HANOI, Vietnam – HANOI, Vietnam (AP) — Thirty-five years after the end of the Vietnam War, the people of this country are optimistic about the future, bullish about the free market and rarely think about a conflict that still ignites political passions in America.
A new Associated Press-GfK Poll, one of the most exhaustive surveys to date of contemporary Vietnamese attitudes, underscores how rapidly life has changed in Vietnam. Under a single-party Communist government, the country has embraced market-oriented reforms and lifted tens of millions out of poverty.
Eighty-five percent said the economy is stronger than it was five years ago, and 87 percent said they expect it to be even stronger in another five years. Eighty-one percent said the country is moving in the right direction.
Their optimism stands in stark contrast to the widespread pessimism in the United States, where recent polls show many Americans believe their nation is on the wrong track.
"The country has changed so much in so many ways since the end of the war that you can't imagine," said Luong Trung Thanh, 72, a retired teacher from Hanoi. "It changes every day, right in front of your eyes. There are tall buildings going up everywhere."
The war ended on April 30, 1975, with the fall of Saigon, now known as Ho Chi Minh City, to communist troops from the north.
Initially, hunger was widespread as the government launched a centrally planned economy and the West imposed an economic blockade. Nguyen Thi Thao, 83, remembers lining up with vouchers at government stores in Hanoi, waiting for her allotment of rice and other supplies.
But two decades ago, the communist leadership began opening up the economy, sparking a boom in this Southeast Asian nation of 86 million people.
Economic growth has averaged more than 7 percent annually over the last decade, and the share of the population living in poverty has fallen from 58 percent in 1993 to 11 percent last year. Per capita income has risen from $400 in 2000 to $1,000. Incomes are roughly twice that in the two largest cities, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi, the capital.
"I have a bright future," said Ho Thu Thao, 17, a Hanoi high school student. "Things will be better for me than they were for my parents. The Vietnamese economy is on the right track."
At a shop in central Hanoi, Vietnam's upwardly mobile snap up digital cameras, iPods and other high-tech devices. The shop already has iPads on its shelves.
"The economy is much better now than it was five years ago," said salesman Tran Anh Diep. "People have more money, and they can afford to buy more. I sell about 20 to 25 iPods every week."
Nevertheless, pocketbook issues remain the top priority for most families, according to the AP-GfK Poll, ahead of issues such as the environment, crime, housing and traffic.
For those stuck at the bottom, watching Vietnam's explosive growth can be difficult.
Nguyen Thi Thanh, 47, a Hanoi fruit vendor, spends her days dodging motorbikes and cars while trying to scratch out a dollar or two of income. On the streets around her, the nouveau riche tool around in BMWs, Mercedes and even Bentleys.
"Some of them spend more on breakfast than I earn in a week," Thanh said.
Many of those surveyed expressed anxieties about inflation, which has been high in recent years.
"Twenty years ago, the Vietnamese people were worried about providing food and clothes for their families," said Nguyen Tran Bat, chairman of Investconsult Group, a business consulting firm. "Now they're not worried about subsistence but about improving their status."
The survey showed strong support for private enterprise, especially among the young. Fifty-six percent favored more private ownership of business, while only 25 percent thought there should be more government ownership.
The number of private enterprises has risen sharply over the last decade, but many are mom and pop operations. Large state-owned firms dominate the economy, with some enjoying monopolies over key industries.
"Vietnam needs to do more to continue the development of the private sector, or the nation's increased purchasing power and productivity might erode," Bat said.
Seventy-seven percent said large income differences are acceptable, because they give people an incentive to work harder. The same percentage also said competition is good, because it encourages enterprise and innovation.
"People have witnessed the development of Vietnam, and they see a lot to gain from the opening of the economy," said Pham Chi Lan, former vice chairwoman of the Vietnam Chamber of Commerce and Industry.
The AP-GfK Poll, conducted in February and March, interviewed 1,600 people in urban, suburban and rural areas across the country. The sample covers all but a very small portion of the population that lives in areas without drivable roads or where Vietnamese is not widely spoken. The margin of error is plus or minus 3.2 percentage points.
Vietnam's communist government does not tolerate competition and routinely jails its opponents. In the last several months, it has sent 16 members of the country's dissident community to jail for promoting a multi-party democracy.
Given the political context, the poll avoided questions about the Communist Party's performance.
Asked about politics generally, however, 61 percent said they were not interested, while 39 said they were.
On the Vietnam War — known here as the American War — 56 percent said they rarely, if ever, think about it. Only 11 percent said they think about it often.
"The Vietnamese have a tradition of being tolerant and forgiving and looking to the future rather than the past," Lan said.
Fifty-five percent said the war had not affected them directly, a result that may reflect how young the population is: More than 60 percent of Vietnamese were born after the war.
Large majorities disapproved of the U.S. invasions of Iraq and Afghanistan — 58 percent and 55 percent, respectively. Only 3 percent said that launching those wars was the right decision. The rest didn't know or weren't sure.
"Bush is kind of hawkish but Obama wants to be friends with countries around the world," said Bui Xuan Dau, 52, a motorbike taxi driver in Hanoi. "I don't know who benefits from these wars, but it's the people of Iraq and Afghanistan who pay the price."
On the Net:
The Associated Press-GfK Vietnam Poll: http://www.ap-gfkpoll.com