James Bauknecht has been a Fulbright exchange lecturer at Bury College in Manchester, England, and currently teaches English and world literature at a community college in Wisconsin.
Kieu viewed the way ahead with fear and doubt.
A storm-tossed rose . . . such was her future, all she’d ever be.”
The Tale of Kieu, Nguyen Du
Before we left for Vietnam in June of 1992, a Vietnamese friend from California (a Viet Kieu, or Vietnamese expatriate) told us to expect to find a country of people who were barbarians, thieves, or despairing idealists. “Trust no one,” she instructed. “And I really mean it,” she blurted out with an uncompromising wince. Unsettled by the apparent harshness of her comment, we interpreted her views as the excesses of an embittered expatriate. Undaunted, my wife, my daughter, and I set out to discover the land from which my wife, a Vietnamese refugee, had fled 17 years earlier. To our dismay, though we certainly did not encounter barbarians in Vietnam, we soon found ourselves unprepared for the disillusionments, the lies, and petty frauds perpetrated by many Vietnamese who live picaresque lives out of the sheer necessity to survive.
Our lesson about life in Vietnam was not long in coming. On the third day of our visit to Vietnam, we arrived in Vung Tau, a resort city on the southeast coast. Having rented a room at a government-owned hotel that boasted a pool and other modern conveniences, we discovered, to our mortification, that the pool contained slime that made it useless and dangerous, that our bathroom shower did not work, that two panes were missing from our room’s windows, and that the warped bathroom door not only would not shut, but had no knob either. Believing the hotel management had made an error in assigning us a room, we talked to other tenants, only to discover that most of the rooms of this year-old hotel, were, in full view of management, equally in disrepair. This and many other similar experiences began to suggest the structure of the society into which we had plunged.
Indeed, the harshness and distrust that characterize Vietnamese society today owe to three principal causes: a devastated economy that has produced a vicious and ubiquitous poverty, a corrupt and oppressive Communist government, and an ancient and equally oppressive class system.
Though poverty is not the most fundamental problem in Vietnam, it is the most visible. Never a wealthy country, Vietnam today is, by any standards, impoverished. GNP per capita in 1990, the latest reported year, fell to $230 (compared to $21,800 for the U.S. in the same year). Most laborers work for less than $20 per month, and beggars and crime abound. The infrastructure has deteriorated consistently since 1975; most buildings, public works, and manufacturing equipment have fallen into decay. Cars are few, while Honda motorbikes, inexpensive Chinese bicycles, and trishaws constitute the bulk of the traffic. Sanitation and health care are woefully inadequate, and the booming population outstrips the country’s efforts to feed and clothe itself adequately. With an area of 127,000 square miles, only 80 percent the size of California, Vietnam today holds 69 million people (20 million more than in 1975), and the country maintains its traditional population growth rate which, if unabated, will result in a doubling of today’s population within 31 years.
Large parts of Ho Chi Minh City, the renowned “pearl of the Orient” under its former name of Saigon, are mass slums, where millions of unemployed or marginally employed people live in hovels at night and loiter on the streets during the day. Overflowing with six million residents (compared to 3.5 million in 1975), Ho Chi Minh City gives the impression of a maze of dingy alleys and crowded hovels. Despite these bleak circumstances, we found the intelligence, the ingenuity, and the dedication to hard work of the Vietnamese people everywhere evident. Though living at subsistence level, Vietnamese impressed us by the ingeniousness with which they earn a meal or a few piasters. A scale (albeit a marginally accurate one) earned its owner, who weighed pedestrians at the city zoo, about 30 cents a day. In like fashion, families worked long hours making and selling bamboo brooms and mats. However admirable, such initiatives cannot undo the deprivation of years spent under a dysfunctional Marxist economy that, with the U.S. trade embargo and the recent loss of the yearly two billion dollars of Soviet aid, has teetered on collapse.
Winning the War, Losing the Peace
The Communists in Vietnam won the war, but they lost the peace. Their revolution, though a clear military success, changed very little the way in which Vietnamese relate to each other. In fact, the Communists replaced a semi-feudal ruling class with a less educated and even more oppressive class of party bureaucrats, politicians, and military rulers. Privilege, bribery, intimidation, and personal favors remain the primary mechanisms of political power and economic advantage.
In Ho Chi Minh City we visited the home of a relative, only to find that he no longer lived there. After we had located our relative, he told us, with a tone that vacillated between resignation and thinly veiled hatred, that he had been forced to exchange homes with a party cadre. He had left his middle-class home for a cadre’s hovel without even a word of complaint. For like the masses of Vietnamese who have no meaningful mechanism by which they can assert political power, this elderly gentleman knew that protest would have landed him in jail. He sighed that his fate, like the fate of Kieu, the literary heroine, was to suffer injustice with a stoic forbearance.
Vietnam is not now, nor was it under the republic, a society in which the rule of law is supreme. Local officials, like some of their republican predecessors, flagrantly contrive legal problems and even make arrests in order to secure bribes with which they support themselves. In what is tantamount to a government-run protection racket, hotels are routinely raided in the dead of night, and cars arbitrarily stopped and searched, in order to coerce their owners into bribing the police. In the former French resort city of Da Lat, for example, our car was stopped twice by policemen for no apparent reason. On both occasions, the Vietnamese driver (whom we had to hire because foreigners are prohibited from driving) was pulled aside and asked who his passengers were. Lying, he declared that we were French, then paid the $3 bribe demanded by the police. Later he told us that had he disclosed that we were American, the cost would have been $10 each time.
The Tyranny of the Marxist Elite
Marxist rule in Vietnam will leave a political legacy of concentration camps, policies that forced people into near starvation in the so-called “economic zones,” and other acts of domination by humiliation that constituted the coin of the realm. Over a “333" beer or a meal, most people in Vietnam have a tale of oppression to tell. In Ho Chi Minh City we met a Mr. Thuy and his family of six who, many years earlier, had been forced into the countryside to help develop new economic zones in uncleared jungles and rugged mountains. Thuy’s family, like many others, were left on their own (often without sufficient tools and supplies) to establish new agricultural areas and communities. Unable to grow sufficient food under these primitive conditions, they often subsisted at the brink of starvation. Years later, covertly returning to Ho Chi Minh City under the darkness of night, the family found refuge on the grounds of a pagoda, where they lived in a thatched shack 100 square feet in area. Since they were illegally living in the capital, they were not issued ration cards that would have allowed them to buy food and clothing, nor were Thuy and his wife able to find legal employment. They survived only because of the generosity of a Buddhist monk, and even today they live without furniture, save one old set of bed springs and two chairs.
Beginning in 1987, the Marxist elite, perhaps sensing both that socialism around the world was on the wane and that its own power would eventually be challenged, adroitly sought to remain in power by granting a limited capitalism which, once profitable, would provide, they hoped, the wealth upon which they themselves could live. Today, the Marxist elite, by means of military and political threats and intimidation, control the incipient wealth the new capitalism produces. No business can be conducted without the entrepreneur having to bribe the secret police. No government service can be had without the probability that the government worker will demand a bribe. Examples of this type of conduct abound. When we mailed a package from Ho Chi Minh City to Hanoi, we had to pay the clerks at the main post office $5 so that they would not loot the contents. They provided us the next day with a receipt that listed the mailing price at 51,000 piasters ($4) below the actual price we were forced to pay. Presumably, they pocketed the difference.
In Da Lat in the central highlands, we sought out several hotels that Vietnamese friends had recommended to us. To our surprise, the proprietors of these hotels were forbidden to rent to foreigners, and we were directed to stay at much more expensive ($36 a day), though lesser quality, government-owned establishments. Nonetheless, after much searching, we located a hotel that was privately owned, but which had informal government connections that allowed it to rent to foreigners at a cost midway ($12 a day) between the official government rate and the much lower private sector rate ($3 a day).
We found amazing the extent to which corrupt officials would go to maintain the pretense of respectability. Even though they implicitly demand bribes, they expect the bribe to be offered with subtlety, if not civility. The Vietnamese cultural expectation is that all parties to a bribe tacitly agree to maintain the fiction of propriety. We witnessed first hand how customs officials at Tan Son Nhut airport in Ho Chi Minh City were caught unaware when an Englishman, arriving on the same flight as we did, indignantly and loudly protested at being asked for a bribe. He threatened to march back into the plane, and as officials were confiscating our family’s VHS video tapes (we, too, refused to pay the bribe), he was asked to enter an interview room to continue the argument. In our thoughts, we wished him well.
A Rigid Hierarchy Prevails
Vietnam has always been a society of fairly rigid classes that are perpetuated mainly by inheritance. Of the four traditional classes, the mandarins and scholars, the elite class, have held authority over the farmers, the artisans, and the merchants. Students born of the masses who were successful in civil service exams could advance to the scholarly class, but such mobility was rare, and people, generation after generation, almost universally remained in the class of their ancestors. These class distinctions, while not constituting a caste system, designate more than simply a hierarchy of economic divisions. A Vietnamese woman, a former maid in Vietnam who now resides in the United States, told me that in America a maid holds a low-paying, unskilled, and thankless job, but can hope to better herself. In Vietnam, she complained bitterly, society marks a maid as an inherently inferior person, and she can expect only a life of drudgery, twelve-hour work days, and severely limited social mobility. Today, the Communists have replaced one elite with another, but this same notion of hierarchy by family background, though now a matter of ideological commitment, still remains. As the new elite, Communist officials and their families occupy the best homes and have priority in acquiring education and good jobs. Communism, in broad outlines, became a mirror of the society it sought to topple.
The final impression we gathered as we traveled the breadth and width of Vietnam is that of a land of immense physical beauty and resources whose common people, by sharp contrast, face a brutality of everyday life. The concrete ills of hunger, disease, and despair weigh down a people of inherent resilience, ingenuity, and dedication to family. Ironically, the people of Vietnam find themselves in an economic and political no man’s land. Since the Communist government in 1987 stopped meeting its responsibilities to provide universal higher education and health care—which subsequently became the duty of each individual—the citizens of Vietnam have had to fend for themselves in a society that offers none of the alleged benefits of socialism nor the economic and political freedom of the western democracies.
The poorest and most helpless citizens suffer the most. The most daunting image we retain from our travels is that of the many double or triple amputees found throughout Vietnam. The most fortunate have a family capable of supporting them, while the rest are forced to beg. Cup in hand and unable to walk, Minh, the double amputee outside our hotel in Ho Chi Minh City, strove daily to pull himself with his arms alone, up and down the block. He had no shirt, and his skin, no match for the cement of the street, showed the chafing and scars of years of begging.
Our Vietnamese friend’s statement contains some truth; Vietnam is a society of distrust, the social and political origins of which are painfully clear. In a land of bribery, oppression, and mass poverty, few Vietnamese trust others outside their immediate family, even in trivial matters. But what the future holds for Vietnam depends upon the willingness of this culture to free the vast majority of its people to realize their potentials and desires. Many intellectuals and businessmen in Vietnam expect the Communist government to collapse within three years, though it still holds a tight fist on the country. The old class system, in turn, as well as the historic disregard for the rule of law apart from privilege, will need to be modified or discarded if the Vietnamese, no longer a rose tossed by the storms of war and foreign domination, are to defy the perception of an unyielding, bitter fate and, thereby, to flower in the modern world.
- The Tale of Kieu, Nguyen Du. Translated by Huynh Sanh Thong (New York: Vintage Books, 1973).
- The World Almanac and Book of Facts, 1993 (New York: World Almanac Publishing, 1992), pp. 811-813.
- Population Reports Supplement (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University, 1992).
- The population figure for 1975 is from Collier’s Encyclopedia, Volume 23 (New York: Macmillan Publishing Co., 1987), p. 133.
- Mr. Thuy is a pseudonym employed to protect the family’s identity.
- “Students and Girls in Vietnam seen Through Popular Songs,” Le Hung Chuong. Published in We, the Vietnamese, edited by François Sully (New York: Praeger Publishers, 1971).