Vietnam’s 40 Years of Peace and Dubious Prosperity

It is over now and the parades through the city are finished, but last week marked the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War and the Fall / Liberation of Saigon. In the lead-up there were all sorts of reminiscences over the war and long profile pieces on Vietnam today and how it looks back at the “American War.”

I was based in Hanoi for just over six years – 2006 to near the end of 2012 – as a magazine editor and later a foreign correspondent. There were always war stories and any advance in US-Vietnam diplomatic ties prompted the usual mentions of the war, as did, say, lawsuits against Dow for their role in manufacturing the chemical defoliant Agent Orange.

But the war was the preoccupation of the fly-in journalists and travel hacks who couldn’t go half a paragraph without the words “war-torn” or “formerly war-torn” or “formerly war-torn communist nation now enjoying unprecedented economic success.” The really clever ones would get excited by the KFC outlets, too.

For reporters working there day-to-day and for the general population it was that unprecedented economic success that preoccupied us. In the mid-2000s Vietnam had one of the highest growth rates in the region and our relentless cliché was “booming.” not war-torn. By 2010 that boom was beginning to quieten. Systemic corruption, lumbering state-owned enterprises and inefficiency were catching up. Shipbuilding SOE Vinashin defaulting on a US$600 million loan in December that year seemed somehow emblematic of both the rampant hopes and ultimate failures of Vietnam’s 21st Century boom times, or what the Wall Street Journal called a “poorly-policed transformation.”

Freedom of speech remains an issue and human rights are still an apparent barrier to closer relations with the United States, something Vietnam mostly wants to hedge against China while keeping relations with its large northern neighbor and staying friendly with everyone else, from the Philippines to Russia and India. There is also the visit by Party General Secretary Nguyen Phu Trong to the White House coming up. He has also been invited to visit Xi Jinping by Beijing. There have been plenty of high-level Vietnam-US meetings in recent years (2015 also marks the 20th anniversary of formal ties) but that between the head of the Communist Party and not the government is a new one.

With a Party Congress next year and opaque factional fighting from within, it’s an interesting time in Vietnam. Chinese aggression in the South China Sea last year got to the point where it caused domestic security and economic issues after rioting at what turned out to be Taiwanese-owned factories. Chinese businesses were boycotted and citizens evacuated. There is still, according to reports, a downturn in the Chinese sector of the tourist market.

Dissidents are happy to use the China issue and the alleged failure of government to “stand up” to China as a cloak to explore wider issues. Protests against Chinese incursions into Vietnam’s Exclusive Economic Zone in the South China Sea have been allowed over the past few years to send a message to Beijing, but they have been carefully managed. All this is the briefest précis, but this is the Vietnam of today and the war, that “American War,” does not figure in these issues.

What does the 40th anniversary mean in this context? The communists are still in power and there are speculations next year’s Congress may well see some sort of showdown between Party men and government, the two being separate entities and the latter far more business oriented. Keeping those in power where they are and managing public opinion to do this is important.

In this way the huge celebrations in Saigon (yes, it’s still called that) can at least remind the public: we won, we have peace and prosperity and if we beat one great power we have nothing to fear from China. Certainly the April 30 parade was a very old fashioned, communist affair with goose-stepping soldiers and varied ethnic minorities in traditional dress. As war-era reporter Donald Kirk wrote for Forbes, “You had to be a VIP or a journalist to witness the display… While state TV footage repeated the parade endlessly, nobody could get near the parade route, less than a mile long, without a pass.” Lucky then, that no one cared enough to want to get anywhere near the parade. For most it was business as usual, except for even worse traffic.

But still, the symbolism remains important to those in power. Vietnamese-American writer Nguyen Qui Duc wrote on the 35th anniversary, from his home in Hanoi:

“They sure like to make a big deal of that victory. And believe me, 35 years later, that victory—the ‘liberation of South Viet Nam’ and the ‘nation’s reunification’ is a big deal. Some say it’s just a way for the party to maintain moral authority. We did it. We defeated a big country. We reunified the nation. That just went on and on and on on the loudspeakers for most of April.”

May Day followed, which could reinforce the communist narrative but most people were just happy for a long weekend, especially given how many restaurants and shops offer specials and discounts.

Though I was watching from a distance the whole thing reminded me of the 2010 Millennium celebrations in Hanoi. A 10-day cycle of events was planned and mismanaged at every turn. They were greeted with deep cynicism by Hanoians who despaired at the wasted money and total inefficiency even as hundreds of people in the central coast areas lost their homes to floods and storms. It didn’t help that the giant cache of fireworks planned for the tenth and final day of events blew up days early and killed four, leaving a mushroom cloud across the southwest part of the city which blazed across social media but only made into the press briefly, before being pulled.

Younger people are not cynical about that war; they are curious. Their education regarding it was scarce. On the one hand a grand historical narrative and myth of selfless heroism and victory against the odds (very similar in that way to Australia’s Anzac myth and Gallipoli, minus the victory). On the other painstaking but banal detail: this much ordnance, this many troops. The gulf in between is hazy but they know what is in there is still “sensitive”. Not just the forced labour in malarial reeducation camps or the exodus by sea of so many, but even much of the context of what was first a civil war.

The death of General Giap, architect of earlier victory against the French, meant something to everyone. The events surrounding his funeral were respectful and somber. Anecdotally I heard the same thing from many friends, foreign and Vietnamese: Giap represented what was best in the national spirit and reminded people of a time when they might have been poor, but there was still a strong sense of community and sacrifice.

These days that seems gone in the headlong rush into capitalism and development. However the war-era nostalgia is actually older than that. Diplomat and author Ho Anh Thai was writing about it decades ago. His novella Behind the Red Mist imagines a young man sent back to 1967 to war-era Hanoi. He not only sees his parents’ courtship but learns more about the war no one talks about in his present-day Hanoi. What is striking in the story is the yearning for belief: back then people were prepared to undergo hardship or even death, because they believed in a cause, or their country. Now, wartime privations make a fun theme for a fashionable restaurant, or chain of cafes.

But in the end the conclusion seems to be the same: we have peace finally and prosperity. It shares the same shape as the official narrative, but the difference could be that people are willing to question parts further, when they’re not too busy making money.

Helen Clark, a contributor to Asia Sentinel, spent six years in Vietnam as an editor and foreign correspondent before returning to Australia last year. She wrote this for the Australian Institute of International Affairs