Saturday, April 30, 2005

Better Than Brezhnev

Today marks the 30th anniversary of the "Liberation of Sài Gòn" - or the "Fall of Sài Gòn"; which term you prefer is up to you. To summarize: NVA (North Vietnamese Army) forces under the leadership of Văn Tiến Dũng captured the city on April the 30th, 1975. The NVA shared the same ideology with the same crew currently running the joint (i.e., Communist). Accordingly, the authorities have deemed the occasion fitting for a celebration (judging by the number of marching songs on the radio), and have encouraged the locals to follow suit. On some streets, it appears that every house is flying a flag: the yellow star on red background used by Việt Nam. Banners of the same are wrapped around light poles on the same road. Well, to be exact: three quarters of them; the other fourth is reserved for the hammer-and-sickle. Parts of Lê Duận street have already been closed off with some giant inflatable semi-circular floats, protecting concert stages from careless motorists. Parades? I believe they're scheduled for today.

I ended up watching some of the festivities on TV on the 29th. They set up a stage in front of the Opera House. While I missed most of the home grown acts, there were some nice performances imported from other Asian countries. You had jugglers from China and dancers from Indonesia, Cambodia and Thailand. It was all entertaining. Then in the middle of the Thai act, they cut to the fireworks: all 15 minutes of it, where Nguyễn Huệ Road meets the river. Like usual, the intersections was crammed with hordes of people on motorbikes. Kids and babies were observed. During the pyrotechnics, the station started playing "Việt Nam - Hồ Chí Minh", going by the chorus. 

But how do the locals people really think about it? Really? For the kiddies and their elders, I guess it's a case of "Long Weekend? Woo-hoo!". Here, Sunday is Labor day, and Monday is just an extra holiday tacked on for the event. For their elders, well, I dunno. There are a few who believe that the "liberation" was necessary and a good thing. That's the story that the papers are playing. And the event is pretty significant - it is an anniversary of the end of the last war that Việt Nam fought (discounting the later conflicts with Cambodia and China. That had to be mentioned.) To be exact, it is the end of the last nasty, death in millions conflict Việt Nam fought - a multi-cornered contest involving the countr(ies) itself as well as America, Australia, South Korea, Thailand - plus lashings of aid from the Soviet Union and then-ally China. (The other two wars weren't as nasty, thank god.) And lasting peace is good, can we agree on that? It appears to be the view of the countries in the region - judging by the presence of their cultural troops at the gala. 

But what gets stuck in people's craws (and I'm talking about the South Vietnamese here) is that this peace was achieved by a military victory by the North - leading to a very nasty and unpleasant aftermath. Those old enough to remember may not have so fond memories of the event, or choose to remain indifferent. The following story from Slate may be closer to the norm:

"Me, I don't like the Communists," said Huong (not his real name) minutes after we'd pulled out of the hotel driveway. Huong's story is so fine a capsule war history that it's worth retelling. He was 20 when the first U.S. battalions landed at Da Nang beach in 1965. Having learned English at a Christian school in Saigon, Huong landed a job translating for the 101st Airborne Division for the huge sum of $300 a month. Eventually, he proved valuable enough to be transferred to military intelligence, where he worked out the rest of the war, at one point living in a bunker with American soldiers for eight months during brutal fighting. Days before Saigon fell to the North Vietnamese Army on April 30, 1975, U.S. Embassy officials offered to airlift Huong and his whole family to the United States. "My father said, 'I'm too old; I want to die in my home,' " Huong recalls. So, he dispatched his two sisters to the United States, where they married Americans and never came home. Within days, Huong was arrested by the new government, locked up in a re-education camp, and forced to learn Ho Chi Minh's teachings.

Not surprisingly, the program failed. After his release in 1978, Huong built a boat to escape, but he was captured and jailed. When he was freed, he began building another boat, but his plan was again uncovered, and he was sent to a collective farm until 1990, when the government's doi mai (sic) policy—opening up to private ownership and foreign trade—finally gave Huong a relatively normal life. He became a guide for the first influx of American tourists, many of them Vietnam veterans. Now, when business is good, Huong earns about $150 a month, half what he earned 40 years ago when he began translating for the Army. Around Saigon (as every local still calls the city), he says, "I don't tell people what I did in the war."

Anecdotes from my closest acquaintances seem to bear this out, even if they weren't alive them, or too young to remember. One friend had a father in the ARVN (Army of Republic of [South] Việt Nam). Served a few years, and then the boys from Hà Nội came invading. He served a few years in hard labour. Once out of the joint, he was informed that he was banned from employment for life. Officially that it; unofficially, he had to work hard "off-the-books" to scrounge enough food for his family. And in Việt Nam, the sons and daughters pay for the sins of the forefathers - yea, unto the seventh generation. My friend found it harder to find a job because of his father's "counter-revolutionary" past, and getting a passport at all would be impossible for that reason. 

(My friend's father is an utterly nice guy, by the way - a very strong yet gentle soul. He's one of those men you think gets stronger with age. I've met him a few times. One of those men you like on sight, despite not sharing much language.)

Even if you leave aside the hundreds of thousands of people placed into labor camps (and that's a bloody big "If"), there were plenty of other problem besetting the country after 1975. Việt Nam was poor enough already, with infrastructure devastated after decades of war. Then the hard-liners decided to collectivize agriculture, eventually resulting in the country becoming a rice importer.  And the Vietnamese were even poorer than before. You can still see the effects today. Those born in the late 70s and early 80s are generally smaller and slimmer than their relatives born else when. Malnutrition will do that to you.

There were other problems, such as: the two extra wars aforementioned Việt Nam got itself into. (I blame Pol Pot for them myself, even if one indirectly.) But the main thing is that people didn't have enough to eat. When starvation is staring yourself in the face, sometimes exile is the only solution. The period was so harsh and nasty that two million people fled the country. By boat, by offer of resettlement overseas, by any means they could. The "boat people" (as they were later called) had the worst dangers of all, with the ever present danger of pirates murdering and raping their way through the gulf of Thailand. But they tried, and many were lucky enough to settle in places like Australia, Canada, France and the United States. 

That's the odd thing about this diaspora. Ruthless actions lead to consequences, sometimes undesirable to the actor. And the actions of a harsh repressive Vietnamese government created a class of far wealthier people overseas interested in the country, yet utterly unsympathetic to said government. The Vietnamese are very family-oriented people. Nowadays, the family may be spread over two or three countries, if not more. With one of them being Việt Nam itself. I've met Xê Ôm drivers in the street who mention their uncle in Sydney (or aunt in California, or so on) with pride. My fiancee has some in Washington, D.C, and another few in Melbourne. Other people have cousins in Brisbane. And so on. Und so weiter. Và vân vân. And the locals damn well know why their relatives are overseas. 

That's one of the reasons I have some hope for the country. There's no fooling the children of the revolution, when their sister in Vancouver is just a Yahoo Chat line away. The overseas Vietnamese (Việt Kiều) may not be trusted much by the government, but they're often the ones with the cash, and willing to bring it or invest in into this country. That, and đổi mớ.- or renovation. Obviously inspired by Gorbachev's perestroika, but without the result of disintegrating the country into 15 pieces. I'll credit the government for that. It's been a slow process since they kicked off the process in 1986... but it is really helping now. Poverty has been halved in the last decade, and it's only been in the last few years that they've kicked the hyperinflation of the Đồng. Even in the last few years, I've felt the progress. A couple of years, four computers on a 28.8 K modem was your Internet cafe. Now they have ADSL. It's still a poor country, and not too free either. But hey, it's freer than the Sovet Union than Brezhnev.

So why did I write this? Basically, it's really due to the convenient amnesia of the local state-owned media. For example, I noticed how little they mentioned General Văn Tiến Dũng. The "liberation" or "fall" of  Sài Gòn was not inevitable. But his "Spring Victory" campaign ended up defeating the South in less than two months. That's an amazing feat, whatever you think about his politics (and my acquaintances aren't too fond of him either.) But then reading some of the local mags - the Saigon Times, and the Việt Nam News - I noticed that the forgetting went on. The war is over. History stops. There were few consequences - and little nasty ones, to be blurred as necessary. From 1975 onwards, Việt Nam went on a nice, neat, teological trajectory upwards

But it was, and still isn't true. And that needs to be said. 

Post Script: For the official line on the event, you can look at the Việt Nam News website. I counted 16 uses of the word "liberation" in article heads. Whatever you think of the sentiment, they definitely need to use a thesaurus. Overuse isn't just suspicious, it's incompetent.