Before I left, public opinion in England was hostile to Vietnam. ‘Why did you want to go to a country everyone is leaving?’ one person asked. ‘Turn left at the Isle of Wight and go in the opposite direction to all the boats’ joked another.
I was not surprised that overseas Chinese and people who had been used to the American economy, were leaving post-war Vietnam in droves. People leave poor countries for rich ones with less weighty reasons.
But what, I wondered, were conditions like for those who stayed in their country despite all the hardships?
My first impressions of Hanoi were of normality, not of crisis. Simply but adequately dressed people were calmly going about their business, either on foot or on bicycle.
They were certainly very thin, and many had recently lost weight because of the reduced rations. The floods last year had been the worst in thirty years, and had destroyed much of the harvest. And the Vietnamese had also tightened their belts to send food aid to the traumatized and starving survivors of Pol Pot’s regime in Kampuchea.
But there is an effective rationing system in Vietnam and the people of Hanoi did not look seriously undernourished. One exception was a man who worked with me for the month. taking care of travel arrangments. It was a shock each time I saw him: his face was gaunt, his eyes slightly protuberant , as in photos I have seen of hunger victims. I soon discovered that he was going hungry out of love for his family. I saw him twice with his two little boys, aged six and ten, who looked as healthy and well-fed as the fondest parent could hope. His wife had -undergone major surgery for cancer the year before. When I asked him if he let his wife and children eat first, he just smiled and leaned over to pat our healthy young driver on the back: ‘you see here a youth who doesn’t have a wife and children yet’.
It is probably the babies who are paying the highest price for Western governments’ hostility and cut-off of aid. Many underfed mothers in the cities have not milk to breastfeed their babies, and Vietnam produces very little milk. Canned milk is difficult to obtain.
In the crowded residential districts of Hanoi, I saw many signs announcing: ,rice ground into flour while you wait’. In the absence of other nourishment, babies must be fed on rice water. They live, but their growth is stunted. Two overseas Vietnamese children visiting from Japan, who were staying with their parents in my hotel, seemed giants in comparision to Vietnamese children the same age.
The food crisis primarily affects the cities; the peasants who grow the food eat much better. Indeed one of Vietnam’s major economic problems is how to get the peasants to feed the non-agricultural population.
During the war peasants in the northern villages were, I was told, willing to supply all the rice not needed for their bare subsistence to the government to help the war effort. But since the end of the war, the usual economic laws obtain: the peasants want goods in exchange for their products.
The problem is that there are few goods available to offer the peasants in exchange for their rice. The industries which were built up in the first years of independence in the north were severely affected by the war. The government is now giving priority to the development of consumer industries. And it is also trying to give greater material incentive to peasants by reducing agricultural taxation.
But the new material incentives for production will only benefit those wellendowed with labour power. What of the estimated fifty per cent of Vietnamese families who have lost income earners?
Hu Tho, the editor of the agriculture page of the party newspaper, Nhan Dan, told me a parable of the present economic dilemma: ‘Imagine a family with only one fish for a meal. One son is the only full-time worker in the family; another was wounded in the war and cannot work. The family income is dependent on the strength of the former, but it is the latter who has made the greatest sacrifice for the independence of his country. How should the fish be divided? All our problems lie in this question. The war lasted thirty years, but it will take another twenty years before we will be able to overcome the legacy of problems it has left’, Hu Tho concluded sadly.
Two faces of Vietnam
In the north, the problems are severe but not insurmountable. City people and peasants alike are accustomed to a very modest standard of living.
Food shortages are a far greater headache in the south, The Mekong delta used to be one of the main ricebowls of Asia. But after 1965 South Vietnam changed from a rice-exporting to a rice-importing country. While peasants fled the bombing in the countryside, the people of Saigon ate American rice.
And during the war millions of South Vietnamese were paid salaries which came out of the U.S. budget, and South Vietnam was flooded with subsidized consumer goods to soak up the money. Japanese goods were often cheaper in Saigon than in Japan itself, and a fraction of the price they cost in Europe.
After the fall of the Saigon government in 1975 those people who had enjoyed a high level of consumption found it very difficult to adjust. Many, unable to bear the food shortages and lack of consumer goods,have left and more still want to leave. Distressed at the brain drain the government had recently instituted a bonus system for those used to much higher salaries. This gives them double the salary of those who went hungry and suffered the long years of fighting. It is a bitter pill to swallow.
It is, of course, just the ‘lucky few’ from the old Saigon system that have salaried jobs. For the other unproductive city dwellers a foreign investment law was drafted to try to attract Western capital to provide paid factory employment. This offer has had scarcely a nibble from the West.
Another attempted solution has been the ‘New Economic Zones’. I visited one, the Le Minh Xuan pineapple farm, about 60 miles south of Ho Chi Minh city. The workers there were young volunteers from the city and families, who were given 1,000 square metres for a house, garden and fishpond.
The government had clearly spent a lot of money to try to make this settlement venture a success. There was a new hospital building and a new Renault tractor. Few cooperatives in the north can boast of such equipment; they work with their hands, shovels and carts. But many of the people from Saigon were not willing to stick to the hard work and had gone back to the city to eke out an unproductive, but easier, living as traders.
Even peasants who stayed in their villages throughout the war feel the effect of the end of the dollar. South Vietnamese farmers had got out of the habit of making organic compost. Chemical fertilizer, readily available before 1975 from Western agribusiness firms, was more convenient and cleaner. Many peasants who in the past had only grown rice switched over to fruit and vegetables to feed the new middle class in Saigon. With their cash incomes they bought cheap Japanese consumer goods.
Tran Van Giau, veteran South Vietnamese communist leader of the 1930s and 1940s, summed up the situation in the countryside. ‘In the most remote villages you could find transistor radios, Hondas and tractors. In 1975 the country markets were full of cloth provided by American aid. Now that the aid has been cut off the cloth has disappeared. People say ’ before we were an American colony, but we could live’. He concluded: ‘The Americans did not have to teach ideology; they accomplished their aims by transforming the material basis of the society’.
The people of the south had learned to enjoy products their own society could not yet produce, and, by enjoying foreign goods,they could forget the poverty of their own real surroundings. Although villages had a few Hondas, tractors and transistors, in all other ways they were poor indeed. In villages I visited in the south most of the peasants still lived in leaf huts, there had been no school for the children before 1975, and there were not even solid footpaths through the village.
I am optimistic about the north of Vietnam. But I found the south depressing. The wartime disorientation of the society and economy was so profound that it will take many more years before a normal and productive society can be achieved.
Unless the world feels that it would like to accommodate many more South Vietnamese, it had better wake up to its responsibility to help rebuild the Vietnamese economy and society in Vietnam, not just in foreign refugee camps.
Christine White is a research officer at the Institute of Development Studies, Brighton, UK and is engaged in a research project on Vietnamese rural development.