I recently visited Vietnam, primarily because of my interest in its history—and in particular the two Vietnam wars of the 20th century, the first one pitting the Viet Minh against the French and their local allies, the second pitting North Vietnam and the Viet Cong against the United States and South Vietnam. In the process of traveling across the country, from Hanoi in the north, to Hue in the center, and Ho Chi Minh City (née Saigon) in the south, I also learned something of its current achievements and challenges.
There are plentiful reminders of both the French and American epochs, ranging from the graceful colonial-era Metropole Hotel in Hanoi to the Cu Chi tunnels near Saigon, once used by the Viet Cong, now a tourist attraction. Despite economic reforms that began in the mid-1980s, Vietnam remains very much a Communist dictatorship, and the regime seeks to buttress its legitimacy by stressing its role in defeating the designs of America and France.
The American War Crimes Museum in Ho Chi Minh City may have been renamed the more-neutral-sounding War Remnants Museum in deference to the growing closeness between Hanoi and Washington, but it remains a stronghold of anti-American propaganda. The exhibits focus almost exclusively on supposed atrocities carried out by U.S. forces—some of them real (e.g., My Lai), -others vastly exaggerated or concocted out of whole cloth. The walls are studded with quotations from the likes of the left-wing British philosopher Bertrand Russell condemning American conduct.
An entire wing is focused on the ravages of Agent Orange, the defoliant sprayed by U.S. forces in the 1960s, which the Vietnamese government now blames for seemingly every birth defect in the country. (The Obama administration has just agreed to help clean up the soil for chemical contamination near the former U.S. airbase at Da Nang without admitting any responsibility for maladies supposedly tied to Agent Orange.) Needless to say, not a single exhibit alludes to Communist atrocities, such as the murder of thousands of South Vietnamese civilians when Communist forces briefly captured the city of Hue during the 1968 Tet Offensive.
At the modernist presidential palace once occupied by South Vietnamese presidents, exhibits glorify the North Vietnamese soldiers who broke down the gates in 1975 in their Soviet-made tank. There is no mention of the millions of South Vietnamese who subsequently wound up in “reeducation camps” or on leaky rafts as “boat people.”
While the War Remnants emphasizes Vietnamese-as-victims, the exhibits at the Cu Chi tunnels, where Viet Cong guerrillas took refuge underground after striking at South Vietnamese and American forces, tell of Vietnamese-as-fierce-fighters. A television set even plays an endless loop of a 1960s Communist prop-aganda film that glorifies the Viet Cong without, of course, mentioning their close ties to the North Vietnamese regime.
Meanwhile, at the grim Hoa Lo prison known to American POWs as the Hanoi Hilton, there is an absurd dichotomy: The prison accurately depicts the torments inflicted by French captors on Vietnamese political prisoners, while inaccurately sugarcoating the treatment of American military prisoners by their Vietnamese captors. A plaque informs visitors (not altogether grammatically): “During the war the national economy was difficult but Vietnamese government had created the best living conditions to US pilots for they had a stable life during the temporary detention period.” Well, that’s one way to describe the hellish tortures that John McCain, James Stockdale, and other POWs endured.
Yet it was striking to me that I saw no Vietnamese visitors at the War Remnants Museum, the Cu Chi tunnels, or Hoa Lo prison—everyone there was a foreigner like me. It was a different story at the imposing Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum in Hanoi, where the bulk of the visitors were Vietnamese coming to gawk at Ho’s embalmed corpse (or possibly a wax dummy). The mausoleum lies next to the modest house on stilts where Ho lived and worked as North Vietnam’s president. Admittedly, many of the Vietnamese were school children on compulsory tours, but there is little doubt that there is a deep well of affection for “Uncle Ho,” who was, by the standards of the world’s dictators, uncommonly modest and self-effacing. (He would have hated the Lenin-style mausoleum built and maintained with Russian help—he had requested to have a simple cremation.)
By contrast, there appears to be relatively little interest among the population in the two Vietnam wars—hardly surprising since the median age in Vietnam is 28, meaning that the bulk of the population regards the conflicts as ancient history.
The same day that I visited the Cu Chi tunnels and the War Remnants Museum, I also stopped to get an iced coffee in Saigon, as many Vietnamese still refer to the country’s biggest city. My coffee (and a good one it was) came from a place called NYDC, short for “New York Desert Café.” It was decorated with pictures of the Statue of Liberty and other American icons. A TV showed Ice Age with Vietnamese subtitles, while hordes of trendy young people huddled around their iPads and cheesecakes. Next-door The Coffee Bean, an American franchise, was just as mobbed.
There is something symbolic about the fact that young, urban Vietnamese are drinking up American
culture, while their government continues to adhere to the party line about the evils of American “imperialism” and “aggression.” Even that line is softening as Hanoi realizes that it needs Washington’s help against Vietnam’s historic enemy and longtime occupier—China. What’s not changing is one-party rule, which remains as stultifying as ever despite decades of economic liberalization. As Human Rights Watch notes:
The Vietnamese government systematically suppresses freedom of expression, association, and peaceful assembly. Independent writers, bloggers, and rights activists who
question government policies, expose official corruption, or call for democratic alternatives to one-party rule are routinely subject to police harassment and intrusive surveillance, detained incommunicado for long periods of time without access to legal counsel, and sentenced to increasingly long terms in prison for violating vague national security laws.
Recently, with the country facing declining rates of growth, a credit crunch, and a housing bubble, the government has turned its wrath on rich businesspeople presiding over businesses that are heavily in debt and failing. They are being arrested and tried for a variety of offenses, real or not, that were tolerated during the boom years. It is hard to know what to make of such arrests since, as in China, there is absolutely no transparency and much corruption. The Communist party elite in Vietnam is closely involved in business affairs; the arrests could reflect shifting fortunes in the Politburo, with the business allies of some leaders suffering for their declining political fortunes. Or the arrests could simply be an attempt to palliate public anger about slowing growth.
Western expatriates I spoke with in Ho Chi Minh City said they were amazed by the off-the-charts corruption prevalent throughout Vietnam; just as in China, this is holding back the country’s long-term development. The rule of law is non‑existent. Instead there is the rule of the well connected. It is impossible to operate a business of any size without cultivating government connections; otherwise you may find your enterprise mysteriously shut down or expropriated.
The current state of affairs has created confusion and fostered corner-cutting among people who know that the Communist propaganda they were reared on is false and that the country’s leaders are looking out for themselves and their families first. But the Vietnamese have no alternative, non-Communist vision to believe in. Instead, much like the denizens of other post-Marxist states such as Russia and China, they assume that everything they hear is lies and that anything is permissible in pursuit of personal enrichment.
The Chinese leadership is solving its similar problem of legitimacy by increasing nationalist agitation over islands in the South China Sea and East China Sea that are claimed by neighboring nations—including Vietnam. Beijing and Hanoi, along with Taipei, are at loggerheads, in particular, over the Paracel Islands, which Vietnam controlled from 1932 until a South Vietnamese garrison was ousted by Chinese troops in 1974. Some smaller nations might back down in the face of Chinese bullying. Not Vietnam, which defeated a Chinese invasion in 1979. Another Sino-Vietnamese war is quite conceivable in the future as the ruling oligarchies in both countries seek to buttress their nationalist credentials.
There is an obvious opportunity here for the United States to draw closer to Vietnam and further contain the rise of Chinese power with a series of alliances with the states that ring the rising dragon. Don’t forget, however, that Vietnam is a fundamentally illiberal, oppressive, and illegitimate government. As we have recently seen in Egypt, such allies cannot necessarily be counted upon for the longer term.
Max Boot is a Weekly Standard contributing editor and Jeane J. Kirkpatrick senior fellow in national security studies at the Council on Foreign Relations. He is the author of the forthcoming Invisible Armies: An Epic History of Guerrilla Warfare from Ancient Times to the Present.