HANOI — The text message hit my iPhone several thousand feet above Hanoi, flying into the Noi Bai International Airport. The local cell company, Viettel, was welcoming me to Vietnam.
How did they get my number?
Marveling at the connectivity of a country I have only known through war and a solo backpacking trip more than two decades earlier, I punched up my Slingbox app and turned on the cable in my Manhattan apartment to stream live television to my phone. The Oscars were just concluding in Los Angeles.
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On the left side of the plane, rice paddies ran parallel to the runway. New homes — tall, slender — stretching five stories high sprung up from farmland. This wasn’t the same country I remembered.
Twenty-five years ago, I backpacked across a war-ravaged, dirt-strewn Third World Vietnam. It was already changing, and I was lucky to see it. Locals could now take partial ownership in cafes and restaurants. Travelers were no longer required to book a trip via the government, or fly in government planes, or stay in government hotels.
Starting in Saigon, I worked my way by train up to Danang, then to Hue by minibus, out to the 17th Parallel to see battle sites such as Hamburger Hill and Khe Shan, finishing the tour by train in Hanoi. It was difficult travel, barely manageable.
Back then, I wrote the following for a Cincinnati newspaper about Saigon: “Rows of wooden shacks, nailed together with flimsy sheet metal, lean off-balance. Apartment buildings wear the dirt and decay of years of neglect. This is the house that communism built.”
Today West Hanoi is a boom town. Vietnam’s economy is growing at a fast clip of 7 percent, and it shows: Tall buildings have sprung up from former shanty towns. Farmers are moving to the city and joining the burgeoning middle class. There is a gleaming Marriott in West Hanoi, where President Trump and his entourage stayed for his summit with Kim Jung-un.
Downstairs is a bar called the Cool Cats Jazz Club. The bartender — born in 1992, the year of my backpacking visit — says the growth has surprised even him. “This used to be a few low-lying buildings and the rest was rice fields.”
How did it change? Like next-door China, Vietnam embarked on market reforms but kept the Communist Party in control. It is a saggy form of communism. Mao and Ho Chi Minh wouldn’t have liked it. So far, it seems many people are winning.
The free-market reforms helped, yes, but there was another factor. The real boom began only after Hanoi restored relations with Washington under the Clinton administration.
There is a lesson for Kim.
Today the Vietnamese people use Instagram and WhatsApp and Facebook, and they are connected to each other and to a world outside their borders. Information influences policy, it moves society and it can wield the power to change governments.
North Korea’s Kim knows this. The information revolution has him surrounded, while sanctions have strangled him economically.
I visited the inaptly named Demilitarized Zone that divides North and South Korea on my way home from the summit. It’s a short drive out of Seoul, with the left side of the road lined with barbed wire. Incursions by North Korean spies have made that necessary.
At the DMZ, I was close to a decaying system. I knew instinctively it couldn’t last. But how much longer can it withstand the pressures of a world in a constant bull market? Again, Kim must know this.
“Do you believe your country would have developed the way it has,” I ask my guide, Grace, “without the presence of 28,000 American forces?”
“No,” she replies flatly. “Not possible.”
Peering through a high-powered set of binoculars across the 1.6-kilometer stretch of the DMZ, I spot two people who are walking through a field and climbing over a berm. They are dressed in dark, colorless clothing characteristic of a Communist regime. The wiliest among their leaders — the most paranoid, the most ruthless — make it their business to last as long as possible.
Is Kim on the verge of giving in?
He and Trump left Vietnam without a clear answer.
Bill Hemmer anchors America’s Newsroom on the Fox News Channel.
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