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Vietnam Diary ­ Part Ii


Sharing front page space with real estate, Venezuela’s Assembly President and his Vietnamese counterpart extol their joint working relationship.

Indeed, rubble remains from the ten years in which U.S. military technology showed its lethal capacity in cities like Hue. In the 1968 Tet Offensive, the Viet Cong captured Hue and hoisted their red flag from the citadel, the early 19th Century fortress that dominates the city’s landscape. The VC, as the U.S. military called them, systematically dismantled the South Vietnamese government structure, eliminated its supporters and rebuffed South Vietnamese counterattacks.

Former Vietnam veterans now tour the rebuilt fortress with sad perhaps nostalgic looks on their faces, alongside tourists from Europe, Asia and other parts of Vietnam. Our Vietnamese guideDo, in his late 20s and who learned English and Japanese at the university, explains that it will take some years before the government finishes reconstructing parts of the citadel destroyed during the 1968 battle. Tourists roam the walkways amidst workers who ignore them. Their job is to repave the corridors where bearers once carried the Queen Mother to see the Royal Theater perform. The Queen Mother was plump. She ate and got carried everywhere. I have seen few overweight Vietnamese.

Boats with painted dragons on their prow haul tourists down the Perfume River named because of the wide variety of fragrant flowers along its banks to visit ancient pagodas. On each boat, boat owners try to sell tourists handicrafts, art work and clothing along with the local Festival beer.

He smiled. “We have put that in the past and we have moved on. We do not feel hatred toward Americans,” he said. Every Vietnamese we ask repeats this mantra. I have come to actually believe it. Do assured me that Iraqis, too, will forgive the Americans for what they are currently doing to that country. I wonder if the Vietnamese had been Muslims. Didn’t the “American War” teach the Pentagon not to fight enemies who fight back?

On the walk to the hotel from the river, I note that almost every store offers tourist items, from sun tan oil and mosquito repellent to clothing, art, craft and booze. The DMZ Caf resonates with the sound of American pop music. U.S. tourists drink beer inside.

At the upscale Saigon Morin Hotel, a French tour guide tries to hurry his flock to board the tourist boat. France colonized Vietnam from 1860 until Ho Chi Minh’s troops threw them out in 1954. A frustrated Japanese couple shouts heavily accented English at a taxi driver, presuming he will understand better if the volume goes up. Japan ruled Vietnam during World War II. Ho’s independence forces fought them until August 1945, when Japan left and Ho declared Vietnamese independence. For one month, under Ho, the sovereign Republic of Vietnam ruled the country. Then, the French troops returned and war began. Now Vietnamese get tips from tourists coming from the very empires that oppressed them.

Hoi Anh, despite the ubiquitous presence of the motorbikes, leaving trails of rancid gas exhaust, has retained qualities of an ancient city. Hordes of tourists flood the old quarter to eat, drink and buy paintings, post cards, tailor-made clothing and mass-produced “marble” Buddha statues.

“Life became so much better since the government opened the economy in 1986,” says Le, a former English teacher who now works with an NGO that helps street kids. The people of Hoi Anh, like those of Hue, welcome the tourists. “It’s preferable. From 1975 to 1986, the government gave everyone 4 meters of cloth per year and small amounts of food. People lined up for hours to buy bus tickets to Danang.” He spoke about the abundant food now available on street markets. We still have a communist government, of course, but you can see people feel free. We can buy motor bikes. Before, we had only bicycles.”

I mention the penetrating blare of the motorbike horns. “Until 1986, Hoi Anh was a city of looms, much noisier and more polluting than motorbikes. When the government decided to promote tourism, the textile industry moved to areas outside the city.”

I look at Le skeptically. “Before tourism, the young people left for larger cities to find jobs. Now, they’re returning, along with overseas Vietnamese, the boat people who fled in the 1980s. Some have actually invested here. When they left the government called them traitors. Those same people are now called patriots,” he laughs.

In twenty years, the economy has become transformed from a Soviet socialist to a visibly capitalist model. The March 18 News show an unsmiling Fidel Castro gripping the hand of Nguyen Van An, Vietnam’s Assembly Chair. An “admired Cuba’s remarkable achievement in the difficult context of the current international situation.” Earlier, An had addressed a joint Cuba-Vietnam Business Forum and emphasized that “Vietnam is now a favored environment for foreign investors, including Cuban businessmen.”

Landau is a fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.

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