LETTER FROM VIETNAM

Peace without prosperity

March 14 1988
LETTER FROM VIETNAM

Peace without prosperity

March 14 1988

Peace without prosperity

LETTER FROM VIETNAM

Thirteen years ago in April, U.S. forces evacuated Saigon, leaving the economy ravaged by years of warfare. Since then, the victorious northern forces have done little to improve the country ’s financial condition. The nation has remained one of the poorest in the world, and runaway inflation and a decline in agricultural and industrial productivity have only worsened the problem. Despite that, many Vietnamese retain a sense of optimism about the future. Maclean’s Correspondent Peter Wilson recently spent two weeks travelling through Vietnam and filed this report:

On a treelined street in Hanoi, the capital of Vietnam, a young couple parks an East Germanbuilt motorcycle beside a bench and looks out over a picturesque lake.

The water is peaceful, but six antiaircraft guns mounted in a display only 200 m away evoke a time when U.S. bombers dropped tons of explosives on the city. Bui Due Thanh and his girlfriend, Le Bich Lien, say that they do not want to talk about war. Thanh,

26, is studying pharmacology and as a student he is able to defer his compulsory service in the more than one-million-member Vietnamese armed forces—one of the largest standing armies in the world. If he had to serve, Thanh would probably be sent to the heavily fortified Chinese border or to Kampuchea, occupied by Vietnam since the country deposed the Khmer Rouge regime of Pol Pot in 1979. “I will protect my country if necessary,” Thanh said. But, he added, “warfare slows our progress. I would rather ride my motorbike.”

Behind Thanh, the dusty road that leads to downtown Hanoi carries a steady stream of battered and smoking trucks, grimy buses bulging with passengers, oxen-pulled carts and bicycles—part of the daily sea of movement that washes over this city of 2.5 million people. The decrepit machinery and primitive modes of transport are a telling sign that the country’s reunification under the North’s Communist regime

has produced few benefits. Vietnam is desperately poor—and in desperate need of modernization. The Soviet Union pumps about $1 million a day into the Vietnamese economy. But agricultural and industrial production have stagnated—leading to the introduction of wideranging reforms in the country.

Those reforms include a shift from a centrally planned economy toward a system that allows some degree of capitalism. The changes have also brought greater freedom of the press. Nguyen Tu Huyen, deputy editor-in-chief of Hanoi’s

English-language Vietnam Courier, told me that newspapers are now free to report on any matter not affecting military or state secrets. He said that reporters have exposed industrial inefficiency, lazy bureaucrats and crooked officials. But, he maintained, “we are on the road to reform.”

That road may be a long one. A short distance from Xua Cang, a village of 150 people about 80 km south of Hanoi, a massive Soviet-financed hydroelectric dam on the Black River is near completion. The site is protected by yet another manifestation of Russian aid: surfaceto-air missiles. But in the village itself, tucked into a valley between rice paddies and banana plantations, people are living in thatched-roof houses lit with small oil lamps. Some of them are la-

borers on the dam, but they also till the land that their ancestors have cultivated for generations.

Nguygen Van That, 60, is a former village leader who fought as a guerrilla against the French, Vietnam’s former colonial rulers. That lost his right leg to a French land mine. But he said he does not regret his injury. “It was a fight for our freedom, for our land,” he said. Still, he added that, despite Vietnam’s present problems, life is better for the villagers. “We have schools nearby and a health clinic,” he said, puffing on a long bamboo pipe. “And we do not have to fight.”

On the Yen So collective farm just outside Hanoi, peasants also say that conditions have improved. Despite the country’s troubled agricultural sector, the collective is prospering. The techniques are primitive; there are no tractors, and water buffalo do most of the heavy work. But all of the 6,800 residents now live in brick homes instead of mud huts—as was common in the past. The collective also has its own schools and health clinic, and TV sets are common in many households.

As well, the collective houses an embroidery and carpet-making business. In the embroidery shop, women work on cloth intended for export, chatting easily among themselves. Nguyen Thi Thanh, a woman in her early 20s, ap-

plies her needle to a bedspread. It will take her 20 hours to finish it, she says. When I ask her what she and her coworkers talk about, she giggles without missing a stitch. “Love and boyfriends,” she says.

It is a peaceful scene. But 13 years after the American evacuation, re-

minders of the war remain. In Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, Lily sells peanuts outside the Independence Hotel. She is one of the thousands of children fathered by U.S. servicemen. Her strikingly beautiful features are more Caucasian than Oriental as she smiles at hotel patrons who come and go.

Prior to my arrival in Vietnam I had read reports that Amerasian children were discriminated against by the Vietnamese. But many seem at ease in Vietnamese society, mixing well among their friends. A half-block from the old presidential palace, where in April, 1975, North Vietnamese tanks smashed through the iron gates, a group of children sit in a park. As I pass, they point at an Amerasian youth sitting with them. One yells out at me, “Take him.” It is said with a smile.

Since 1979, American officials have moved about 4,000 Amerasians to the United States, and, under a U.S.Vietnamese agreement reached last September, as many as 30,000 more will eventually be resettled. Many Amerasians in Vietnam who are searching for their U.S. fathers try to enlist the aid of Western visitors. Often, they pass along notes that contain nothing more than the U.S. location and name of their parent. But Lily does not bother visitors about her father. Instead, in reasonably good English she politely asks for one small favor. “If you have any toothpaste or shampoo that you are not going to take back,” she says, “I would like to have it, please.” She makes the request with the grace that I have found common among people in this long-suffering land.