– visited May 2015 –
Crossing the border brings an immediate change. Suddenly, every speck of land seems to be used for intensive agriculture or fish farming. The river we cross is full of fishing boats. Things seem a lot more hectic.
The Mekong River runs 4,350 kilometres from the Tibetan Plateau through China, Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia before discharging its water into the South China Sea in the Mekong Delta through a network of distributaries. Many of them are linked by canals and for centuries boats have been the transportation of choice in the delta. That has changed in the last years. Bridges have been built and suddenly the networks of river transport has stopped. Many goods are still transported on the river but people travel by bus nowadays.
Boats are still running but not the crammed ferries of yesterday but the luxury variations for tourists. The river is still a lifeline and a journey on it an experience. The boat is beautiful, the food is perfect and our guide an apprentice. He is supposed to take the lead but has a more experienced guide at his side to help him out and probably also to rate him. He is super-nice and super-likeable but his English sometimes lets him down.
Vietnam was first divided on a whim. Alongside the Potsdam Conference in July 1945, where the USSR, the USA and the UK met to sort out the world after/during the devastation of World War II, it was decided to divide the country along the 16th parallel. At that time, World War II in the Pacific theatre was still ongoing as Japan would only surrender in September. North of the 16th parallel the Chinese forces of Chiang Kai-Shek were supposed to take control, south of the 16th British forces were to secure the territory. The partition was seen as meaningless as there was agreement that France was the “rightful owner” of French Indochina, France was just a bit weak at the moment. The Viet Minh (League for the Independence of Vietnam) wanted to have none of that. Founded in the mid-1930s, when Vietnamese nationalist parties formed an anti-imperialist united front, it had quickly lost its importance but had been revived under the leadership of the Indochinese Communist Party in 1941. In the Northern half, the Viet Minh was able to establish their dominance and on the 2nd of September 1945, the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was proclaimed. In the southern part, British forces (reinforced by French citizens and perversely by Japanese soldiers) gained the upper hand against the Viet Minh. By January 1946, the situation was largely peaceful.
But France wanted to get back into control, French advancements into the North led to the so-called First Indochina War that lasted from December 1946 to August 1954. It ended with the retreat of the French. Cambodia and Laos were established as independent states and Vietnam was again divided. This time along the 17th parallel. North of it was the now recognized Democratic Republic of Vietnam (communist) and south of it the State of Vietnam (non-communist). That partition should be temporary as a general election was to be held in July 1956 that would lead to a unified country. There was no agreement under which framework these elections should be organized nor a plan how the elections would lead to a unified country. The French wanted to get out and were not concerned if the plan for the future was realistic or not. At least the guns were silent.
Both Vietnams were ruled by authoritarians who claimed election victories in the 98 and 99 percent region. The authoritarian rulers in the North were more popular though as they had always been anti-imperialist whereas the rulers of the South were relying on foreign support. The North had also instituted a land reform that had proved popular whereas the government of the South brought the landlords back to the villages. A widespread but low-level communist insurgency in the South had started with the French retreat but had been pacified by 1957. At the end of the 1950s, as it became clear that the planned general elections would never happen, the North started efforts to fan and directly support an insurgency in the South. Amassing more power was more important than having people lead a decent live. To travel over the Ho Chi Minh trail through Laos, the only way to reach the battlefields of the South, took four months of hiking over rough terrain. I am always amazed/shocked how some people (Ho Chi Minh in this case) manage to convince other people that to leave their family behind, to carry weapons, ammunition and other equipment through the jungle and over the mountains just to face fighting and the constant danger of death, is the thing they want to do the most. Meanwhile the leaders sit in their secure and comfortable residences. The overall picture of the conflict was, that the communist North looked stronger than the South.
At that time, the whole world was caught in the communist – non-communist dichotomy. Belonging to one side was paramount and both sides believed that their path was the only way to salvation. The fate of the people involved in all these decisions was of a lesser importance. They were the pawns on the chessboard. Don’t get me wrong. I do believe that a capitalist system, with strong social safeguards, is a lot better for a society, than the authoritarian communism we have seen in numerous countries around the world. As such, I am fairly happy with how things are in my native Germany. I do question though the wisdom of elevating one system over the other without acknowledging the weaknesses of the system one is promoting. Too often, decisions have been made according to the dictum that the ruler in question “may be a son of a bitch, but he’s our son of a bitch”. (That quote has been attributed to U.S. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt but there is no proof of that.) In reality, the problem is, that the ruler in question behaves like a “son of a bitch” and it doesn’t matter if he is “ours” or “theirs”, if he is communist or capitalist. If he behaves like a “son of a bitch”, he is the problem and should go.
Back to Vietnam. In the U.S. a young and popular president, John F. Kennedy, had assumed power in January 1961. If it sounds like an oxymoron to claim to come back to Vietnam and then add a sentence about a U.S. President, it is not. Crucial decisions about the future of Vietnam were made outside of Vietnam. Three months into Kennedy’s term, the Bay of Pigs Invasion (Cuban exiles trying to overthrow Fidel Castro), that he had approved, failed disastrously. In June, Kennedy met with Soviet leader Nikita Krushchev and came away angry and disappointed. He told a journalist: “Now we have a problem making our power credible and Vietnam looks like the place.”
Kennedy did not want to fight the war with US forces but he wanted to assist the Republic of Vietnam in its struggle with the communist Democratic Republic of Vietnam. At the time of Kennedy’s assassination in 1963, 16,000 American military personnel were stationed in Vietnam compared to 900 advisors at the time he took office. His successor, Lyndon B. Johnson slipped on the slippery slope. To add more US troops would guarantee victory and shorten the conflict so why not send the troops. As the additional forces proved unable to solve the conflict the same idea appeared again, and again, and again. At the height of the fighting in 1969, 543,000 American soldiers were deployed to Vietnam. Opposition to the war grew. The war came to an end in 1975 with the victory of the North. Vietnam had seen 30 years of warfare.
The scale of the fighting was enormous, estimates of the number of Vietnamese soldiers and civilians killed vary from 966,000 to 3.8 million. About 60,000 U.S. service members had died in the conflict. As the war had spread into Cambodia and Laos it also claimed the lives of 275,000–310,000 Cambodians and 20,000–62,000 Laotians. The numbers of the dead do not portray the full suffering. The fighting was vicious, the number of badly injured people high. A large number of war crimes took place. They were committed by both sides during the conflict and included rape, massacres of civilians, bombings of civilian targets, terrorism, the widespread use of torture, and the murder of prisoners of war. U.S. forces dropped over 7 million tons of bombs on Indochina during the war, that is more than triple the amount than during all of World War II. 400,000 tons of Napalm, which causes devasting fires were used. The Viet Cong fighters hid under the dense foliage of Vietnam’s tropical environment and soon the idea developed that something should be done against this dense foliage. The answer was “Operation Ranch Hand” in which 76 million litres of defoliants and herbicides (Agent Orange and others) were sprayed over South Vietnam. The defoliants and herbicides were not poisonous by themselves (they just destroyed crops) but nearly half of it contained dioxin, a well-known human carcinogen. Estimates go that more than one million Vietnamese suffer from health effects caused by Operation Ranch Hand; 100,000 children have been born with birth defects. Still today, some areas of Vietnam are full of unexploded ordinance from the conflict.
In 1976, North and South Vietnam were merged into the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, which it remains up until this day. Beginning in 1986, reformist politicians implemented a series of free-market reforms and while still claiming to be a Marxist-Leninist socialist republic, Vietnam combines that with a vibrant capitalist economy. Relations with the United States have greatly improved, at Saigon’s airport we spot a transport plane of the U.S. Air Force, the former enemy.
People repeatedly told me/us, for half the time in Vietnam I was still travelling with my friend Lisa, that the North and the South are still very different. I could not check that; Vietnam is a big country and I did not get further north than the former demilitarized zone between the two halves. I will have to come back another time for northern Vietnam.
Ho Chi Minh City
Ho Chi Minh City, commonly referred to by its old name of Saigon, is Vietnams economic and financial centre. Hanoi in the North is its capital. Saigon is hectic and traffic is heavy, at one point we think about taking a taxi just to cross the street, seems easier than to brave the traffic. We arrive a few days after the celebrations for the 40th anniversary of the end of the Vietnam War, Vietnam is strong at propaganda, many posters line the streets. Saigon is a mix of all, colonial masterpieces, modern skyscrapers, scruffy apartment blocks; churches, mosques, Taoist temples. We visit the former presidential palace, the War Remnants Museum (plenty of artefacts) and the Jade Emperor Pagoda.
Da Lat and Mui Ne
Da Lat is located on an altitude of 1,502 metres and a popular tourist destination because of the cooler climate. We hike to the top of Lang Bian Mountain, explore the cheesy theme park “Valley of Love”, the Hang Nga Guesthouse, commonly referred to as the Crazy House and the former palace of the Vietnamese King.
Mui Ne is the total contrast, from the mountains to the sea. Beautiful beaches, many Russian tourists and plenty of kitesurfing. The Red Sand Dunes try to hide, but in the end we manage to find them.
Hoi An & Around
Hoi An’s old town is recognized as an exceptionally well-preserved example of a Southeast Asian trading port dating from the 15th to the 19th century, its buildings and street plan reflecting a blend of indigenous and foreign influences. It is very beautiful, but very touristy.
I rent a motorbike to get to My Son, a number of abandoned and partially ruined Hindu temples in the backcountry. The old lady fills up my tank, she smiles at me all the time and then quotes a massively inflated price. We need to negotiate. The Marble Mountains are a cluster of five abruptly rising marble and limestone hills. The summit of Thuy Son can be climbed. Caves, some of them of considerable size, contain Buddhist and Taoist statues.
Hue was the capital of various Vietnamese dynasties up until 1945. Unfortunately, the Battle of Hue was one of the longest and bloodiest of the whole Vietnam War. The destruction was massive and only small parts of the Imperial City have been restored.
Outside of Hue, along the Perfume River, lie other monuments, including the beautiful tombs of several emperors. Also notable is the Thien Mu Pagoda, the official symbol of the city.
Former Demilitarized Zone
On the train to Dong Ha, I happen to sit next to Thai who turns out to be an English teacher. He invites me to meet some of his friends in the evening. I like the down-to-earth Vietnamese restaurants for their no-nonsense manner. If a group of people comes, the waiters come and bring a box with 20 beers. If you need one, you take one. In the end, it is calculated how many beers are gone. If you have finished one, you throw it on the floor. The floor is tiled and gets cleaned frequently.
The Demilitarized Zone existed from 1954 to 1976 to keep the warring parties apart. It follows the Ben Hai River, that empties into the sea at nearly exactly the 17th parallel, up until the Laotian border. Despite its name, the zone saw heavy fighting. Walking outside marked tracks can still be dangerous because of numerous unexploded ordnances. The Mine Action Centre gives advice on how to spot them. I visit numerous war cemeteries, the famous Hien Luong Bridge that was the link between the two halves of the country and the Vinh Moc tunnels, where Vet Cong fighters hid and tried to find their way through the zone.
The girl seems desperate. I have brought plenty of letters into the post office. Fabulous postcards are sold in Vietnam. From the outside they look plain but when you open them, an elaborate tree, an elephant or a delicate ferries wheel, complete with gondolas, rises up. They are wonderful and can be bought for ridiculously low prices in touristic centres. I bought plenty. Some of them are smaller and some bigger. The small ones need eight stamps each to be send to Europe but the big ones fall outside the norms. What to do with them? She doesn’t know, a phone call does not help and although she speaks okay English, she doesn’t really want to tell me what the problem is. I just see that things are not moving forward and she does not seem to know what to do. I rescue her: “Is it better if I take these with me again?” “Yes”, she seems happy.