Monday 24 July 2017

Vietnam - Perception and Reality

Vietnam 2017

I was recently lucky enough to enjoy a holiday to Vietnam with my family. It was a trip we had planned for a long time, with the aim of seeing as much of the country as possible. Like many people in the West, my perceptions of Vietnam and its people are largely coloured by ideas about the Vietnam War (or the American War as the Vietnamese often call it). Whilst it is obviously an enormous issue in Vietnam, when I was there I was struck by how much the Vietnamese have moved on from this, and are living in the present and looking to the future.

My Preconceptions of Vietnam

  • War
As I was born in the early 1970s, my earliest images and impressions of Vietnam have been shaped by Hollywood. The Vietnam War has been an endless source of material for the cinema - Wikipedia lists 171 films about the Vietnam War. These vary from John Wayne's laughable 1968 pro-war film The Green Berets, to later, post-war American movies which largely focus on the suffering of American soldiers who fought there. The traumatised war veterans feature in Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter, Jacob's LadderBorn on the Fourth of July, Rambo: First Blood, and still it continues, with Samuel L. Jackson's trigger-happy character in last year's film Kong: Skull Island.

The brutality of the conflict (again, largely its effects on the American combatants) is portrayed in films such as Full Metal Jacket, Platoon, Apocalypse Now or Hamburger Hill and service in Vietnam can be a cinematic shorthand for someone's fighting spirit (eg X-Men Origins: Wolverine opening titles and Watchmen, where Dr Manhattan and The Comedian win the war for America).

Huế in Vietnam, or Beckton Gasworks in Full Metal Jacket?
These films show a leech-infested, jungle of a country, where largely non-speaking locals are either passive Southern Vietnamese, crazed and cruel Viet Cong, or are prostitutes. Sometimes a film tries to stand out from the crowd by taking a tangential approach to the conflict, such as "the best military comedy since M*A*S*H", Good Morning Vietnam, but again Americans are the focus. What is lacking throughout all of this is any significant cinematic attempt to deal with the question of why the American army was there in the first place. Vietnam (and it's people) are also largely absent as the Philippines (Apocalypse Now), Thailand (Good Morning Vietnam) or Beckton Gasworks and the Isle of Dogs (Full Metal Jacket) stand in for the country. This is a major complaint of the narrator in Viet Thanh Nguyen's Pulitzer prize winning novel The Sympathizer, where he berates a Hollywood director for having no Vietnamese characters with a speaking part in his war film, and for using any old Asian-looking person to act as his fellow countrymen.

The Vietnam War was won by the Vietnamese people, but at a high cost. The country was devastated. The use of napalm and chemical weapons, such as Monsanto's defoliant, Agent Orange, damaged huge swathes of the country, which could no longer be farmed and has led to generations of people born with birth defects and disabilities. The fighting and American carpet-bombing led to estimated Vietnamese fatalities during the conflict varying from 1 to 3 million people. War was not at an end in 1970s after the Americans left Vietnam, as incursions by the Khmer Rouge on Vietnam's western border led to 10 years of fighting in Cambodia, before the Vietnamese were again victorious. By 1986, with decreased support from the USSR, the Vietnamese economy was struggling. The "đổi mới" economic changes made that year by the government aimed to create a "socialist orientated market economy". 

Incongruous roadside posters as Vietnam aims at a "socialist orientated market economy".
One has "trolley dollies" advertising cheap flights, the other declares "The Party and People of Thua Thien Hue decided to successfully implement the Resolution of the XII National Party Congress and the Resolution of the XV Provincial Party Congress"
  • Poverty
Vietnam is a developing country and still a very low wage economy, as you can probably tell by the number of day to day items we use which now say "Made in Vietnam" on them, particularly clothing and shoes. Our guide books warned us of areas where beggars and petty crime could be problematic. Together with my Hollywood images of a backwards, rural country and guide books and occasional news stories flagging up issues of drug use and prostitution I was expecting to land in a place far removed from my city life in Glasgow.

Hanoi Bike Shop, Glasgow
  • Food
After the end of the Vietnam War, many refugees left the country, the "boat people" that I remember from watching the news in my childhood. Sizeable groups of them ended up living in Australia, Canada, America and France and it was in Canada that I first ate in a Vietnamese restaurant when some family in Toronto took me to one in their city. I cannot remember much about the food, except that it was nothing like anything we had in Glasgow at the time. Recently there have been two restaurants serving up Vietnamese food which have opened in my hometown, and I had taken my children to them a few times in recent months to try to give them a flavour of what to expect on holiday. Although I found the food great my daughter, who likes mild dishes, found much of the food in Hanoi Bike Shop off Byres Road too spicy and my sons, who like spicy foods, found Non Viet on Sauchiehall Street a bit heavy on the herbs. In both places I had ordered a catfish claypot dish (cá kho tộ) which sounded great to me, but found the fish bland and watery and the sauce overly caramelised and cloying. I was hoping we would find something for everyone's tastes once we got there. 

Truc Bach beer and an ice cream in a Viet Cong themed cafe, Hanoi.
  • Literature
I like to read a bit from local authors before visiting a country, but really struggled in this respect when trying to do my homework for our Vietnamese trip. There are many books about the American experience in Vietnam, but I struggled to find much from a Vietnamese viewpoint. The Sympathizer, which I mentioned above, gave an interesting perspective, that of a Southern Vietnamese soldier working as a Viet Cong agent at the end of the war. There were also some short stories which I found after searching second hand bookstores online. Beyond that the best book that I read was Graham Greene's The Quiet American. This opened my eyes to a part of Vietnamese history that gets overshadowed by the American's involvement in the country; the French colonial wars. Graham Greene disowned the 1958 film version of his book, for changing the whole message of his book as a cautionary anti-war tale into an anti-communist "propaganda film for America" as he described it. The book, written in 1955, has louche foreign correspondents sitting about at the Continental Hotel in Saigon writing articles the French authorities are giving them about their failing war against the Viet Minh forces led by Ho Chi Minh. The CIA characters in the book are trying to intervene in American interests by arming South Vietnamese groups, which ultimately resulted in full scale American intervention in the country a few years after the book was written. The 2002 film version of the story, starring Michael Caine, is more faithful to the original book and much of it is actually filmed in Vietnam.
  • History
Before the French controlled Vietnam, as part of French Indochina, Vietnam was an independent country for almost 1000 years. By 1884 the whole country was under French rule, and Saigon is home to many boulevards, civic buildings and theatres from that time which would not look out of place on a Parisian street. During Japanese occupation in World War 2 the American OSS (forerunner to the CIA) supported the rebel Viet Minh forces that launched guerrilla attacks against the Japanese. The Japanese exploited the same Vietnamese natural resources that the French had been taking, and as a consequence famine in 1945 led to the deaths of 2 million Vietnamese people. After the war Viet Minh leader Ho Chi Minh declared independence for his country in the northern city of Hanoi on V-J Day. Mere months after their own liberation from German rule, the French sent an expeditionary force to Vietnam to re-establish colonial rule and in September 1945 guerrilla warfare had begun against them, which led to full scale conflict until 1954 when the Geneva peace accords established a temporary partition between North and South Vietnam. In their efforts to keep communist rule out of South-East Asia the Americans had been increasingly funding the French war efforts and arming Southern Vietnamese forces. In the late 1950s increasing numbers of American personnel were sent to Vietnam to train and support the Southern Vietnam government.

In 1964 the Americans falsely reported that North Vietnamese ships had attacked their vessels in the Gulf of Tonkin, and used this as a pretext to launch American ground combat operations. American numbers peaked in 1969 when they had over 500,000 troops in Vietnam. At the start of 1975, by the time the Americans withdrew, the Southern Vietnamese army still had far more artillery, tanks, aircraft and troops than Ho Chi Minh's National Liberation Front. However by April of that year Saigon fell. Twenty four hours after a panicked helicopter evacuation from the roof of the American embassy in the city, tanks of the North Vietnamese Army burst through the gates of the presidential palace and raised the Viet Cong flag above the city.

What did we find?

Vietnam is a country we had been planning to visit for many years, so once we managed to get there we spent two weeks trying not to miss anything, and taking in as much as we could. We traveled as a group of seven, three generations of my family. I think that in every single respect Vietnam exceeded all of our expectations, the trip was a real eye-opener for everyone.

Souvenir from our visit to the re-named Independence Palace, Ho Chi Minh City
  • War
On first arrival in Hanoi we were curious to see how the Vietnamese view their recent history. From the start it was obvious that their interests are far more concerned with building towards the future. For the Vietnamese, the American War was a continuation of an anti-colonial war going back many years. Our driver from Hanoi airport into the city centre pointed out Truc Bach Lake as we drove past it, telling us this was where John McCain was captured when his plane was shot down whilst on a bombing raid to destroy a power plant in Hanoi. McCain received multiple fractures as he ejected from his plane and was famously held prisoner in Hỏa Lò prison for two years (re-named the Hanoi Hilton by American POWs), before spending another three years in various prisons. Other drivers and people we spoke to were sometimes less willing, and often less interested, in talking about the war.
One of the cells at Hỏa Lò prison
We visited what remains of Hỏa Lò prison. John McCain's flying suit is on display here, but most of the exhibits focus on the brutal regime Vietnamese prisoners (who included Ho Chi Minh) were held under by the French, with people guillotined in public outside the gates of the prison into the 1930s. In Hanoi there sits the Imperial Citadel where the country's emperors resided until 1802. Amongst its its historical buildings a military bunker hides, which operated as a command centre from 1967 during the American War. Little is made of it in the local guides and site maps, and you won't find it unless you go seeking it out. Just south of the citadel is the Military History Museum, where a lot of the focus is on the conflict from the 1930s against the French. In the courtyard outside MiGs, tanks and helicopters jostle for space, with the most prominent feature being a pile of wreckage from American planes beside a striking image of a female Vietnamese soldier dragging wreckage from the water.

Military History Museum, Hanoi
Much of the fighting was at its most brutal in central Vietnam, around the "demilitarized zone", and particularly in Hue. The national capital from 1802 until 1945, the Imperial Citadel here was flattened in the fighting that followed the Tet Offensive in 1968. The palace here is being rebuilt from the rubble, but many of the walls and buildings are still riddled with bullet holes and shell damage. Again this is shown without any comment on the fighting, the focus is on the former life of the site as a palace, the lifestyle and buildings which the royal families led. 

War damage is clearly visible around the city of Hue
Hidden in the jungle near to the city of Hoi An lies My Son, a UNESCO world heritage site consisting of an area of Hindu temples built by the Champa people between the 4th and 14th century. Before the 1960s over 70 temples stood here, but when the area was extensively bombed by American B-52s in 1968 much of the site was destroyed. Tourists are warned not to venture off the site as many unexploded bombs still hide in the undergrowth. Bomb craters and shell damage are visible across this evocative and beautiful site, but as in other places in Vietnam next to no mention is made of the war at the site. If people are still harbouring anger about the damage inflicted on their country here and elsewhere, they are not shouting about it.

One of many bomb craters at My Son
Shrapnel damage on a monument in My Son
In Ho Chi Minh City in the south we visited The War Remnants Museum, where a comprehensive collection of photographs and personal testimony tells the story of the wars in Vietnam throughout the 20th century. Again much emphasis is placed on the French controlled period and a balanced and factual, rather than emotive tone is struck. The guide books had warned of grim detail presented here on the damage caused by Agent Orange, but I found it restrained if anything, and prominence was given to American servicemen who suffered health problems too after coming into contact with it. Millions of gallons of this were dropped over the Vietnamese countryside, to destroy crops and forest cover. Up to half a million Vietnamese children are believed to have been born with serious birth defects due to these chemicals, with many others killed, maimed or later developing cancers as a result of the chemicals. Whilst American veterans have been compensated for their health problems, American courts have repeatedly rejected Vietnamese claims for compensation. Large areas of central Vietnam are only now again being able to produce crops and there are active re-forestation programmes ongoing. On many excursions we went on, stops were made at craft workshops where disabled people were employed and fund-raising activities for the victims of Agent Orange were apparent.

War Remnants Museum, Ho Chi Minh City
In several of the museums space was given to highlight anti-war protests in the 1960s around the world, with photographs, banners and flags on display from demonstrations from Havana to London. For me visiting these places with my parents was very poignant as it was in the late 1960s that my parents met, working in the same department store in Glasgow during their school holidays. Aged 17, my dad spent a week tattie howking (harvesting potatoes), which he has told me was the most back-aching work he has ever done, in order to raise money for his bus fare to London to join one of the demonstrations there in October 1968 against the Vietnam War. It was the start of a lifetime of political activism for my parents. These protests around the world were being observed and appreciated in Vietnam. 

Display in Hanoi Military History Museum

The "remnants of war" are scattered all over the country, and can be sought out if you are looking to explore this period in Vietnam's history. But Vietnam as a country has a very long history and this is only a part of the whole story that they are keen to tell. It is also a country with many young people (86% of the Vietnamese population is aged under 55, whilst in Britain it is 70%) and many of them are looking more towards their future. 

One of the most visited sites relating to the American War are the Cu Chi tunnels in the south. This extensive 250km range of underground tunnels was initially used during the French rule and extended under American bombardment, and became an important part of the Viet Cong resistance to the Americans. When we went, there was a continuous stream of tourists passing through the displays about all aspects of tunnel life scattered among the trees here. Crawling through the tunnels, many of which have now been widened to accommodate tourists' girth, it was difficult to imagine what life was really like for the villagers of this region under bombardment. With the continuous ratatata of machine guns on the firing range beside the site and the jostling of different tour groups, maybe the Vietnamese are right to limit the war voyeurism to a small number of sites and focus on the experiences of those that lived through it in their museums.

One of my children emerging from a tunnel at Cu Chi
  • More History
What I was less aware of before travelling to Vietnam was the history of the country prior to the twentieth century. Paleolithic peoples lived here 500,000 years ago. For four thousand years people have cultivated rice in what is now Vietnam. In Hoi An we visited a wee museum that displays terracotta artefacts from the Sa Huynh people that lived in the area from 200BCE. More spectacular were the temples at My Son. Built by the Cham people who lived along the central coast from the 4th century. The temples are to Hindu gods which reflects the trading that was going on around the coast with peoples in India. The Japanese and Chinese traded with the peoples along the coast too and also left their imprint on the architecture. In the north of Vietnam, Chinese rule lasted for a thousand years, introducing Confucianism. In 938AD the Chinese rulers were ousted and Viet rule began. Imperial citadels along the Chinese lines were built first in the capital, Hanoi, and then later in Hue which became the capital in 1802.

My Son, Vietnam
The Confuscian Temple of Literature, Hanoi
In the Imperial Citadel, Hue
A Chinese Assembly Hall, Hoi An
Lanterns in Hoi An at night
Hoi An
The first Westerners to arrive in Vietnam were believed to be traders from ancient Rome. Marco Polo sailed up the coast here in the 13th century and the Portuguese set up a trading post in Hanoi in 1535, when the town was a bustling port filled with vessels from Japan and China. With the Westerners came Christian missionaries seeking converts, a situation that was later exploited by the French to establish a colonial foothold in the country. On the pretext of rescuing French priests the French sent an expeditionary force to bombard Da Nang in the 1840s and their increasing forces advanced southwards. Holding gradually more sway over subsequent emperors, the French fleet drew into the Perfume River near Hue and took possession of the whole country, making it (with Laos and Cambodia) part of Indochina after 1887. Exporting tobacco, tea, coffee, indigo and rubber from their colony and building theatres, hotels and municipal buildings in the French style, the colonial rulers first met serious rebellion in the 1930s.

Ho Chi Minh
Ho Chi Minh returned to Vietnam from exile in 1925. After trouble with the French authorities in 1911 he had left Vietnam, working in London kitchens, Brooklyn docks and settling in Paris where he met other anti-colonial dissidents and was a founding member of the French Communist Party in 1920. First against the French, then the Americans, Ho Chi Minh was the force that drove Vietnam to independence. 

"Nothing is more important than independence and freedom" was his famous mantra. 

French-built Opera House, Hanoi
Old telex machines in the bunker beneath the former Presidential Palace, Ho Chi Minh City
Statue of Ho Chi Minh in front of the former Hotel de Ville, now the People's Committee Building
Skyscraper in Ho Chi Minh City, not unlike the cinematic "Avengers Tower"
A monk contemplates the skyscrapers sprouting up along the banks of the Saigon River
  • People
I come from Scotland, a country of 6 million people, and live in its largest city, Glasgow, which has a population of about 600,000. Vietnam is a country which has an area 50% greater than that of the entire United Kingdom, a population of over 92 million people, and its two largest cities each are more populous than the whole of Scotland (Hanoi 8 million people and Ho Chi Minh City 9 million).

In these rapidly growing cities the infrastructure struggles to cope at times with congested streets awash with mopeds. In Hanoi there are 5 million mopeds and scooters and with increasing numbers of cars adding to the congestion in Ho Chi Minh City, new transport infrastructure is clearly needed, with a basic metro system being built at present. However the traffic has developed its own unique system that bizarrely seems to just about work. The drivers flow slowly around one another, and around any pedestrians, who must learn to just stride out through the flow to cross any road. Whilst we were there the drivers all accommodated one another, moved around each other and no raised voices or road rage were seen by us. A calm demeanour seems an essential attribute for Vietnamese commuters, but we found a friendly, composed and assured manner in every local that we spoke to.

Long queues to enter Ho Chi Minh's mausoleum in Hanoi
From our entertaining drive from the airport into Hanoi, to those crowded around us in the long queue to get into the Ho Chi Minh mausoleum people were chatty, helpful, courteous and interested in where we were from. School children approached us on occasion to talk and practice their impressively fluent English. We were mobbed once on a street by a laughing group of high school children who had been tasked with recording themselves talking to foreigners for a class project. A guide on one excursion we went on asked us about whether their would be another Scottish independence referendum and what we thought about David Cameron's decision to hold the Brexit vote, shamefully making us realise our completely parochial perspective on world events as we were unable to ask him much about domestic Vietnamese politics.

There has been huge economic growth in Vietnam in recent decades, but the impression we got was that the government has tried to make sure the benefits are felt across society. The World Bank reports that the percentage of people in Vietnam living below the poverty line in Vietnam has fallen from 60% of the population in 1993, to 13.5% in 2014 (NB the CIA World Factbook records UK levels of poverty at 15%). Some Vietnamese people we spoke to wanted faster change. One man was not happy that the government controlled the power companies, he felt, leading to excessive prices, and that there was a lack of modernisation in the rail network. We cautioned him that the private ownership of rail and utilities in our country was causing the same issues for us, and he found it hard to believe that in Britain there were people who could not afford their electricity.

Also of note life expectancy at birth for Vietnamese people has improved in recent years to 71.2 years for men and 80.6 years for women. In Glasgow at present it is about 71.6 years for men and 78 years for women. There is a danger in comparing life opportunities from two such contrasting economies as Britain and Vietnam, but as a developing country, Vietnam clearly seems to have overtaken many of its neighbours across a range of indices.

Mopeds - the universal transport solution in Vietnam
Small boy dodging the traffic in Ho Chi Minh City
Woman selling candles by the river in Hoi An
  • Food 
Agriculture is still a major part of the Vietnamese economy. There are differences across the country with the southern lands able to provide more harvests each year than northern lands. Vietnam is one of the world's largest exporters of rice, coffee and cashew nuts. Eating out, in restaurants and on roadside "street food" stalls is a common activity for the Vietnamese and we found a great range of local restaurants in every city we visited. The food we ate was universally fresh and flavoursome, and we had a great choice of dishes wherever we went. The fresh fruit and vegetables and varied seafood were particularly good, and almost every dish was served with a pile of tasty, green herbs. Staff at restaurants were keen to help make sure that you knew your way around the dishes, telling you about the ingredients and instructing you on how to eat various dishes that needed a bit of construction at the table.

From the ubiquitous beef noodle soup (pho bo), to delicious mackerel, fresh spring rolls, crispy pancakes (banh xeo) and the tasty claypot catfish that I had failed to find in Glasgow (ca kho to) we never once had a disappointing meal there. I was even a big fan of the rice porridge, congee, although among our group I was on my own with that one. On the overnight train the guard brought a trolley around in the morning offering it to everyone, along with a cup of thick, strong coffee.

Usually we washed our food down with some of the numerous local lagers: Hanoi Beer, Bia Saigon Special, 333, Huda, Biere Larue, Viet Ha, Truc Bach and also beers from some local craft brewers such as Pasteur Street in Ho Chi Minh City offering fruit beers, IPA, chocolate stout and more. Many of these are actually now owned by some of the large multinational drinks companies (eg Larue has been brewed since 1909 but is now owned by Heineken and it is Carlsberg who make Huda and Hanoi Beer). On a Friday night we ate in a busy restaurant filled with noisy, smiling office workers getting ready to start the weekend. Along with piles of food in the centre of their tables, most of them had a bin beside their table to collect all the empty beer cans or bottles too. We did also try some of the local rice spirit, although initially only because we thought we were buying water when I picked up a 2 litre plastic bottle of it at a corner shop.

Cheers - or as they say in Vietnam, Mo! Hai!Ba! Do! (One, two three - drink!).

Dragonfruit on a market stall in Hue, Vietnam
Food stalls at the market in Hoi An
Market in Hoi An, Vietnam
Crispy fish, Vietnamese style
Street food in Ho Chi Minh City
Craft beer from Pasteur Street brewery, Ho Chi Minh City
  • Beauty
As well as offering history, food and friendly people, Vietnam was also the most beautiful place to visit, with everything from bustling cities to tranquil lagoons. Like many visitors we took a trip on Halong Bay, which is full of picturesque limestone islands, best appreciated from the top of Titov Island, named after the Soviet Cosmonaut who visited it with Ho Chi Minh in 1962. Basically I have returned from my trip wanting to encourage as many people as possible to visit and enjoy the many things Vietnam has to offer. 

Lanterns in Hanoi
Hoan Kiem Lake, Hanoi
Paddy fields in northern Vietnam
Hang Sun Sot, one of the many caves in Halong Bay
View of some of the islands in Halong Bay, from the top of Titov Island
Beaches on the central coast with Danang in the distance
Handsome Hoi An
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City at night
Lagoon at Cau Hai, Vietnam

Vietnam 2017

World leaders, including Donald Trump, will be attending Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation meetings in Vietnam later this year (ironic as Trump managed to avoid being sent to Danang when it was the main airbase for Americans during the Vietnam War). In Danang huge amounts of construction work are underway with vast hotels, resorts and even golf courses being thrown up along the coast as the area hopes to use this event to showcase its facilities for tourism. Other huge infrastructure works are underway in Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City, where the city's first metro line is taking shape. There is still a lot of work to be done, and public transport needs a huge boost to prevent the cities grinding to a halt under the huge numbers of people and mopeds trying to negotiate their way every day through the streets. All of this buzz and industry made returning home to the United Kingdom feel a bit like we were coming back to some peripheral backwater. Our nation's parochial obsessions with the past and its perceived former glories have fueled our current Brexit situation. This all seems in stark contrast to Vietnam, a country which has battled through a succession of conflicts over the last century, yet their gaze is towards the future, not this past. 

A holiday doesn't let you see all the harsh realities of people's day to day problems, but all of my preconceived notions about what we would find in Vietnam were blown out of the water. We found a lively, friendly, safe, beautiful and fascinating country and if you do get the chance to visit I would encourage you to grasp it.
"Our mountains will always be, our rivers will always be, our people will always be. The American invaders defeated, we will rebuild our land ten times more beautiful."