On the Wrong Side of History: My recent trip to Viet Nam

Food sculture, Halong Bay, VN  Food Sculpture, North Viet Nam


I visited Viet Nam a few months ago.  It’s  taken me  some time to wrap my head around what I  experienced.

I  bet most people under the age of 50 don’t know anything about the “Viet Nam War” (what the Viet Names call “the American War”) which occured in the 1960’s and why we  fought there.  We never actually declared war on Viet Nam, but  we sent about a half million  people to fight, and we instituted a draft around 1969 to  compel young men to  join the military—to fight in Viet Nam.  Remember?  I do, I’m 60.  I remember coming home from school and seeing news of the war on TV every night.  We allowed our government to tell us a bunch of lies.  We allowed our government—& the pandering news media—to tell us we were fighting communism, and if we didn’t stop communism in Viet Nam, the whole of southeast Asia would fall (the domino theory).  The Viet Namese  ‘won.’  After all our fire power and expertise, they gained control of their own  country.  Not all Viet Namese were happy about that. Same as any country in the world.

So, when people ask why I went to Viet Nam on ‘vacation’, I  responded, “Well, we fought a war there.  I want to see what we were fighting over.”

Others  are curious because  they might want to retire there, or are interested in history.

There are very few traffic signals (what the British call  robots and zebra crossings) in urban Viet Nam.  Most people who have vehicles get around on  motor scooters.  You really take your life in your hands crossing the street. Best to do so in groups.  You also notice everyone wearing surgical masks.  Is it because they don’t want bugs flying into their mouths, or they want to avoid disease?  Not sure.  I was told a combination of both.  but enough with amusing first impressions.

Our guide, Tran,  had lived the history and was  very good at explaining it (Gate One Travel, which, by the way, I would highly recommend–particularly if your travel time is limited), but there is no getting around it. As Tran told us, Viet Nam has been at war for about 3000 years.  If it wasn’t the Chinese, it was the French, and then the Americans.  Why  did (or do) larger powers pick on Viet Nam?  Great location,  lots of arable land.

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Caravelle_Manifesto.  Why the link? It’s an interesting place to get some perspective.  Search Wikipedia,and you will get some jumping off points.  Lots of people don’t know that Indochina was a French colony.  Land was appropriated for rubber, fruit, and rice plantations.  Yes–appropriated.  There are about 30 ethnic groups in Viet Nam, and you have to give Ho Chi Minh his props—that he organized all these disparate, rural ethnic groups to work together and think of themselves as VIET NAMESE.  Remember, he did this without the internet.  He did this  by persuasion, as most people at that time (1950s and ’60s) were illiterate. They were also feeling oppressed by the French.  the French just barged in and took whatever land they could.

It’s important to understand the dynamic, and  what we  westerners  didn’t know( or understand).  The  biggest priority for Ho Chi Minh and his followers (really—mostly young people under 30) was land reform.  Between the French and the Chinese, there wasn’t much left for the native Viet Namese to even grow food for their families.  This is 1 reason it was so easy  to get  people to fight. They were desperate, and had nothing left to lose.  But more:  the west had divided  Viet Nam into north and south in the 1950’s.  The reason is still not totally clear ( side digression:  do we know why we fought in Afghanistan, if Karzai, who took our money, didn’t want us?  Are we sure we are  on the right side in Syria? Iraq? Ukraine?   Really?)  We told ourselves that the north was to be communist, and the south, with no clear leader, would be free.  Uh—free like democratic—compared to the north?  Free like capitalism—so the colonialists could come back and take what was not theirs?

I had so many questions. We started the tour in Saigon (Ho Chi Minh City, still called Saigon) in the south.  One of the first places we visited was the Cu Cin tunnels.We also visited an organic farm.  We asked how  most people made  a living in Viet Nam, and Tran told us that if they weren’t farmers, they were entrepreneurs.  Indeed.  We  visited fishing  villages, wood carvers, marble carvers, clothing and embroidery workshops (stull, hard to know how many were actually owned by the Chinese…).  So many self employed people in all the urban areas!  This is an irony, really.  This is a socialist country, but there are  probably more self employed  people in Viet Nam—per centage wise, than in the USA!

HCMC from Hotel, VN  In  historic Hoi An, Hue, and  Hanoi, many small shop owners.  While there are  large shopping plazas with  what we would call grocery stores,  they are sort of a blend of  a large ‘anchor’ ans many small vendors. It is amazing how many people  have small stalls selling  spices,  tchokes, hair ornaments and other junk jewelry, toys, tools, medicinal or first aid stuff, fruit, and clothing.  So…what is socialist about the Socialist Republic of Viet Nam?   Good question.  It seems to be the ownership of improved land.    Hoi An is  a world heritage site not far from DaNang.  It’s a beautiful, quaint old town.  Many expats, particularly from Australia,  now make their livings there.  I was able to visit with Cat Besch, who runs the Viet Nam Animal Welfare Association.  They have a small animal shelter,  and are trying to promote the idea of humane treatment of animals—and not eating your pet dog after you grow bored with it.  Seems that the Chinese, who have always been in Viet Nam, have brought the idea of eating  dogs to this mostly Buddhist country.  People will steal dogs, and sell them by the pound to restaurants.

In Da  Nang, a city along the China Sea, there are miles and miles of upscale housing developments. Huge high rise buildings with luxury interiors and amenities. We asked Tran who was buying all these condos.  He told us,’Rock Stars’, but there couldn’t be that many.  It has to be…the Chinese elites who can not buy  such luxury housing on the oceanfront in China.  As the British buy in the south of Spain and France, the Chinese are buying Viet Nam, and there is a lot of animosity.

Also in visiting the historic sites, we  learned a little more about how the  US became  so involved in Viet Nam.  Diem was, apparently a reluctant president.  He was a businessman who wanted to  expand his drug selling (cocaine, heroin) empire. His  sister-in-law was the power behind the ‘throne’.  Very integral to  understanding this was knowing that the elites in the south were Catholics, and they wanted to govern and exploit the  rural Buddhists peasants.  Diem was encouraged to  contact Cardinal Spellman  in Boston who, of course, had ties to the Kennedy family. With little more than connections, we got ourselves on the wrong side of history (more recently, when the CIA paid Achmed Chalabi $238,000 a week for intelligence, which turned out to be bullshit…in Iraq…everyone involved is off the hook for that war, except the American citizens who now have to support a bunch of war maimed soldiers…same in Afghanistan…).

Tran encouraged us to get Le Ly Hyslip’s book, “When Heaven and Earth Changed Places”, her view of how the war  affected her life as a child  growing up in Viet Nam.  Obviously, it was a vacation which caused me to do a lot of thinking,  There is a lot to see and experience in Viet Nam.  It’s not just  the jungle.  You can easily have a beach vacation and  not see  any of the rest of the country.  However, you’d miss so much.


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