Here’s a recent exchange on a Vietnam-related listserv of which I’m a member:
Act I: US-Based Vietnam Scholar (DF)
Perhaps you have seen the feature in Time this week on happiness, which notes that in the (2012) World Happiness Report (PDF), published by the Earth Institute of Columbia University, the US ranks 23rd out of 50 countries, trailing, among others, Viet Nam. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this.
Act II: Retired US Foreign Service Officer/US-Centric Vietnam Critic (DB)
It’s an entirely subjective poll. Vietnam ranks near the top every year — whether because Vietnamese are fundamentally more optimistic, or disposed to tell an interviewer what they think he wants to hear, or both, or neither, I just can’t decide.
Act III: Young Vietnamese Woman/Recent University Graduate in HCMC/Saigon (GV)
Of course it’s subjective because in the scientific world, people have a nice name for ‘happiness’, i.e. Subjective Well Being.
Now drinking coffee in Saigon, I can’t help feeling that this is such a youthful, cheerful and wonderful nation. Does the fact that Vietnam has a crazily young population affect the survey that DF mentioned? How about Vietnam’s internet penetration rate of over 30%? Young and wired – these are the Vietnamese that were most likely to take part in the report.
Whenever I come to the IDECAF Theater, either on Le Thanh Ton street or Tran Cao Van street, HCMC, I always feel Vietnam is in a bizarre time. One moment it is in tears and right after that it is in cheers. The comedies I’ve seen usually communicate the idea of inequality, capitalism, urbanization and boat people in cute ways. So in summary I believe the World Happiness Report is right. Vietnam is happy but not in a traditional sense of the word. People beat each other to get ahead and to survive the marriage of capitalism and socialism, then we make fun of each other, get back on our feet, laugh and call it happiness.
Sorry about my morning ramblings. To make up for it, I’d love to invite any listserv member in HCMC to the IDECAF Theater. I’m a typical Vietnamese belonging to the proletariat, but I can afford to buy happiness tickets.
This resonates with those of us who live in Vietnam, for whom Vietnam is not simply a “subject of study,” an “issue,” or an abstraction.
Here’s what Ben Stocking, the former Hanoi Associated Press (AP) bureau chief, had to say in a follow-up post:
As a generalized indicator of optimism, I think the “happiness” survey is probably accurate. In my last year as Hanoi bureau chief for the Associated Press, we commissioned a survey of Vietnamese attitudes 35 years after the war. It was conducted by GFK, a highly reputable polling firm that regularly partners with the AP. GFK used a scientific sampling from all three regions of Vietnam — North, South and Central. It found that 81 percent felt the country was on the right track. (The number of Americans who felt their country was on the right track, then and now, was about 30 percent, according to Rasmussen.)
Granted, the years since the GFK poll have not been good ones for Vietnam’s economy. But in the grand scheme of things, it only makes sense that Vietnamese would be more optimistic than Americans. Since the early 1990s, the poverty rate in Vietnam has fallen from about 60 percent to 20 percent, according to the World Bank. Meanwhile, wages in the United States have stagnated and fallen to a record low as a percentage of GDP, according to the New York Times.