site editor Sara Miles caught up with Nguyen Qui Duc in
San Francisco after his most recent trip to Vietnam. Duc,
host of KQED Public Radio's Pacific Time, has been
a writer and a journalist for 20 years. His book, Where
the Ashes Are, is a memoir about his life in Vietnam
and the United States. He also has translated numerous works
of fiction; his latest is The Time Tree: Poems by Huu
Thinh (Curbstone Press, 2003).
You left Vietnam when you were 17. What was it like the first time
Nguyen Qui Duc on HaLong Bay in Northern Vietnam, February 2003.
I went back to Vietnam in 1989, as a freelance journalist.
Back then, everything was arranged for you by the [Communist]
Party -- you were assigned a government minder who stayed with
you at all times, you had an official set of meetings arranged
for you. I had to meet old friends in secret and couldn't just
randomly interview people.
Did it get easier as you kept coming back?
Well, in 1991 I was banned for a while. I had been coming
back to work on different things -- one visit to look at arts,
another time to do radio reporting, another time to write a
film script or to meet with authors to produce an anthology.
The government couldn't tell what I was up to and must not have
liked what I was doing, so they banned me. Another time I was
under a sort of house arrest, kept in my hotel for a week. This
time around, an official at the consulate showed me my file
-- it was a document a couple of inches thick. It said things
like, "This guy is awake at 4 a.m. emailing Asia; he's up at
all hours." Now the Party has relaxed things a lot. We were
able to travel independently for FRONTLINE/World. But
people still practice self-censorship.
How do you mean?
I know a lot of writers and intellectuals. Privately, they'll
say anything. But often they won't talk on camera or on the
record. They're afraid that they won't be published or they
won't get a visa to travel abroad or they'll lose their privileges.
Nguyen talks with teachers about the Vietnamese education system.
I even have an uncle -- a cousin of my mother -- who's the
chief ideologue of the Party. But I couldn't interview him because
it wouldn't do him any good to be seen with a foreign journalist,
particularly a Vietnamese American. These days in Vietnam you
can say a lot, but you still can't directly challenge the power
of the Party. It would have been great to have his view on where
the Party was heading.
You report on a huge cultural change, though: the explosion
of business and tourism and foreign investment and the influence
of Western pop culture.
This is what's so hard for outsiders to grasp: Vietnam is
a communist country, but really it's a capitalist country. On
this trip, I was in a cafÈ with a woman in her 30s, and I asked
her if she knew the anniversary date of the founding of the
Communist Party of Vietnam. She looked at me as if I were out
of my mind and said she had no idea. Meanwhile, we were sitting
directly under these huge banners proclaiming the anniversary.
The anniversary was on that very same day. She just couldn't
There are tourists everywhere -- after 9/11 and the bombing
in Bali, Vietnam started marketing itself as the safe alternative
for tourists. And Americans -- well, Americans are obsessed
with Vietnam. They bombed the hell out of it, and now, 30 years
later, they want to learn about the culture. Hanoi's old architecture
has been preserved because tourists love that Indochine-style
romance of the colonial era. Meanwhile, you go to nightclubs
in Saigon [Ho Chi Minh City] and you might as well be in California.
In the rural areas, of course, people are still terribly poor.
But in the cities there are rich kids driving fancy cars and
taking ecstasy, and Internet cafÈs are blooming everywhere.
Nobody wears traditional dress anymore, unless they work in
a hotel. The national dress is usually in a shop for foreign
What's the impact of all these changes on Vietnamese artists
A former Viet Minh soldier and Nguyen discuss the war.
The art scene's changed too. In 1986, with the "renovation"
[the arrival of market socialism], writers finally broke away
from that heroic socialist realism, hero-of-the-Party thing,
and a window opened. Writers began to explore the dark side
of life under the revolution -- abortion clinics, the disillusion
of youth, a society of manipulators who'd abandoned traditional
values. Then in the mid-1990s, there was a lot of identity stuff:
Who are we? What has this rush toward capitalism meant for Vietnam?
Now I see a lot more experimental writing, more personal and
even sexual work, really wild. I think the new generation has
been looking at China and thinking, "Hey, this is what young
writers can do." Their language is much more vernacular, much
more street. And, of course, it's influenced by global pop culture.
So capitalism is what's driving Vietnam now?
Corruption is. Not just the drug trade, though that's huge.
But legitimate businesses run on corruption too. You see all
these buildings going up everywhere? Every construction company
has to budget so much for kickbacks: this much to the police,
this much to the local official, this much to the military,
this much to the Mafia. You see all these new businesses? Every
one has had to spread bribes around to get permits. Foreign
investors often have to deal with fixers and middlemen. Everyone
is making money under the table. If I want to get something
done, I don't count on the government. Sure, I go to the government
to get my official papers. But, as the old saying goes, the
king's rule stops at the village gate. Once I want to get down
to real business, I go to my cousin's brother's wife's friend,
who knows somebody who knows somebody.
It's all about kickbacks, in one sense. But in another sense,
it's all about connections. And that's what's always sustained
Vietnam -- networks of personal and family connections.
When you're in Vietnam, are you still part of those networks?
Of course. I ran into a woman whom I was best friends with
in high school. She was working on a Ph.D. through a university
abroad and needed to go to France to defend her thesis -- she
was studying the language used in private journals, and it would
be hard for her to do her thesis inside the country. Because
we'd had this friendship when we were young, she asked me to
be a sponsor. I'm afraid one day she'll call me and I'd have
to marry her and bring her out of Vietnam.
Someone I met in 1995, an artist, asked me to write a couple
of lines about his paintings. He was very poor, quite unknown.
He started producing paintings for tourists and for export,
and now he's hugely successful and has bought up all this beachside
property. I saw him on this last trip, and he offered to give
me a piece of property. "This town's booming," he said, "and
you've helped me, and I want to give you some real estate. You
couldn't afford to buy anything here yourself."
Wow, a beachside villa. Doesn't it tempt you to think about
Over the years, I have entertained that thought -- I love
the place and want so much to live there. But I worry that I
can't function freely as a writer and a journalist, and also
I'm afraid I'd become totally corrupt within three weeks. People
are awfully nice, always ready to do me favors. I'd have to
pay people off. I'd be the new colonialist.
You've written about the timeless quality of Vietnam, about
the traditional values of loyalty and family. Do you think those
values can survive the arrival of global capitalism?
Vietnam has survived everything -- Confucianism, Catholicism,
Daoism, the Chinese, the French, the Americans, war, death,
revolution, communism, the mob, capitalism. It's like the traffic
in Vietnam: It's all mixed up together, but it has a flow. And
at the end, the values of family and community are what hold
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