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Election 2008 The World is Watching

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Vietnam: Forgive and Forget?

Modern-day Vietnam looks back but mostly forward in relations with U.S.

BY Nguyen Qui DucOctober 16, 2008
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Nguyen Qui Duc is a journalist with more than 20 years of experience working in the United States, the United Kingdom, and several Asian countries. He was the co-founding host of Pacific Time, KQED Public Radio's national program on Asian and Asian-American affairs. He has received numerous awards and fellowships in his journalistic career, and has also been an author, editor, and translators of several books, anthologies and novels. He now lives in Hanoi.

America Inside the Vietnamese Soul
by Nguyen Qui Duc

I woke up this morning at five. I'd turned off the air conditioner during the night and it was now too hot to sleep. Out on the balcony the humidity was just as unforgiving, and the sky seemed inches above my head. I was turning to go back inside when lightning and thunder struck. It was like someone had cracked a giant whip across the sky, ending with a stupendous series of explosions. It was the Vietnam War all over again.

The monsoon downpour that followed the ferocious thunder reminded me of youthful summers before I left this country. But such memories don't linger long these days. Not that they're no longer important, but it's been a long time. In 1975, at the end of the Vietnam War, I fled my native country to take refuge in the U.S. I was 17.

Two years ago, I moved back with my widowed mother to settle permanently in Hanoi, in a country that's quite different than the one we left. Now, at 50, I too have changed. I no longer have a single identity. I'm split in two -- parts of me still deeply Vietnamese, parts of me thoroughly American. There are times I can hardly explain myself to myself.

Now in Vietnam, an American habit haunts me. Unable to return to sleep, I go from my bed to the desk and turn on the computer. News about the U.S. presidential election jumps off the screen.

With John McCain as the Republican presidential candidate, the war many of us refugees tried to put behind us has come back. Like McCain, my father was imprisoned by the North Vietnamese for his support of the U.S.-backed government in Saigon. We didn't see him for many years. So I have struggled to put the past behind me. Many of my friends have also moved back to Vietnam, confronting our painful history and developing a new view of our birthplace.

A Society in Transition

The Vietnam I am encountering now is a new Vietnam that no longer views America through the prism of a devastating war. It is still a communist country, but at the same time, it is deeply capitalistic and open to Western culture. Ironically, the Vietnamese have moved on in ways the U.S. has not, despite much more horrific losses of 58,000 Americans versus nearly 3 million Vietnamese by some counts.

These days, America is a source of investment, a business partner, and a cultural compass. The dour communist officials and veterans who fought against the Americans have been replaced by a younger generation. It is a country of people mainly in their 20s and 30s, and while the majority of the population still lives in the countryside, more and more are moving into ever expanding urban areas.

vietnamese people

Young urban people identify more with the U.S. and the outside world than with the farmers who feed them. They listen and dance to hip-hop, watch endless Hollywood movies and TV programs replicating "American Idol" and "Who Wants to Be a Millionaire." Children soak up regular meals at Colonel Sanders' Kentucky Fried Chicken, and some live with their parents in town houses that look like they've been transported straight from suburban California, complete with SUVs in the driveway.

But beyond the surface, America's influence in Vietnam is welcomed by locals here, and some inside the government and ruling party. Ties with Washington are seen as crucial to counteract the heavy sway of a giant neighbor, China.

Perhaps that's why not many people think of John McCain as a Navy pilot dropping bombs from the skies over Hanoi. Mostly, I hear people here talk of a different McCain -- the senator rather than the former prisoner of war.

"Vietnamese people are always quick to say that the war is over and that friendship between the American and Vietnamese people is what matters now -- and I believe that sentiment is heartfelt."

Nathalie Quynh-Nhu Miller, a Vietnamese-American who has spent several years here helping rural people start business projects, says, "There's a strange allegiance among some Vietnamese to McCain, as he's remembered as a U.S. politician who spearheaded the normalization of economic relations between the U.S. and Vietnam.

"The bloody history between our two countries is only a hazy backdrop to today's business partnerships," Miller adds. "Vietnamese people are always quick to say that the war is over and that friendship between the American and Vietnamese people is what matters now -- and I believe that sentiment is heartfelt."

Miller does hear stories from rural people in the Northwest where she works. Most people there have never met an American. Yet they tell her what the U.S. bombing campaigns did to them and to their families. "The stories people tell are not accusatory and are not seeking apologies," Miller insists. "It is simply a matter of putting the truth of what happened on the table and staring it head on."

A Distant Election

Kim Ninh is another returned expat, who escaped Vietnam with her family as a young girl in the "Boat People" exodus of the late 1970s. About two years ago, she moved from Northern California to Hanoi to become the representative of the Asia Foundation in Vietnam, where she frequently encounters many public and nongovernmental officials.

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She says they discuss the social and political situation in Vietnam, but the U.S. election is not a frequent topic. "These days Vietnamese are consumed with concerns about inflation, but I know that they think that the outcome of the U.S. elections are important to Vietnam, to the world," says Ninh. And the global financial crisis fueled by U.S. bank failures will no doubt bring more attention to the elections.

Until recently, Vietnam's economy was growing at a breakneck 8.5 percent -- making it a new Asian darling for many foreign investors. But easy credit, bad real estate speculation, corruption, and government inefficiency has driven up inflation to 30 percent. Farmers who've abandoned rice fields did not find rewards in factory jobs, and thousands have gone on strike. And yet, after 20 years of openness and reforms, slow-in-coming as they were, the people have not yet directed their anger toward the government.

Officials still hold revolutionary credentials as heroes in the fight against America. The media is censored and reluctant to criticize the government, and politics is seen as a fruitless topic of discussion. That explains the lack of interest in American elections, says Quynh Pham, another Californian who came back to open an art gallery here nearly 10 years ago. "The Vietnamese I know are not interested in politics here, let alone those in other nations."

Thinh Nguyen, a successful Silicon Valley engineer who started his own IT firm in VIetnam, hears the same question over and over: "Why would Americans vote for a black guy instead of a war hero?"

Another artist, Thien Do, who returned to Vietnam after more than 25 years in the U.S., told me, "The U.S. presidential elections do come up from time to time among my Vietnamese friends. But for the most part, their interest seems to lie not in the two candidates, but in the fact that finally someone will replace President Bush."

The Asia Foundation's Kim Ninh says, "Obama is less known, but the fact that this is a historic election in terms of race and age is not lost on the Vietnamese."

I hear many here say that ultimately "America won't let a black man become president." Thinh Nguyen, a successful Silicon Valley engineer who started his own IT firm in the former Saigon five years ago, hears the same question over and over again: "Why would Americans vote for a black guy instead of a war hero?"

Like me, many of my Vietnamese-American friends are beginning to look at the American elections as a possible influence on Vietnam. "I wish the Vietnamese can one day have an election to choose their leaders democratically," Thinh Nguyen told me.

That may be a distant dream, as many here say they have no idea how to influence their government, and generally they don't bother to think about it. People laugh when I ask whether they listen to the public speakers blaring out "news" and "party directives" each morning and afternoon. It's annoying noise more than anything else.

Perhaps someday Vietnam will look to America not only as an economic opportunity, but also as a democratic model. For those of us who have left the U.S. to come back here, this election has become an incentive to reflect on American society.

A Shared History

Kim Ninh, who traveled to Asia frequently for nearly 10 years before moving to Vietnam, told me, "Vietnam is a place that has tremendous affection for America, and I find myself explaining America to my Vietnamese friends and colleagues. In that process, I can recall the good things about America and what makes me feel American: the openness of mind, the generosity of spirit, the willingness to experiment, and the mix of people and institutions that allow for such extraordinary creativity. America is truly a special place."

men drawing.

Still it is the relationship between these two homelands that remains the key concern. For my Vietnamese-American friends, as it is for me, the war that resulted in our migration to America has receded. It will still haunt certain moments of our lives and our dreams -- particularly in thunderous monsoon storms.

But for the thousands who have returned to visit, to live and to work here, the sound of bombs and missiles has been replaced by the cacophony of a chaotic society on a rush toward a capitalistic future. The face of Colonel Sanders hasn't quite replaced that of Ho Chi Minh, founder of Communist Vietnam. But in a public survey just a few years back, Bill Gates and Bill Clinton were more recognizable to locals as heroes than Uncle Ho.

"The relationship between Vietnam and the U.S. will grow, and the election in the U.S. is important as the two countries forge closer ties in the face of China's dominant role in the region," says Thinh Nguyen.

"It's in the interest of both the U.S. and Vietnam to have strong bilateral relations," Kim Ninh says. "Vietnam is a country of some 85 million, emerging rapidly in the Asia-Pacific region as a middle power, and will have a role to play in the region as well as in the world.

"Above all, we should not forget that the U.S and Vietnam have a shared history that was deeply painful and both societies are still addressing the consequences. I believe in the commitment of many people in Vietnam and the U.S. to help heal the wounds and to establish a more balanced relationship, but that shared history also means that our two countries are linked together in ways that go beyond any simple bilateral relationship. The other is now part of ourselves."

PHOTOS: JUSTIN MOTT

From Our Files

Vietnam: Looking for Home
More than 30 years ago, the war in Vietnam shattered Nguyen Qui Duc's childhood. Over the years he has returned to his homeland as a journalist, reporting on the country's culture and establishing connections with writers and artists living in Vietnam. This year, Nguyen journeyed to Vietnam for FRONTLINE/World, looking, he says, "for home, for a bit of myself, for a country that always exists in my memory."

The Man Who Saved McCain
At the lake in Vietnam where John McCain's plane went down in October 1967, Nguyen Qui Duc comes across a man who claims to have pulled McCain from the lake.

New Orleans: A Village Called Versailles
Leo Chiang reports on a community of Vietnamese-Americans in New Orleans who found their political voice during the struggle to rebuild following Hurricane Katrina.

Additional Resources

Time magazine: "Good Morning Vietnam"
This Time magazine report from 1995 highlights the John McCain-led effort to normalize diplomatic relations with Vietnam. McCain argued that Vietnam was valuable as a strategic counterbalance to China.

San Francisco Chronicle: "McCain Criticized for Slurs"
In an article from 2000, Chronicle reporters describe how McCain refused to apologize for his use of the racial slur "gooks" when talking about the Vietnamese prison guards who held him captive during the war. McCain was first quoted using the slur in an article in the Nation magazine called "McCain's Vietnam."

The Guardian: McCain was not tortured, PoW guard claims
John Hooper reports for the Guardian newspaper that the chief guard from the prison in Vietnam where John McCain was held captive claims that McCain was never tortured, despite numerous accounts of the torture by both McCain and his highly decorated cellmate at the time, Colonel George Day.

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(anonymous)
It's funny to read this article repeating over and over the importance between US and VN relationship against the strong dominance of China in Asia. Did it finally take the Viet Cong millions of lives and over 30 years to know the phrase "You reap what you sow".
I'm only sorry for the people still left behind who could not escape and now are "too old" to make a difference.

Tan Doan - Oakland, California
Excellent! One of the very few great journalists with such a knowledge and understanding about Vietnam and its complicated relationship with America. Keep up the good work!

 

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