On Communism

By: leelefever on December 28, 2006 - 10:31am

I wrote this entry in September of 2006 from Helsinki, Finland just after arriving there from the Trans-Siberian Railway and a month in China.  For a while I was consumed by learning about Communism and needed to get it on paper, so to speak.

This post is a bit of a departure from the usual travel topics and I hope you’ll pardon its serious and dark nature. Having been to Cambodia, Vietnam, China, Russia, Germany and the Czech Republic, Communism seems to be a recurring theme and something to which I’ve devoted a lot of time reading and learning. I’ve developed a fascination for the subject, likely more than any other subject on the trip.

I figure that the root of my fascination is related to the fact that so many smart people believed in it so fervently and killed so many in an attempt to make it work – and the work continues to this day.  To me as an American entrepreneur, Communism is endlessly fascinating because it diverges so greatly from my world view.  The more I learn about it, the more baffled I become that so many could believe that it is a perfectly reasonable way to run a country.

I started the trip knowing very little about the Communist ideology, Marxism, Leninism or the history of the peoples’ revolution.  After reading a number of books, visiting museums, etc., I think I have a handle on some of the basics.  To test myself, I’d like to try to describe my layman's version for you as briefly and simply as possible.

Karl Marx was known as the father of Communism and the author of the Communist Manifesto – the first declaration of his theory in late 19th century. To Marx, capitalism (free markets, supply and demand, etc.) was evil and would eventually cause great misery to the people of the world. His goal was to stop it. 

To understand why he thought this, we must consider the lives of workers in the Industrial Revolution of the 1800s.  At the time he saw a world where people were either rich owners or exploited and unhappy workers.  Marx saw this as a great injustice that was getting worse through the growth of Capitalism.  He foresaw a future where Capitalism would create a small handful of rich people and a world of miserable people that would get more miserable over time. This would even be extended to a worldwide scale with the world eventually being run by a few rich industrialists. This was what some called Imperialism and it was the end game of Capitalism.

Marx was successful in convincing a lot of very smart and powerful people that his was the true vision of the world and his Communist ideology its savior.  He promoted the idea that the true power of a civilization lies within the working class and if properly motivated, the working class can rise up in revolution against the rich land owners. This was revolution and it was the first stage of building a Communist system which would be fair to everyone – a single class society that worked to provide what it needed for the whole society. The government owned everything and everyone worked toward a common goal of self-sufficiency.  In fact, according to the theory, there would be no need for government in the future – it would “whither away” as the Communist utopia was achieved. Everyone would be well fed, protected and happy as they worked together as one.

Of course, history shows that this is not the case.  Two contributing factors:

  • Marx got it wrong.  He did not predict the rapid rise of the middle class.  Before he died, he saw Capitalism creating opportunities for a new class that were neither the rich owner nor the exploited worker.
  • Marxism was just a theory:  It described how things should work and what should happen, but it never described *how* Communism or revolution should actually be managed.  It was a theory with no doctrine.

Of course in the 20th century there would be no shortage of world leaders to test the Marxist theory in the form of prompting a revolution and establishing a Communist government – supposedly freeing the working classes from Capitalist oppression.

The first serious revolutionary was Lenin in Russia. He put Marxist theory into practice and established the first Communist government in 1917 and in doing so created Leninism – the way a person goes about revolution and enacting Marxist principles.  This created what is known as Marxism/Leninism and became a complete package for people like Mao Zedong, Ho Chi Minh and Pol Pot in Asia.  They now had the idea (Marxism) and the practice (Leninism) for Communist Revolution.

What has happened since then is the subject of great debate. Most would agree that if there is a winner in the Cold War, it is Capitalism. Many questions remain about what went wrong with Communism.  I’ll let you research the myriad perspectives on what happened and leave you with my own admittedly half-baked answer.

I think there are two main reasons Communism failed.  The first is human nature.  Communism underestimated the human need for achievement, competition and recognition.  Making everyone the same reduced everyone to the lowest common denominator and bred more misery and frustration than it prevented.  The second reason is leadership.  Have you ever heard of the founder of a company having to hire a CEO?  It happens often because the people that start things are not often the best people to manage them.  Revolutionaries are great at revolution, but can be poor at administration and management.  The history of Communism is rife with stories of Mao, Stalin and Pol Pot making ludicrous decisions that caused the deaths of millions of their people.  They grew omnipotent through revolution but lacked the skills to use that power in any responsible manner.

My guess is that human history will show Communism as a destructive and deadly force in the world, not because of the idea or theory, but its implementation.  It enabled the centralization of absolute power that bred mass corruption and quickly became unmanageable.  To give you an idea of the level of destruction, consider the number of deaths in these countries in the Communist era:

  • China and Mao’s Great Leap Forward (1950’s)  - 30 million dead from starvation
  • Cambodia and Pol Pot’s Communist Revolution (1970’s) 7 million dead from starvation and executions (1 in 7 Cambodians)
  • Russia and Stalin’s Iron Rule (1920-50s) – 40 million dead from starvation and executions

… and this is not counting the unquantifiable misery wrought on families and individuals in these countries as secret police, hidden agendas and propaganda were a fact of life.  

Could a system of government that produced numbers like this be considered a positive force in the world?  I think not. Yet, the Communist Party is still a major player in world politics.  In Vietnam and Russia it has considerable power and of course in China, Cuba and North Korea it is the dominant force. How could this be? How could there still be demand for such a system?  The answer lies somewhere in the real world security and equality that Communism provides the working class.  Despite the horrific past, some people still yearn for a system where they can depend on the government for everything – they are ready to trade freedom for security.

Maybe the real root of my fascination with Communism is related to how it helps me to understand all the things I take for granted.  The more I learn, the more I wonder what my life would be like if I was a child of Communism.  With an entrepreneurial American worldview, I find it nearly unfathomable.

For more reading, check out the Wikipedia entries on:  Communism, Vladimir Lenin, Joseph Stalin, Mao Zedong, Pol Pot, Karl Marx, Marxism, Capitalism, Dictatorship of the Proleteriat, Imperialism


Old Town Hanoi Video

By: leelefever on August 5, 2006 - 3:39am

Here's another bit of video that we shot in the Old Town Hanoi. As with the others, we're just experimenting - be kind. :).

Hanoi was my favorite place in Vietnam and I hope the video captures some of the richness- and our exemplary pool playing.

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Hanoi and Uncle Ho with Wanna and Vuth

By: leelefever on July 31, 2006 - 3:04am
Our friend Beth Kanter introduced to another Cambodian blogger who lives in Hanoi. His name is Wanna or Mr. X. Yesterday we met Wanna and his friend Vuth (also Cambodian) for a day of sightseeing, including Uncle Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum.
We're planning to do more video soon and this is practice...

Thanks a bunch for great time folks!

Birthday and Christmas for Us!

By: sachilefever on July 30, 2006 - 6:53am

Thank you so much for the birthday wishes! We spent the July Jubilee mostly in Hoi An, Vietnam. We planned to stay for 3 nights, but ended up enjoying 6 nights in this little town. The housekeepers would ask us every day, “What time leaving tomorrow?” Our answer always seemed to be “Two more days.” then they would giggle and practice a few more English sentences on us.


We had heard weeks earlier that Hoi An was wonderfully colonial, a pleasant place to shake travel weariness and that we should buy some tailored clothes while we were in town. Tailored clothes? I’m not much of a shopper, and all Lee has been buying are T-shirts to send home, so we thought tailored clothes were a faint possibility. Once we arrived and talked to some tailors, we decided to give it a try with a couple of dress shirts for work – just for fun.


That evening, the monetorium came up in discussion – in saving for the trip for two years, we did not buy new clothes and we would surely need clothes for restarting our careers upon our return home, when our bank account would look especially sad.  So, having tailored work clothes made in Hoi An made sense – we could get better quality and fit for a fraction of the price.  Picking up our first order was too encouraging – good quality fabric, nice stitchwork, and only US$18 for two dress shirts.  By the end of the week we spent US$500.


I know, I know – that’s a lot of money. However, think about a decent dress shirt for work – maybe $25 (at the cheaper end of the spectrum in the US) multiplied by 20 shirts gives you a $500 expense.  That’s 20 shirts for $500, bought in the US.

Now, consider what we got for that same amount of money in Hoi An:  Along with 22 dress shirts, add 5 pairs of dress pants…add 3 blazers for Lee…add 2 jackets for me…. And finally, add 6 pairs of shoes, all tailored to fit us perfectly, and with fabrics that we chose.  For the price of 20 $25 dress shirts in the US, we got all the items listed above.


With $68 in shipping expense we sent home 50lbs of new wear and were a little embarrassed heading to the post office the morning we left town. We realized we weren’t nearly the only ones when we saw stacks of clothing boxes headed out that day.

There are certainly few guarantees – Maybe the fabric won’t stand up to weather and washing like our other jackets and maybe our shoes won’t last more than a season. However, I’d like to think we’re just trying it out, and if it works well, we may be back to Hoi An in a few years with clothing designs and ideas in tow.  

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Vietnamese and the Real English

By: leelefever on July 28, 2006 - 7:44pm

Like nearly traveler, we struggle with language – and sometimes even English.  Case in point:  Before coming to Vietnam we picked up a Vietnamese phrasebook in a book exchange and began learning some of the basics.  The first thing I noticed was a stark difference in the one Vietnamese word I knew: “Pho”.  Pho is a food- a noodle and meat soup that is served all over Seattle, where you learn quickly that it is pronounced “fuh”, as in fun. 

Upon consulting the phrasebook, we found a very different version of the word about which we felt so confident.  The book said it should be pronounced “fur”, which to us sounded like the hair on an animal. “Fur” did not sound Vietnamese at all.  The same was true with the word for thank you – the book said it is pronounced "ga’am ern".  Again, that “r” sound did not sound right.

Then the light went on in our head.  The phrasebook’s pronunciation was based on British English – the real English and not our American version.  “Fur” was not fur at all, but a much more sophisticated sounding “fuh”, where the “r” is dropped.  I could suddenly imagine a British person holding a cup of tea with their pinky finger held out and saying “I would nevah weah a fuh coat- that’s simply cruel!”  …and it all became very clear.

And in the end, we must recognize that we hold our version of English very dear and we Americans have to realize that our English is not the only, or even the real version of the language.  There is a reason it is called “English”.

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Anatomy of a Scam in Vietnam

By: leelefever on July 27, 2006 - 8:22am

It’s been said many times- be clear with a Vietnamese cab driver about your hotel, or they will take you to their friend’s hotel, where they will earn a commission. We’ve seen many attempts at such diversions, but none so blatant as we experienced today, just after arriving in Hanoi.

We took a cab from the airport into town (37km for US$10). On the way, we told the driver to go to the “Camellia 3” Hotel and showed him where it was on the map. He agreed and the agreement was settled. Along the way he had a number of phone calls, which rang in a ring tone with the volume on 11. We understood nothing he said.

Upon arriving in the Old City of Hanoi, a young Vietnamese guy walked over to the car, opened my door, stuck his head into the car about 3 inches from my face and said “Welcome to the Camellia 3 Hotel!” I struggled to look around him at the building and the awning and did not see anything about the Camellia, or any hotel for that matter. No matter what we asked, he continued to insist, quite rudely “Yes, this is the place, the Camellia 3 Hotel, let me get your bags.” All I could say was, “First, please back up and let me get out of the car.” I left Sachi in the car and stepped into what was supposed to be the Camellia 3 Hotel. I walked to the reception desk and said “I’d like a business card please, where is your business card?” Their answer: “We ran out”. This, of course was a lie and there was no longer any doubt what was happening. This was not the Camellia 3 Hotel.

The cab driver must have thought we were complete idiots. He actually thought that he could drop us off at some random hotel and we would believe, thanks to the not-so-skillful scamming of his not-so-sly cronies, that we had arrived at our requested destination and would blindly get a room, earning him a commission.

We’ve met a lot of nice people in Vietnam, but it is the prevalence of this kind of bullshit that will forever leave a bad taste in my mouth. We said to him what we say to all people who try to pull such stunts. “You are bad for tourists – you keep doing this, tourists will stop coming.” He only smiled with a “you can’t win’em all” attitude and went off to give another tourist a good reason not to come back to Vietnam.

Lee, Why Do You Hate Ducks?

By: leelefever on July 24, 2006 - 1:54am

 I don't hate ducks, I promise - it just seems that the world thinks that they taste delicious and in some cases, I just take the pictures.  The other day we were traveling from Nha Trang to Hoi An, Vietnam via a rented car (and driver- US$120 10 hours). Along the way we were sure to tell the driver when a picture needed to be taken and before long, he was pointing things our for us.  Looking up ahead, he turned to us and smiled and said "good picture coming up".  We saw a motorcycle and a mass of something hanging off it.  A bit like this...

Then, as we got a bit closer, it became clear what was hanging off the motocycle: live ducks who seem to be somewhat calm considering the circumstances.

 On a more more scenic note, the trip offered a few chances to see the Vietnamese countryside.  The Vietnamese really do wear the conical hats, called a "nang".

 The farming, in some places, is more traditional than I expected.

 A village decided to create a salt farm about 10 years ago and it is now a success story in rural Vietnam.

 And the boats in Vietnam seem to be painted the same everywhere - perhaps from the communist/collectivist days?

 So, I don't hate ducks, but I do think they taste good and for those of you who have told me to stop eating them- it aint gonna happen soon as China is coming up and they serve ducks-a-plenty. 

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Street Hawkers and Young Love

By: leelefever on July 24, 2006 - 1:44am

 Anyone who has spent more than 15 minutes on the streets of SE Asia knows the street hawkers – the people selling goods and services on the street.  The most dominant and tenacious of the hawkers are the drivers- people offering rides on their tuk-tuk or motorcycle.  Others include people selling sunglasses, drinks or any other tourist consumable.  I would guarantee with absolute certainty that the two phrases I’ve heard most over the last two months are “Sir! Where you go?” and “Sir! You buy something?”  This morning over breakfast we denied no fewer than 6 offers for the Saigon Times newspaper.

We’ve gotten used to it, but sometimes we just want to throw all of our stuff on the ground and pitch a fit in the middle of the street screaming “I have had ENOUGH!  NO! I DO NOT want a RIDE or a DRINK or a T-SHIRT and if I do, I WILL FIND YOU!!!! Most of the time though we just offer a polite “no thanks” and walk away.

The situation is not unlike the story we all know of the boy that really, really likes a girl. The girl is not so into him, but politely talks to him and smiles at him politely.  The smitten boy of course perceives any interaction as a move in the right direction and pursues the girl with tenacity.  He asks her out on a date every time they meet and over time, the girl tires of his advances to the point of becoming annoyed. Little does he know it, but with each interaction he drives her further and further away. Eventually the girl learns that the only way to deal with the boy is to ignore him completely and be leery of other boys like him. 

Such is our situation with the street hawkers. With each offer, we find ourselves less and less likely to deal with them or even acknowledge that they exist. Like the smitten boy, they don’t realize it, but their tenacity is actually preventing more business than promoting it.

See also:  10 Reasons Why Street Hawkers are Like Email Spam 

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The Hammer and Sickle

By: leelefever on July 22, 2006 - 1:28am

Growing up in a time when the fall of the Soviet Union came in my formative years (born:1973), I saw the Hammer and Sickle as a relic of a bygone era of Communism. I had assumed that with the end of the Cold War, the Hammer and Sickle would have its place next to the more sinister swastika in the Hall of Retired Political Iconography.  Upon visiting Vietnam, I found that this is not true.  The Hammer and Sickle is alive and well in Vietnam and bandied about with all the glory of a flower display on a parade float.  While completely normal for the Vietnamese, I find it interesting and a bit strange.

The locals I’ve spoken with tell a consistent story.  Ho Chi Minh’s revolution was a good thing because it gave Vietnam independence and freedom from foreign powers (mostly France).  However, the Communist government that took over the country made life very hard for the Vietnamese. After Communism failed to produce results, the country became Socialist in the 80’s and started to open the country to a free market economy.  However, today the Communist Party is still operating and has significant power in the Vietnamese government.  So, I imagine this has something to do with the prevalence of the hammer and sickle.

I asked a tour guide about the difference it made to have a free market economy and I may never for get his response.  He said “For 10 years in Communist government, I have only one shirt and wear it every day.  Now, I wear different shirt every day.  That example said volumes to me.  I'll be interested to see how it is China and Russia, both coming up on the itinerary soon.

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Da Lat, Vietnam: A Strange Sort of Tourism

By: leelefever on July 22, 2006 - 1:15am

We are suckers for cool places in the mountains.  Da Lat, Vietnam lured us with temperatures in the 60's and the promise of experiencing Vietnam's vacation and honeymoon capital.  What we found was an intersting look at Vietnamese vacation culture that perplexed us a bit.

In the last 50 years, Da Lat has grown from a sleepy hill station to a full blown tourist destination.  In that growth, it seems that it's reputation may have preceded its progress by a few years.  From our perspective, Da Lat is a place with a perfect climate that is desparately searching for something to keep the tourists busy.  In these efforts, the city has grown into a mess of modern buildings, neon and crowds of people.  It does have a nice golf course. 

Yesterday we rented a motorbike and went to a ski-lift style gandola that descended to a lake just out of town.  Our hopes were high.  Though the gandola ride was nice, it's end left us wondering why it had been built- a gandola to what exactly?  We found a garden variety pagoda and a trail down to a red clay beach surrounding a half-full lake. The trail to the lake ended by a sickly looking and very sad monkey on a chain. Not a highlight. 

On the way back we realized that most Vietnamese never get a chance to ride in a gandola, so it is not only transportation, but an attraction itself. It may be no matter that the destination is an anti-climax. 

The restaurant situation in Da Lat was also a bit strange to us.  First, there are very few actual restaurants in Da Lat.  Instead, there are cafes that have a very consistent menu consisting of eight pages of drinks and ice cream and one page of food, including, invariably, six kinds of spaghetti.  Of course, there are also many street stalls offering baguettes, three varieties of snails, meat on sticks and pho.  What we didn't find were any up-market Vietnamese restaurants.  We found very few places to go out and get a nice Vietnamese dinner.  The restaurants on offer focused mainly on western food with some Asian foods in the mix.

 Being the honeymoon capital of Vietnam, we were left wondering if we were missing something.  Where do the Vietnamese vacationers eat?  In the end, we realized that Da Lat is not for us- it is not built around the needs and expectations of the Western traveler. The Vietnemese may not go out to eat Vietnamese food in nice restaurants to celebrate (or the places are well hidden). It is a Vietnamese place that serves the Vietnamese people first, as it should.  While Da Lat may not have lived up to what we imagined, it offered a quirky, strange, cool and interesting look at Vietnamese vacation culture and for that we are thankful.

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