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.