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Vietnam, Cambodia, et. al.

Vietnam: Then and Now

VIETNAM | Saturday, 22 November 2008 | Views [1129]

Mekong doll

Mekong doll

I first 'visited' Vietnam in 1968.  During my time 'in country' Richard Nixon was elected president, Neil Armstrong walked on the moon and the massacre at My Lai became public knowledge.  In the US (back in "The World' as the GIs called it) the camps were divided into "hell no, we won't go" and "America - love it or leave it!"

I was 21 and naive.  I didn't know what we were fighting for.  I didn’t even know how to say ‘hello,’ ‘good-bye,’ or ‘thank you’ in Vietnamese, only ‘come here,’ ‘go away’ and ‘stop.'  The bad guys were NVA, VC or plain Charlie and the rest of the Vietnamese were just "gooks." It's no wonder we weren’t winning many hearts and minds.  The Vietnamese just wanted peace, an end to the violence.  It didn’t matter if they had a democratic or a communist government as long as they could plant their rice and raise their children in safety. They wanted us to go away.

Before joining the army I had never traveled.  My world view was as narrow as could be.  I couldn’t understand why people would live the way the Vietnamese did … as if they had a choice!  There were no young men to be seen – gone to soldiers, every one. Women, elders and young kids worked the rice paddies.  Children wore only shirts, no pants, no shoes.  Adults dressed in black pajamas or sometimes ao dais for the women.  There were no houses, only roadside huts made from whatever; scraps of wood, cardboard, flattened cans.  The people carried on their lives seeming not to notice the war that raged around them.  Some people had bicycles, most walked.  Everything was carried in baskets suspended from a pole balanced across the shoulder or pushed along on loaded bicycles.  Young boys herded giant water buffaloes to the rice paddies.  And the smell of smoke and sewage was overpowering.  Highway 1 was unpaved, potholed and usually muddy.  There were remnants of a railway with trestle bridges blown up and bombed to pieces.

Forty years later I am a different person and Vietnam is a different place.  I have traveled in nearly 50 countries and have lived in some very primitive conditions.  I now realize that everyone has the same needs, the same dreams, and that often only an accident of birth separates us. 

21st Century Vietnam is vibrant and prospering.  It is a communist country that encourages free enterprise. Most of the people are between 17 and 30 years old.  Only 10% are paid-up party members.  Their lives are better than their parents' were and they expect even more for their children.  Education is compulsory and free to grade 12.  In every town you can see smiling kids in uniforms heading to school.

Many international companies have factories and offices in Vietnam.  Shops are stocked with goods, street vendors abound and food stalls line the streets.  There are 300,000 motorbikes in Hanoi alone.  Highway 1 is paved and the Reunification Express trains run on schedule from Hanoi to Ho Chi Minh City.  Tourism is big business; not many Americans but lots of Aussies, French, British and Germans. 

Vietnam isn't paradise.  Loudspeakers play patriotic music and inspirational speeches in the morning and afternoon.  People must attend regular party lectures and families are limited to two children.  If CNN broadcasts something critical of China or Vietnam a cartoon suddenly appears.  The minority tribes, the Hmong, Zao, Thai, and 50 others are "less equal" than the Vietnamese.  ARVN (South Vietnamese) veterans are pariahs; they can't get government jobs nor can their children.  As one young man told me the party can tell you what you can say but they can't control what you think.

Vietnam is still a poor country by Western standards.  But it is a country at peace and the people have hope.   Not a bad legacy for the future.


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