What’s the first word that comes to mind when you think of Vietnam?
The Vietnamese themselves know what it is. “War.” And around the world, especially in the West, the dominant images people have of Vietnam are of bombing raids, smoldering villages and, perhaps, helicopters departing an evacuated U.S. Embassy.
The documentary Vietnam: Fast Forward, however, would prefer that the first word you think of when you think of Vietnam was “entrepreneurship.” And that the overwhelming images you had were of booming tourist sites, crowded tech-company conference rooms and chefs pushing gourmet food products and high-end restaurants.
Director Eladio Arvelo tries hard to emphasize that positive message — sometimes too hard. His film’s constant emphasis on the hard-working, uncomplaining, ever-polite, oh-so-happy Vietnamese can feel patronizing, even somewhat racist (the country is, we’re told “The Land of a Million Smiles”). Even a positive stereotype is still a stereotype.
Sometimes, too, the narrowness of the film’s focus – it’s less than an hour long, and concentrates exclusively on entrepreneurship – risks outright propaganda. It’s true that Vietnam is one of the world’s fastest growing economies. But there’s no word here of workers’ rights, or a single-party system that still outlaws dissent.
Still, there are some fascinating facts here, and snapshots of a country in constant, rapid change. Surprisingly, Vietnam is now one of the largest coffee producers in the world, second only to Brazil. And although the Communist Party is still in charge, capitalism abounds, with an estimated 50% of households running small businesses.
Many of those revolve around pushcarts (which gives Arvelo, who is also our overly exuberant on-camera guide, too many opportunities to resort to “eww, gross!” reactions as he samples the food). But the country also has a healthy tourism industry. And it is pushing hard into technology, with IT becoming an important part of the economy.
What may be the most surprising fact here – and encouraging sign – is how healthy its farms are. The country suffered decades of war, and overwhelming onslaughts of bombs, napalm and Agent Orange. After untold quantities of fiery attacks and toxic herbicide, the countryside should, by all rights, be a wasteland.
But the camera shows us miles of tenderly terraced hills, crowded rice paddies, and blooming lotuses. Men haul in nets of wriggling fish. Women care for ancient tea trees. Despite all that has been done to it, nature finds a way to not only survive, but thrive.
And so, clearly, have the Vietnamese.