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Freedom, Hope, and Fear: The Paradox of Vietnam, Part 3

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A frightened 10-year old schoolgirl stared shyly at me. We stood outside the War Remnants Museum in front of children’s crayon drawings of bombs dropping from U.S. aircraft on burning villages and palm trees.

“Hi, yes, I’m an American,” I said, speaking softly to her in English she didn’t completely understand.

Then as I climbed on back, she on front, of her father’s motor bike, she smiled. We played peekaboo around her father’s back.

Her father made a point of telling me that the South was more prosperous than the North because of expatriates who sent in capital. “It’s like Hong Kong or Taiwan,” he said.

I asked a British schoolteacher in front of the former Presidential Palace, now Reunification Palace, “Is the country truly united?”

“No. Some people here are still angry at Americans for abandoning South Vietnam,” Myra said.

I asked about the differences I sensed in attitudes and economic prosperity between people in the North and South, somewhat similar to regional resentments after the American Civil War in 1860. Myra acknowledged that Southerners felt exploited by the Northern invaders. The Northerners had a more relaxed, accepting attitude about the government.

“Hundreds of thousands of people here died of torture in prison, or in reeducation camps. Their children, the next generation, still feel the effects of the 1975 Viet Cong takeover. Relatives who worked for the U.S. military are still punished. Their children still denied jobs.”

Myra, after teaching in Thailand, wasn’t having much luck in finding a job for herself in Vietnam. And she wasn’t an enemy of the state. “You speak with an American accent. You’d have a better chance. American lingo is in,” she told me.

Restaurants where waiters turned their backs and walked away from foreigners frustrated her. “Vietnam is for Vietnamese first now. Money doesn’t matter to them.”

“Isn’t that a good sign? The Vietnamese are making so much money, they don’t have to wait on you?”

Myra shrugged. “No, it’s annoying. I’m treated like an invader.”

I told her I avoided five-star restaurants. I had no trouble ordering the generous servings of fresh fish and steamed rice at friendly street stalls and roadside cafés. I found safety in groups of other backpackers. Also, there seemed to be an abundance of food at open markets. I expressed my deep respect for what I saw of self-organizing forces within a previously war-ravaged society.

A recent college graduate in education managed her family’s hotel. She couldn’t get a teaching job because of her politically incorrect family. “It wasn’t my fault. It isn’t fair. The government is very corrupt. You need money to bribe someone for a government job. My family didn’t have the money. So I became a hotel manager.”

“Doesn’t your family’s owning this hotel give you freedom?”

“We pay rent for our property lease for 40 years. That’s why it’s so corrupt. Who gets the leases or not. There’s that feeling that the government can take the lease away. There’s lots of money and power in the government.”

“Our government has lots of money and power,” I said. “They passed an amendment to our Constitution to collect income taxes that take away our freedom.”

The young hotel manager lowered her eyes and shook her head. She seemed afraid to say more.

I tried to explain the U.S. government’s tighter restrictions on immigration to a former American Vietnamese student in Saigon, who was having trouble getting his U.S. visa renewed. He invited me for coffee in a tree-shaded sidewalk café. “Don’t worry so much. We can talk openly,” he told me. “Take as many pictures as you please of propaganda posters. Who cares?”

We agreed there was no way the government could completely restrict Internet access. “Once people get that feeling of saying what they want in a secure place, there’s no turning back,” he said.

In Ho Chi Minh City’s Internet cafés, as in other cities, I found people who spoke fluent English eager to talk to an American. A Vietnamese textile businesswoman, who traveled freely to Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore, Malaysia, and California, talked openly of censorship. The Internet is government-owned and run by five agencies. Content is highly regulated. The websites of persons judged to be politically incorrect are blocked. She has had no problem so far. But friends have.

“The government is afraid we will be too successful,” she said. “We are afraid the government will be successful in taking everything away.”

“Won’t blocking access or putting up firewalls to information interfere with your free enterprise, your prosperity, your ability to support yourselves?”

I was thinking of the libertarian economist, Friedrich Hayek’s near-theorem: Open communication is necessary for the exchange of information, based on supply and demand. Flexible pricing works better than tariffs and fixed prices.

“Yes, we have to trust the government to understand. But we still have to be very careful,” the business woman said.

Since my return to the States, I find my friend’s messages restrained, nonsensical at times, and generalized, not as freely expressed as when we were in the Internet café. According to the Associated Press, dissidents have used the Internet to criticize the Communist government. At the same time, more privately owned service providers have been allowed. But it sounds to me as if the uncertainty of government monitoring has created an aura of fear.

The Vietnamese guide to Cu Chi Tunnels (the underground network the guerrilla forces used during the American War) said he was not a Communist through the microphone to the people-crowded bus.

“We are a communist country but 80 percent of us are capitalists. There is private enterprise everywhere and the government can’t stop it now.”

He noted that Vietnam had joined the Association for South East Asian Nations (ASEAN). Normalized relations with the United States since 2000 opened up trade. The potential for agricultural products from the Mekong Delta, the natural resources from the North, available labor, would transform Vietnam from an agricultural to an industrial country by 2020, he said.

Because of his distinctive French accent, I felt curious about his background. He had been in Catholic seminary in 1965 and the war had forced him to withdraw.

“You are a nation of more than 80 million people. If you wanted to belong to the Communist party, could you?”

“They check your background very thoroughly before you are allowed in to make sure you didn’t have a relative who was a member of the ARVN (Army for the Republic of Viet Nam) as I did.”

“How do you feel about the Communist Party of 2 million telling you what to do?”

“Madame, you ask dangerous questions. The Party is growing to more like 5 million. If you are on the inside, you have everything you need. If you are on the outside — Madame, I live for the moment,” He broke off and did not finish.

“You have no job, no hope?”

“Yes, you have nothing. We have to struggle to live.”

“You are almost 81 million against 5 million. How can they control 81 million?”

“Are you afraid if you have an AK47 [a semi-automatic rifle] aimed at you?”

“Yes, of course.”

“There, you have your answer.” He turned his back on me. No more questions.

Did I feel safe traveling as a woman alone? Would I return to Vietnam? Positively yes, to both questions. This trip served to confirm for me that Vietnam is a country undergoing an economic revolution, not a war the United States lost.

I came away with a sense of tragic irony. The best intentions produced unintended consequences. Starting with the time period after World War II and continuing through the American War, Americans and their leaders failed to see beyond Communist labels to the Vietnamese nationalism, the passion for identity that expels foreign invaders, especially political rule from China. They failed to see the shrewd respect for trade and accommodation that dates back thousands of years and that has meant the survival of Vietnamese culture.

There is no cult of personality now as there is in Communist Cuba or North Korea. But there is a corrupt bureaucracy, sure of its decision-making powers, that thwarts and threatens to reverse and stifle a miraculous transition from starvation to self-sufficiency gained through free enterprise.

Ironically, the best known of Ho Chi Minh’s dicta in Vietnam presents hope at the airport: “Nothing is more precious than independence and liberty.” American liberty is protected in the American Bill of Rights that limits the hubris of the few and guarantees power to the many.

Change is slow but pressure from the many in the Vietnamese revolution for survival cannot be stopped.

Part 1 | Part 2 | Part 3

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    Rosalind Lacy MacLennan is a freelance writer and a cancer survivor residing in Maryland.