Hanoi, capital of Vietnam. Photo: The Guardian

HANOI.— Vietnam appears below the airplane window just as I remembered it, with its endless rice fields that extend to the edge of its cities, and its industrious people, continuously traveling back and forth.

But this is not the country that I knew as a child, accompanied by my parents, 31 years ago.

Friends who have visited more recently had warned me of this, and it became evident as soon as we had landed and were heading to Hanoi, the capital, as part of the exchange that takes place every year between the newspapers Granma and Nhan Dan.

To cross the Red River, a 1,200 meter stretch, one no longer has to wait about an hour, as back then, in the middle of a traffic jam on the old iron bridge built by the French colonialists in the early twentieth century, and frequently bombed by the U.S. military in attempts to isolate the city.

Instead, we traveled across the Nhat Tan (the most modern of the six bridges that currently exist), an impressive work inaugurated in early 2015, which helps significantly shorten the travel time between Noi Bai Airport and downtown Hanoi.

True to its typical architecture of narrow buildings and pitched roofs, the Vietnamese capital has grown exponentially, and simultaneously managed to solve the problem of a lack of drainage and sewerage networks.

Along its streets and avenues, always populated by huge trees which do not break through the sidewalks, bicycles have given way to motorbikes, and alongside the ancient pagodas, are modern buildings rising up into the sky.

They say that anyone who spends two or three years abroad finds the country very changed on their return, and that this is proof of the thriving development that the nation has experienced over the past three decades.

According to experts, this is all the result of the Doi Moi, the policy of economic reform applied since 1986, which has seen the country chart a course toward a socialist-oriented market economy.

Although it should also be said that this is the result of the dedication of millions of men and women, who have ensured every centimeter of land is productive, who even on Sundays are seen out in the fields, rucksacks on their backs, applying pesticides or fertilizers.

According to journalist Hoai Mai, beyond the figures that put Vietnam on the list of emerging countries – with an economy capable of steadily growing about seven percentage points each year – “with the measures implemented, the people’s living conditions have greatly improved.

“Before 1986, for example, the average income of citizens was between 15 and 20 dollars a month, and now it ranges between 200 and 300.”

Thirty years since the beginning of the renovation process, Mai states that its effects are obvious. “The most striking thing is the infrastructure. Previously, there were hardly any buildings, the houses were small, but now there are many new buildings, hotels, bridges, avenues and industrial zones,” he notes.

Still, there are Vietnamese characteristics that remain intact despite modernity, including pride in their history, strong traditions and customs, and affection toward Cuba.

Despite the years, the Vietnamese people have not forgotten the support of Cubans in the deafening years of war against U.S. aggressors; the donations of sugar; the visits by Raúl and Fidel; the presence of the Comandante en Jefe with fighters of the National Liberation Front; and the words that most profoundly touched this nation: “For Vietnam, we are ready to give even our own blood."

Later, Fidel himself would note that this was merely a gesture of reciprocity. “When we say that for Vietnam we are ready to shed our blood, we say nothing extraordinary, because the people of Vietnam (...) have shed their blood for us and for other peoples!

“Their fight weakened imperialism; (...) has forced imperialism to employ there the bulk of its forces. Their fighting has meant time for us to better prepare ourselves, to further arm ourselves, to be stronger...”

For the Vietnamese, however, that statement by Fidel, at the bloodiest moment of the war, was the most poignant proof of a sincere friendship. Therefore, they have zealously cared for each of the works built by Cubans here, such as the Victoria Hotel and the Dong Hoi Hospital, and are open about their affection for the Caribbean island and its Revolution.

“Here everyone, from children to the elderly, has great admiration for Cuba and Fidel,” Hoai Mai explains as we travel the country from north to south, from Hanoi to Binh Duong, crossing cities that 31 years later look nothing like my memories, in which the efforts of a whole people have made true the prophetic words of Ho Chi Minh: “As long as our rivers and mountains remain, as long as our men remain, once the Yankee invaders have been defeated, we will rebuild our land ten times more beautiful.”