If there's one thing that Third World Marxist dictatorships seem to have in common, it's a high tolerance for reckless driving. I first discovered this in 1988 after a particularly long dinner party in then-Communist Nicaragua. A friend and I were headed back to our hotel in Managua, doing about 70 in a heavy rainstorm, when we hit a pot-hole the size of a bird bath. The left front tire popped like a balloon and shredded into long jagged strips. The car bounced sideways down the road. It came to a stop in front of a Sandinista police station.
I figured we were in trouble. We shouldn't have been driving. The cops had automatic weapons. I waited for the handcuffs. The police turned out to be amused. Their attitude seemed to be: Inebriated Americans in a car accident! What a riot! Back home, my friend and I would have been on the phone to a bail bondsman within about eight minutes. The Sandinistas changed the tire for us.
Nicaragua isn't Communist anymore, so there's no telling how its traffic laws have changed. Vietnam, on the other hand, remains very much a people's republic. I was there last week covering John McCain, and I'm happy to report that almost everyone in the country still drives like a total nut case. People pull into oncoming traffic without looking, blow through red lights at top speed, travel long distances in the wrong lane. It's not unusual in developing countries to see entire families packed onto a single moped. In Vietnam it's not unusual to see them attempt to pass trucks while going uphill on a two-lane bridge.
At first I assumed that the Vietnamese must be unusually skilled drivers. Then an American who lives in the country set me straight. A huge number of people die in traffic accidents in Vietnam, he said, several a day in Saigon alone. So I revised my theory: Maybe when you live in a totalitarian country, it's psychologically important to break the little laws, like the ones against driving a motorcycle with one hand on the wrong side of the road while talking on your cell phone. Or maybe you just have bigger problems to worry about.
And there are bigger problems. Vietnam is a pretty place with good food and friendly people, so it's easy to forget that it's also run by a Stalinist regime. Every once in a while there are reminders. One morning in Hanoi, McCain gave a short speech to members of the country's National Assembly, its mostly rubber-stamp legislative body. In America, he told the group, politicians have to listen to their constituents. For example, he said, one voter he spoke to suggested a law mandating oral hygiene. "As a father of four children," McCain joked, "I supported requiring Americans to brush their teeth every night." He grinned. The Vietnamese didn't. They looked contemplative. You could almost hear them thinking: Now there's an idea.
A few hours later, McCain stopped by the National Assembly building to meet with the group's chairman, the Communist equivalent of Denny Hastert. The chairman invited McCain and the reporters following him on a tour of the main chamber, a cavernous Soviet-style room with rows of wooden desks and a statue of Ho Chi Minh. He explained the protocol: who sits where, who speaks, and in what order. The lecture went on for a while, until Howard Fineman of Newsweek broke in. "Where does the opposition party sit?" he asked deadpan. This time the Vietnamese did erupt into titters. Nervous ones.
The Vietnamese government isn't famous for its sense of humor, though if you're in Hanoi and looking for a way to spend an amusing hour or two, I recommend a trip to Hoa Lo prison, the medieval-looking brick compound made famous during the war as the Hanoi Hilton. Much of the original prison was torn down a few years ago. The portion that remains has been turned into a museum of French atrocities. There is a guillotine on display, leg stocks, and other instruments of colonial torture and repression. There is no mention of the fact that, once the French left, the Communists continued to use the building for nearly 50 more years to torture and repress their own enemies.
Or almost no mention. In a tiny room at the back of the compound is a small exhibit dedicated to the American flyers once interned there, including John McCain. There is a volleyball net in a glass case, and other pieces of memorabilia designed to show that, on the whole, American prisoners had a pretty relaxing time at the Hanoi Hilton.
And there are pictures. One shows a group of men standing in church. "American pilots in Hoa Lo prison attending mass in the cathedral," reads the caption. If you look closely you'll notice that one of the men has an odd expression on his face. His right hand is raised, a slender middle finger draped across his chin. After a moment you recognize his expression. It's a suppressed grin.