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April 04, 2017

Were You Communists?

Mary and I visited North and South Vietnam on two separate trips in the last couple of years. Couple of weeks as a tourist makes you an expert on exactly nothing but we did learn a lot.

In Hanoi there’s a war museum. The Vietnamese have been in lots of wars. Usually they win; sometimes they lose. When they lose, they keep fighting anyway. That‘s what happened to the French at Dien Bien Phu, a battle they lost after they’d “won” the war in Vietnam a couple of times. That defeat led to the French withdrawal and the partition along the 17th parallel and eventually American involvement.

Ho Chi Minh is the hero of the War Museum. However, there are gaps in the coverage of him. No mention, of course, of his Viet Minh forces cooperating with the French in 1945-46 to massacre other factions from the Vietnamese nationalist movement.  “The American War” is the last war in the long progression. It’s painful for Americans to see the Vietnamese view of it, even with the understanding that there’s no “good” view of what a war does to people. There’s plenty of propaganda and real anger in the exhibit; but no more than there is in the coverage of other former enemies, especially the French and the Japanese.

The North Vietnamese were friendly. They would’ve slightly preferred that we were Brits. But Americans are OK. Lots of countries have lost wars in Vietnam; can’t hate them all. And everyone does have a cousin in the US.

South Vietnam doesn’t talk as much about the “American War”. They still call their old capital by its colonial name, Saigon, and avoid the official name, Ho Chi Minh City. When necessary for administrative reasons, it’s “HCMC”. Many don’t like the North Vietnamese. The only angerI heard towards Americans was bitterness that we abandoned them. Remember the shameful picture of the last American’s leaving Saigon in a helicopter from the roof of a building near the US Embassy? They haven’t forgotten.

We met another American couple (Mary talks to people when we travel). From my PoV the man was stridently liberal and opinionated. But he did respond to (although not agree with) spirited but respectful disagreement. One day they had just come back from talking to some Vietnamese.

“We heard,” said the Vietnamese, “that there were huge protests in your country which led to the US pulling out of Vietnam”

“Yes, our acquaintances told us they said proudly. “We were part of those protests.”

“Were you communists?” the Vietnamese asked.

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