Hamburgers For Everybody*

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It was hot outside, like it was every day. The sky was a stew of thick clouds and syrupy sunshine that trickled down through the leaves to the park bench where I sat. I was a stone’s throw away from where the Vietnam war ended, or so I’d read. I tried to envisage the tanks rolling up to the palatial government building down the street, crashing momentously through the gates and onto the front lawn. The last gasp of a haunted era. But the contrast with the present was too stark for me to begin to imagine it. Teenagers sat around playing with cell phones and drinking sweet iced drinks. A young woman and her friend walked up to me and handed me a paper fan: it was in the shape of a carton of french fries. The day marked the opening of the first McDonald’s in Ho Chi Minh City. I tweeted a picture — because of course, there was at least 3G there — with the hashtag #GlobalizationComplete.

In my day job, I report about international trade policy: the rules governments are supposed to follow in handling the goods and investment that wash over their shores. I had come to HCMC to cover a round of trade negotiations between 12 countries — Vietnam being one of them. But when I’m at my desk or on the phone, mucking around in the weeds of policy and legislation, it’s rare that the reality of globalization confronts me so vividly. In truth, sitting in the cool air conditioning of the Park Hyatt and Sheraton hotels, where the talks were taking place, that reality also seemed conspicuously absent. I may still have much yet to learn about trade, but the one thing I have learned is that globalization and its side-effects can barely be constrained by the rules we lay down.

The Sunday after I had arrived in Vietnam, I woke up in the milky mid-morning light and looked down 10 floors from my hotel room to see something I did not expect in a Communist country: a street protest. I heard the shouting first, then as the crowd materialized — Maybe a couple hundred people? More? — a small but tough-looking police force streamed out of a building just ahead of them, sliding out the barricades to declare a do-not-cross line. I readied myself for what I could only imagine would be an ugly confrontation; I had never once heard of a protest in Vietnam. But the marchers stopped there, holding red banners and shouting, and after five minutes, marched down the street the other direction. Ubiquitous motorbikes hummed around them.

Later in the trip I would find out that my hotel window faced the consulate of China, and what I had witnessed was an anti-Chinese rally that had come amid a dispute over territorial waters in the South China Sea. Miles north of Ho Chi Minh City, where factories hum and retailers like Nike and other U.S. importers of footwear and apparel contract out their production, the same rallies were turning violent. Why? Another quirk of globalization: by and large, it’s not the Vietnamese who own the factories, but Chinese investors. The violence, however, was mostly indiscriminate. A number of factory owners who saw damaged property were in fact South Korean. Over dinner one night, I spoke with a young Korean guy who worked for a contractor to major clothing retailers around the world. His firm’s factories had been saved by the fact that they had a South Korean flag hanging out front.

This investment from across Asia, and sourcing by U.S. firms in Vietnam, is an example of what critics call “wage arbitrage” and proponents call spreading economic development. With wages rising in China, over the past several years money has poured into Vietnam seeking cheaper labor, creating factory jobs mainly making apparel destined for Western shores. This creates a small amount of prosperity for some. And with that investment comes investors, who want to live — or at least take up temporary post — in a major metropolis like Ho Chi Minh City, and demand the restaurants and other conveniences that come with it.

All of this gives rise to a small, urbanized middle class. When it emerges enough, globalization takes another turn. The producers of consumables become the consumers, West looks East and North looks South. This was the reason that I sat on that bench fanning myself with an advertisement for McDonald’s, on the very ground where tanks rolled not a half-century ago to end a U.S.-backed regime. A couple of blocks the other direction, trade negotiators were in talks for an agreement that could further liberalize the trade and investment environment, giving those Vietnamese manufacturers a better chance at putting shoes on American feet, while also theoretically making it easier for U.S. businesses to set up shop here.

But not everyone gets to eat the hamburger. My hashtag was wrong. If the promise of globalization is a rising tide that lifts all boats, then it is unequal and — for better or worse — incomplete. Amid the smartphone-toting students, a gaggle of shoe-shine boys, their supplies slung over their shoulders by ropes attached to wooden boxes, wandered in hopes of making a little cash. One that approached me looked like he should have been in class at middle school (it was still May). I shook my head apologetically, and walked off back to the air-conditioned world.

* This post is part of what I call “The Archives Project,” where I dig back into posts I have authored over the past decade over various blog platforms. Like thumbing through an old journal and finding an entry that strikes you years on, this project allows me to go back over all I’ve written and highlight again those posts that I think are still relevant or give some insight into a particular time or place.

This post was originally titled “A Trip Untaken: Part II — Hamburgers For Everybody” and published in August 2014 on a previous version of Across the River.