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More than 30 years ago, the war in Vietnam shattered Nguyen
Qui Duc's childhood. He returned to his homeland this year for
FRONTLINE/World, looking, he says, "for home, for a bit
of myself, for a country that always exists in my memory."
Nguyen begins his journey in his native city of Hue. He has
no relatives left there now but adopts the new owner of his grandfather's
house as his uncle. The man has kept an altar
for Nguyen's grandparents for many years.
Hue, located just south of the 17th parallel, is the city
that bore the brunt of the Tet Offensive in 1968, when the North
Vietnamese launched an attack that proved to a be a key turning
point in the Vietnam War. South Vietnamese and American troops
fought for 26 days to regain the town. Hue was all but leveled,
and thousands of civilians were killed. Hundreds went missing,
among them Nguyen's father, then a regional governor, who was
taken to the North as a political prisoner.
Nguyen did not see his father for the next 16 years.
Nguyen's conversation with his adopted uncle turns, inevitably,
to the war and its aftermath. Once a Viet Cong soldier, the
man thinks the war was regrettable and avoidable. "We could
have chosen another path," he says, "in order to shake hands
with America sooner than we did." He's critical of the way that
Vietnamese schools teach history now -- a one-sided glorification
of the Vietnamese Communist Party's triumph over France and
America. He says it was more of a civil war.
But the truth -- or at least a different truth -- is just
a few keystrokes away on the Internet. And this has the principal
at a local school very concerned. Despite the strict controls
of the school, laws and cultural agencies, the principal fears
her students may still get access to something "unexpected."
What's unexpected to Nguyen is how quickly this country, one
of five communist countries left in the world, is coming to
resemble the fast-paced capitalist world. In Saigon, the former
southern capital, 8 million people jostle to carve out a living.
A policy known as "renovation" is reforming the economic system.
Some refugees are even returning from the United States to set up shop.
One such man is Phuc Tran, an old high school friend of Nguyen's,
who runs the Vietnam offices for software giant Intel. Over
lunch, Phuc tells Nguyen that if Vietnam is to compete in the
21st-century economy, it has no choice but to continue opening
up to the West. "Look at China," points out the businessman,
who feels he's come back to his country at just the right time.
Of course, the Communist Party does not embrace all changes
with open arms. Recently in Saigon, a bar opened with dancing
naked go-go girls. At another spot, rich kids were routinely
passing out from overdoses of ecstasy. The government shut both
places right down.
But one business that no one seems to argue with is tourism.
Heralded in these post-September 11 times as one of the safest
places in Asia to travel, Vietnam hosted more than 2.5 million tourists
in 2002 alone. Nguyen watches the construction as, brick by
brick, a small town transforms its beachfront into a resort
and convention center.
And then there is the part of the country where life is unchanged,
and peasants still harvest rice in soggy fields. Nguyen speaks
to a farmer about her crop. In one year, the woman, who is not
a young woman by any means, can harvest about two tons of rice,
which sells for about $130. And this is what she lives on, supporting
herself and two sons.
Heading to the North, Nguyen travels to Hanoi in time for
Tet, the celebration of the Lunar New Year. Nguyen finds the
Ho Chi Minh mausoleum, but few other signs of communism. Ho
Chi Minh's portraits, he notices, have all but disappeared from
the walls, and his busts seemed to have been tucked away onto
In a flower market, his friend Tran Thuy Duong shops with
Nguyen for the traditional peach blossoms and kumquats to bring
good luck in the new year. Tran teaches English at an elite
high school in Hanoi, where not so long ago it was a crime to
speak the language. Nguyen met some of her students, and he
asked them about the war. They hem, they haw -- they don't know
"They are teenagers," Tran explains. "They were born long
after the war ended, and that's why even the parents don't want
to tell them much about the war. Because now we live in peace.
We should forget about the past -- we should know, we should
learn, but we should forget."
And forget they have, at least some of them. Nguyen watches
with wonder as students sing and dance to American pop music
-- if the United States didn't succeed in exporting democracy
to Vietnam, it certainly has gotten through with pop culture.
Looking for traditions that have endured, Nguyen finds a water
puppet show, the ancient art that once entertained villagers
throughout the North. But while the shows have survived, the
audience has not -- the theater is now filled only with tourists.
So who are the Vietnamese people? What is Vietnam? Nguyen
Qui Duc heads east from Hanoi to the immense and watery landscape
of Ha Long Bay, where, he says, "it is easier to know who you
are. The vastness of it all dwarfs even the deepest wounds of
war. It dwarfs the fears of a lost identity."
On the water Nguyen remembers that Vietnam is, above all else,
a nation of survival. From without and within, the changes will
surely keep coming, but the people and the culture will survive.
Nguyen Qui Duc
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