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VIETNAM, Looking for Home, May 2003

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Interview with Nguyen Qui Duc: Between the Lines
Read excerpts from The Time Tree. See artwork by Nguyen Qui Duc. FRONTLINE/World Web 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).

Nguyen Qui Duc on HaLong Bay

Nguyen Qui Duc on HaLong Bay in Northern Vietnam, February 2003.
You left Vietnam when you were 17. What was it like the first time you returned?

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?

Nguyen talks with teachers

Nguyen talks with teachers about the Vietnamese education system.
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.

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 be bothered.

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 guests.

A former Viet Minh soldier and Nguyen

A former Viet Minh soldier and Nguyen discuss the war.
What's the impact of all these changes on Vietnamese artists and writers?

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?

Nguyen standing near a lake
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.

Nguyen in the city
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 moving back?

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 everything together.

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