issue 216 - February 1991
Photo: Chris Brazier
A journey to the heart of Vietnam
What is so strange and terrible about Vietnam? Chris Brazier travels in the other direction
from the boat people to explore a country that is still shunned by most of the world.
I'm on a plane somewhere over India, in the usual nervous limbo between the habits of home and the dark adventure of a new country. Except that this time I think I have more cause than usual to be nervous.
I'm headed for Vietnam, which means just two things to the world at large these days. The first is the 'boat people' who risk their lives in flimsy craft on the typhoon-ridden open seas - what on earth are they fleeing from? The second is 'war' - and specifically its war with the US, which has already led Hollywood to characterize Vietnam as a nightmare world where American boys were blasted by faceless Asian jungle-dwellers.
So here I am heading towards the Heart of Darkness of Coppola's Apocalypse Now. I may have done my reading and know Vietnam is not really like that - but that doesn't stop me feeling a mite anxious about the month ahead.
I strike up a conversation with the moustachioed American next to me. I'm normally pretty unsociable in such circumstances but am immediately rewarded this time by one of those coincidences which makes you wonder about Fate. His name is Larry Hahs and he's actually on his way home to Ballarat in Australia, having emigrated there years ago. But when he finds out where I'm going he says Vietnam is a beautiful country. Surprised that he's been there, I ask if he went there as a tourist.
'No, it was the only lottery I ever won, he says enigmatically. I am stumped for a moment, wondering what kind of bizarre US game show would offer a trip to Vietnam as a prize. But it turns out he spent 18 months there as a GI back in 1971-2. And the lottery he won not only allowed him to leave with his life and body intact but also meant that he never actually saw action.
From all those Hollywood films (and much of the serious literature) you would think it was impossible for a young US soldier never to have experienced combat in Vietnam. But according to Larry 'it was more like summer camp than war for a lot of us guys. At the same time I believed in what I was there to do, believed we had a duty to fight Communism. And I still do believe it - I think America lost the War because it didn't fight it properly, didn't bomb the hell out of Hanoi.'
I point out that the US dropped more bombs on Vietnam than were dropped on the entire planet during World War Two and we have a lively discussion. But in truth Larry is more thoughtful and less gung-ho than those words might make him sound. He is as worried by the Gulf Crisis and the US role in it as I am, for instance. But his views are probably representative of US veterans of the war in Vietnam and they're an illuminating start to my trip. I start to feel that Fate is on my side.
On arrival at Hanoi Fate decides to give me a kick in the teeth just to stop me getting complacent. I am met by the interpreter who is to accompany me throughout my stay. Her name is Binh and she seems like a very pleasant woman. The only problem is that she doesn't speak English. On my visa application I claimed that I spoke French, never dreaming that I'd be taken at my word. But yes, here I am, bouncing along the potholed road towards Hanoi, trying to ask intelligent questions in French about the rural scenes unrolling through the window while I cope with the shock. Merde.
Hanoi itself is a jewel. It doesn't have many grand buildings, the kind of setpiece splendour which Western tourists would pay through the nose to sample. But it has a quiet and friendly elegance all its own. The streets are treelined (the French colonists were brutal but they certainly knew how to plant trees); everything is on a very human, approachable scale. And Vietnam's enforced isolation from the rest of the world has at least left its capital devoid of the mirror-glass architecture which defaces big cities the world over.
The first chance I get I wander down to Hoan Kiem, the Lake of the Restored Sword. Here, legend has it, a fisherman magically drew a great sword from the lake with which he drove Chinese invaders out of the country - an Oriental parallel to the Excalibur myth. His modem counter-parts by the Lake are more interested in my camera and the peaceful invasion of another Asian Great Power. 'Japan?' they ask, pointing to the lens, and nod sagely when I reply in the affirmative.
The interest in Japanese-produced electronic goods is not unique to them. Hanoi was the last place I expected to find sophisticated video equipment but on every street there seems to be another small store piled high with boxes marked JVC or Panasonic. I make a mental note to ensure that I find out how anyone can afford to pay for these given the tiny amount of money they earn.
Photo: Chris Brazier
But the presence of such consumer goods is evidence enough of the changes that are sweeping across Vietnam. Like the Soviet Union, Vietnam has launched into a profound rethink of all its old assumptions about what Communism means and how an economy should be run - its own perestroika is called doi moi, or 'new thinking'. If I'd come to Hanoi any time before 1986, I am told by Ben Fawcett, who is Oxfam UK's representative here, I would have seen a caricature of a Communist country. The streets back then were dead and darkened, with a paucity of products in the state shops and a profusion of queues. People tended to wear the same kind of clothes, usually the traditional blue pyjamas of the Vietnamese peasant.
Now the streets are seething with activity. There are shops and small traders on every street - the narrow roads north of Hoan Kiem Lake are a riot of colour and bustle. This is a normal enough scene: you will see the same enthusiasm for commerce in almost any Asian town. But it is utterly extraordinary for Hanoi, where such everyday business was banned for over 30 years in the name of socialism.
The theory behind the ban was, of course, that distributing goods by the market was both inefficient and unjust. By planning your economy down to the last detail you could make sure that it served the goals of equality and social justice. But, as in the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, something went wrong along the way. Far from being more efficient than the free market, centralized state planning (at least of this kind) proved to be much less efficient. Bureaucrats in distant offices were unable to anticipate what goods people wanted and needed.
By 1986 things had reached crisis proportions. There was a food shortage that verged on famine. The economy was grinding to a halt. So, inspired partly by the advent of Gorbachev in the Soviet Union but more by sheer necessity, the Vietnamese Communist Party endorsed a radical change of direction and embraced capitalist market principles.
In the last year or so we have become accustomed to such earth-shattering changes. But stop for a moment and think how enormous a step this was for Vietnam to take. This was, after all, not a country which had its Communist system imposed on it by a Soviet invader; it was one which had freely opted for it having fought France and then the US for its independence over a period of 30 long years. Choosing to junk the cherished principles which you'd spent most of your life risking all to establish - that's a decision which must have taken no mean degree of courage.
My first experience of Vietnam's new free market in action comes quickly enough. Round the corner from Hoan Kiem Lake on my first evening I am accosted by a group of traffic police drinking at a modest roadside stall and am soon inveigled into paying an extortionate sum for drinks all round. Not yet having a handle on the local currency I am powerless to do much about this but I decide to sit back and enjoy it - getting ripped off on your first day in a strange country is, after all, a time-honoured tradition.
Mind you, the one officer who speaks English is insistent that the new market mentality is part and parcel of building socialism. 'The Europeans seem to have thrown out socialism but that doesn't mean we should - we have to find our own way. And he raises his can of Coca-Cola to his lips as if that confirmed his point.
I find my feet and my sense of the local currency (the dong) soon enough - and even my French begins to creak into passably effective action. I meet the English-speaking interpreter who would have worked with me had he not been getting married - and I can sympathize with his desire not to spend his wedding night with me in Saigon. Besides, by this point I am happy to continue working with Binh, who seems both professional and helpful.
My time in Hanoi is a whirl of meetings: with aid workers and diplomats, journalists and government officials. I insist on travelling between them on a bike rather than the car that is urged on me by the Ministry of Information. This is not so much out of Green conviction as of a wish to get to see the city as ordinary people do. Hanoi, like the Chinese capital Beijing, is a city of bicycles. And its traffic system is wondrously non-existent: you simply point your bike vaguely in the direction you wish to travel in then weave around the myriad obstacles that appear in your path. It's a taste I soon acquire - a charming anarchy at the heart of a country that once symbolized Communism. Mind you, if one day the bikes are replaced by cars anarchy will not seem quite so attractive.
Vietnam is still sufficiently Stalinist to keep a tight rein on public information: foreign journalists are not entirely trusted. But I am struck by how open even top Communist Party officials are, how willing they are to accept that Vietnam was going down the wrong track before 1986. I begin to feel I would be hard put to unearth any failing that they hadn't already criticized themselves for.
Take Huu Tho, deputy editor of Nhan Dan, the Party's official daily newspaper. He must have been responsible for a phenomenal amount of propaganda in the course of his many years at the paper. Yet listening to his personal assessment of doi moi I find it hard to believe I am talking to a faithful Communist.
'You are speaking to someone old enough to have two colours of hair. I have been through slow-moving times and so my assessment may be different from that of the younger generation. But I've changed too. When we liberated Hanoi from the French in 1954 I had two pairs of trousers and two shirts in a small bag and I thought that was enough. Now I have ten but still think I need more.
Photo: Chris Brazier
'The meaning of socialism has also changed for me. We always used to have a rice shortage every year. But now that we have changed the system and allowed people to produce for themselves we not only have enough to eat but also enough for export as well. I am persuaded that this is the right way for our country to advance from extreme poverty.
But aren't you worried, I ask, about the gap that's bound to open up between rich and poor?
'Yes I am. But it's not a simple matter. I've just visited a woman, for instance, who owns 52 cows. These produce 300 litres of milk daily and she collects another 300 litres from her neighbours then sells the lot to a factory producing condensed milk. She employs seven labourers on an average wage of 300,000 dong a month ($60, or three times what ordinary Vietnamese consider a decent living wage).
'In the old days she wouldn't have been allowed to do this because we would have been afraid of her getting rich and exploiting people. But her work seems to benefit everyone. Why should we oppose her? At this stage in our development we actually need some people to get a little richer who have the art of management.
'If you'd talked to me five years ago I'd have given you the opposite view. But I now think we shouldn't allow our concern for the poor to put obstacles in the way of the rich. In my view the Government should only control the big industries like power and construction. And there is no more time for propaganda.'
But it is five-year-old Hoa who arguably teaches me more than any of my interviews with eminent men. The air-raid siren is sounding, as it disconcertingly does every day in Hanoi to mark lunchtime. Out in the hundred-degree heat this tiny girl comes up to ask me for money. She's wearing a dishevelled, torn T-shirt with a US$50 bill plastered on the front. Given Vietnam's history this seems, to say the least, deeply ironic.
Hoa tells me both her parents are dead. She has travelled to Hanoi with her grandmother to beg because there is not enough food in her home village in Nghe Tinh, Vietnam's poorest province and birthplace of its greatest leader, Ho Chi Minh. She is not playing for my sympathy - her face is dirty but also defiant. I give her some money and then ask if I can take a photo of her. She runs away.
Reasoning that I might have frightened her I get Binh to give chase with the camera and offer a little more money in return for a picture. Hoa manages to get the extra money and still run off unphotographed. This is one sharp five year old. I applaud her ingenuity, not to mention her suspicion of the Western media. And I drift off into the sentimental notion that one day, 50 years on, I might hear of a President Hoa of Vietnam who, like Ho Chi Minh, came up the hard way.
Do Chi Ngoc
Why do the boat people leave? And when they return to Vietnam w they ? I find Ngoc's home down a decidedly dingy passage. He receives me in the house's only room
I left Vietnam on 24 July 1988. I kept it secret from my family. Some of my friends had said there was a country that was very rich and like paradise - naturally I wanted to go there. I didn't have any special country in mind.
At Quang Ninh I paid for a place in a boat - two and a half million dong ($500), which was my whole life savings as well as some of my mother's. There were 12 people in the boat in all, including two children and a baby of two months. Yes, I felt terrified but I was so keen to get to this paradise that I felt it was worth the risk.
From there to Hong Kong took a whole month. We were hit by typhoons, which were terrifying - I was sure I was going to die. But you can see a typhoon brewing on the horizon and the skipper knew when we had to race to find an island for shelter.
In Hong Kong the frontier police caught us immediately and we were put in a temporary camp for 28 days. The conditions of life there were very bad: we had to sleep on the ground, weren't given enough food and had no water to wash with. After that I was transferred to Het Linh Chau where I spent a year. Conditions were better there: we had water to wash with and slept in bunkbeds piled three high in a dormitory of 200 people. There was never anything to do - we just used to sit around playing cards and talking.
In the end I got the news that none of us would be accepted by a rich country: we'd have to stay in the camps. And I heard the Government in Vietnam would take back anyone who returned voluntarily. But it was the letters from my mother that really made up my mind - she said returned refugees weren't in any trouble.
I came back to Vietnam on 31 July 1990. I was happy to come back to my country and see my friends and family. I now work with my little sister on her tea stall. But I'm really just filling in while I wait for the authorities to allocate me some work - they've promised to let me train in television repair but say I'll have to wait.
It was worth trying to reach America or another rich country but I didn't make it. I understand there are so many refugees that rich countries can't accept them all. I don't know if that's fair or not. No, I haven't been mistreated since I got back. And yes, I think people still in the camps should return.
This special report appeared in the after the storm - a journey to the heart of vietnam issue of New Internationalist. You can buy this magazine or, to get stories like this one through your door every month, subscribe.