The American Dream
issue 216 - February 1991
Photo: Chris Brazier
The American Dream
SAIGON DE-SLEAZED... THE LONG ARM OF THE US DOLLAR...
A COUNCIL OF THE POOR BY THE RIVER... GIs' CHILDREN LEAP IN
THE DARK... AN IMPOSSIBLE FANTASY IN THE MEKONG DELTA
I'm standing on the roof of the Caravelle Hotel in Saigon. From their tables here in 1975 US correspondents boasted that they could cover the Communist advance on the city without having to get up from their drinks. Such cynical arrogance. Yet it's easy enough to imagine the green fields on the other side of the river being lit up by explosions and flares, the city beneath you traumatized by the unknown future that awaited it, Westerners and pro-American Vietnamese scurrying desperately to get a place on the last US helicopters out.
Saigon today is a very different city from the one those US correspondents knew. It even has a different name - though these days only Party stalwarts insist on calling it Ho Chi Minh City. The old Saigon was a city full of vice and corruption, ruled by an incompetent crowd of generals. It was characterized by the night clubs and shady sex-bars that seem the limit of the US soldier's recreational horizons the world over.
When the Communists arrived one of their first acts was to clean up the sleaze and the corruption. My own hotel in the backstreets makes me wonder at first whether they failed: my room has a lampstand in the form of a female nude and ceiling mirrors strategically placed over the bed. But the most depraved practice got up to here is the watching of boot-legged James Bond videos from Taiwan - the family that runs the hotel devours them with great glee, despite not speaking a word of English.
Judging by accounts from the time Saigon was a dreadful place before Liberation. So it is disconcerting, to say the least, that I can barely find a single person on its streets who doesn't look back to the Americans' time here as a Golden Age.
This has nothing to do with ideology or 'freedom'. It is a simple question of cash. When the Americans were here they pumped so much money into the economy that everyone benefited. Many people were directly employed as drivers or office workers, for a start. And while US soldiers may have spent most of their money on bar girls, those bar girls had families and those families bought goods from traders - everyone wound up better off.
The memory of this artificial affluence has given the average Saigonese a distorted picture of how the world works. The Vietnamese Government is measured against standards of wealth that no developing country could hope to match, let alone one so shunned by the global economy. And I find it depressing, after all this nation has been through, that the greatest ambition of so many ordinary people is simply to get to the US.
I hold an unofficial 'Council of the Poor', for instance, among the shanty shacks built on stilts by the Saigon River. Four families crowd round in an alley leading down to the water and instead of choosing one person to interview I ask questions of them all.
Back in 1948 this area was a lake. An old couple tell me they were among those who filled it in by painstakingly digging earth out of nearby fields. Now these families live by selling charcoal, which they buy in the countryside for 550 dong (about 10 cents) a kilo and sell illegally in the city for 600. Doi moi has made no difference to them on the economic front and they still have to purchase the blind eye of local police every now and then.
'Poor people like us keep asking for things but we never get anything,' says the most outspoken member of the group, a bare-chested man of about 35. 'At least we can speak out now - we wouldn't have dared to talk to you like this a couple of years ago. But if we asked for the kind of changes that would make us as rich as people in other countries we'd be put in prison.'
I know by 'other countries' he really means the US. I try rather feebly to explain that no policy the Vietnamese Government adopted could possibly make its people as rich as Americans. But they pour scorn on my argument. 'When the Americans were here,' pipes up another man, 'one person in work could feed a family of eight or nine; now he struggles to feed himself'. And all but the two old people agree that if they had the chance to go to the US tomorrow they'd go like a shot.
It is very sad that American money, even the distant remembrance of it, should have so much power over the imaginations of ordinary Vietnamese in the South. Their view is distorted because they do not realize that most of the world's people live in poverty. They seem to believe that Vietnam is virtually unique in being denied the benefits enjoyed by Americans.
Yet on the other hand, of course, they see the reality of a world divided into rich and poor enclaves more clearly than anyone else. Unlike most people in the developing world they have seen American wealth at first hand and they see no reason why they shouldn't have their share of it. The boat person I spoke to in Hanoi had set sail for a rich-world 'paradise'; and, judging by my Council of the Poor, that is why most such refugees take their chances on the ocean - they say some of their neighbours in this stilt suburb were among the first 'boat people'.
'Getting to America' is the recurring theme of my stay in Saigon and the South - it crops up again and again. This is least surprising with one group of people: the 'Amerasian' children of US GIs. For more than a decade these children - 40,000 of them - were ignored by the governments of both Vietnam and the US. Many of them faced ostracism or discrimination and they were a common sight on the streets of Saigon, making ends meet by begging or petty crime.
Photo: Chris Brazier
It took the US until 1989 to accept responsibility for the problem but it is now allowing anyone with obvious white or black parentage to emigrate - about 1,500 are now leaving each month. A Transit Centre has been built on the out-skirts of the city. It is clean and well-equipped, with caring Vietnamese staff. From here the 'Amerasians' will be transferred to a camp in the Philippines for six months of 'cultural orientation'. Finally they will be welcomed in the US by voluntary agencies such as the International Catholic Migration Commission.
This is all very well but I can't help fearing for their fate. I meet the young people in their social centre and they crowd around eagerly listening to the unfamiliar language they are going to have to learn. Some look very Vietnamese, while others could pass for white or black and there are all shades in between.
Most seem to have spent their whole life dreaming of getting to the US. They believe all their problems will be solved by this one miraculous jump into the rich world. Dung, the 23-year-old son of an electrical technician from Arizona, is one of the few to have his father's name and photo - though not his current whereabouts. 'I think life will be easier there than here,' he says.
But will it? The US is a very rich country but it is also something of a jungle. It has violent ghettos packed with poor, mixed-race people, and you can't help but feel that's where a half-Vietnamese with no education and limited English is most likely to wind up. The same goes for Thanh, a 20-year-old woman with an unknown black father. She now has a two-year-old child herself - and black single parents are not known for their prosperity in the US.
But maybe I'm underestimating them. After all, there are plenty of Vietnamese who have already made good in the US. There is an awful lot of money finding its way from the US Vietnamese community back to relatives and friends in the old country. In fact this is the solution to the riddle that I set myself at the start of my trip. The videos and Honda motor scooters I see on the streets are not paid for out of people's meagre local earnings, which are barely enough to keep them going from day to day. They derive from the little packages sent every month by Vietnamese who have made good abroad. Those people on the station platform back in Huê might have rued the departure of their loved ones - but in the long term they are likely to benefit too.
Even out in the paddy fields of the Mekong Delta, the richest food-growing area in Vietnam, the American connection slaps me in the face. I travel out into Long An province to see what life is like for the farmers of the South. I wander off into the fields, walking the tightrope of a narrow, muddy causeway between two waterlogged paddy fields. A group of ten women are bending to their work; I ask for a volunteer and in the end Nuong shyly steps forward. She washes her hands and we end up talking on her employer's verandah.
She is 39 and has two children; her husband used to work in a state-owned animal-feed factory but that recently closed (part of the free-market shakedown) and he is now unemployed. So the whole family is at the moment dependent on what she can earn as a casual labourer, She has one month's work for this farmer, who pays her 4,000 dong (80 cents) a day, but she has no guarantee of work and last year found nothing for five months - she had to borrow in order to buy food.
Unlike the peasants of the North who now have their leased patch of land, Nuong has nothing. Here in the South doi moi has meant the land reverting to its former owners. Her employer is one of these. He's a 63-year-old man with a ready smile called Tuou, who bought two hectares of land with his life savings from fishing back in 1963. At Liberation the Communists nationalized the land and he worked in a co-operative but in 1986 he got his two hectares back. In his house he has a TV, a video and a cassette deck. He is infinitely better off than Nuong. But it would be hard to hold this against him personally. You just wish Nuong and the others like her had some sort of welfare safety net as they face up to the rigours of the free market. There is no such thing.
What keeps Nuong going is the hope that one day she will make it to the US. Her cousins are there; it seems like just about everyone in the South has some kind of relation in the States. She doesn't know the name of Vietnam's leader, let alone the name of the US President, and yet she harbours this dream that one day a magic plane ticket will release her from poverty, undernutrition and insecurity. It is inexpressibly sad.
The US used these people. It denied them the united independence they would certainly have voted for if elections had been allowed to take place in 1956. Then it turned their land into the main battlefield for its worldwide crusade against Communism. And since the War ended the US has led a trade-and-aid embargo that has ensured Vietnam's isolation and dashed its hopes of recovery.
Yet all over the south of Vietnam there are these people whose only thought is to leave their homeland. This is the last place in the world I would have expected to find an American Dream.