Bali Vietnam – The Christmas Edition
My generation grew up hearing a lot about wars. For some of us our parents had personal memories of being bombed, of rationing and gas masks. We had grandparents and great grandparents who had fought or died or suffered – the austerity, the fear, the sacrifice. My generation didn’t see any of this first hand though, but we heard a lot about it.
I was five when the Vietnam war ended (or, more accurately, the Vietnam war with America). It was the latest in a succession of wars I grew up hearing about – Korea, Suez, Cyprus… old empires were still dissolving and the cold war was being played out by proxy. Vietnam was fresh though and it was on the TV, and it was talked about – rights and wrongs, what ifs and should be’s.
I was eleven when I first went to live in Canada, missing the Falkland’s war by six months. Canada didn’t seem to care much about the Falkland’s but Vietnam was still on the agenda. Under Lester Pearson, Canada did not fight and amended their immigration laws which allowed somewhere between 50,000 and 125,000 Americans to move across the border between 1968 and 1975 with impunity. Draft dodgers and deserters and others opposed to the war were in that number – no one knows how many, Canada wasn’t asking. In Canada this was, and remains, a socially and politically pertinent issue echoes of which resonated during the Bush years and Iraq.
So when you think of Thailand you might conjure up images of tropical beaches or ping pong parlours, but when you think of Vietnam you might still associate it with the Tet Offensive, with Kent State, with Nixon and napalm – I do. One can’t help but be curious about such a country only recently opened back up to the West and a free month at Christmas was an opportunity too good to pass up.
We arrived at Ho Chi Minh (neé Saigon) where the authorities have seen fit to keep the disintegrating concrete hangers used by the Americans during the war. Everyone on the plane gets a good view of them as you taxi to your gate. You know you are in a communist country and yet you know you are not. Inside the arrival terminal there are no McDonalds or KFC or Dunkin’ Donuts – there is nothing of anything except a large queue at the visa desk, and there is no internet signal to be found. There are a lot of men in uniform sporting hats far out of proportion to their stature. Before us stands a young Russian who has lost his passport (good luck to you Ivan!) and a Singaporean couple, he has landed on a temporary passport and has just discovered that it wasn’t a good idea. But wonder of wonders! They are helped and admitted – bureaucracy it seems comes with the territory, but no one seems too concerned or uptight, they are actually quite a friendly lot! And once you enter the traffic madness that is Ho Chi Minh the internet signal comes thick and strong – ten times faster than Indonesia and universally available but Facebook is blocked and WordPress won’t let you upload. Cellphones and scooters appear to be birthrights – communism is alive and well but not in a form Karl Marx might recognize.
Ho Chi Minh got his name on the city posthumously. He was born in 1890 at the peak, perhaps, of colonialism, and France had already ruled Indochina for some thirty plus years. At the age of around twenty he sailed to America as a cook on a cargo ship, a job that sustained him while living in New York and Boston and then London, finally ended up in Paris. World War I was just ending and the world as was got carved up at Versaille. Ho, age 28, was part of a Vietnamese delegation that appealed to the victorious Western powers for their independence. He was told to sod off (a great book about the Versaille treaty can be found here). Ho learned his communism in France after the war, went to Russia and during World War II he led the Viet Minh, resisting the Japanese occupation. 2 million Vietnamese died in a famine in the last year of that war; one in ten.
World War II was over and France wanted back. Ho wanted independence but then 200,000 Chinese troops marched into Hanoi in September 1945. Ho backed down and China agreed to give France power in return for French influence in Shanghai – there is a great quote:
“The last time the Chinese came, they stayed a thousand years. The French are foreigners. They are weak. Colonialism is dying. The white man is finished in Asia. But if the Chinese stay now, they will never go. As for me, I prefer to sniff French shit for five years than to eat Chinese shit for the rest of my life.” — Ho Chi Minh, 1946
France finally lost the ensuing war with Ho’s Viet Minh but it took almost a decade, culminating in the siege of Dien Bien Phu.
The Geneva Accords of 1954 allowed for a separation and amnesty in the country to be followed by a reunification election in 1956. Diem, a bastard by almost every definition except that considerate of parentage, was now in charge in the south. Anti-communist and backed by America, he wasn’t interested in reconciling and that election never happened.
Hué is a city half way up the coast. It lies on the banks of the Perfume River, and true enough it was fragrant of a sort. It was the French capital and I am reliably informed by Dutch friends who lived there for years that it is a pleasant town of gardens and views with good restaurants and plenty of culture. I thought it was a shit hole, but then it rained the three days I was there and I had to drag complaining children around the purple forbidden city of the last Vietnamese emperor. In ‘the day’ the penalty for such an infringement by a male whitey on these hallowed grounds was castration, and on my visit I would have welcomed it gladly if it brought me relief from the incessant wailing of small, greedy boys. It’s extensive, I’ll give you that, but there is not much left except the walls. During the war, the last war, the North invaded and occupied it. Around 3000 southerners were killed here, political opponents taken to the forbidden city and executed. Not to be outdone the Americans carpet bombed it in return. 10,000 died and the forbidden city was napalmed. It helped keep the weeds down at least.
You can take a boat ride to visit the temples that are scattered along the Perfume River. We stumbled across one where the Buddhist monks still did their Ying Yang bell ringing things in a courtyard where they stored an old car. There is a photograph of it here.
Do you recognize it? No I didn’t either. Perhaps if you click here you’ll remember it, but the picture is not for the feint of heart. In such places there is a weight to the very air. It is heavy with emotion, thick with sincerity, it feels of community and purpose and cause. It is living history, the last time the car was driven was on that fateful trip to Saigon in September 1963 and the monk who drove it lived here. I can’t imagine how someone would come to burn them self to death but in such a place I can only be silent and show respect.
Back on the river you’ll eventually get to the tomb of the last Vietnamese Emperor who pretended to power. He kissed French ass without complaint and tried to live as quietly as he could with his dozen concubines and trips to Europe. His mausoleum is a grand affair of art deco tile work and a huge bronze statue cast in Paris. His coffin procession was preceded by elephants. Such men are hugely important, for without them colonialism could not have existed.
US combat units first arrived in 1965 but the war had really begun ten years earlier, or when the French first arrived, since the view of many Vietnamese was that this was just another chapter in a war of independence that started a long time ago.
At the conclusion in 1975 one million North Vietnamese soldiers had been killed and a further 250,000 communist Viet Cong South Vietnamese had died. 250,000 is also the estimate for soldier deaths among the South Vietnamese Republican Army (ARVN) that the US was backing. US military deaths were 58,267 killed in action. No wonder it made the TV.
Civilian death figures vary widely. One million is a nice round figure often given for the war as a whole to 1975. 400,000 of these were in the South, 600,000 in the North. South Vietnam killed 150,000 of these, Diem’s regime accounting for 100,000 of that. American bombing of the North (Operation Rolling Thunder) killed between 50,000 and 180,000 civilians. That leaves ~700,000 at the feet of the North and the Viet Cong.
It is important when on vacation not to get too depressed by the atrocities of recent history – think of it as a great photo opportunity! So we banished the ghost of Christmas past and indulged with the ghost of Christmas present, breaking out the crap Hanoi champagne and eating Christmas dinner at a hotel buffet. A word of caution here though – in a country that has lost millions to starvation in recent generations you do not stand a chance in the line up for the platters. Patience brings its own reward – after 300 Vietnamese had eaten everything but the porcelain we searched among the wreckage for scraps and wished a Merry Christmas to all!
If you ever go to Vietnam you’ll likely end up at Ha Long Bay. It is very nice. It looks like Jurassic Park and sits in the Gulf of Tonkin. You usually rent a boat, or a bed on a boat, and go sailing around, gaping and drinking and swimming. It feels like it is a million years removed – a million years ago or a million years in the future but it is not the here and not the now. It is definitely a million miles away from the 100km of vomitus that mark the Hanoi to Haiphong road. If you go to Cat Ba island to get your boat you need to do this, so avoid it, get your tourist boat at Hanoi and sail down the Red River instead.
Manufacturing and heavy industry is disappearing from the West – this is the Vietnam where it goes. Here was a Ford factory, making cars! There were steel plants, coil and bar littering their yards, the chimneys spewing filth. Factories making fire engines, factories making digging machines, factories making paint, wiring harnesses, electronics. It was 100km of two lane highway coated in a thin film of grey/brown dust that choked the air and if the apocalypse comes it will look like that, the road from purgatory down to hell is likely cleaner. But it is money, and jobs, and skills and it is busy busy busy. This is the Vietnam whose economic growth has been at more than 8% a year since the millennium, quite the achievement even though its base was so low. Things aren’t slowing down either.
The war ended in 1975 but the fun wasn’t over yet. Victory comes with a price, and the Vietnamese people were going to pay it. Consolidation of communist power involved political purges, relocations, education camps, labour work projects and retributions. Between 1975 and 1987 the estimates run from a minimum of 400,000 to a maximum of slightly less than 2.5 million civilians that died of political violence at the hands of Hanoi – after the war! This includes some 400,000 people who (it is estimated) died while trying to sail away for a better future – the boat people.
It wasn’t the end of war either. Vietnam invaded Cambodia on Christmas day 1978 and kicked out Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge in favour of the Vietnam friendly communist PRK. The civil war that kicked off meant their last troops did not leave until 1989.
The Chinese were none too happy about this interference and invaded Vietnam in February of 1979 as a reprisal (it also served certain government factions to keep their army busy) with 200,000 troops and 400 tanks, a brief incursion of one month that saw them occupy the north to the gates of Hanoi but against fierce resistance. Having made their point they left, employing a ‘scorched earth’ policy on their withdrawal – taking the cattle as well. Estimates vary wildly but perhaps 10,000 Chinese troops died while 100,000 Vietnamese troops lost their lives. Civilian deaths were claimed by Vietnam to number 200,000 in the limited geographical area, in one month!
The town of Sapa is near the Chinese border. You can get there on a glorious old night train out of Hanoi – embroidered sheets and windows that open, rattling across the Red River and out into the dark. It was occupied in 1979 and the farmers you meet in that mountain village will show you the caves they hid in. It is smiling peasantry at its finest – you walk the cobble roads knowing this is how it looked one thousand years ago – these folks don’t even have cell phones!
Ho Chi Minh strikes me as a patriot in the best sense of the word. When he died in 1969 (age 78?) he’d seen Vietnam occupied by the French, the Japanese, the Chinese, and now the Americans were here. He’d resisted them all and his country still wasn’t free. His political control of the party was slipping from 1956 and by 1960 he was a figurehead only. He wrote to Diem in 1963 in an attempt to broker peace with the South, hints of this were supposedly a factor behind the American sponsored coup that saw Diem assassinated in November of that year.
I’d like to think that Uncle Ho wouldn’t approve of or support the measures the communist party took on its people in the years up to 1975 and in the decade thereafter, and certainly the posters of Uncle Ho that still smile down on he nation from billboards everywhere show a fatherly concern, not the fist of the dictator – but such is the craft of the propagandist.
If you are under thirty in Vietnam today you only grew up hearing about wars, maybe that is the point. Maybe that is why when you meet the folk they are smiling and happy and laughing. They are busy – busy trying to sell you things usually, but not too busy thinking about the past.
I don’t know if it was much of a holiday, but it was an experience. One reason for moving overseas was to provide perspective, a wider perspective, a global perspective perhaps, primarily for the benefit of the kids, so they would grow up knowing the world was not North America and conversely, that North America was not the world. Vietnam gives you that, but now I need a vacation.