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Vietnam plus 50

Cal Thomas's picture

HANOI, Vietnam — It has been 50 years since President John F. Kennedy ordered U.S. “advisers” to South Vietnam to help battle the communist North and 37 years since the end of that divisive war and the country’s unification under Communism.

Today, Vietnam is fighting a war with itself.

A local TV program reminds a visitor of Chinese propaganda “operas” circa 1970. Performers, some wearing military garb with a backdrop of missiles and an American B-52 bomber going down in flames, commemorate the 1972 Christmas bombing of Hanoi and Haiphong ordered by President Richard Nixon. Banners and posters in the streets reinforce the government’s history lesson.

Younger people, who substantially outnumber the old guard, seem mostly indifferent to these messages, because few lived through the war. An American official tells me just 4 percent of the population belongs to the Communist Party.

While there are large pockets of poverty between and even within major cities like Ho Chi Minh City, Da Nang and Hanoi, prosperity is making inroads. The 1-year-old Da Nang airport is more modern than some U.S. airports. Luxury hotels, clothing stores and restaurants abound. While many cater to foreign travelers, many locals wear stylish Western clothes and transport themselves on motorbikes and in cars. Twenty years ago, the primary mode of transportation was the bicycle.

Vietnam eagerly wants to conclude a trade agreement with the United States known as TPP. Among other things, it would allow for more capital investment here and more Vietnamese goods to be sold in the United States. Deputy Foreign Minister Nguyen Phuong Nga tells me that since normalization of relations in 1995, the U.S. has become the “eighth-biggest foreign investor in Vietnam,” totaling $10 billion.

U.S. officials say human rights issues, including more religious freedom, are holding up American approval of the new trade deal. I asked Madame Nga about this and the recent sentencing of three bloggers to between four and 12 years in prison for criticizing the government.

She deflects the question by noting press criticism of government corruption (true) and claims people have freedom of speech so long as they do not cause “harm,” a word open to interpretation in a one-party state.

Vietnam recently opened two new areas to exploration for the bodies of American soldiers missing in action. Madame Nga says Vietnam has “actively worked with and supported the U.S. in finding the MIAs during the last 20 years,” but notes that on the Vietnamese side “about 3 million MIAs remain to be found.”

She also says “there are more than 3 million Vietnamese known as victims of Agent Orange ... while thousands of hectares of land are contaminated with dioxin.” She adds her appreciation for money provided by Congress to help victims and clean land, but she says more is needed.

As in many other one-party states, the Internet remains a powerful counterforce to managed information. The U.S. Embassy provides, and the government mostly allows, an information center where students and others can log onto iPads and search for information that is often counter to the government line.

The old guard remains suspicious about American objectives, seeing economic and political liberalization as a strategy to achieve among the Vietnamese people what America failed to in pursuing their “hearts and minds” in the war.

Professor Carlyle A. Thayer of the University of New South Wales, an expert on Vietnam, said recently, “Vietnam is motivated to keep the U.S. engaged in Southeast Asia, and the South China Sea in particular, as a balance to China,” which claims some territorial rights in conflict with Vietnam and is a formidable economic and military power on its northern border.

Vietnam is in transition, and it is unrealistic to expect too much progress too quickly. Considering where it was when the U.S. left in 1975, the country appears to be inching in a positive direction.

Those Americans who died here left behind the seeds of democracy, capitalism and a desire for prosperity and freedom. Whatever one’s view of that war, it can be said they did not die in vain.

[Cal Thomas is America’s most widely syndicated op-ed columnist, appearing in more than 600 national newspapers. He is the author of more than 10 books and is a FOX News political contributor since 1997. Email Cal Thomas at] ©2012 TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.


PTC Observer's picture

If you don't want to read some positive things about Vietnam stop reading here.

I have returned to Vietnam several times since the war and the growth there is quite unbelievable to this observer. Freedom on the other hand is still very illusive and the takeover of the South by the North continues through opportunity bias. South Vietnamese families have been co-opted by the North through intermarriage, most marriages brought about by economic need following the war.

The North has a distinct dialect that is becoming more and more prevalent in the South. All financial commerce is controlled by Hanoi, which to me looks a lot like a garbage dump outside the tourist areas. The Old Quarter is worth seeing but skip the dead guy in the tomb. Saigon on the other hand is today clean and still maintains its character and charm. I never fail to stay at the Hotel Majestic when in Saigon. Great times and memories there.

I have traveled the entire length of the country via car over several weeks. Highly recommended for the adventure and hiring a car/driver is not expensive based on the experiences you get in return. The one single thing that strikes me today is there is not one, not one, grass hooch. Even in the highlands, the housing has completely been transformed. The absence of war always helps improve wealth and construction I suppose.

Food especially Pho and seafood is great and inexpensive if you go to local places. Naturally, this is the South, the Northern food has a lot to be desired and is clearly substandard to the South. Village food is always good North or South. If you want Western food, you can forget it unless you are in one of the "big" cities.

I can highly recommend visiting Dalat the old French capital in the Highlands in the summer months. I stay at the Blue Moon Hotel it is just a short walk to the lake there and some charming restaurants. DaNang, Nha Trang, and Chu Lai are unrecognizable to those that haven't been there since the 60/70's. Hoi An is a must see if you have never been there, I could spend months there without a problem.

If you like big caves and water the Vietnam is the place to go. Halong Bay is a must see in the North, along with Sapa on the Red River at the Chinese border. Sapa's scenery is some of the most spectacular I have seen, look it up.

Healthcare is cheap but inferior to most western countries. However, if you get sick, western level treatment is quick in big cities if you have the money. Private doctors are allowed to operate in nice clinics if necessary.

For those that served in Vietnam, I would highly recommend returning. The thing that hasn't changed are the people on the street and in the villages. Take old highway 1 up to the Cambodia boarder and you will be completely dumbfounded by the prosperity along the way.

Yes, corruption is still a big problem in Vietnam, so nothing has changed really. Whatever you do stay away from "War Museums" they will only serve to P you off, they are nothing but propaganda tools. The only American "heroes" you will find there are American journalists (with pictures and bios). They absolutely love Dan Rather.

I am a big fan of the people and country of Vietnam, but not their government. I will be going back many times.

NUK_1's picture

That's one of the few countries I've never been to and I appreciate your honest and direct perspective on it, both before and after.

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