Vietnam: The Final Battle
by John Pilger
Covert Action Quarterly, Spring 1998
I returned to Vietnam in the winter of 1995. Hanoi presented
a strange hybrid. The Odeon arcades, the avenues and villas and
the replica of the Paris Opera, in which the French colons amused
themselves with Berlioz and Bizet were only slightly more decrepit.
In the crowded Old Quarter, little had changed; there was still
a sense of what Victorian England might have looked like: beneath
the slate-grey skies diminutive houses huddled over open drains
in crooked streets and the air was thick with sweet-smelling smoke
from wood-burning braziers.
Tiny parlors were filled with people swathed in scarves, sipping
green tea drawn from large floral-painted flasks while sepia figures
in mandarin dress looked down from oval frames. Almost everywhere
there was a cluster of military medals and a photograph of a lost
Normality graced with laughter has a certain excitement here.
Laughter drew me to one house where a wedding party was in progress,
and I was invited in by Thuan, age 28, and his bride, Hong, 24.
He is a dog-meat salesman, she a "flower girl": that
is, she ekes out a living by selling single stems on the streets.
They and their family and friends looked deceptively prosperous
gathered in the small courtyard beneath a canopy made from an
American parachute. There were pots of steaming noodles, sweets
and betel nuts; and the bridesmaids wore shocking pink. The groom
giggled, the bride cried, and we were all invited to inspect the
Nearby, Nguyen The Khan, a venerable artist who speaks Chinese,
French and English, sat like an old bird in his impossibly crowded
loft, cigarette drooping, working on a series of lacquer panels.
They show Hanoi in the mid-19th century before the French built
their scaled-down copies of Paris and destroyed the ancient landmarks:
the Princess Huyen Tran Temple, the Jade Mountain Pagoda, the
Subdued Waves Pavilion.
"What work would you like to do before you die?"
I asked him.
"Something that announced true peace," he said,
"A tranquil life ... that's all. We are still not at peace;
we are in a dilemma now."
Rising above us were the symbols of this dilemma: some of
the most spectacularly ugly buildings on earth, made from black
glass and slab concrete, shaped like clothes pegs, the inspiration,
clearly, of the same Thai school of "architecture" whose
monstrosities join up the power lines in the deserts that have
replaced Thailand's teak forests.
Nguyen The Khan and other residents of the old quarter had
marched on the City Hall to complain about them and the corruption
that often smoothed the way for planning permission. In these
buildings reside the high commands of corporate Japan, Korea,
Hong Kong, Singapore, the United States, Australia and the City
of London, who are changing almost everything in Vietnam. As one
American banker put it, "The circus is back in town."
To those who knew Vietnam during the war, the familiarity
of the circus is almost other-worldly In a bar on the corner of
"Duong Chien Thang B-52" (Avenue of the Victory over
the B-52) was Joe, a former US helicopter pilot, who runs a fleet
of corporate jets flying in American businessmen, many of them
from companies that profited hugely from the war. Nearby are the
new offices of a pillar of the war, the Bank of America. When
the bank's burglar alarm went off one evening, people gathered,
wondering what it was. No one seemed to know, because no one robs
banks in Hanoi. Not yet.
The teahouse opposite has been renamed the "No Noodles
Sandwich Bar " The Marlboro Man covers its walls, and the
old woman darting through the beaded curtain wore a red Marlboro
baseball cap and a T-shirt with a picture of the Marlboro Man.
At a stroke, she had surrendered her dignity: a metaphoric warning
for her country.
Marlboro and Dunhill have claimed Vietnam, where the majority
seem to smoke. Foreign tobacco companies were among the first
to return, and now turn out cigarettes with a high tar content.
Marlboro's advertising concentrates on its "macho image,"
long discredited in the West. The cowboy with a cigarette in his
mouth, the one who died from lung cancer, has been replaced by
images of young, muscle-bound lads winning the girls, while real
lads, with stick-thin arms and rotten teeth, are given red caps
too big for them and lent a Honda and paid in cigarettes for selling
Marlboros to teashops. Such is the reality of what is called "Renovation.
Revenge, Renovation and Recolonization
"Renovation," or Doi Moi, was conceived in collective
desperation. The catastrophe wreaked in Vietnam by the US invasion
was to be multiplied in the years that followed a cease-fire signed
in Paris in 1973 and which, said Secretary of State Henry Kissinger,
would bring "peace with honor."
A cornerstone of the cease-fire agreement was a secret promise
by President Nixon of $3.25 billion in reparations, contained
in a letter to Pham Van Dong, prime minister of the Democratic
Republic of Vietnam ("North Vietnam"). Dated February
1, 1973, the letter remained secret for more than two years, until
after the war was finally over, when the Vietnamese showed it
to a group of visiting US Congress members.
The State Department confirmed its authenticity Eight, single-spaced
pages specified the forms that the US "reconstruction grant"
would take. Most of it would be spent in the United States; American
firms would tender for contracts to build industrial plants and
to restore bombed bridges, railway lines, dams, and harbor facilities.
"We knew," a Vietnamese government minister confided
later, "that without that minimum capital, we could never
rebuild the country and remain independent.
Not a cent was paid. On April 30, 1975, the last day of the
war, the US Treasury
Department froze Vietnamese assets of $70 million. Two weeks
later, the Commerce Department classified Vietnam a "Category
Z" country, requiring all exports to be approved by the State
Department. This applied to foreign subsidiaries of US companies.
The World Bank was frightened away, suspending a grant for an
irrigation scheme that would have increased food capacity.
From 1981, under the Trading with the Enemy Act, a legacy
of the First World War, US voluntary agencies were denied export
licenses for humanitarian aid to all of Indo-China: Vietnam, Cambodia
and Laos. The first aid to be banned included modest amounts of
seed-processing and storage equipment, which Oxfam America had
promised to an agricultural co-operative in Vietnam, together
with help in setting up a small bee-keeping co-operative designed
to supply honey as a food supplement to pre-school children.
Revenge was the policy Washington's allies joined in. In 1979,
the new British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, persuaded the
European Community to halt its regular shipments of milk to Vietnamese
children. As a consequence, the price of a kilo of milk powder
in Vietnam rose to ten times the price of a kilo of meat. During
visits in 1975 and 1978,1 saw many children with distended bellies
and fragile limbs in the towns as well as the countryside. According
to World Health Organization measurements, one third of all infants
under 5 so deteriorated following the milk ban that the majority
of them were stunted or likely to be, and a disproportionate number
of the very youngest were reportedly going blind because of a
lack of Vitamin A.
In Hongai, a coal-mining community on the Gulf of Tonkin,
which claims the distinction of the most bombed town in Vietnam-during
1966, US carrier-based planes bombed it from seven in the morning
until five in the evening-Dr. Luu Van Hoat told me that 10 percent
of the children were deaf. "Although they lost their hearing
during the raids," he said, "they lived. It was a sign
of hope. Now we are losing the next generation to malnutrition.
The situation is straightforward; children need milk to live,
and we don't have it."
Among Washington's demons, not even Cuba was subjected to
such a complete embargo. "We have smashed the country to
bits," wrote Telford Taylor, chief US prosecutor at the Nuremberg
trials, "and [we] will not even take the trouble to clean
up the blood and rubble. Somehow we have failed to learn the lessons
we undertook to teach at Nuremberg. "
There seemed hope in 1978. The Vietnamese Government made
contact with the Carter administration, seeking "normalization."
No conditions were sought; no mention was made of the $3.25 billion
pledged by Nixon. The foreign minister at the time, Nguyen Co
Thach, a humane and conciliatory man, flew to New York and waited
a week in a room at the Holiday Inn on 42nd Street for a promised
call from Richard Holbrooke, the assistant secretary of State.
"He assured me our countries would have an 'historic
reconciliation,'" Thach told me. "Those were the words
he used. But it never happened. I never got the phone call. Other
developments were overtaking us. That summer China had become
the big interest in Washington. Deng Xiaoping had been to the
US and worn a cowboy hat. No one seemed to be bothered that China
was then backing Pol Pot in Cambodia, whose forces had been attacking
us for over a year. On the contrary, when we counter-attacked
[Christmas Day 1978] and drove the Khmer Rouge into Thailand,
the new allies, China and America, made us the pariahs."
No Good Deed Goes Unpunished
In January 1979, the Chinese attacked Vietnam from the north.
It was a massive assault by 600,000 troops, more than the Americans
had deployed. China, said Peking Radio, was "teaching Vietnam
a lesson." Before they were thrown back, the invaders destroyed
dikes and canals that had withstood the US bombing, and most of
the country's reserve stocks of rice.
A siege mentality now consumed the Communist Party leadership
in Hanoi as the country descended deeper into isolation. Having
cast Vietnam as an aggressor, the US under Ronald Reagan sought
to justify and redeem its "noble cause" in Indochina.
A United Nations blockade, engineered by the US, its Western allies
and China, was mounted against Vietnamese-liberated Cambodia.
At the United Nations and other world bodies, such as the World
Health Organization, Pol Pot's representatives continued to speak
for their victims. Two US relief workers on the Thai border, Linda
Mason and Roger Brown, wrote, "The US Government insisted
that the Khmer Rouge be fed ... the US preferred that the Khmer
Rouge operation benefit from the credibility of an internationally
known relief operation." Under US pressure, the World Food
Program handed over $12 million , worth of food to the Thai army
to pass on to the Khmer Rouge. "20,000 to 40,000 Pol Pot
guerrillas benefited," according to Assistant Secretary of
As the threat of Pol Pot's return effectively trapped the
| Vietnamese army in Cambodia, the strain on Vietnam's war-ruined
economy proved intolerable. For many Vietnamese, this meant austerity,
hunger, and repression: a time of bitterness. Although hundreds
of thousands of war refugees were successfully returned to their
land, and their villages rebuilt, many former soldiers and servants
of the Saigon regime were imprisoned in extremely harsh "re-education
camps," together with those who had owed no allegiance to
either side. These were Vietnam's gulags.
Liberty came to be measured by your standing in the Communist
Party Thousands of the newly impoverished took to the sea in boats,
many of them Chinese-Vietnamese fearful of recrimination in the
wake of China's invasion. They were followed by destitute farmers
from the north. The Hanoi Government had agreed to an "orderly
departure program" in 1979, but without the cooperation of
the US this was all but impossible.
In 1986, faced with criticism from within the party and public
discontent over shortages and rising prices, the old guard in
the Politburo, who had led the
country for 40 years, resigned en masse. They were succeeded
by a relatively youthful leadership, notably Nguyen Van Linh,
"Vietnam's Gorbachev," who had led the National Liberation
Front ("Vietcong"). Linh saw himself as a "pragmatist";
he had been dropped from the Politburo because of his opposition
to the rapid "socialization" of the south in the late
In December 1986, at the Sixth Congress of the Communist Party,
the new leadership announced a far-reaching program of economic
and social change. This was Doi Moi, "renovation." The
"free market" was embraced as the means of breaking
down the Western-led embargo. Since then, the Party line has been
that "all people in society and all Party members should
strive to amass wealth for themselves and for the nation as a
whole," thereby "promoting economic growth." Nervously,
however, the leadership has warned that "it will be difficult
to avoid gaps between rich and poor," which if not controlled
"will lead to danger and social turmoil."
Within two years the World Bank had opened an office in Hanoi,
along with the
International Monetary Fund and the Asian Development Bank.
They were joined by investors from Europe, Japan, Korea, Singapore,
and the other southeast Asian states. The "prize," as
Richard Nixon used to describe the countries of Southeast Asia,
was an abundance of natural resources: coal, oil, gas, and timber.
US companies, still legally prevented from trading, brought pressure
on the White House. In 1994, President Clinton lifted the American
embargo, and the first post-war ambassador arrived in Hanoi three
years later. "United States policy," said the ambassador,
"is to help Vietnam [become] fully integrated into this dynamic
No Dogs or Vietnamese Allowed
Alfonso L. DeMatteis, from Brooklyn, New York, is the founder
of the American Chamber of Commerce in Hanoi. When we met, he
was sitting in front of a furled US flag and puzzling over why
no one in Vietnam seemed to bear him a grudge. He reminded me
of the old Hollywood comic Jerry Lewis, though his bonhomie was
limited. I noticed on his desk a copy of a letter he had written
to a ministry complaining about a proposed museum that would commemorate
the US bombing of Hanoi.
Having made a fortune in the construction business, much of
it in Saudi Arabia, DeMatteis is making another in Vietnam. After
greeting me warmly, he wanted to talk about Mother Teresa. "Mother
was recently in this very town," he said. "Mother was
in this very office. She stood with me and was photographed next
to the [American] flag." He handed me a press release about
"Mother's movements" and how his company was "accommodating
Mother's local Sisters."
By this time, DeMatteis was constructing a 15-story building
at Hanoi's West Lake, the Ho Tay, also known as the Lake of Mist.
A place of beauty and the source of legends, like the rising of
the Dragon King and the casting and ringing of a huge bell that
can be heard all the way to China, it was once overlooked by grand
pavilions and pagodas. A few pagodas rise out of the mist, still
surrounded by the funerary monuments of 12th century monks.
People come here in the evenings and on weekends on their
bicycles, pedaling all the way from the rickety streets that cling
to the Red River dikes. On Sundays they hire ancient clinker-built
rowing boats, and picnic in the public space soon to be occupied
by the DeMatteis tower, and others like it.
"It will come complete with health club and running track,"
said DeMatteis. "We're fortunate; we got in early All the
prime sites have gone already"
"Will the Vietnamese have use of it?"
"You've got to appreciate the rents are not cheap. In
a word, John-unlikely"
"Isn't it ironic," I said, "that the foreigners
Vietnam has been repelling all this century, the French, Japanese,
Americans, might by other means end up gaining what they've been
unable to achieve by war?"
"I don't quite get you."
"Well, you're all back.... "
"We sure are!"
"And you may end up owning the place."
"You know, I never thought of it like that. Thank you,
Peter Purcell is an Australian version of DeMatteis. When
we met, he was building the Hanoi Club, whose annual membership
fees range from $6,500 to $15,000 and which, he says, "will
only work if it's exclusive." "l hate communism,"
he said, "but the socialism here is just right."
As an illustration, he described how, with initial capital
of $10.5 million, he had already made $37 million, and he still
had a vacant lot. He told me a story about a senior Vietnamese
government official who had asked him, on the quiet, to teach
him about stocks and shares. "They're on the verge of being
ripped off," he said, "as part of their necessary education
program converting them to the wonderful world of capitalism."
There Is a Specter Haunting Vietnam...
A World Bank economist, David Dollar has predicted that Vietnam
will end up as "another Asian tiger." "They have
made an excellent start with the necessary reforms," he wrote.
These "necessary reforms" were spelled out at a 1993
meeting of the Paris Club of donors, the richest Western states
and Japan, which dispense "aid" to countries with prospects
The Vietnamese were told that a total of $2.8 billion in "grants"
and loans would be forthcoming if they "opened up" to
the "free market." The state economy would have to be"downsized",
public enterprises scrapped or converted to "joint ventures"
with foreign I firms, and tens of thousands of public employees
There would no l longer be a place for I public services,
including health and education systems that were l the envy of
the Third | World. These would | be replaced by "safety |
nets" dependent on "macro-economic growth." Foreign
investors would be offered "tax holidays" of five years
or more, along with "competitively priced" (cheap) labor.
And before all this got under way, Hanoi would have to honor the
bad debts of the defunct Saigon regime: in effect, pay back loans
incurred by its enemy which had helped bankroll the US war.
It was as if the Vietnamese were finally being granted membership
in the "international community" as long as they first
created a society based on divisions of wealth and poverty and
exploited labor: a society in which social achievements were no
longer valued; the kind of foreign-imposed system they had sacrificed
so much to escape. It seemed, wrote Gabriel Kolko in Anatomy of
a War, that the Vietnam War would finally end in "the defeat
of all who fought in it-and one of the greatest tragedies of modern
Few apart from Kolko have raised the alarm. In his subsequent
book, Vietnam: Anatomy of a Peace, he pointed out that the new
policies, in less than a decade, had destroyed the high degree
of equity that Vietnam had achieved by the end of the war, and
created a class society with divisions of wealth greater than
those of India, the US, and Britain under Thatcherism.
The Canadian economist Michel Chossudovsky, a specialist in
Third World issues, wrote in 1994, "The achievements of past
struggles and the-D aspirations of an entire nation are [being]
undone and erased.... No Agent Orange or steel pellet bombs, no
napalm, no toxic chemicals: a new phase ~ of economic and social
(rather than' physical) destruction has unfolded. The seemingly
neutral and scientific tools of macro-economic policy constitute
a non-violent instrument of recolonization and impoverishment.""
The World Bank, together with the International Monetary Fund
and the Asian Development Bank, are overseeing the implementation
of these "reforms." The World Bank began by rewriting
the land laws, affecting two-thirds of the population. Subsistence
farming, which had kept famine at bay, is being replaced by cash-cropping
for export, as Vietnam is "fully integrated into the dynamic
Restructuring or Rollback.
District cooperatives, which supported the elementary school
system, antenatal clinics and emergency food stores, are being
phased out. These have no place in the new order. In order to
be "competitive," rice, the staple of more than 70 million
people, is now linked to the depredations of the world market
and sold below the world price. While the World Bank lauds Vietnam's
"rice surplus," buried in the jargon is the implicit
acceptance that famine has returned.
Where farmers in difficulty could once depend on rural credit
from the state ("interest" was unknown), they now must
go to private lenders, the usurers who once plagued the peasantry.
This was the system under the French; peonage was the result.
In its report, Viet Nam: Transition to the Market, the World Bank
welcomed this change, explaining that it would cause the desired
"greater land concentration and landlessness." Other
reforms followed, such as the abolition of pensions and social
welfare measures that had supported the sick and disabled, widows,
orphans, and ax-soldiers.
After seven years of this "restructuring," according
to the World Bank's own estimates, poverty has increased, with
up to 70 percent of the population now in "absolute poverty,"
half the adult population consuming considerably fewer than 2,100
calories a day and half the children severely malnourished.' 3
At least a million people have been made unemployed, most of them
in the health services. They, together with people thrown off
their land, should be offered, says the World Bank, "unskilled
work at low wages." (In the draft of this report I saw in
the Bank's offices in Hanoi, someone had penciled in the margins
that the "figure proposed by UNDP consultants is so low as
to be virtually slave labor.")
Since these "reforms" got under way, the bank admits
"a higher proportion of underweight and stunted children
than in any other country in south and Southeast Asia with the
exception of Bangladesh. ... The magnitude of stunting and wasting
among children appears to have increased significantly ... [T]he
problem of food availability in the food deficit areas will not
disappear overnight, since consumers in these areas do not have
the purchasing power to bid up the price paid for food grains
from the surplus regions In fact, it is financially more rewarding
to export rice outside Vietnam than to transfer it to the deficit
regions within the country Indeed, as private sector grain trade
expands, the availability of food in the deficit regions may initially
decline before it improves."
In other words, "consumers without purchasing power"
will have to go hungry.
When I put these matters to Bradley Babson, a US economist
who represents the World Bank in Hanoi, he was generous in his
praise of the Vietnamese "independence of mind" in "defending
their real achievements in the social arena." He was also
extraordinarily frank. "I think it's fair to say," he
said, "that Vietnam in the past has had more equality than
many other countries, and that the reforms necessary for economic
growth will bring greater inequality"
Limping with Tigers
According to Michel Chossudovsky, "the hidden agenda
of the reforms is the destabilization of Vietnam's industrial
base: heavy industry, oil and gas, natural resources and mining,
cement, and steel production are to be reorganized and taken over
by foreign capital with the Japanese conglomerates playing a decisive
and dominant role.... [T]he movement is towards the reintegration
of Vietnam into the Japanese sphere of influence, a situation
reminiscent of World War II when Vietnam was part of Japan's 'Great
East Asia Co-Prosperity Sphere.'
Japanese capital controls 80 percent of the loans for investment
projects and infrastructure, while the dollar has taken over from
the Vietnamese don", giving the US Federal Reserve Bank effective
control of the flow of currency Singapore dominates the property
market, and Taiwan and Korea the "tax holiday" sweatshops.
The French and the Australians are doing nicely, too, with the
British not far behind.
In 1995, the then British chancellor of the exchequer, Kenneth
Clarke, visited Hanoi with a group of British businesspeople,
who had been given a briefing document by the Department of Trade
and Industry It was candid, almost ecstatic about the cheapness
of people. "Labor rates," it said, "are as low
as $35 a month." Moreover, the Vietnamese "can provide
a new industrial home for ailing British products." "Take
the long view," advised the British government, "use
Vietnam's weaknesses selfishly. Vietnam's open door invites you
to take advantage of its low standard of living and low wages.
I showed this document to Dr. Nguyen Xuan Oanh, the economic
adviser to Prime Minister Vo Van Kiet. "We have inexpensive
labor," he said. "I don't call it cheap labor. It allows
us to be competitive on the international market." Thereupon
he extolled growth rates, "tax holidays," diminished
public services and the rest of the IMF deity
What was interesting about this man was that not only was
he an architect of Vietnam's "market socialism," as
he called it, but that he used to be deputy prime minister in
the old Saigon regime. Detained at the end of the war, he convinced
the communists they would need him one day and, like a bending
reed, he survived. Today, from his smart Saigon offices, with
their black leather chairs and remote-controlled air conditioning,
he offers foreign entrepreneurs silky "personalized consulting"
as they enter "a paradise for your investment."
"The regime you helped to run in the old days,"
I said, "was pretty corrupt, wasn't it?"
"We had a bad administration," he said. "It
was supported by a black market, drugs, prostitution and war profiteering."
"It was not good.
"You were number two."
"I tried very hard to help, but not successfully"
"Aren't you beginning to re-create that same kind of
"No, we are harmoniously blending socialism with capitalism.
That is not to deny that when you open the door for new winds
to come in, the dust comes in, too."
"That's an old Vietnamese saying?"
"I'm told Mrs. Thatcher has been an inspiration."
"We reamed some things from her, but what we are doing
is distinctively Vietnamese. "
"The Vietnamese kicked out the French, who forced the
population to work for next to nothing in foreign-owned factories.
Isn't that now happening again?"
"I told you our people are merely inexpensive. . . "
Although those like Nguyen Xuan Oanh, David Dollar, and Bradley
Babson speak publicly about Vietnam as "the next tiger economy,"
the truth is that, as the current crop of Asian tigers-Korea,
Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia-run out of steam, with their share
markets collapsing and currencies devaluing, the last thing they
want is a competitor the size of Vietnam. For this reason, Vietnam's
"integration" into the region is likely to be as an
economic colony for the tigers, Japan, and the West.
This is dramatically evident in the Export Processing Zones,
known as EPZs. Run by a Taiwanese company on cleared land on the
banks of the Saigon River, one of them announces itself as "Saigon
South ... a Brave New World." Inside, I was struck by the
likeness to photographs of the cotton mills of Lancashire. Ancient
looms imported from China, making toweling for export, were attended
by mostly young women, who get a basic rate of $ l 9 a month for
a 12-hour day. If they fall behind the target set by the manager,
who secretly tags thread in their machine, they are fired. One
worker controls four machines. "In Taiwan," said the
Taiwanese manager, "we'd have one worker on six, even eight
machines. But the Vietnamese don't accept this: They object."
The air was foul and filled with cotton dust, the noise unrelenting
and the only protective clothing appeared to be hair curlers.
One woman was struck in the eye while I was there. "We've
got a medical center for that sort of thing," said the manager,
who told me he had a business diploma from a California college.
Under Vietnamese law, there ought to be a union at the factory
"We haven't got one of those yet," he said. With 100,000
workers, many of them living in dormitories, "Saigon South"
is a city state, with its own stock exchange, police, and customs.
"We calculate," said the manager, "that this EPZ
is what all Vietnamese cities will look like in the next century."
Dr. Le Thi Quy runs the Center for Scientific Studies of Women
and the Family in Saigon. Her work lately has concentrated on
the conditions of workers in the EPZs, which she inspects unannounced.
In a report commissioned by the government she describes as "commonplace"
women forced to work from 7 am to 9 pm every other day "They
must never stop," she wrote. "They are given a 'hygiene
card' which allows them to do their personal hygiene only three
times a day, each time taking no more than five minutes. The stress
is something people have not known before, not even in war-time.
It is systematic."
She concluded, "I have to report that something very
serious is happening to our society Traps are being laid at the
gates of profits. As public service employment is drastically
reduced, our families are being commercialize..., prostitution
has emerged into the open and is growing." She added eloquently,
"The market economy is about mechanism. l wish to speak for
humanitarian values. If we affirm that development can only be
achieved by sacrificing these values, which have been long pursued
by mankind and give us hope for freedom, democracy, and equality,
it means that we reject the most basic factors that link people
together as a community It is an insult to our humanity to maintain
that people only have economic demands, and therefore economic
development must be made at all costs. To live is not enough.
People must seek many things to make their lives significant.
If development was measured not by gross national product,
but a society's success in meeting the basic needs of its people,
Vietnam would have been a model. That was its real "threat."
From the defeat of the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954 to 1972,
primary and secondary school enrollment in the North increased
sevenfold, from 700,000 to almost five million. In 1980, UNESCO
estimated a literacy rate of 90 percent and school enrollment
among the highest in Asia and throughout the Third World.
Now that education has been transformed into a commodity,
"consumers of [educational] services," says a constipated
UN Development Program report, "[are required] to pay increased
amounts, encouraging institutions to become self-financing, and
by using incentives to privatize delivery of education and training
where appropriate." Teachers who have not been "redeployed"
on road gangs and other "public projects" have had their
salaries cut to as little as $8 a month. Most schools have been
privatized, with the obligation to pay tuition fees now written
into the constitution. By 1992, an estimated three-quarters of
a million children had been pushed out of the education system,
despite an increase in the population of children of school age.
At a village in the Mekong Delta a woman and her 12-year-old
daughter sit in the shade making straw beach mats for export.
A middle-man pays them a total of a dollar a day They work from
five in the morning until five in the evening. Ten I years ago,
the village had a cooperative that l funded a primary school.
Now that cooperatives have been abolished, the girl must work
such grinding hours to pay for sporadic lessons at a nearby fee-charging
The Vietnamese health service was once famous. Primary care
where people lived and worked raised life expectancy to among
the highest in the developing
J world. Vaccination programs reduced the spread of infectious
diseases; in contrast to most of the Third World, preventable
diseases were prevented. More babies survived birth and their
first precarious years than in most countries in Southeast Asia.
Now, under the tutelage of the foreign "donor community,"
the government has abandoned direct support for all health services.
Drugs are available only to those who can afford to buy them on
the "free market." Diseases like malaria, dengue, and
cholera have returned.
In its inimitable way, the World Bank acknowledges this "downside"
of its "reforms." "Despite its impressive performance
in the past," says the Transition to the Market report, "the
Vietnamese health sector is currently languishing ... there is
a severe shortage of drugs and medical equipment.... The shortage
of funds is so acute that it is unclear where the grass roots
facilities are going to find the inputs to continue functioning
in the future."
During the US carpet bombing of Hanoi at Christmas 1972, the
Bach Mai hospital in the center of the city became something of
a symbol of resistance. A bomb destroyed a wing, including wards
and laboratories; patients, doctors, and nurses died. One of the
survivors was Professor Nguyen Van Xang, a stooped man who could
be Ho Chi Minhs brother and whose office is dominated by a picture
of the rubble it was. "I heard the bombs whistling towards
us," he said. "I took the nearest patients and sheltered
them over there, under the stairs. Everything seemed to collapse
As we talked, there was a power cut; the hospital's weary
generator failed yet again, turning the wispy-bearded figure seated
in front of me into a silhouette in a Gothic setting, bathed in
the thin, yellow light of early evening. The scene poignantly
expressed the exhaustion of Vietnam.
Xang explained that, under the new, privatized system, a patient
had to put down a deposit of 7,000 dong ($6.30) and a bed cost
the equivalent of $4 per day This was a great deal of money for
the majority, who were excluded, causing Xang to put his socialist
beliefs into practice by handing out free drugs to poor people
at a pagoda every Sunday "The situation here," said
the professor, "is that we can no longer afford a filter
for our one kidney machine. It costs $22. So we use the same filter
several times, which is wrong and dangerous.... If a patient has
renal failure and cannot afford to pay a quarter of the cost of
the treatment, we have no choice but to treat them by traditional
means; and they die."
Uncle Sam's Gift Horse
In Saigon, l made an appointment to visit the Tu Du obstetrics
and gynecological hospital. Built by the French in the 1950s and
extended by the Americans, it is one of the most modern in the
country-in the circumstances, a handicap, for almost all the equipment
is American, for which parts stopped coming in 1975. The last
children's respirator had disintegrated a year earlier.
A former operating room is known as the "collection room"
and, unofficially, the "room of horrors." It has shelves
of large bottles containing grotesquely deformed fetuses. In the
late 1960s, the US sprayed much of South Vietnam, which it said
it had come to "save," with defoliant herbicides. Intended
to "deny cover" to the National Liberation Front, this
program was code-named "Operation Hades," later changed
to the friendlier "Operation Ranch Hand." The defoliants
included Agent Orange, containing dioxin, which is a poison of
such power that it causes fetal death, miscarriage, chromosomal
damage, congenital defects, and cancer.
In 1970, the US government banned the use of Agent Orange
on US farmlands, but continued to spray it in Vietnam, where a
pattern of deformities began to emerge: babies born without eyes,
with deformed hearts and small brains, and stumps instead of legs.
Occasionally I saw these children in contaminated villages in
the Mekong Delta; and whenever I asked about them, people pointed
to the sky; one man scratched in the dust a good likeness of a
bulbous C-130 aircraft, spraying.
... In August that year, in a report to the US Senate, Sen.
Gaylord Nelson (D-WI) wrote that "the US has dumped [on South
Vietnam] a quantity of toxic chemical amounting to six pounds
per head of population, including women and children." When
the new US ambassador, Douglas Peterson, said that the "exact
consequences of Agent Orange" were not "clarified,"
he was challenged by the director of the War Crimes Investigation
Department, Vu Trong Huong, who said, "We have over 50,000
children that have been born with ~ horrific deformities; the
link is clear." At the Tu Du hospital Dr. Pham Viet Thanh
showed me a group of recently born babies in incubators. They
all had thalidomide-type deformities. "These Agent Orange
births are routine for us," he said. "Every now and
then we have what we call a fetal catastrophe-when the number
of miscarriages and deformed babies, l am afraid to say, overwhelms
us." In one ward there were two women suffering from chorion
carcinoma-cancer of pregnancy, which is extremely rare in the
West. "We don't have the training to deal with this phenomenon,"
said Thanh. "We have asked for scholarships in Japan, Germany,
the US, and the UK, but they say no, or they don't reply"
From Uncle Ho to Adam Smith The question begs: Why is this
being allowed to happen? Why are foreigners once again being permitted
to dictate the future of Vietnam? One answer is that the Vietnamese
Communist Party was never as ideological as it appeared. The original
impetus was nationalist; initially, the communists were the only
political group that opposed French imperialism. Once they gained
power in the north in 1954, many people joined the Party for reasons
of personal ambition. There was a similar influx in the south
after 1975; party membership offered power and privilege. Another
explanation is that, like other Communist parties, with their
hierarchy and disciplines and lack of internal democracy, they
were best equipped to fight a protracted war, but not to govern
and protect a society at peace.
Yet the party was immensely popular. The great majority of
Vietnamese "provided its strength and often forced it to
move in ways that broadened its popular appeal and, in turn, accepted
and made monumental sacrifices," wrote Gabriel Kolko. "However
elitist its top leadership, the party's success as a social movement
was based largely on its response to peasant desires." And
that, says Kolko, is at the root of its betrayal today, making
"the war a monumental tragedy and a vain sacrifice ... for
the majority of Vietnam's peasants, veterans, and genuine idealists."
I understand his disillusion, but I think the privations that
the Vietnamese have endured during 30 years of war and 20 years
of isolation made some things inevitable, such as the erosion
of principle and ideology and the growth of corruption in a war-ruined
economy especially in a bureaucracy which, since the war, has
operated substantially for the benefit of party cadres. Many of
them had little interest or education in socialism and became,
like those in Boris Yeltsin's Russia, the most visible and voracious
members of the new urban consumer class.
As for the ones who refused to go this way, and who could
legitimately claim to be the legatees of Ho Chi Minh, they, too,
were both desperate and vulnerable- desperate to internationalize
their country and fulfill a historic need for counterweights to
the power of China, the ancient foe, and to lessen the dependency
l on a Soviet Union in its death throes. The most generous explanation
for their embrace of laissez-faire capitalism is that they have
been seduced, and as one destructive "reform" follows
another, the seduction is beginning to look like rape. In another
sense, Vietnam is simply typical of poor countries denied an independent
path for their economies and whose governments become more concerned,
almost mesmerized, with satisfying their foreign creditors than
with serving their people. The resolution of this is perhaps Vietnam's
final battle and the most difficult one of all.
Certainly, the "dangerous time" that the artist
Nguyen The Khan and many others allude to has arrived. That is
to say, the point is passing where the Communist Party leadership
loses control and becomes a captive of the foreign impositions
it has endorsed. When that happens, the pact between the party
and the peasants, which was probably unique to Vietnam, will be
finally broken, and there will be a vacuum and trouble or, as
Kolko calls it, "a divorce."
The signs are there. Every day, very poor people and disabled
ax-soldiers are swept from the center of Saigon and taken to detention
centers; and anti-government Buddhists-reminiscent of those who
helped to topple the US-backed regimes in the 1960s-are again
prisoners of conscience. The Vietnamese army, having expended
the nation's blood, sweat and tears, and built the cooperative
system in the countryside, regards itself as the keeper of historical
memories and legacies. That is why it has allowed its own journals
to criticize their political masters and has made a subversive
hero of the late Gen. Tran Van Tra, the brilliant, nonconformist
commander of the victorious army in South Vietnam in 1975, who
later formed a dissident group, the Society of Resistance Fighters.
Another war hero, Col. Bui Tin, said from exile in France, "I
long for a humanist, modern, and pluralist socialism in my country"
Unlike China, obedience requires consensus in Vietnam. In
his biography of Defense Minister Gen. Vo Nguyen Giap, Peter MacDonald
wrote that "whereas in many nations there are thousands of
family names, evolved over the centuries and added to by migrants,
in the whole of Vietnam there are less than a hundred, based on
tribal groupings such as the Ngo and the Nguyen: people are part
of a big family" Tearing apart the fabric of this family
will not be compensated for by Honda motorbikes, Pepsi-Cola, and
In advocating an "agricultural wage labor market"
as a way of brutally disconnecting farm workers from their villages
and making them "flexible," meaning itinerant, Vietnam's
new foreign managers and creditors ignore the resilience of rural
life, with its community of labor, its village councils, mutual
aid societies, craftsmen's guilds, and emergency relief organizations.
Much of this has lasted for 2,500 years: a model of natural socialism,
you might say Instead of trying to destroy it, genuine reform
would build on its foundations and, with resources that eradicated
poverty, create a modern, vibrant, agriculture-based economy that
matched the needs of the majority
The final battle has begun. Saigon's biggest strikes since
the war have swept over the Korean-owned EPZs. The issues are
slave wages, excessive hours, and cruel managers. Although not
reported in the media, labor rights are widely supported in Saigon.
Seldom a week now passes without a major "wildcat" strike,
which can be of such intensity that the civil authorities often
choose to stand back: a clear sign that they are worried.
In 1997, Nike, the giant US running-shoe maker, which employs
35,000 mostly female workers in Vietnam, was hit by a series of
rolling strikes. Illegal demonstrations were held outside the
gates of the company's sub-contractors, and the police stood by
A study by the US-based Vietnam Labor Watch found that the workers'
average wage was $1.60 for eight hours, while the shoes they made
sold for up to $149 in the US.
"Supervisors humiliate women," reported the Vietnamese
investigator. "They force them to kneel, to stand in the
hot sun, treating them like recruits in a boot camp. In one plant,
workers were allowed to go to the lavatory only once during a
shift and were limited to two drinks of water. The Taiwanese sub-contractor
forced 56 women to run around the plant in the sun as punishment
for wearing 'non-regulation' shoes. Twelve fainted and were taken
to hospital. The next day, the factory was attacked by local people."
In the countryside, the privatization of land has brought
administrative chaos and anger. This has been reported in the
official press as "hot spots" that are "smoldering,"
"tense," and "very fierce." In Thai Binh province,
south of Hanoi, government offices have been sacked and officials
forced to flee for their lives. "The military and police
failed to halt the problem," said one report.
The biggest single foreign investor in Vietnam, the Korean
multinational Daewoo, plans to build a $147 million EPZ near Hanoi,
including an 18-hole golf course for its executives and customers.
The golf course will destroy the rice fields and the way of life
of the village of Tho Da. The government has offered the villagers
compensation of $197 per family Rejecting this, they erected barricades
and a sign, "Dangerous Area. Do not enter," over a skull
and crossbones. Police attacked twice and were thrown back; one
woman was killed. Daewoo's chairman flew in from Seoul with reassurances
that the golf course was "not just for golfers." At
the time of writing, there is a huge row involving the prime minister,
the Hanoi Peoples Committee and the Korean government. Meanwhile,
the barricades remain, a symbol of a new popular resistance finding
its natural leaders and confidence with every confrontation. Not
only has the government admitted that this "danger and social
turmoil" is "becoming more and more complex and serious,"
but the instigator of "Renovation," Nguyen Van Linh,
has warned that the "gap between the classes needs to be
Cranes vs. Vultures
In Saigon, I stayed in the same room at the Caravelle Hotel
that was my intermittent home 30 years ago. From the same balcony
overlooking Lam Som Square, next to the French playhouse, I used
to watch people show immense courage in demonstrating against
the vicious foreign-backed regimes that came and went. Here, too,
I watched the dawn lit up by tracer bullets on the last day of
April 1975, the last day of the longest war this century.
The hotel's cashier in those days, always a morbid man, had
threatened to shoot himself that evening; but he chose not to,
and he survived and retired on a cashier's pension. The door-opener,
a laconic character from Bombay, was there until recently. "I
have ushered in victors and ushered out vanquished," he would
say. "The good thing about this job is that, in hurrying
in and hurrying out, they don't notice me."
Coming back, I met Dr. Nguyen Thi Oanh in the foyer. A gracious
and wry person, she had trained as a sociologist in the US in
the 1950s. "I was never a communist," she said, "but
I was close to them because they expressed the nationalism I felt,
and they were brave. The problem with the course we are taking
now is that it flies in the face of the best of our history, which
makes us proud and able to bear many privations. The real danger
is that we shall lose our soul, and not realize it before it's
I told her that the Ministry of Culture had wanted to censor
the documentary film my colleagues and I had shot at My Lai, because
they were afraid it would offend the Americans and be bad for
business. She shook her head. "They know the Americans can
never forget," she said.
"Why," I asked, "are the Vietnamese able to
"Because we didn't lose, we won. We lost materially speaking,
but spiritually we won. We are losing a bit now, but we will win
Apart from such pride, there are, for me, two outstanding
attractions about Vietnam. The first is that the maxims of Ho
Chi Minh, which inspired a great popular resistance, are still
admired for their common wisdom and acted upon. When the bombing
began in the mid-1960s, Ho traveled down Route One, which was
then known as "the Street of No Joy" by the US pilots
who blitzed it and the Vietnamese convoys who depended on it.
He made a speech along the way in which he said that when the
war was over, "we shall make our country a thousand times
I met a man who is the embodiment of this, Professor Vo Quy,
a restless 70-year-old whose office at Hanoi University is guarded
by the ancient skeleton of an elephant. He has led one of the
most dramatic environmental rescues in history. In 1974, while
the war was still going on, he traveled south and found the environmental
damage so great that he returned with the warning that, unless
something was done, Vietnam in 20 years would look like the moon.
"The ecosystem was in a terrible way," he said. "The
mangroves were largely ruined by bombing and herbicides. The wildlife
was gone. The tigers, which had followed the sound of gunfire,
were extinct. I found no water birds."
The task of reforestation was enormous. In areas drenched
in Agent Orange, not a single tree remained; the earth was thought
to have solidified and "died." Quy initiated a re-greening
campaign, that involved almost everybody Over the next five years,
millions of acres of poisoned land were reclaimed. Every village
planted a forest, every child a tree.
Today, in many parts of the country, the sound of birds and
the rustle of wildlife are heard for the first time in two generations.
"We thought the stork and the ibis and certain types of crane
were extinct," said Quy "But as each new tree encouraged
the tropical organisms, and the mangroves began to grow back,
we had exciting discoveries: we found great birds we thought we'd
lost: 25 cranes and the rare milky stork. I myself saw an ibis
on the Laos side of the border. What a sight it was! I immediately
ordered a sanctuary to be marked out!" A pheasant which reappeared
was named a "Vo Quy".
For me, the other compelling attraction of Vietnam is the
spectacle of human reconciliation. Under a program sponsored by
the European Union, Vietnamese boat people scattered in refugee
camps throughout Asia were asked if they wanted to go home. Tens
of thousands said they did, but many were frightened. They were
first reassured by videotaped interview with their relatives and
friends at home A small nation has since returned. On arrival,
they are lent enough money to start again; and their community
is subsidized so that there is no talk of favoritism.
I was introduced to a fisherman, Mac Thi Nhan, who fled with
his family to Hong Kong, and was now back in his village on Ha
Long Bay, and with a new boat. "I was afraid at first, but
everyone has been thoughtful to us," he said. His wife nodded
Michael Culligan, who runs the EU program in Haiphong, said,
"I have traveled all over the country and met thousands of
returnees, and I have not come across a single case of victimization.
The Vietnamese are a very kindly people. They were very sympathetic
towards the boat people who came home, and they went out of their
way to ensure they didn't lose face. That is a civilized society"
This article is reprinted from John Pilger's new book Hidden
John Pilger is an Australian-born journalist and film maker
based in London. He has reported on Indo-China since 1966; his
writing and documentaries have won numerous awards in Europe and