Vietnam has held a deep fascination for me for a very long time and my hope for my recent visit was that I would come away at last with an understanding of this incredibly beautiful and deeply complex country.In short, well no, I didn’t, but oh, am I glad I went!
We travelled in central and northern Vietnam, eight days of traveling didn’t allow the time to visit the southern portion…so I have great excuse to return some day.Along the way we visited mausoleums and temples, cities and villages and were hosted in a private home in a small village for homemade pho, Coca Cola,tea and an impromptu concert of Vietnamese antiphonal folk singing. We biked, we walked, and drove.We met some wonderful people and were immersed in the sights, sounds and smells of this remarkably intriguing place.
My earliest political activism had been protesting against the war in Vietnam as a young girl. We had entered the country in support of South Vietnam, then in civil war against the North. The rationale for our entering the conflict was the, later debunked, Domino Theory.The North was Communist and the theory held that if Communism prevailed, one by one surrounding countries would also become Communist, falling like dominoes.In the process of waging war here we lost many American lives, took many more Vietnamese lives and in the end we lost the war itself and our confidence in ourselves as an invincible military power.
It was the first war that our country was embroiled in since the beginning of the age of television and before the concept of “embedding” reporters was conceived. Intrepid reporters travelled and reported with unfettered access, limited only by the extent of their personal courage …and raw, frightening footage was aired nightly on the television news.
And it happened that my arrival in Vietnam coincided with two national holidays, the birthday of Buddha (who in Vietnam is female! ) and Liberation day, celebrating liberation from America in what is called in Vietnam ‘The American War”. It was an unexpected shock to think of us, Americans, as one of a string of occupiers of this small country, the Chinese, the French, the Japanese…and us. Even though I had protested the war, and would again today, I realized in my heart of hearts I think of us as the “good guys” and that we were there only to ,misguidedly to be sure, “help”.
I wondered how my husband and I might be received as Americans arriving in the midst of celebration of liberation from us.
I needn’t have worried, we were met with open arms.
If I were to try to characterize the essence of the people we met (a fool’s errand to try to characterize a people,but here goes nothing!) , the words that come to mind are warm, resilient, dignified, pragmatic and forgiving.This country has been through so much in its history. A 1000 year record of their history was destroyed by various occupiers before modern times leaving a curious and tragic collective post traumatic memory lapse that can only be met with fortitude.A visit to the Fine Art Museum in Hanoi reflects this thousand year absence in artifact and art. It is chilling.Truly.
The Vietnam that I met is a country of stark contrasts. I know, people say that about an awful lot of places, but trust me, it really is. This Communist country is a hotbed of Capitalism. New development and factories and resorts springing up everywhere where once all was rice field and yet the rice fields still go on and on. The country’s currency ,the dong,is so devalued that there aren’t even any coins, 10,000 dong equals 50 cents.Clay bricks are hoarded by every villager as a hedge against inflation and the American dollar is welcomed everywhere.
Old style Communism is evident everywhere as well. The finest building/s in every city and hamlet belong to the government, painted in colonial French yellow with bright red contrast. Propaganda signs abound, on the government buildings, in parks, on city streets and they are done in paint, posters,banners and flowers. They entreat people to limit population, stay away from drugs, revere the government, idealize the workers and to be happy and content.It is against the law not to fly the red flag with gold star of the government from every home, every shop, every boat. In some municipalities, Hoi An being one, it is against the law not to have a portrait of Ho Chi Minh in the interior of the main room of any building. Loudspeakers mounted high on poles are in every residential section of every city and village.If the village is too small for electricity,why then generators are used . Each morning at 5:30 am and each evening at 6pm, propaganda is broadcast to the populace for one half hour. Vietnamese joke they have 800 newspapers and one editor. The news is uniformly the same, upbeat and broadcasting the great success of the government, the workers and policies. Real news therefore is spread neighbor by neighbor with the confusing results to be expected by the equivalent of the children’s party game “telephone” with stories morphing along the way. While we were there there was an enormous fire over 40,000 hectares in size surrounding the Hai Van (Ocean Clouds) Pass , a long and beautiful road through the mountains connecting Danang to Hue which we had traversed a few days before. We heard three completely different reasons for the fire: a lightening strike, an accidental fire started by one of the people living (illegally) in the forests on the mountains and a previously unexploded American bomb exploding in the heat. Any one of these things could be true…or none of them… absolutely no way to know.
And then old fashioned Capitalism in full swing; in addition to the prodigious building mentioned earlier (all by well connected private individuals), commerce is everywhere … storefronts,sidewalks, streets…everywhere.. We saw numbers of very expensive cars in the cities including Bentleys and Rolls.Wealthy Vietnamese send their children to fancy private schools. And unlike our capitalistic society there is no economic safety net; no Social Security, Unemployment Insurance,Medicare. We were told unemployment is low because if you are not employed you die.Period.
And none of this really explains the Vietnam I met…the beauty of the rock formations in Halong Bay that you can blissfully lose yourself in, the freshness of the food, the lack of cynicism in so many of the people, the flowers, the dignity of the women and men we met in the small villages we biked through.And did I mention the food? Oh my Lord in heaven, the food!!
So many words I have written here and I have only barely covered any of the experience.It was extraordinary.
Just go. If you possibly can someday, just go.