Vietnam, a hint of déjà vu…

Vietnam water puppets

The entertaining Vietnamese puppet show on water.

Vietnam, its jungles, its beaches, its food so exotic, its colonial past. All this sounded familiar to me. When I was six, my best schoolmate was born in Saigon. His parents had a Vietnamese restaurant in the north of Paris. I used to eat there almost every day for many years, as his grandmother, Mrs Julie Nguyen, who managed the place, always took great care of us. She told me many stories about the French rule, the war, how they manage to go to France as refugees. I spent some time going to Vietnamese food stores or observing how springrolls or Pho soups were prepared. At that time, I would have never believed I would visit Vietnam one day. So to me, Vietnam is not only a now popular holiday destination, but above all an atmosphere I left since my childhood.

After having landed at Hanoi airport, the humid and stiffling Asian heat mixed with a smell of exotic fruits put me back into this atmosphere.

Hanoi student

A student girl in Hanoi.

Hanoi opera house

The Hanoi Opera House by night.

Vietnam has plenty of landmarks accessible by numerous roads or a good airline network. Given the size of the country, 1000 km from the North to the South, in one week I had to limit myself to four places; Hue, Hoi An, Da Lat, and Hanoi, all figuring in the tourist top list.

Hue was the capital of the Nguyen Dynasty (19 – mid-20 centuries). The city is extensive and has a lot to beautiful temples to show. The main place to visit there is Hue impressive palace. Call me an occidental ignorant mixing up styles, but the size and the atmosphere of Hue Palace made me think of the Beijing Forbidden City.

Hue palace

Han cryptograms on the roof of Hue Purple Palace.

Unlike other Asian scripts, Vietnamese is written with Latin letters, which were invented by a French missionary, Alexandre de Rhode, in 1651. The Latin letters replaced the Chinese Han cryptograms only in 1918, as a move towards western influence and to distanciate from the pervasive Chinese culture. It is also believed that the Latin alphabet is easier to master for a child than learning by heart thousands of cryptograms. Han cryptograms are still used today in religious buildings and cemeteries as traditional language.

Not far from Hue, there is the picturesque city of Hoi An. You may find it too much tourist-oriented, but the old French architecture, thousands of small paper lamps in the evening and dozens of fine dining restaurant with good service make this place a must go sightseeing in Vietnam.

Hoi An Japanese bridge

The Japanese Bridge in Hoi An.

Street food Pho

The ubiquitious Pho soup feeds well, is balanced, is very cheap but…spicy!

You can easily rent a scooter to ride 30 km from Hoi An along the picturesques rice fields, and see the impressive ruins of My Son, built by the Cham civilisation in 4-14th century.

My Son Cham tower

The Cham were Hinduist. That’s why the Cham towers are often adorned with apsaras, beautiful dancing ladies, and built in a typical pyramid shape believed to represent the Mount Meru, the Hindu sacred mountain. Although My Son is much smaller in size than Angkor Wat in neighbouring Cambodia, considering a large majority of its architecture was destroyed by US massive bombing, it is interresting to know that the Chams conqueered and ruled over Angkor for 30 years.

From Hoi An, I edged toward Da Lat, where the fresh, chilly mountaneous air contrasts with the tropical heat along the coast. No wonder Da Lat was the favourite place for the French, who left the city totally transformed into a little French town.

Da Lat colonial house

This picture was not taken in Becons-Les-Bruyeres, but in Da Lat!

Da Lat Crazy House

Although now under construction, don’t miss the Crazy House, aka Hang Nga Guesthouse, in Da Lat. It was built by Dang Viet Nga, a former student of the Moscow School of Architecture. Her dream was to have a fairy house. You recognize in it the influence of Escher and Gaudi.

Da Lat Bao Dai Palace

The Bao Dai’s Summer Palace at Da Lat is built in a Art Deco style (French Modernist version for public buildings), en vogue in the 30’. Bao Dai was the last Vietnamese emperor, installed by the French as their puppet ruler.

Da Lat administration is obviously proud of its colonial past: The city has two 100 m high telecommunication antennas in the shape of the Eiffel Tower!

On the way to Hanoi, the road was jammed with earth moving machines. Roads, bridges, dams are being built massively throughout the country, financed both by the government and by private funds, including funds from Korea or Japan. For long, Vietnam was reputed a poor nation, but that not the impression visitors will get now.Last decade reforms lead Vietnam on a similar economic path that the one followed by China. As a result, after having suffered from a continuous war during tree decades and hunger, the poverty rate passed from 75% to 12 % in 10 years. The pace is accelerating to a point that Vietnam is valued as a new Asian dragon. Investments in infrastructure are sky-high.Nowadays, the Vietnamese society, politics, economics and religion seem to live together in balance.

Vesak 2014 Da Lat

Vesak, the celebration of Buddha’s birth, is celebrated in Vietnam. Hundreds of decorated vans look like an endless colorful cargo train. Vesak festivities were constrained under the US-backed regime of President Diem.

Vietnam volunteer

A member of the Communist Youth.

Vietnam is one of the last one-party communist countries in the world, but the regime doesn’t reject partnership with a limited company on on a communist billboard featuring Ho Chi Minh.

Communism Viettel

Below: A Vietnamese multitasking: sending sms, driving and carrying a baby.

Vietnam scooter sms

Everywhere throughout Vietnam I saw billboards commemorating Vietnam’s greatest military feats. This one celebrates the 60th anniversary of the Dien Bien Phu battle against the French in 1954, which ultimately led to the French leaving the Indochina colony for good.

Dien Bien Phu 60 years

On almost all houses, you can see a Vietnamese flag. Vietnamese are very patriotic, and this feature only strengthened during the war. Although the Communist party uses patriotic slogans for their political purposes, Communists are associated in Vietnamese minds with independence, reunification and victory.

When I lived in France, the general image I got about Vietnam at school and in the cinema was definitely pro-Western. For example, the Vietnam War was associated in my mind with movies like Platoon, heroic American soldiers walking in the jungle surrounded by fierce Viet Cong guerillas.

“-Washington, we gonna get out of this jungle. You’ll see your home in Alabama again!

Then, you start your trip by reading books in the plane, you visit monuments and battlefields, you talk with locals, you discover more deeply the history of the country you visit, and many of your prejudices fade away.

Looking back at the History, I pointed out some facts that contrast the most with the image I had of the two wars that affected Vietnam in the 20th century.

During the WWII, Japan took control of the weakened French Indochina. The US being at war with Japan, they allied with the Viet Minh army, led by Ho Chi Minh, to hamper Japanese actions and to help rescue American pilots.

Born in Vietnam, Ho Chi Minh was educated in France, where he became a founding member of the French Communist Party in the 20’. He was then invited to the USSR, where he studied at the Moscow University. He was already seen as a Communist leader. In 1924, he went to China, where he set up a group of exiled Vietnamese Communists. He returned to Vietnam in 1941. Apart from Vietnamese, Ho Chi Minh spoke fluently English, French, Chinese, German and Russian.

Following the German defeat in 1945, the Allies held the Conference of Potsdam to settle war issues. During the conference, the French managed to convince the Allies to get back all French Indochina. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia should again be French colonies after the Japanese leave. That was one of the key elements sparking the conflict in Vietnam.

As soon as Japan surrenders, the Viet Minh occupies Hanoi, in North Vietnam, and Ho Chi Minh proclaims the independence of Vietnam, infuriating the French. Finally, the French sent troops in 1945 trying to regain Vietnam, starting the First Indochina War.

The Viet Minh retaliated by launching several attacks against the French. The independance war took also ideological aspects as the Viet Minh was clearly a communist movement, supported by Chinese Mao Zedong, while the French and the anti-communist Vietnamese forces were backed by the United States.

In the US, during the witch hunts of the McCarthyism, no politician wanted to look tolerant with Communism. Newly elected President Eisenhower offered military support to the French to prevent a Communist victory in Vietnam. Eisenhower explained his decision by using a ‘Domino Theory’ in which a Communist victory in Vietnam would result in surrounding countries falling one after another like a “falling row of dominoes.” The Domino Theory was the main argument to justify lenghty U.S. involvement in Vietnam.

In 1953, the French were surrounded by Viet Minh soldiers at Dien Bien Phu, loosing ground and asking urgently operational help from the US that ultimately was denied.

The French defeat at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 led to the Geneva Accords, in which Vietnam is divided in half at the 17th parallel. Ho Chi Minh is given the North, while US-backed Bao Dai’s regime is granted the South. The accords also provide for elections to be held in all of Vietnam within two years to reunify the country. The U.S. opposes the unifying elections, fearing a likely victory by Ho Chi Minh.

In the South, Bao Dai has installed Ngo Dinh Diem, a Roman Catholic, as his prime minister. But soon after, the US help Diem take the power by ousting Bao Dai and proclaiming the Republic of South Vietnam. In the meantime, the US military support has effectively started to strenghten the army of South Vietnam.

Diem’s autocratic style of leadership, his religion beliefs, his poor focus on social issues make him a controversial autority. He assigns most government positions to close friends and family members.

Eisenhower said of Diem that he is the “miracle man” of Asia and reaffirms U.S. commitment. “The cost of defending freedom, of defending America, must be paid in many forms and in many places…military as well as economic help is currently needed in Vietnam”.

The second Indochina War begins in 1959, when Ho Chi Minh declares a People’s War to unite all of Vietnam under his leadership. The Viet Cong, the North Communist army, launch several successful attacks on South Vietnamese positions. Diem requests more military help from the US.

On the sixth anniversary of the Republic of South Vietnam, Kennedy pledges to Diem : “the United States is determined to help Vietnam preserve its independence…”. Kennedy justifies the expanding U.S. military role as a means “…to prevent a Communist takeover of Vietnam which is in accordance with a policy our government has followed since 1954.” He later said: “If we withdrew from Vietnam, the Communists would control Vietnam. Pretty soon, Thailand, Cambodia, Laos, Malaya, would go…”

During his State of the Union address in 1962, Kennedy states, “Few generations in all of history have been granted the role of being the great defender of freedom in its maximum hour of danger. This is our good fortune…”. Soon after, he signed the Foreign Assistance Act which offers “…military assistance to countries which are on the rim of the Communist world and under direct attack.”

The South Vietnamese Army is run by officers personally chosen by President Diem, not for their competence, but for their loyalty to him. Diem has instructed his officers that their primary mission is to protect him from any coups in Saigon.

A friend of mine, who fled Vietnam with his parents, told me in Paris its own story of life in South Vietnam: “-I was born in Saigon the day when the last Americans were escaping from Vietnam, tilting up their helicopters, burning their archives, running to their planes…I was born in this South, in full political turmoil, at the beginning of the country reunification. My father was a young promising student. He was marching against the autocratic President Diem and the American occupation. He was arrested and forced to fight in the American side against his own ideals. Life was absurd at that time.

The day I was born, he was on a boat in the middle of the Sea of China, serving in the grade of captain.. He had the choice between coming back to Saigon or going to the American base and leaving his wife and son for long. (…). When he returned to his ship, he was arrested. He was close of being sentenced to death and was sent to a labor camp for four years. Then, like many others, with the mark of having served for the Americans, we had no other choice that to flee from the country, that’s how I ended up in France at the age of eight”.

Taking as a pretext an alleged attack on a US destroyer in 1964, the US army strongly recommended a retaliatory bombing raid against North Vietnam. Is is now admited that the destroyer had in fact been involved in the South Vietnamese commando raids against North Vietnam and was not the victim of an “unprovoked” attack.

“Our response for the present will be limited and fitting. We still seek no wider war.” Opinion polls indicate 85 % of Americans support bombing Vietnam.

Hanoi child

US Defense Secretary McNamara stated “We shall provide whatever help is required to win the battle against the Communist insurgents.” The US now become focused on how to prevent a Communist victory in South Vietnam. The war moves to a proxy war with the USSR, against Communist ideology, with America’s global influence at stake. In 1965, USSR started providing the Viet Cong with heavy military weapons.

Paradoxally, the majority of bombs are dropped in South Vietnam against the Viet Cong positions, but killing also numerous civilians. The US will soon authorize the use of Napalm, a petroleum based bomb that burns everything around upon impact.

During a press conference, President Johnson said : “…I do not find it easy to send the flower of our youth, our finest young men, into battle. I have spoken to you today of the divisions and the forces and the battalions and the units, but I know them all, every one (…) I think I know, too, how their mothers weep and how their families sorrow.” He has been warned that American casualty rates of up to 1,000 dead per month could be expected.

In Chicago, 10,000 anti-war protesters are confronted by 26,000 policemen. 800 demonstrators have been injured. The government said that anti-war protests are “prolonging the war.”

One of the most controversial statements of the American war, was made by an American officer: “We had to destroy it, in order to save it,” referring to a city around Saigon bombed by American airforce. His statement was later used to sum up the American experience in Vietnam.

During the entire war, the U.S. dropped nearly 8 million tons of bombs, four times the tonnage dropped during all of World War II, blindly killing hundreds thousands of civilians.

Hanoi child 2

This is to show how people can be so easily manipulable by propaganda and ideology. The after war period in Vietnam was also very difficult. Poverty, starvation and repression against Southern Vietnamese forced millions people to flee Vietnam in the 80’ to the US or Europe, just like my Vietnamese friends in Paris did.

Images of the war are still present in elder people’s memory. But enough years have passed since then, the average visitor gets the same relaxed Asian atmosphere as in Laos or Thailand. With a very good value for money, Vietnam is fully able to cater to all kind of tourists, wether they like cultural sightseing or coconut cocktails in luxury beach resorts.

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  • © Sebastian Zelechowski, Moscow 2011
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