate me.
It didn’t dawn on me at first, but as soon as I spotted the first red flag flying in the Hanoi night I realised that, here, the Party wasn’t over yet (pun very much intended). I was in Vietnam, and Vietnam was still a Socialist republic. For a guy born at the trail end of the Cold War, it felt like being in a Jack Ryan film.
The following morning, my feeling of astounded stupor hadn’t abated; if only, it had grown stronger. I woke up to the noise of the morning propaganda, and I descended into streets where every lamppost was adorned with two red flags. Severe sculptures of soldiers, factory workers or farmers mingled with ancient temples, and adverts designed in the Technicolor style of the 1960s rubbed shoulder-to-shoulder with Honda mopeds and new Vespas. I wondered what Ho Chi Minh would’ve made of that.
I spotted my first Lenin statue by mid-morning. The Russian revolutionary looked hardly inconspicuous in his coat and three-piece suit in a background of lush tropical vegetation. Anywhere else I had been, past the old Curtain, the bronze tributes to the material executor of Communism had long been ripped away; here, instead, it was still solidly anchored to its plinth. Yet, its surroundings were still very much Asian, so much so that I still ended up being hit by a moped going the wrong way, his driver busy tapping away on a bootleg iPhone.
The eleventh Party congress loomed. Banners announced it, complete with logos that a Soviet design bureau armed with Photoshop would’ve made. Motorcades of brown minivans cruised along the boulevards, preceded by scores of mounted police, sirens blaring. Above those ubiquitous parades shone, as secular Christmas lights, illuminations praising what the party supposedly brought to the people of Vietnam: peace, friendship, prosperity. Below, on the streets, oblivious to this spectacle and indifferent to all those symbols that so much impressed me, ordinary Vietnamese went by their business.