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Vietnam Diary — Part I


I arrived in Hanoi in the late morning. The sun flitted through the clouds, and I couldn’t decide whether I needed my light wind-breaker. The temperature hovered in the mid 60s, with enough humidity to let some reality into my brain to share space with older graphic images etched in my brain — from a very different era. The January 1968 Life magazine cover showed Lee Lockwood’s photo of a Hanoi street covered with man holes and covers, where people took shelter when the B-52s conducted their daily bombing of the city. Who in my generation could forget the image of the napalmed little girl running naked down the road or the South Vietnamese general shooting a prisoner in the head with a pistol?

Most Vietnamese I talked to either in English or through an interpreter see the war as ancient history. Thang, a hotel manager, insists that “most Vietnamese have no memories of it.” Indeed, the majority of the country was born after 1975, when the war ended. In the early 1970s Vietnam had a population of about 40 million. That number has more than doubled: 82.7 million in 2004.

Unlike many of my students, who know only that the Vietnam War occurred sometime after the Greco-Roman era, several Vietnamese university students, one with an NBA T shirt had learned the details of war, such as the facts that U.S. planes dropped 15 million tons of bombs on their country and sprayed huge areas of forest with agent orange in order to defoliate the countryside, which produced lasting health effects among the sprayed populations. I met an American expatriate who runs an NGO to help rural children incapacitated by the effects of that chemical.

One student, at a cafe near Hanoi’s Hoan Kiem Lake, sang a few bars of heavily accented hip hop. I laughed. Others joined her. They were disappointed that I didn’t know about U.S. youth music. Nor were they impressed that I recalled the 1954 battle of Dien Bien Phu when General Vo Nguyen Giap surrounded twelve French battalions attempting to stop his armies’ advance.

They had studied in school the famous siege, which included waves of assaults followed by artillery attacks. As the French military situation worsened, Secretary of State John Foster Dulles proposed dropping of an atomic bomb on the Viet Minh forces to relieve the French.

Ike refused, and after almost two months of siege, Giap’s forces had captured or killed the entire French force (13,000) and won independence, or so it seemed. The students also knew about the subsequent conference in Geneva, when France, the United States and Ho Chi Minh’s Vietnam agreed to a series of steps toward independence. The U.S. made sure, however, that the scheduled 1956 elections would not take place.

In his Memoirs, Dwight Eisenhower estimated that Ho would have won 80% of the vote. Instead, the United States created “South Vietnam,” and imported a Catholic president, Ngo Dinh Diem, to run a non-Catholic country. Diem’s regime was characterized by corruption and oppression of those who sided with national unification.

One student described how his history books taught that Ho Chi Minh had ordered armed resistance units (the National Liberation Front or Viet Cong) to attack Diem’s forces. I told them I recalled how Eisenhower and Kennedy responded by sending in armed “advisers” — and multiplying the size and technology of the newly created South Vietnamese armed forces. The Vietnam War had begun even before Lyndon Johnson used the fabricated Gulf of Tonkin attack on a U.S. ship to ask Congress for authority to send in massive numbers of US troops. In 1975, after 58 thousand Americans died, hundreds of thousands were wounded and God knows how many went crazy, Congress cut off funds for the war. The U.S. cut and ran.

I asked them if it was true that 3 million Vietnamese died. They did not know the casualty figures. But one young woman, studying linguistics emphasized that “that period of our history is over. We like Americans.”

Over the first four days in Hanoi, I sensed no anti-Americanism. Indeed, people assured me that the war is remembered in museums and history books.

The country has entered a new era. The nation that 1960s Defense analysts described as having no “industrial backbone,”has begun a visible and dramatic development program.

Some of Hanoi’s estimated 4 million people, many freshly arrived from the impoverished countryside, work in industrial parks, clusters of factories owned or controlled by foreign multinationals. A giant Canon plant, built amidst rice paddies on the road from the airport to the city, shares the landscape with billboards advertising major companies, not consumer products. There are plenty of those signs — Coke, Samsung, Nokia — in the city.

Adidas and other sporting goods chains have assembly plants in Vietnam. A U.S. businessman who runs a company here told me that the Vietnamese resent the methods of Taiwanese and Korean managers. Young men and women fresh from the countryside earn sweatshop wages, but that pittance is more than they eked out on the farm.

The government contracted with foreign companies to build huge highway and bridge projects across the Red River — no sign of redness in it — on Hanoi’s east. The modern construction machinery stands in sharp contrast to the house boats and shacks along the river’s edge. A delegation of U.S. investors from major corporations arrived on March 10. They declared their intentions of building plants in Vietnam and supporting the country’s bid to join the WTO. The government appears overly friendly with the United States. Indeed, last year, the United States was Communist Vietnam’s largest trading partner.

Two U.S. expatriates and a retired Vietnamese diplomat chuckled when I asked if Vietnam was truly “socialist,” as in Socialist Republic of Vietnam. “Socialists don’t invite the most aggressive of the multinational corporate elite into their country to exploit their people,” sneered one American who owns a small business in Hanoi.

“What socialism?” asked the retired diplomat. “The government should at least stop being hypocritical and make their politics coincide with their economic policies and allow for open parties and a free press as well.” The businessman said that government leaders routinely promise development with environmental controls and social equality. All three complained of corruption, poor leadership and a deteriorating environment.

What development means in daily life is heavy air pollution in the capital city. A Vietnamese friend gave me a tour of Hanoi. I sat on the back of his motorbike and imagined myself starring in a remake of “Perils of Pauline” as he weaved the small motor bike through the densely populated streets. Perhaps, I thought, this constituted a population control measure. I assumed the mortality rate from traffic accidents and respiratory diseases should be impressive.

Hundreds of thousands of these Japanese, Korean and Chinese-made engines emit noxious, unfiltered gasoline exhaust. Until recently, bicycles prevailed, but these recently arrived machines have taken over the streets and the sidewalks.

The Vietnamese drive as if they had watched archival footage of OJ Simpson. Instead of eluding enemy tacklers on foot they navigate on wheels through fields of oncoming and competing bicycles, motorbikes, cars, SUVs and buses. They must also negotiate with fearless pedestrians. Miniature women with bamboo poles and loaded baskets of fruit hanging from each end stride into swarms of oncoming cars and miraculously get to the other side of the street.

Frying meats, fish oil and engine exhaust mix together with the scent of fresh roses, carried by women or sold from shops on the street. The vehicles, like fish of distinct shapes and species, head toward their own individual locations, motivated by impersonal but urgent need to get to someplace as quickly as possible.

We passed only one accident on the way. I closed my eyes as I imagined imminent death. Yet, no driver gets intimidated. Rather, each moves forward as if the only important thing is to continue the journey. Why did no one tell Lyndon Johnson that he could not intimidate the Vietnamese?

A day trip to a “snake village” just outside Hanoi looked like an extension of the city. The driver talked to the snake handler who reached into a tank with a forked stick and put a cobra in my face. A chill crept up my spine. I continued filming with my video camera as the snake’s head formed a wide hood and hissed. Maybe I just imagined the sound and the angry look in the serpent’s eyes as its slimy tongue swept from left to right. Would this cause my fatal heart attack? I didn’t look in the tank to see how many more deadly vipers were inside; nor did I try to find another snake establishment. I declined lunch at the snake man’s dining room — broiled cobra over rice.

Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies

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