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Mickey and I participated in a Smithsonian sponsored tour of Vietnam and Cambodia from January 9-27. We keep getting asked about what we saw and felt, so we'll share some of that here. Be mindful that we are tourists, rather than ‘experts', and, since this was our only trip to Southeast Asia, we have no good points in space or time for comparison. We did of course have our memories and expectations from the war time and these provided some ways to frame what we were seeing. Our tour group numbered 23, and in Vietnam we had the pleasure and benefit of an exceedingly knowledgeable and independent minded young guide, whose family has lived in Hanoi for 6 generations. He was born after the American war, but had a rich and detailed knowledge of that history. Our guides in Cambodia had experienced as children the traumas of war, and Khmer Rouge .
The war was more absurd than we ever thought. You can't spend any time ‘in country' without seeing immediately the folly of the war planners in imagining that the US could conquer this land and these people. Their history of resistance to imperial invasion is essential to their national identity. Their readiness to follow and to love Uncle Ho is evident. Two million Vietnamese died and, absurdly enough, the country is now organized to participate actively in the global economy, to encourage entrepreneurship and ‘free enterprise' and to welcome foreign investment. Ho's dream of a unified, independent Vietnam was accomplished, but capitalism defines the economy and everyday life.
The war and its "remnants" are integral to the tourist experience. In Hanoi, we're taken to the "Hanoi Hilton" where John McCain and dozens of other captured pilots were kept. We learn something new: this prison had been used by the French colonial regime as a torture chamber for Vietnamese resisters and that story is graphically displayed. We visit Ho Chi Minh's tomb where his body is on display. And we view the modest place where he lived and worked. Our guide stresses this: Ho was a nationalist more than a communist. In fact, he opposed but could not prevent the mistakes made by the communist regime in the war and the postwar. There's no doubt that Ho is the national symbol of Vietnam. Our guide believes that after WWII Ho had hoped to ally with the US, not expecting the US to take over France's colon ial mantle. (Our guide tells a story: Ho Chi Minh was invited by Stalin to the Kremlin. He is invited to sit; two chairs are available. Stalin says one is for a Communist, the other for a Nationalist. "I prefer to stand", says Uncle Ho.)
In Saigon, we go to the Presidential Palace-the place from which Thieu and company escaped when the war ended. The "War Remnants'\ Museum" graphically details the impacts of the war on the Vietnamese people, and includes a brief but underplayed display about the antiwar movement. More attention is given to worldwide Communist-led opposition to the US war than to the American (non-Communist) resistance. And of course we're taken to the Cu Chi tunnels, one of the most ingenious and effective acts of resistance to foreign occupation in world history-an underground city used as a base for guerrilla activity, and a means for trapping the invader forces. A single vignette of our day at Cu Chi speaks volumes about our experience: in the morning we crawled around in the dark, historic tunnels; in the afternoon we were swimming in the 15th floor rooftop pool of the Sofitel Saigon.
The resilience and adaptability of Vietnamese in the past and present is astonishing. The traumas of war and of the post war economic collapse are hardly forgotten, but it's a society geared to living in the present and the future. You can see Vietnamese adaptability when you visit the villages and markets that for generations have lived on the water in places like Ha Long bay and of course the Mekong river. Long traditions of everyday economic practice sustain a daily life in the countryside in often difficult physical circumstances. The Communist Party regime restored the ownership of rice fields to the farmers (ending disastrous efforts at collective farming ) in the 90s. Now Vietnam is the world's second largest exporter of rice; vegetables and fruits in abundance are marketed everywhere. Traveling the Mekong River was a moving experience as images of the wartime past and a dynamic peacetime present flowed past - the former,in our minds, the latter, on the gentle river currents.
Meanwhile in the villages, in the big cities and their suburbs, hundreds of thousands of small shops selling every kind of commodity crowd the thoroughfares. Vietnam has become a nation of shopkeepers; every shopkeeping family lives above the ground level store in a narrow residence in various stages of ramshackleness. There's a TV set in every residence (including in the houseboats on rivers and lakes), and at least one motorbike for each person who needs to commute to work, or to urban markets to get products wholesale to bring home to sell in the village and the neighborhood.
There are none of the shantytowns characteristic of the "3rd world". Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City are very crowded, and all social services in those cities are strained by in migration. There is nothing we've experienced that compares to the incredible swarming of motorbikes at rush hour in the big cities; these bike rivers are governed by no evident laws or rules (but obviously everyone in the stream knows how to navigate). Many bikers may be wishing for a car, but should that become possible, the result would be the total strangulation of the cities. Meanwhile, Vietnamese taxes make cars cost triple their market value. There is a growing number of people who seem able to afford this. Yet the poverty of the many is evident in the condition of housing, in the numbers of children hawking trinkets in the street.
The Party rules. Vietnam remains a one party dictatorship. During our time there four dissidents were on trial for advocating creation of a new party. If they did this, they were violating articles of the constitution that criminalize such advocacy. As in China, Vietnam's CP has enabled an open market economy . We were surprised to learn that there is not universal health care. Education is free but access to higher education depends on highly competitive exams.
Vietnam is by no means a police state. People seem unafraid to express themselves in personal conversation; public, organized political action is restricted-but organized protest regularly occurs. The big issue may well be "corruption"-that is, the routine requirement that you pay under the table for all kinds of services (including hospital care). Paradoxically, service to tourists is offered with warmth and exceptional grace and without evident expectation of tips.
It appears that the Party's goals with respect to development are popular. Vietnam's prospects seem promising in terms of economic growth and living standards. We had no access to economic zones so can't speak about conditions of work in the factories serving the global market-but our guide believes these provide good jobs, more desirable than working in the locally owned economy. The burgeoning tourist sector seems crucial. Notably, China Beach is being developed as a world class resort destination. The USMC airbase there is slated to become a golf course.
Cambodia. We spent a couple of days in Cambodia. We went, of course, to Angkor Wat, rapidly becoming one of the world's most important tourist accesses to ancient civilization and culture. But, as in Vietnam, the tourist experience must include first-hand contact with the horrors of recent history. We were taken to the "genocide museum", a school the Khmer Rouge used to imprison and torture tens of thousands in Phnom Penh. The buildings are as they were, with narrow cells, barred windows and a cold gloom. The space is filled with thousands of photos of those incarcerated there, since the Khmer rouge photographed each person who was admitted. Thousands of children's and teenagers' faces. Hundreds of their skulls in glass cabinets. One of the few survivors was an artist whose paintings, depicting scenes of torture are displayed. One depicts water boarding. We meet a man whom our guide recognizes-another survivor of this place, who talks about his experience. As does our guide, who was taken from his family at age7 and inducted into the Khmer Rouge. His story of escape and salvation was extraordinary to us, but maybe typical of his generation.
Cambodia seems much more fragile than Vietnam. NGOs are crucial in enabling services and promoting development. But, as in Vietnam, the resilience of the people astonishes.
Maybe you have questions we can answer? If you want to comment on this site, please register. You need to know that State Street is the main street of Santa Barbara.
See my last post for a couple of images from our trip.
Dick and Mickey