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Vietnam

 

Hanoi, like Ho Chi Min City is overrun by small motorbikes and motor scooters. They fill the streets endlessly day and night and litter the footpaths so that pedestrians are frequently forced into the street. Both sexes use bikes in equal proportion and many carry at least one pillion passenger, sometimes several, of either sex.  The only gender distinction I observed was that men tend to drive when a couple is mixed and girls tend to ride side by side chatting.  People seem to have their bikes joined to their backside. They quite often cruise slowly along a pavement chatting to a pedestrian or just sit there waiting for someone.   We even saw someone ride down the length of quite a ‘posh’ clothing store and out the door.

When crossing the road there is no point waiting for the flow to stop.  Except at some lights the flow never noticeably stops or slows. Nor is there any difference in behaviour between a pedestrian crossing and anywhere else (we also noticed this in China). Occasionally it thins out then pedestrians need to step out and cross the street at a constant pace; the bikes will go around. 

The best bit is when a cross road intersection has no traffic lights, and sometimes even when it has. Here one steam of bikes goes straight through the other stream without apparently slowing; it’s like a stunt riding exhibition at Sydney’s Royal Easter Show.

Vietnam is a multi-ethnic country with 54 identifiably different ethnic groups.  One of the points of interest in Hanoi is the Museum of Ethnology exhibiting and preserving ‘the cultural and historic patrimony of the nation’s different ethnic groups’. 

In addition to an indoor exhibition there is a substantial outdoor exhibition, on over three acres, displaying different types of indigenous housing from different parts of Vietnam and a restaurant staffed by students leaning restaurant trades that offers various typical dishes.  Needless to say the food, as everywhere in Vietnam, is excellent.

image024
 One of many full scale houses (note the spotless grounds)

 

On the way back to the city centre one can visit the Ho Chi Min Museum and pass by the Ho Chi Min Mausoleum.  Here we learnt about the radicalisation of Nguyễn Sinh Cung who went to a French school in Hue and worked his way to the US as the cook's helper on a ship.  Spending a year in New York and Boston he then worked his way to London where he worked as a waiter and trained and worked as a pastry chef for six years before going to Paris.  In the early 1920’s while living in France (the museum has an interesting room of images from the period) he joined the Communist Party. 

 

image026
 Display (depicting his influences)

 

After unsuccessfully petitioning the Versailles peace talks and US President Woodrow Wilson for recognition of the civil rights in Vietnam (French Indochina) he went to Moscow and trained as a theorist and expert on colonial warfare.  In the mid 1920’s he was based in China where he lectured on revolutionary theory and ran youth education classes; and got married. At this period he was active in the Chinese Communist party under Mao against the Japanese but travelled widely including in Europe, becoming ‘a person of interest’ to the French and narrowly escaping capture and imprisonment (assisted by the British to escape).

During the Second World War he led the Viet Min against the Japanese and Vichy French occupation of Vietnam, supported clandestinely but substantially by the United States Office of Strategic Services (this bit is not in the museum); carrying on this campaign until the defeat of the French colonial army at Dien Bien Phu; and their departure in 1954.

Almost by accident (like Ghandi) he became Uncle Ho, the figurehead for Vietnamese nationalism and independence. He was certainly anti-colonial (in the same way Ghandi was) and a totalitarian (with a ruthless streak against opponents like Stalin) but not much of a socialist (not like Pol Pot or even Ghandi).  I am constantly amazed at how these once ordinary people, like pastry chefs, as a result of circumstance ‘have greatness thrust upon them’, as Shakespeare put it.

 image028
Uncle Ho

 

Today Vietnam reveres him.  And like him it is totalitarian but not much of a socialist.  There is still very active government propaganda.  We moved rooms in our hotel but spent a night at the front to be woken in the morning by loudspeakers in the street.   Enquiring what on earth it was we were told that it was the morning ‘news’ from the Government.   A guide confirmed that there is no freedom of speech; but he could say no more as he was not a licensed ‘political commentator’.  One point of evidence is how clean Vietnam is – little or no rubbish - by Government decree; like Singapore.  But private business is everywhere.  Even the power stations seem to run as independent businesses; about as socialist as NSW.

Like most capital cities Hanoi has its share of imposing monuments museums and public buildings.  Being relatively flat it’s a good place to walk but for some reason they wouldn’t let us take a shortcut through the military headquarters; we had to walk around.  But we did go to the Army museum, appropriately in  Dien Bien Phu street, where they have a huge collage sculpture made of US aircraft parts, as well as numerous leftover bits of military equipment from both sides of the American war (as they know it). 

image030
 Aircraft Sculpture Army Museum Hanoi

 

The museum goes right back to wars with China, through to the Japanese and the recent war, and spends quite a lot of time with the French colonial period and the great victory of Dien Bien Phu.  French atrocities are given special attention. No one likes the French.

It was not until later at the tunnels of Cu Chi west of Saigon, that I realised why they do not, apparently, treat Americans or Australians with similar dislike.  The US never colonised them and many US citizens visibly opposed the war.  They are inclined to think that it was a particular US leadership, now gone, that was responsible. While displaying the victims of Napalm and the alleged victims of Agent Orange they are also very happy to display the terrible things they did to US and Australian soldiers: poisoned spikes; spiked man traps, booby explosives and IEDs; as well as conventional weapons.  One improvised explosive device was buried in a clearing: a shrub waves in a helicopter downdraft; triggering an antipersonnel mine; in turn setting off an unexploded bomb; no more helicopter.  They believe this was admirable bravery and resourcefulness (as we admire the resistance against the Nazis) and that they thrashed the US in a ‘more or less’ fair fight.

Hanoi is a good jumping off point for a visit to Ha Long Bay.  This World Heritage site was apparently much polluted at one stage but today it is pristine.  Thousands of amazing limestone islands scatter the bay.  The limestone is riddled with caves formed over millions of years and now exposed by rockslides and shear collapses into the bay.  The whole landscape has been thrust up and massively faulted by tectonic forces leaving remnants of a vast limestone plane dissected and inundated; the resulting islands jutting randomly from the bay, their footings slowly dissolving in the water like rotting teeth; albeit capped with vegetation and inhabited by monkeys.  The result is spectacular; dwarfing the isolated clusters of humanity who inhabit the place.  These antlike humans are mainly fisher folk and tourists who, like us, visit in modern, well appointed junks with cabins like first class hotel rooms; complete with an en suite bathroom. 

 image032
Ha Long Bay:   Fishing Village                                          Junks and kayak

 

Our overnight trip followed the promised itinerary: lunch to lunch the following day on board; a visit to a cave; kayaking; swimming if you wanted to but as it was cold and raining no one wanted to; a visit a fishing village, rowed in a bamboo boat by a fisher girl; look at the fish being farmed; buy some pearls if you like.  Our junk had eleven guests (six couples +1) and eight crew, including a chef.  Every meal was excellent; some of eleven courses.  Despite the weather, and in some ways because of it, for me this was a highlight of Vietnam.  It had been organised by our hotel in Hanoi which was adequate, clean and well located but was eclipsed by others, before and yet to come on our holiday. 

Vietnam is a shopper’s paradise.  While not like China for electrical and photographic goods, one of the drivers of the apparently booming economy is clothing manufacture.  Seconds, rip-offs and the occasional genuine designer brand original fill the markets. A discerning and careful buyer can acquire an entire wardrobe including having patterns from European and US fashion magazines tailored to order.

Central to this tailoring industry is the riverside town of Hoi An. Unlike Hanoi that had been cold, Hoi An was blisteringly hot but the Ha An Hotel was like a tropical island, complete with hammocks and beach umbrellas.  Here we went for a trip along the river in a local boat with an excellent driver (me) past fisher folk, duck farms, cattle grazing, coconut groves and sand barges.

image034 Fisherman’s wharf Hoi An

 

I used a hotel bike for a look around the town but except for the local market, and that soon palls, it’s a bit dull; unless you are excited by recently built Buddhist shrines and pagodas and the bizarre Vietnamese version of that religion.  There are a couple of small threadbare museums and some of the French colonial architecture is interesting, including the tailor’s where we spent a lot of time. 

The evenings cooled a bit and it was pleasant to sit in the hotel garden with a glass of wine, or to rest in one of the nearby restaurant/cafes along the river.

On the road in to Hoi An, there are some Hindu/Buddhist ruins similar to those in Cambodia (but on a much smaller scale) and a very long beach with a casino, lined with future tourist resorts under construction; adjacent to the Greg Norman Golf Course!  Looks terrible, and if you think Hoi An is boring; not even a tailor in sight...

We had flown in to Da Nang but wanted to catch the train out to Huế.  The train was over an hour late so we had the opportunity of wandering around a non-tourist working town, at least near the station.  Shop touts were totally absent and most impressive was the amount of economic activity and the variety of hardware, equipment and materials on sale, as well as the apparent quality of the buildings (like a NSW country town)  and wellbeing of the populous.

The (narrow gauge) train journey is spectacular; and the air conditioned soft seat (equals first class) cars were predominantly occupied by locals with local food offered for sale during the trip (better than NSWG railways).  The train follows the rugged coast past beaches, around headlands and across escarpments hung with creepers covered in flowers.  Once or twice it slows to cross a rusted or damaged bridge. Almost every bridge in Vietnam, except the spectacular new iconic ones, is shored up with temporary pylons or extra steel. Occasionally the train runs through a town and here people have extended their back yards to include the railway easement so that people have to move off the track into their houses as the train approaches.

Huế was once the colonial capital city under the French and before that the imperial capital of the Nguyễn Dynasty that controlled Vietnam from 1802 until 1945.  It has an Imperial City modelled on the Forbidden City in Beijing that is similarly vast (2km by 2km). Although it is very much younger, it suffered significant damage from American bombing in 1968 during the Battle of Huế, as well as termite and cyclone damage and is undergoing a long restoration.  As a result it is more picturesque than the Forbidden City with overgrown ruins, interspersed between older buildings; new ones, built like the old; and building sites, construction underway. 

image036
 Part of the Citadel / Forbidden City Huế

 

No doubt in a few decades it will look as good as old.

It was a stinking hot day when we visited and I found taking off my shoes in the cooler temples very soothing.  Litres of water were consumed. We took the mandatory tourist photos – the Citadel; the carp in the moat; the concubine area ‘the purple forbidden city’; bullet holes left over from the war; the emperor’s mother’s quarters and relaxation area (pond and summer house) and lots of temples.  

Oh, and a highlight, the elephants left to their own devices; handler asleep in the shade.

 image038

 

Huế was a good place to eat the local food and our hotel, La Résidence, directly across the perfume river from the Citadel was almost as interesting as the Imperial City.  It had been a headquarters for the French and later, during the Vietnam (American/Australian) War.  At one stage it was severely run down but is now restored.  There were a lot of French people staying and it was one place where we heard locals speaking French; quite nice really.

image040
 La Résidence Dining Room (some excellent meals)

 

Almost next door is Quoc Hoc High School the first and oldest high school in Vietnam and the alma mater of both Ho Chi Minh and Ngo Dinh Diem;  adjacent there is now yet another, but perhaps the most informative, museum detailing the life of Ho Chi Minh (again). Some of the information provided above about Ho was gained or confirmed here (with a bit of Bing assist) but maybe by then we were better attuned to these things.

From Huế we returned to Ho Chi Min City (Saigon) by Air to our ‘Mystery Hotel’ (bought on-line for a special price, only knowing it was a good hotel in the right part of town); which by then we knew to be the Intercontinental.  It was perhaps the best hotel on the trip; the only downside being its international 5 star sameness. Because we paid around a quarter of the published tariff we did not have breakfast included (unlike every other hotel we stayed in), so we joined their business club and got breakfast; light lunch; unlimited evening cocktails and hors dervs (light dinner if desired); internet; and coffee/drinks all day, for about the price of a pair of cocktails in the bar.  It put Saigon in a good light for us – if a little hazily in the evenings.

Among the most striking things in Saigon is the omnipresence of the Internet and internetworking.  Initially we were told that the masses of cables lining the street were for electricity. Indeed, there are the usual four wires for local power (415/240VAC and 11KV), generally running down one side on poles with cross tees and insulators, as they do here.  The grid in Vietnam is generally in good order with good separation of voltages; unlike Cambodia where very high voltage pylons (330KV) run overhead, along streets and above houses.  

The data cable on the other hand is chaotic with numerous firms competing and stringing cables off every pole.  Almost all of it is optical fibre (I checked this several times as workers are constantly making changes). The fibre is intermingled with (probably older) copper data/and multi-core phone (POTS) cable. 

 image042
A typical Saigon street scene (similar on the other side)

 

These cables line both sides of almost every street in some places in such profusion that you could not put your arms around them.  As a result you can get Internet access at the speed of your Ethernet card (100Mbps at the Hotel) but mobile phone range is often terrible due to the screening effect of the cables on radio signals in the street (the reverse of most other placed in the Country).

For a good part of my early adult years Saigon dominated the news and it remains interesting for its French colonial past and the Vietnam War.  But both are filtered through the screen of present economic development with a modern city replacing the past, and by a victor’s representation of the war and its origins.  So what did happen?

After WW2 the US became a superpower and after the French left in 1954 US interest in Vietnam became more acute.  They had supported Ho against the Vichy French and Japanese during WW2 and now took an anti-colonial stance against all European colonialism.  The Germans and Italians had already lost their remaining territories as a result of two world wars. With US involvement: the Dutch and Portuguese were forced from Indonesia; Belgium gave up the Congo; other African territories were given independence; India was partitioned; the British left Palestine and with the French surrendered the Suez.  These achievements were often clandestine in support of US political or commercial interests.

While the Vietnamese now like to argue that US motivation was principally commercial this is improbable.  I have just reread Graham Greene’s ‘The Quiet American’, written in the dying days of the French period.  It seems to better reflect the many complexities and motivations. 

I was in the University Regiment when Australia introduced conscription in 1964 and had a choice to go into the ‘birthday ballot’ or serve a committed term in the Reserve.  I chose the ballot on the grounds that I never win anything, a joke that I was fond of then.  And I didn’t.  But had my birthday come up I would have been there, probably as a 2nd Lieutenant (the most likely rank to be killed).

While always a sceptic, I was not a pacifist.  I understood that our troops were fighting  against an attempt by the North to overrun the South in contravention of the international agreement partitioning the previous French territory at the 17th parallel; because we had been asked for aid by an ally under an important treaty; against the spread of Russian and Chinese sponsored communism (as in Malaya and Indonesia); for the eventual democratic rule of law in Vietnam (although the leaders regularly deposed each other and refused or rigged elections); in support of increased trade with America (particularly a removal of the quota on beef); and finally because the Army is there to fight when needed and needs to have periodic action to remain effective (a sword grows rusty in the scabbard). 

As it wore on my support waned.  I left engineering and took philosophy, resigned from the Regiment, grew a beard and wore a Duffle coat and jeans instead of a uniform on Thursday nights and weekends.  I did better with the girls too, probably my main motivation.

As in Hanoi, there is an excellent museum in Saigon giving the ‘victor’s view’ of the ‘American War’.  This highlights the evils of Agent Orange; napalm and the largest scale conventional bombing ever undertaken. It is very ‘light on’ on the politics of the South (or indeed the North) but spends a good deal of time on the Western anti-war protest movements.

image046
 A clipping from a US paper in the exhibition (note the severed heads)

 

Throughout the Country, museums depict the government of the South as alternatively, a repressive Roman Catholic regime (particularly against the Buddhists, the dominant religion with 90% of the population); and as a puppet government established by Washington for US imperialist and economic reasons.  Although this hardly justifies their own totalitarianism, the religious intolerance claim is not without foundation and the other ‘has legs’ too.

Today Vietnam claims to be a religiously tolerant country.  There is a prayer room for Muslims (a very small minority) at the airport and the Catholic Cathedral holds regular services.  It was not far from our hotel and the bells were a bit hard to take early in the morning on Sunday. 

 image048
Notre Dame Cathedral Saigon

 

Vietnam is still the fourth largest Catholic country in SE Asia and the Pope is planning a visit soon.  But of course it is not a free country when it comes to speech or politics.  One guide explained that although Vietnam is officially an atheist country only members of the Communist party need to profess atheism (as if no religion was a religion)  but he stressed he was not qualified to talk about this and had said too much already.  

The majority of the population is still Buddhist.  But the man who sat under that tree in Sarnath in India 2,500 years ago and taught that the only god was within (essentially atheist as gods are irrelevant to the four truths, the eightfold path, and so on) would be appalled; not only do they pray to his statue, like a Hindu shrine, they even pray to his mother; and thus religion evolves with place and time.

Under President Ngo Dinh Diệm(1955–1963) Catholicism became the de facto State religion.   Army officers converted to improve their military prospects. The Catholic Church was the largest landowner in the country, and its holdings were exempt from ‘reforms’ imposed on Buddhism and it acquired additional property rights.  As mentioned in the ‘Quiet American’, Catholic priests in rural areas often ran their own private armies and weapons were only given to villages with Catholic self-defence militias to fight off the Vietcong.  Further, US aid was disproportionately distributed to Catholic majority villages.  Some villages converted en masse to receive aid, defend themselves, or avoid being forcibly resettled by Diệm's regime. 

In 1957 Diệm visited the US to mobilise support.  After an enthusiastic reception in Washington, Diệm visited New York, and received an even greater reception, particularly from the large Irish Catholic community and the Catholic Archbishop called him: ‘Vietnam’s Saviour’.  In 1959, Diem dedicated South Vietnam to the Virgin Mary.  The white and gold Vatican flag was flown at major public events and the Huế and Dalat universities were placed under Catholic authority. 

Diệm's most trusted official was his younger brother, Ngô Đình Nhu who headed the secret police (the Can Lao, modelled on the SS).  His older brother was the Catholic Archbishop in Huế.  Nhu’s wife, Madame Nhu, was South Vietnam's First Lady, as Diệm was unmarried.  She administered Diệm's program to reform Saigon society by imposing ‘Catholic Values’ (presumably 16th Century Spanish); this encompassed a reputed 75,000 imprisonments and the estimated torture and death of 50,000 ‘communist suspects’.

In 1963 there was a mass uprising against Diệm's regime known as ‘the Buddhist crisis’, during which a number of monks self-immolated themselves by covering themselves in petrol and lighting it.  

 image049

 

Nhu was reported as saying: ‘If the Buddhists want to have another barbecue, I will be glad to supply the gasoline.’  Fourteen hundred monks were arrested.

All this caused a breakdown in the US relationship and President Kennedy (himself a Catholic) called a halt, ordering Henry Cabot Lodge, the American ambassador to South Vietnam, to refuse to meet with Diệm.  Papers now released reveal that the US then gave secret assurances that they would not interfere in a coup d'état that was being planned by dissident generals led by General Dương Văn Minh (the CIA may have initiated it).  Minh and his co-conspirators overthrew the government on November 1, 1963 and Diệm and his brother were executed the following day, in the back of an armoured personnel carrier.

Ho Chi Minh was reportedly delighted. Diệm and Nhu were holding the country together.  Now the South would descend into chaos.  And so it was.  Despite a huge increase in US, Australian and other allied troops, South Vietnam was unable to establish a stable government and more, probably US sponsored or influenced, coups took place during the ten years after Diệm's death.  The US finally gave up, culminating with a North Vietnamese tank breaking down the gates of the Presidential Palace in Saigon on April 30, 1975.

 image051
The tank (or one like it) - Palace in the background

 

Today the presidential palace is preserved as ‘Reunification Palace’; almost as it was when the Government officials fled to the US helicopters, ahead of the advancing North Vietnamese army.  Of course there has been a bit of ‘cleaning up’.  A lot of the equipment on display isn’t connected or doesn’t fit. It has been moved in; presumably after the originals were removed or destroyed (particularly radio and kitchen equipment) and this leads to the suspicion that other ‘editorial’ changes may have been made (furniture?).  

There are some amusing representations – the billiards/cards room is described as a gambling room; a dining table is set to depict opulence/corruption but in today’s Vietnam it looks quite Spartan. Indeed, the whole place is quite modest as public buildings and palaces go; built in a late art Deco / modernist style (presumably with French influence) with nice proportions and an eye to the climate, set in pleasantly spacious but not excessively large grounds.  It is spotlessly maintained.

There are other museums of remnant military hardware in Saigon, each interesting in its own way and on the whole better preserved than elsewhere.  As mentioned earlier we also went to the Cu Chi tunnels west of Saigon, a half day trip.  There, another part of the story is on display; all the terrible things the Vietcong guerrillas did to the US troops, including really vicious spiked and faeces covered booby traps and improvised explosive devices.  Here the Vietcong hid underground in miles of tunnels beneath the rubber plantations within striking distance of Saigon.

While in Vietnam I daily realised that, on the basis of a lottery, I had narrowly avoided killing any of these people in the late sixties; and had in turn, avoided them killing or maiming me.  It made me realise the importance of getting the facts straight before going to war and, in the end, the impermanence of any regime, political system or society; ultimately humanity itself.  Of course repression may well be long-lived and is always worth fighting against, particularly if it might outlast you or yours.  Faced with dangerous ideologues like Pol Pot (or Madam Nhu), resistance is clearly called for.

I am most impressed by Vietnam today.  It is not perfect but it is certainly not the monstrosity we feared back then.  On the whole it seems to be a well run State with a vibrant private sector; high levels of personal achievement; and smiling (apparently happy) healthy people.

The Communists have mellowed, or weren’t as bad as we thought in the first place, and although there are restrictions on free speech we were never prevented from going anywhere or talking to anyone, except onto a military base. 

Parts of the Country are very beautiful. 

 image053

 In general the people are well housed (except for guest workers in slums on the city margins) and well clothed, the food is excellent and the public spaces are clean.  You can even drink the water, although except in hot drinks and washed food we didn’t risk it.  The rate of economic development is high, as are educational standards, particularly in the sciences and engineering.  Australian businesses, like our Banks, BlueScope and so on, are active and Australia seems to be well regarded.  There is also some bargain shopping to rival the best in the world, particularly for clothes.

 

I can recommend it.

Richard

 

 

 

 

 

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