Frontline World

VIETNAM, Looking for Home, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "Vietnam: Looking for Home"

Slideshow From a Watery Landscape

Between the Lines

Land, People, History, Economy

War, Culture, Politics, Travel




Pacific Time
Hear more reports from Nguyen Qui Duc, who also hosts KQED Public Radio's weekly program Pacific Time, exploring the ideas, trends and cultural patterns that flow back and forth between Asia and America.

The Story
Classroom, Halong Bay, Motorcycles in the street

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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 back shelves.

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 much.

"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

Camille Servan-Schreiber

Josh Peterson
Jay Hansell

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