Essays & Images on Cities, Travel and Contemporary Culture. A web journal of James A. Clapp, Ph.D., an UrbisMedia Ltd. Production


Hanoi school kids give peace welcome to a former “enemy.” ©1997, UrbisMedia

Hanoi school kids give peace welcome to a former “enemy.” ©1997, UrbisMedia

On the approach to Hanoi’s Noi Bai airport I scanned the verdant landscape to see if there were any signs of the craters that must have been made by the A-4s that must have pock-marked it nearly thirty years ago.   I thought I spotted a few craters, but they might have been fishponds or little irrigation reservoirs.   Then again, they might be bomb craters that the industrious Vietnamese have turned into ponds and reservoirs.   The Vietnamese are very entrepreneurial these days, darn “capitalistic” it seems for people who have offered up so many of their lives to make communism a winner in this war-ravaged land.

The Vietnamese are right in ideological synch; some might say denial, with much of Asia and So East Asia.   “Asian values” is how Lee Kwan Yew, the leader of Singapore, put it.   “Asian values” is a flexible term, but one connotation allows its devotees to shop form an amalgam of political ideologies and economic methodologies that might strike one as incongruous.   The Chinese like to refer to capitalistic practice as such things as “socialism with Chinese characteristics” and other rationalizations.   Deng Xiao Peng, the guy who said, “It doesn’t matter whether a cat is black or white, as long as it catches mice,” put the philosophy in a folksy, aphoristic way.

But, as much as I would expect to be warmly welcomed for it, I’m not coming into Vietnam to infuse it with and investment of some non-explosive American bucks.   This is a pilgrimage to the war that I missed.

It’s the war I intended to miss.   I still believe that it was a colossal mistake and an unnecessary waste of lives.   That’s not very politically correct these days in which we seem to tread the wobbly line of how to oppose inappropriate militarism and not seem unappreciative to those who, unbidden by many of us, are ready to sacrifice their lives to protect us and freedoms that are not very threatened.   I didn’t have too do much to avoid the war.   Being married, with two kids, and of an age that put me low in a draft that never came for me, I didn’t have to head for Canada or Sweden to avoid it.   Yet, I still wonder today whether I would have gone to such extremes.   There’s a part of me that wanted to go, but it was not out of patriotism or out of a sense that this war needed to be fought.   It is out of the same that impels me to travel, to put myself in unfamiliar circumstances, to have a new experience and learn something from it.

Now I am coming to Vietnam as a tourist.   I am coming to view the residue of a war that these people, who have spent most of the century at war, would prefer to put behind them and get on to a hopefully peaceful and prosperous future with whatever ideological cocktail will get them there the quickest.   But they are no fools, and if they have to dip into the grisly history to extract some tourist bucks, then so be it.   Was it not Bernard Shaw who said of Rome, that she “earns a living by exposing the bones of her dead grandmother”?

Although I don’t have a lot of experience with communist countries there is no surer sign that you are entering one than the attitude of border guards and customs officials.   Hanoi was no exception.   I think that these people are trained to be fierce, threatening, and otherwise surly, maybe leftover prison guards, or interrogators.   Either that, or having a flaming case of hemorrhoids, is a requisite for a job as a communist border guard.   Border guards are not happy people.

The contrast once one gets beyond customs and immigration in Hanoi could not be greater.   My first reaction was why are these people, who we bombed for a decade, so friendly?   Would Americans be the same way?   I doubt it.   Sure, we tourists have a lot of bucks, and these people would like to have some of them, but it would take a lot more bucks than I am carrying to make me overlook ten years of Amerian bombers unloading on me.

Unlike me, the Vietnamese are not dwelling on the past.   Like their fellow Communist Chinese, they are in what might be called the post-Dengian frame of mind that there is no ideological hypocrisy in trying some market economics and lusting after some of the hard western currency and investment.   After thirty or so years of war these people weren’t about to waste much more time on anything that might keep them from perhaps become one more economic dragon of Southeast Asia.

But, in paraphrase of Shaw, the Vietnamese were also willing to enhance their touristic appeal by showing the world the bones of their dead “uncle.”   Uncle Ho Chi Minh lies embalmed in his mausoleum in Ba Dinh Square a grassy cross between Red Square, where his co-ideologue Lenin, and Tiananmen Square, where Mao Zedong, are likewise recumbent and pickled.   Visiting Uncle Ho, I was completing my pilgrimage to the ideological quartet of the Left.   (Only Karl Marx is under ground, in Highgate Cemetery in the north of London.)   Ho’s mausoleum looks a lot like Lenin’s.

Unlce Ho would have preferred to be cremated.   He was a modest fellow by all accounts, and his residence, a rather modest, little compound with a stilt house of inviting open porches and a little pond, seemed more like the retreat of an artist or a retired professor than a political leader.   He was, of course, quite the intellectual.   The title “uncle,” an honorific in Asian countries, seemed apt for the skinny, determined leader with the wispy beard.

Our hotel was a new Korean-financed and built “five star” on the edge of the city, alongside one of the many lakes that give the city, influenced by French urban planning, an open feeling.   A fleet of shabby little dragon motif peddle boats were moored at one corner as I walked along its banks.   On the bordering street the sidewalks were overtaken with curbside barbers who shaved and cut hair al fresco , mirrors hung on street trees.   The moped and motorcycle traffic is less furious here than in Saigon where the exhaust fumes would turn the barber chair into a gas chamber seat.   If the urban atmosphere was one of a seedy dereliction it did not seem to have been produced by the thunderous ordinance of B-52s as much as the faulty economic system that now openly courts capitalist investment.   Still, the Vietnamese are ready to upgrade their land use to accommodate the future.   Alas, the infamous prison, the “Hanoi Hilton,” has been razed to make way for some more productive tenant.

Hanoi is the city that won the war, and the ideological fervor is more evident here.   Children sport the little red “pioneer” scarves, although they do so with happy faces, and our guide seems careful and rehearsed in her descriptions of sites and historical events, although her “serious” demeanor owed more, we discovered at the end of our stay, to her bouts of morning sickness.   She stoically posed for a photo with me in front of a stone gate at the Temple of Literature, where Vietnam’s first university was founded in 1070, but her face looked about to eject her pho noodles.   But she also is a young businesswoman and will combine her motherhood with making her travel business a success in Hanoi’s burgeoning market economy.   She might well succeed at such a capitalist venture, but her main competition will probably come from not from those capitalists in America or Hong Kong, but from that city down south.   That’s next on Dragon City Journal’s itinerary.

©2004, James A. Clapp (UrbisMedia Ltd. Pub. 9.4.2004)