The Guardian • Issue #2011

Dispatches from the Socialist Republic of Vietnam

“Only in a socialist system are the interests of the individual, the state and the collective at one. That is why only a socialist constitution can encourage the citizens to fulfill enthusiastically their duties to the society and the fatherland … The capitalists often boast that their constitutions guarantee the rights of the individual, democratic liberties and the interests of all citizens. But in reality, only the bourgeoisie enjoy the rights recorded in these constitutions. The working people do not really enjoy democratic freedoms; they are exploited all their life and have to bear heavy burdens in the service of the exploiting class.”

Nguyen-Ai-Quac (Ho Chi Minh) “Report on the Draft Amended Constitution”, December 18th, 1959

Driving into Ho Chi Minh City one is immediately drawn into the vast complexities of Vietnam, the sheer eclecticism of its architecture. It changes so rapidly that mere moments after processing a thin ’70s style Vietnamese five-storey apartment block that towers over the neighbouring houses, you’re confronted by an enormous modern glass shopping complex situated next to some colonial-era French houses. The hammer and sickle flag lines the streets and houses alongside the golden star in the sea of red that is Vietnam’s national flag. The vast array of colours and shapes keeps your head turning in all directions, engaged in the impossible task of wanting to grasp all at once. These buildings provide a visual history of Vietnam’s colonial occupation, but also, more strongly, their own endurance and resistance to it amidst a city that is constantly reinventing itself.

Even the name Ho Chi Minh City contains the vast complexities of the country’s history – at once, amicable and politically charged. Upon the unification of Vietnam in 1975, its name was changed from Saigon to Ho Chi Minh City in honour of the man who led the struggle. The amicable, and practical, side to still referring to the city as Saigon is simply that it’s easier to say Saigonese than Ho Chi Minhese one person explained to me. The other, political, side is where the remnants of the North/South divide come to light. As another person elaborated, after unification there was some resentment in the South that the Communist Party didn’t let capitalist forces enter to “develop” the country, and instead opted to rely on the capacities of the Vietnamese people and other socialist countries like the USSR. Many Vietnamese students were sent abroad to learn technical skills like engineering and agriculture in various parts of the USSR before returning home to put them to use.

This sense of communal (re)construction permeates into other parts of life. An early morning stroll through the cities reveal the communal spirit of the country. In the public parks you’ll come across people of all ages gathered in groups to exercise before the workday starts. You can see the same phenomenon occur at lunch time and in the evenings where dance troupes practice their routines, solitary martial artists their forms, live music shows entertain crowds. It is similar when it comes to food. Everywhere you go, it feels like the whole city is cooking or making something. Workers will sit and eat together during lunch breaks on the little chairs that line the streets alongside groups of students. Juices of every variety and combination are available freshly squeezed along nearly every street, as are coconuts chopped open by machetes.

To cross the streets of Ho Chi Minh city takes a simple leap of faith. Step down from the footpath, look straight ahead, and maintain an even pace. No matter the hour, no matter the density of traffic, the seemingly endless stream of scooters will simply part around you like a school of fish. A moment’s hesitation or a change of pace drastically increases your chances of being hit. This contrast is the movement that animates the history of struggle, the fluidity of the masses around the steady pace of a concrete goal. The slightest hint of indecisiveness results in collision.

Upon traveling north to the capital, Hanoi, you’ll find yourself amongst the thousands of Vietnamese people who make the journey from all over the country to visit the mausoleum of Ho Chi Mihn. Being a man of few possessions, there isn’t actually much to see in the attached museum, even the Ho Chi Minh Museum in Nha Rong Port in Ho Chi Minh City is quite bare. Visitors can content themselves wandering around the old Presidential Palace grounds, a relic of the French colonialism Ho Chi Mihn so savagely and sardonically attacked in his early writings.

Snaking its way down the western side of the country is the Ho Chi Mihn trail. It is here that you can see the extraordinary lengths the North Vietnamese army went to transport weapons and supplies all the way to the Vietcong in the south. Rising into the clouds you begin to see some of the villages of Vietnam’s fifty-four ethnic communities. Vietnam provides free education and healthcare to these groups, and the children are taught in Vietnamese and speak their own language at home. Many of these languages don’t have written scripts so their existence depends on continued oral transmission. The children walk up the mountain on the side of the road in pristine uniforms, proudly clutching their backpacks.

Vietnam tells you as much about itself by what you don’t see as what you do. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic there are scarcely any foreign tourists in the major cities. You can spend entire days walking around and only see two or three other foreigners. In spite of this, the bars and restaurants are full, as are the main tourist destinations. Another striking aspect is that in these cities of millions there is next to no homelessness. According to the World Bank’s 2022 report, poverty in Vietnam over the past has declined from 16.8 per cent to 5 per cent, which lifted over 10 million people out of poverty, however a fair amount of economic vulnerability remains and this downward trend has significantly slowed down over the past two years due to the effects of the ongoing COVID-19 crisis. This nevertheless remains an enormous achievement.

The country still bears the scars of the Vietnam war and the preceding decades of colonial occupation. It is not uncommon to see victims of landmines, injuries inflicted during the war or in the following decades. Despite the ongoing, and extremely dangerous, efforts to clear the country, it is estimated that there are over three million landmines scattered across the country. In the War Remnants Museum the war crimes committed by US soldiers are on full, graphic display. Each room is dedicated to documenting different aspects of the war with extensive amounts of photography and video footage from both US and Vietnamese perspectives. Half of an entire floor is dedicated to the catastrophic effects of Agent Orange on the Vietnamese people, whose effects still impact children to this day. The final room of that section shows the various programs that have been implemented to assist people who have been affected. Drawings done by children line the walls which show both the horrors of war but also of an optimistic future. While primarily dedicated to the Vietnam war, the Museum also has some examples of the cruelty of the previous French occupation of what was then called French Indochina (comprising Vietnam, Cambodia, Laos, and the “leased” Chinese territory of Guangzhouwan). The French would enclose prisoners in barbed wire cages not big enough to stretch out in, prison cells deprived of light, and of course, the guillotine, used to execute people well into the early 20th century.

Vietnam is still in the process of recovering from these wounds. One particularly remarkable example of this is the Công Ty Tnhh Monkey Forest not far from Ho Chi Minh City. During the war, this dense mangrove forest was used by the Vietcong to effectively disrupt US supply lines into the city. The US army responded with its standard tactic of trying to level the forest. While being ultimately unsuccessful, they did manage to destroy an enormous part of it. Today, due to replantation efforts the area has been brought back to its original size. In its efforts to transfer over to renewable energy, Vietnam has invested heavily in the building of dams, with hydropower now generating some thirty-three per cent of the country’s energy. They are also in the process of harnessing wind power with twenty-three offshore wind farms currently in operation out of a total 118 in the process of being built along with inland wind farms.

There is much more that can be said and needs to be said about the Socialist Republic of Vietnam. This has been but a brief summary of what was a short trip. Thus it only seems fair if we began with Ho Chi Minh’s words, we ought to conclude with them. “To reap a return in ten years, plant trees. To reap a return in 100, cultivate the people” and “remember, the storm is a good opportunity for the pine and the cypress to show their strength and their stability.” One need not look hard to see these principles in action.

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