You might have noticed I’ve not really mentioned The War. It’s a defining point of Vietnam’s history of the last century, and ultimately brought about the unification of the country as a whole for the first time since the French colonisation in the 1850s. So after great efforts to ignore it, as I head into the south of Vietnam, it’s time to catch up. My guide Minh was an officer in The War, and as promised gave me the background I needed for this post. I wanted something more personable than the history books, and Minh was invaluable in providing me with both.
Ho Chi Minh, or Uncle Ho was the founding member of the French communist party, and believed in Vietnam for the Vietnamese. He was respected by everyone both in the north and south and is still considered to be a great man by everyone I’ve met. After World War I, France were trying to reduce the resources it was committing to its colonies, and the Indochinese Communist Party was formed, at a time when unemployment and poverty were at their highest. Not unsurprisingly.the Vietnamese welcomed the idea of change with open arms. The new Vietnam looked a lot more attractive than the mess they were in at the moment.
World War II hit, and provided Ho Chi Minh with the opportunity he had been waiting for. It demonstrated the weakness of their colonial masters, and saw the Japanese taking control of coal mines, rice fields and military installations. The Japanese were running high on “Asia for the Asians”, but this wasn’t enough for Ho Chi Minh, who wanted to give his country back to his people. Hiroshima, and the Japanese surrender kicked off the August Revolution, and the Democratic Republic of Vietnam was established in Hanoi ruling North Vietnam.
“Who do you think the war was between?”, Minh asked me. “Russia and America”, I replied. “Yes, the communists and capitalists. Vietnam was just symbol, as Iraq is now.” He doesn’t consider it a civil war between the north and south, but two superpowers fighting it out in his country. America had been supporting the French war in Indochina since 1950. In 1955, they began funding the training of Diem’s army in the south. America believed that if Vietnam fell to communism, the entire region would follow – something they were very keen to avoid. Not least because of what it would mean for US access to trade routes, raw materials and markets. I was already drawing plenty of cynical parallels with Iraq.
In August 1964, America stopped providing just money and properly entered the war. At this time, Minh was attending university, he was given the choice to fight, or to carry on with his education. He chose, like many others to fight for his country. Being born and living in the south, he fought on the side of the Americans. It had nothing to do with belief, he tells me – simply where you were. By 1973, the Americans and the south were defeated. Giving power to the communist rule from Hanoi.
It wasn’t the end of the hardships for Minh and many like him. He was sent to a re-education camp because he fought on the losing side. This was a labour camp, and conditions unpleasant. It all depends on position in the war, rank, and what you did. But the length of time in the camps was different for everyone. If he had been forced to spend 3 years, he would have been automatically allowed to go to America when he left. Minh speaks with disappointment that he was only there for two years, and not eligible. “Would you still go now?” I ask him. “Of course”.
Once released, he’s not allowed to move city without prior government approval and forced to report to the police station every week. Minh still feels a bitterness towards having to give his every movement in detail. At the end of the two years, the police interviewed his neighbours to find out if he has changed, and has become a good person. Because of this, he says it’s very difficult to trust anyone, even now. Your neighbour, your friend could be reporting you to the police, or to your enemy. He’s still wary of the north, not that there is recognisable danger. But history has proven that there could be.
I ask the inevitable, “What do you see for the future? For Vietnam? For your children?” He sees both as the same. Minh endeavours to set a good example for his two sons. “Every day, we sit and we eat together as a family. Sometimes they are busy, they are grown up – family of their own. So sometimes once a week.” He believes the future relies on two things, education and experience. He uses these times with his family for education. “Experience,” he explains “they must learn that for themselves.”
Minh looks to the west for his countries future. He believes Vietnam has a lot to learn from America and Europe. “What do you think of the collapse of the world economy? Does it affect you?” Minh starts laughing hard, a long throaty laugh that spreads slowly across his face. “Financial crisis”, he chuckles. Minh doesn’t appear worried.