Postcard from Vietnam


Two subjects kept coming back to me during my recent 12 day visit to Vietnam. One was the vitality, confidence and determination of the people who, for over 2000 years, have withstood the Chinese, the Mongols, the French and the Americans. The second was the comparisons with the Vietnam I first saw in 1966 at the height of the American War, as the Vietnamese call it, and the parallels today with that other tragedy of our time, Iraq.

Scarcely without exception, I was impressed with the courtesy and friendliness of everyone I met. I found the Vietnamese a very distinguished people, highly literate, determined and happy with who they are. They are transforming Vietnam.

At the end of the American War, Vietnam had 45 million people. It now has over 80 million. In the slipstream of the world economy, it is growing at 7 to 8 per cent each year. Even the supporters of the old regime in the South concede the great social and economic gains since 1975. Motor scooters have replaced the bicycles I saw in 1966 carrying both produce and people. But can they avoid the destruction of their cities that cars are likely to bring? The World Bank has estimated that 75 per cent of urban hospital funds in Vietnam go to the victims of road accidents!

Its lacklustre political leadership still lives safely in the shadow of its heroic earlier leaders. But can it change as the Vietnamese inevitably demand more freedom along with their burgeoning prosperity?

Vietnam is not just another Asian tiger on the path of industrialisation. So far, the beautiful, old French buildings and districts have been maintained and cities are mercifully free of McDonald’s and Starbucks. The Vietnamese government will enjoy the benefits of globalisation, but on its own terms

The government encourages its people to move on and put the American War behind them, but I sensed that very few have really forgiven and forgotten what the Americans, and we, did. The focus is on current domestic problems. Not surprisingly, international terrorism scarcely gets a mention, but bird flu dominated the government-controlled and party media.

The same strength which they have brought to bear over the last 2000 years to resist foreign occupation and division is obvious in their quiet determination. I saw taxi drivers who showed me what the work ethic is really about pushing their taxis by hand in the queue at the airport to save petrol. But the country has a default mode: ‘Push us too far, offend our national pride, and we will be the most resolute people you have ever met.’

I visited Baria, the large town near where the Australian Task Force was based during the war, at Nui Dat. It now boasts a large shopping mall, not quite the size of Westfields, but infinitely more people-friendly. The Australian soldiers of 30 years ago could not have imagined the prosperity that is everywhere around Baria.

We drove through Hoa Long, a small village that was at the front gate of the Australian Task Force base. The Australian Army never won the hearts and minds of this village. It was my experience visiting that village in 1966 that persuaded me that overwhelming military power would not win the war.

During our futile intervention in Phuc Tuy province, over 500 Australians and tens of thousands of Vietnamese died. It wasn’t only our political leaders who blundered. Australian military strategists decided to plant 30,000 land mines to keep the Vietcong ‘out’. But the problem was that the Vietcong were already ‘inside’. Most of the land mines were disarmed and re-laid by the Vietcong. They proved to be the biggest single cause of casualties for Australian soldiers.

On another stay in Vietnam in 1996, I made a day’s visit outside Hanoi. I had never seen so many graves and war cemeteries. These were principally memorials to the Vietnamese who had died in the war against the French. Another three million died opposing the American occupation. The death toll from land mines and Agent Orange is still unfolding. I may never visit Iraq, but in 10 years time, I expect travellers will find the same mass graves around Baghdad. We are not told about them. Iraqi civilian deaths are not counted.

Won’t we ever learn? We are repeating today in Iraq the same mistakes we made in Vietnam. In both cases, we have been ignorant of their rich history and culture.

At almost every step in Vietnam, I got an insight into that cultural life. The Temple of Literature in Hanoi, for instance, was founded in 1076 to educate the sons of Mandarins in Confucian scholarship. Doctorates are listed in stone from 1442. In declaring war on them, we ignored the sense of unity and tradition which their history gave them. In Iraq, part of the cradle of our civilisation, we again ignore the lessons of history. Does ‘finishing the job’ in Iraq mean the election of a Shi’a Government allied to Iran the very thing that Western governments have been trying to avoid for over 100 years?

In Vietnam, we were misled into war by the Tonkin Gulf incident. In Iraq it was weapons of mass destruction.

One difference between our Vietnam and Iraq interventions is that the media is even more embedded with power than ever before. At the Unification Palace in Ho Chi Minh City I saw and heard on video the Vietnamese account of their victory over the Americans. It was easy to pick the propaganda. It is not so easy to pick the propaganda of our own side.

In our defence of freedom, we had strange allies in Vietnam. In 1966, I sat next to Colonel Nguyen Ngoc Loan, the Head of South Vietnamese security, at a dinner at the Australian Embassy in Saigon. Two years later, my reservations about Colonel Loan, were confirmed when I saw the TV footage of him holding his pistol to the head of a Vietcong suspect during the Tet Offensive of February 1968, and shooting him in cold blood.

But despite the mistakes and injustices inflicted on the Vietnamese people, I am confident that their resilience will not be denied. I hope the same is true of the Iraqis.

The most inspiring part of my recent visit was the Saturday night vigil mass at the Hanoi Cathedral. It was a thrill to feel part of a universal church that was throbbing with life. The dreary exterior of the church badly needs large applications of steel wool, but inside, there was colour and light everywhere. The walls were soft green and behind the alter was a wall of red and gold. Even more colourful were the hymns and prayers of a large and faithful community.

The priest was the facilitator, but the enthusiasm came from the congregation an elderly woman robustly leading the saying of the rosary before mass, a beautiful young girl in her white ao dai reading from the scriptures, and a young cantor leading a church full of clear and confident voices.

So often these days, the church is bad news, but in Hanoi the faithful renewed my spirits. Ecclesiastical power, like civil power, is so often misused, but I sensed in Hanoi that the faithful, as in so many countries, keep tugging the church back to its truest and best.

After mass, the taxi driver said that it would cost $US2, rather than the usual $US1 to take us back to the hotel. We remonstrated as best we could that it wasn’t good form to be price gouging outside the cathedral! The taxi driver laughingly pointed to a St Christopher medallion in his cab and drove us cheerfully to the hotel. We gave him $US2. We had good value that evening.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.