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Vietnam after 25 years

Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam

Nearly three decades had passed since our last visit to my wife’s family in the Mekong Delta when we arrived at Tan Son Nhut airport on a morning flight from Bangkok, Thailand. Rows of old hangers that once protected U.S. planes from 122-mm rockets served as ghostly reminders of another time.

Once the busiest airport in the world, Tan Son Nhut was almost sleepy when we stepped off the plane in January into the heat of the day. Inside the terminal, we were directed to customs officials dressed in those familiar olive uniforms and caps with red stars. These were serious people, scrutinizing papers before stamping visas with red ink. They never looked up and were the only Vietnamese during a two-week stay that were less than warm and friendly.

Twenty-five years after the U.S. defeat on April 30, 1975, when U.S. Marines scooped the last escaping Vietnamese from the roof of the U.S. embassy, Vietnam does not go away. It shaped the lives of my generation and continues to haunt our nation in subtle ways. For some of us it remains an explosive and dangerous force. Memories, sometimes buried deeply, are approached gingerly, with trepidation and respect.

Vietnam was always complex, always personal. During the war I found it easier to live in Vietnam, close to the victims of our war, than in my homeland, where too often people seemed not to care.

Setting out for Vietnam this year, I sensed it could be an explosive experience, but also had the potential to offer healing. I wondered what we would find. So large a story. No event had a greater impact on our nation in the second half of the 20th century. The war seems almost mythical, a 10-year morality play with lasting lessons. At the same time, it is so simple. It is about what happens to the lives of people who have essentially the same fears and dreams as the rest of us. It is a kaleidoscope. Each time you look through it you see something new.

The last time my wife, Hoa (pronounced Wa), and I returned to Vietnam was in 1989 when Hanoi was just beginning to peek out from behind its postwar isolationist shell. Everything seemed uncertain then. People went out of their way to receive us, but there seemed to be a guardedness to each step forward. This time that hesitancy had all but disappeared.

Once outside the terminal, I was relieved to find that taxi drivers no longer grab at arms and hustle luggage as they once did, vying for passengers. The government has imposed new order. The National Tourist Association has taken charge, setting the fare into the city at $10 a person. Rows of clean, white, air-conditioned Japanese autos sit ready to whisk new arrivals to their destinations.

The young man we were directed toward took our luggage, smiled and soon set out on a newly paved, wide showcase road that approaches the airport. He was supposed to direct us to one of the more expensive hotels, but he knew this woman who ran a less expensive hotel, he said, and quarters there would be adequate. He eventually confided that he would take a cut in pay for diverting us.

Welcome to Vietnam’s new economics, a mixture of formal government planning and renegade entrepreneurism. The residents of Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, have long held a “do-what-you-need-to” approach to work. Sometimes it drives the communists crazy. Especially in the South, people prize their sense of self-reliance.

Hoa and I were among the 530,000 foreigners, many of them Viet kieu, (returning Vietnamese), to travel to Vietnam during the first three months of the year, a “14 percent” increase over the same period last year, boasted a report in the Vietnam Economic Times, one of many new business journals that push trade and foreign investment. The publication would have been a target of the communists a decade or so back. Today they are among its sponsors.

A lead story in the Times’ April 7 issue, available on the expanding Vietnamese Internet, features news of the creation of a pilot MBA program, “to be taught in English,” at the Hanoi National Economics University beginning later this year. It appears there will be no shortage of candidates. There is no shortage of irony in Vietnam today.

Lessons that haunt

Visitors who set foot in Vietnam and open themselves to these graceful and enduring people eventually learn about ghosts. The Vietnamese believe their deceased live among them, require food and prayers and, if disrupted, can haunt them for years. I wonder if our own nation might be haunted?

War veterans are tortured by post-Vietnam stress syndrome. Many have returned to Vietnam to reconcile their souls. Vietnam grips the thinking of U.S. policy-makers who seem to cite the lessons of the war, however skewed they consider those to be, when explaining the pros and cons of some new adventure. The American people remember the images of the body bags -- and have developed a healthy aversion to combat. Unfortunately, the antidote has been “cleaner and safer” air wars. The old warriors who first brought us Vietnam seem unable to purge their sins. Not long ago Robert McNamara, Secretary of Defense in the Kennedy and Johnson administrations, felt the need to write a book about the subject -- and then visit Hanoi. The Vietnamese, always gracious, received him cordially. The graciousness of most Vietnamese can unsettle visitors. Years ago, the French talked about la malaise de l’Indochine, a post-colonial melancholy that trapped their psyches. They understood Vietnam’s lure.

Refugees chart a new course

I was fresh out of Stanford and filled with ’60s idealism in June 1966, when I volunteered for Vietnam. I would not go as a soldier for I was already opposed to the war. I would, however, go as a civilian volunteer to live and work with war refugees. At age 22, I found Vietnam both frightening and fascinating. After days in the country, I flew to Nha Trang in central Vietnam for a month of intensive language training. I then flew to Tuy Hoa, which would be my new home, in a small passenger plane that I later learned was operated by the CIA. I struggled at first to communicate but eventually learned simple Vietnamese. Language became the means of crossing into a new and exotic culture. Many times I would think: There are only two types of Americans in Vietnam, those who speak the language and those who don’t. The former knew the Vietnamese better -- and almost always opposed the war, or at least, the way it was being conducted.

I was assigned to work with refugees in two camps, Dong Tac and Ninh Tinh. These farmer families had been re-settled on land where almost nothing grew. Hunger, disease and death were pervasive. The refugees had been forbidden by the American and South Vietnamese governments from returning to their villages, but some refused to listen, preferring to return and die close to their ancestors. Their villages had almost all been destroyed by bombs. The areas had been designated by the military as “free fire zones,” meaning anything seen to move was fair game. Young soldiers began to see people, alleged Viet Cong, as game. U.S. helicopter gunships set out each day to hunt the area.

The idea of hunting people is almost inconceivable. It made sense, however, to war proponents, using the logic of war. Sometimes pilots chased water buffalo for fun; sometimes they would go after Viet Cong in black pajamas, not realizing that most ordinary peasants wore black pajamas. The cultural gulf was wide and often impenetrable.

I lived in a small house on the edge of the city, resisting the American compound on the beach, secured behind barbed wire. The nights were long and frightening. The Viet Cong controlled the countryside and occasionally would attack the city, usually between midnight and 4 a.m. When firefights erupted and mortar fire began to fall on the town, I would hide beneath my bed, hoping the town would not be overrun. I was, after all, just one more American.

Those years led to several more in which I variously studied Southeast Asia in graduate school and returned to Vietnam as a journalist. I traveled the country and saw more of the war than I ever imagined I would. I never remember myself being brave. I feared every battlefield I was forced to encounter.

Sometimes I would assist Congressional fact-finding teams, introducing them to Saigon opposition forces. Officials at the U.S. Embassy thought I was “soft” on communism. I would make sure “fact-finders” got to meet people not on the official lists: Catholic intellectuals, Buddhist monks, students and former political prisoners. During one visit I flew to Con Son Island off the coast of Vietnam with then-Congressman Robert Drinan, a Jesuit priest, where we entered a large prison complex and talked to old men who had been locked up for decades.

It was during that time that I met my future wife. Hoa was born into a Buddhist family, which converted to Catholicism when she was a young girl. She went to Catholics schools, was taught by French nuns and eventually became a social worker. When we met in 1970, she was working in a halfway house, mothering war-injured children, mostly paraplegics, the victims of U.S. explosives. During the “Christmas bombing” of Hanoi in 1972, we left the country. We constructed a smaller world in the United States and raised three children.

A war nobody owns

Hanoi has opened to the West. The diplomacy has been complex and characterized by understandable ambivalence. Analysts reason that Vietnam may view China as the greater threat. What is clear is that Vietnam is poor and desperately needs foreign assistance. While Hanoi has warmed to America, it has not forgotten the war. During our two-week stay, Hanoi visibly prepared to celebrate the defeat of “the American imperialism.” Vietnam sees no contradiction in this.

It has long been communist dogma to distinguish between policy and people. The Vietnamese government sees the old Washington policymakers and their supporting forces as the former enemy. They see the American people, true or not, as simply victims of the war. In part they are victims of their own propaganda. During the war, they inflated the breadth of the antiwar movement and eventually came to believe most Americas were against the war all along.

At times, speaking to friends and other associates in Vietnam, I am tempted to set the record straight, but usually just let it be. Most Vietnamese like Americans, whom they view as friendly, if not a little naïve.

Neither Vietnam nor America has ever claimed ownership of the war. Americans always speak of “the Vietnam war.” In Vietnam it is always called “the American war.” Scars among the Vietnamese linger, even though time has swallowed much of the bitterness. A generation of Vietnamese passed from sight. Memories are fading.

Many Americans don’t give Vietnam much thought. When they do they often pick up the story where they left off -- at the end of chapter titled “War.” They fail to recognize, however, that Vietnam has lived through several more chapters of its history. So now, when Americans and Vietnamese approach the subject of Vietnam, each does so from different points in the story. This can lead to misunderstandings. The Vietnamese sometimes think Americans are fixated on the past; Americans who return to Vietnam often have a hard time understanding how Vietnamese could have left the war so far behind them.

Simple demographics help explain. Vietnam’s population, with a galloping 3.3 percent growth rate, has nearly doubled, to 79 million, since the war’s end. Half the nation is under 20. Life spans in Vietnam are shorter. Only one in three Vietnamese today has living memory of the tragedy.

From revolution to lattés, Nikes

A generation ago, Vietnamese generals planned battles; today, they see to it their battalions get a slice of lucrative economic deals. Revolutionaries set policy during the war. Their children now hold key government posts. But instead of developing five-year economic plans, they are out courting capital. The children of this generation, meanwhile, ride to school on some of the 1.5 million Hondas that pack Ho Chi Minh City streets. They walk around in Nikes shoes and wear designer labels. They sip lattés in local cafes and arrange weekend dates on their cell phones.

Trinh Cong Son was Vietnam’s most popular antiwar singer during the war, a Vietnamese Bob Dylan. He was a massive headache for the Saigon government, which could not decide whether letting him sing or arresting him would do more damage to the anticommunist cause.

Twenty-five years ago, when communist troops were knocking on the doors of the city, Trinh Cong Son chose not to flee with thousands of his countrymen, although most of his family did. After the war he spent four years planting rice and manioc amid old American and Viet Cong minefields along the Laotian border. Now a gaunt and frail 61, he said recently that the communist government tolerates him and leaves him alone. There is no censorship, he told a reporter, but added that artists in Vietnam have learned a sort of self-censorship. “It is like children in a family. You tell them they are free to do what they want to do, but that they must be responsible for their actions.” Asked about life in Vietnam today, he answered: “Now people are in pursuit of the good life, everyone is chasing money.”

New life, exuberance, prosperity

Gone is the solemn wartime mood of Ho Chi Minh City, with its midnight curfews and late night flares illuminating battlefields on the city’s edge. Life has exploded onto the streets. There seems to be an intensity to the new moment. Buildings are being constructed. Internet cafés are popping up everywhere. Despite some recent financial setbacks, the country appears vibrant. The young, especially, have little time to think of the past. They also have little patience for inept leaders. Hanoi allows as many as 1,300 students to study in the United States each year, but appears to remain suspicious of their thinking when they return.

Despite a new sense of optimism in Vietnam today, society remains broken. It is hard to find a family that has not been fragmented by the war. Not like in the past when the young went off to battle leaving parents and siblings behind. The brokenness today is the result of the great post-war diasporas. Some 2.5 million have fled the country for political reasons, most to the United States, Canada, France, Australia; some even to the northern tip of Norway. In the past three or four years these refugees have felt that conditions have changed enough to allow them to return to see family. They come in increasing numbers, many bringing much-appreciated revenue. Connections have recently been enhanced by new telephones, faxes and e-mail addresses.

The streets of Vietnam’s cities are lined with all sorts of consumer goods, from sinks to women’s apparel, from Hondas to plastic toys, from sandals to one-hour photo shops. Merchants everywhere hawk their wares. A glistening new foreign trade center towers over the Ho Chi Minh City landscape.

It is commonly said here, sometimes in sadness, other times in jest, that Vietnam won the war, but lost the revolution. Thinking back to the 3 million Vietnamese war deaths and 58,209 names etched on the Vietnam War Memorial wall, I found myself thinking, “If only we could have lost the war sooner …”

History lessons lost forever

It was on April 30, 1975, that North Vietnamese troops marched victoriously into Saigon. They stormed the presidential palace with tanks and Viet Cong flags. One Russian tank still sits on the grounds of the old palace today, a reminder of that glorious day, which gets explained now as having been about nationalism and independence and driving out foreign aggressors.

Part of the tragedy was that those U.S. policymakers who dogged the war, sent the poor and young into battle, never took the time to understand what it was all about. Five minutes of Vietnamese history could have taught lessons which, if learned, could have saved millions of lives.

Vietnam means “people from the south.” Many centuries ago the region was part of the Chinese empire. It broke away, but not before centuries of Vietnamese battles exhausted their enemy. Vietnamese national heroes were those who led the country in battle. When the French colonialists arrived they fell into the Chinese template. It took Vietnamese nationalists 100 years to drive them out. Would America fare better?

Ho Chi Minh, the young anti-French nationalist who as a young man washed dishes in a New York hotel, drew up the Vietnamese constitution. He patterned it after the U.S. Constitution, which he had grown to admire. When the Japanese lost World War II and were forced out of Indochina, Ho Chi Minh begged the United States to persuade the French not to return. President Truman lacked the experience and insight of Roosevelt and gave the nod to the returning colonialists. A new phase of Vietnamese resistance had begun. In lasted until the Vietnamese defeated the French at Dien Bien Phu in 1954.

The Geneva Peace Accords that followed called for a two-year division of Vietnam, into North and South. Communists went north; anticommunists, many encouraged by the CIA, which invoked the name of the Blessed Virgin, went south.

The United States chose Ngo Dinh Diem to head the new Saigon regime. They found him in a New York seminary. Catholic anticommunism became a central ingredient in the master plan.

Step by step, U.S. officials, blind to history, guided by rabid anticommunism, edged America into the Vietnam quagmire.

Once in the war, U.S. ignorance and arrogance sealed the looming defeat, which took 10 years and massive disruption to achieve. Le Duan, the chief of communist dogma during the war, wrote with confidence at the time that victory was certain. He explained that Americans were fighting the wrong war. Theirs, he said, was a military war. The real war was political. Years later, CIA analysts said they knew it all along but did not have the clout to change the course of events. No one, however, that I know resigned in protest of the policy. So much for patriotism.

It was not the policymakers who paid the price. The average age of the 58,209 dead whose names are etched onto the Vietnam War Memorial wall in Washington is just over 23 years.

MIA searches baffle Vietnamese

Americans opened their parishes and homes in 1975 to some 180,000 fleeing boat people. They were the first of several waves. Most of those who came to American are model citizens today, high achievers. They believe in and are living out the American dream.

From the end of the war, however, Washington refused steadfastly to recognize any obligation to Vietnam. There would be absolutely no reparations. To the contrary, well after the last POWs had been released and were back on American soil, Washington was demanding accountability for its MIAs. There is more irony here.

Hundreds of thousands of young Viet Cong and North Vietnamese soldiers disappeared during the war. Few of their bodies were ever recovered. Little has been said about their gravesites or returning their bodies to their families. This is primarily because Vietnam lacks the money and technical ability to even approach the problem. Yet Washington has made the price of normalization with Vietnam the full discovery of all missing MIAs.

One evening, over beer, I talked to a group of Vietnamese journalists, who expressed their frustration and incredulity over U.S. demands that Vietnam step up efforts to recover American remains. Washington has pressed for new excavations by joint U.S.-Vietnamese teams to dig through mud for bone fragments, aimed at solving MIA questions through the use of DNA. The Vietnamese see a disturbing double standard -- and find it hard to swallow.

Last month Vietnam laid out a red-carpet welcome for William Cohen. He was in the country only for hours but visited an excavation site where Vietnamese cut through layers of mud in search for missing bone fragments.

In a interview earlier this month, Vietnamese general, Vo Nguyen Giap, 88, who designed and led the campaigns against the French and the Americans, said of the matter: “We can put the past behind, but we cannot completely forget it. As we help in finding missing U.S. soldiers, the United States should also help Vietnam overcome the extremely enormous consequences of the war.’’

Poverty in Vietnam remains the norm

Despite progress, Vietnam remains a poor nation where the average person earns only one dollar a day. It is a country that has been forced to recover from war virtually on its own. Its prime patron, the Soviet Union, dissolved almost overnight a decade back. Yet during the past 10 years Vietnam has struggled to come back. It has reduced poverty more dramatically than almost any other country in the world -- from 58 percent of the populace in 1993 to 37 percent in 1998, according to the World Bank. More than 90 percent of the population can read. In most countries with a comparable level of development, the infant mortality rate stands between 60 and 90 per 1,000 live births. Vietnam’s rate is 34.

The gap between rich and poor remains and is growing. Yet more Vietnamese have access to money today than ever in recent memory. One reason is that the quarter million Viet kieu who live overseas send significant sums of money back home, now well over a billion dollars a year. Since most of those who fled Vietnam once lived in the South, the region has done better in the postwar era than has the North, much to the chagrin of those Northerners who generally run the country.

Communism loses its luster

Communism seems to have lost whatever luster it might once have had. Everywhere there is talk about government corruption. Most place the blame at the feet of the inbred Communist Party. Magazines and newspapers routinely criticize government officials though, at times, obliquely.

A prominent retired general, Tran Do, in the first installment of his memoirs, written in September 1998, went so far as to question the notions of class struggle and a centralized government. Coming from the onetime ideology chief of the party, his views have had considerable influence. The current leadership, meanwhile, lacks the illustrious revolutionary credentials of its predecessors. Men in their 60s, they played only a small role in the struggle for independence against the French and were only mid-level cadre during the war against the Americans.

Perhaps as a defensive move, Hanoi recently tried and sentenced three communist party members to prison terms. Some say it is the system, riddled with bribery and payoffs, that is corrupt.

Vietnam is no Stalinist state. People here speak their minds freely, even to strangers. Local communist cadre are often the objects of ridicule. Beneath politics and ideology, people have an optimism I had not seen here before. “Life is better today than it was 10 years ago,” a cab driver told me. Though poor, he says things will be better for his young son. The driver works up to 18 hours a day and often sleeps in the car to earn enough to feed his wife and small child.

People like to say that many of Vietnam’s 2 million Communist Party members are opportunists, that they don’t believe much in communism. This seems quite plausible.

Brothers, once foes, put past behind

My mother-in-law grew up in the village of O Mon in the Mekong Delta. Years after the war had ended, she had come to live with us. Wracked by Alzheimer’s, she would talk to herself and to our children, often incoherently, about the good life in O Mon. Actually O Mon is a Khmer word, reminding anyone who cares to ponder the past, that 150 years ago Vietnam’s southern delta belonged to Cambodia. My wife has early childhood memories of being hidden in a rice field to be protected from marauding Cambodians. Lesson: Vietnam has its own imperialist history.

We wanted to see O Mon. One morning we set off from Ho Chi Minh City on a Russian hydro boat to the delta city of Can Tho, the largest city in the South. Only wealthy Vietnamese can afford the $15 fare for the four-hour ride. The cabin is air-conditioned and the ride more expansive, though not much faster, than taking a crowded van or bus south on Highway One. On board were a mix of Vietnamese businessmen and Viet kieu coming back to visit families. When river growth clogged the turbines and forced the boat’s engines to shut down for the fifth time, one snide comment I overheard was, “What can you expect? It’s Russian-made.”

The Russians never came in large numbers to Vietnam following the war. Russians who lived in Vietnam in the ’70s and ’80s did not spend money as Americans once did. Vietnamese like to refer to Russians as “poor Americans.” Most young Vietnamese, when choosing a foreign language, decide on English.

When we arrived in Can Tho, more than a dozen members of my wife’s family were waiting for us, all smiles, at the docks. While we visited in homes in Can Tho, talk centered on family and each meal ended with dishes of fresh mango, papaya, tangerines and bananas.

The drive to O Mon from Can Tho is about 30 kilometers by taxi, up the highway and then over a dirt road that leads to small market that rests at a river crossing. Small boats capable of holding four to six passengers at the cost of five cents a ride (children and communist cadre travel free) carry locals from bank to bank, a 30 meter trip.

It is fairly safe to travel in Vietnam today. Young backpackers are free to wander the country. Some local authorities, however, can be suspicious of foreigners. That apparently was why my wife’s family thought it wise that we be greeted just off the main road, some five miles from O Mon, by a cousin named Anh Nam. The last time I was in Vietnam, he was still a guerrilla, fighting in the ranks of the Viet Cong. Now retired and respected locally, he would answer whatever questions might arise.

We were greeted in O Mon by uncles and aunts and cousins and young offspring. Hot tea was served as we sat near a grove of banana trees. It was not long, however, before Anh Nam signaled to me that he wanted to talk, inviting me to walk with him to a nearby soup stand for noodles and coffee.

He was eager to tell me his story. We were family and family in Vietnam transcends politics, even war. We were soon talking about the hardships the family faced during the war and he told me he had never spoken to an American so frankly before. We seemed eager to show each other that the war had never really separated us. He said he had heard that I had opposed the war. This made me “even more of a friend of Vietnam,” he said.

Anh Nam said he left the family like other idealistic Vietnamese, going north in 1954. It was an act of patriotism, he said. He returned south to join the resistance in the early 1960s and settled in Tay Ninh province, northwest of Saigon. He explained he had been a young lieutenant in the Viet Cong. He lived in the jungles, he said. I remembered the area as one that had been heavily bombed by B-52s. Of all the bombs that fell on Vietnam, none were more terrifying than those from the B-52s. They flew silently at 30,000 feet and let loose a rain of destruction, carpeting huge swaths of land with 5,000-pound bombs. The rumblings could be heard up to 30 miles. I asked Anh Nam how he survived those bombings.

He told me he slept underground in tunnels but moved about freely in the underbrush during the day. He did not fear the bombs, he said to my surprise. Each time the B-52s took off from Guam and Thailand, he said, his forces would be tipped to the location of the drop. They would then have an hour or more to vacate the area. With a broad smile, he explained that the very Vietnamese who chose the targets for the U.S. Air Force were also feeding information to the targeted North Vietnamese troops and Viet Cong troops.

“The main difference between the Americans and the Vietnamese is that we believed in what we were fighting for, freedom and independence,” he told me.

Anh Nam is proud but worried too. He feels his life of sacrifices helped win the war. He is concerned, though, for the country. “The young are not as idealistic,” he said. “They want all the new things.” He sees little or no revolutionary zeal in the younger generation, which, he says he has difficulty understanding. “Material things can make people selfish,” he said, “and turn them from the needs of the whole society.”

I spoke with other aging revolutionaries and each eventually shared the same worry about the future of Vietnam: The young don’t think as they once did.

Some hours later, I sat at a table with Anh Nam and his older brother, who had also been a lieutenant during the war -- but for the South Vietnamese army, not the Viet Cong. To stress to me the importance of family and that reconciliation had long ago occurred in Vietnam, the men shook hands and asked me to snap their picture.

From Viet Cong tunnels to Happy Meals

Gone in Vietnam today are the fierce ideological divisions that once divided the country and allowed it to become a pawn in the Cold War. Gone also is the postwar isolationism that characterized the hard-line communists from 1975 to 1986. It was the ascension to the top party leadership post of an open-minded former Ho Chi Minh City mayor in the mid-1980s and doi moi (new life), the new pragmatism that began to move Vietnam forward.

After decades of rural collectives and meager Soviet imports, the Vietnamese, North and South, were hungry for foreign goods. Old style communist collectives had failed miserably. Much of the country needed infrastructure -- new telephone networks, power grids, banks, roads, dams, hotels -- and foreign investors were eager to meet the needs. The Vietnamese government began to open to foreign investment as the United States lifted its two decade-old trade embargo in 1994 and established full diplomatic relations the following year. By 1996, with more than 400 U.S. firms doing business with Vietnam, the economy was growing by 9 percent a year. However that first wave of exuberance faded as businessmen confronted the Vietnamese bureaucracy, a slippery legal system, and as Hanoi insisted on maintaining some central government control.

Vietnam last year initialed a free-trade agreement with the United States that would significantly accelerate foreign investment. However, top government officials here continue to be ambivalent and are seemingly unable to agree on whether Vietnam should embrace tree trade and global capitalism.

Still Vietnam’s 1999 growth rate of 4.5 percent was among the highest in East Asia and, unlike other developing nations, Vietnam’s external debt is minuscule. At the moment, change seems to be taking an inexorable course. Not far from the place in Southern Vietnam where guerrillas lived for months in underground tunnels, in the village of Cu Chi, a factory makes Nike tennis shoes and another company makes toys for McDonald’s Happy Meals. The spirit of innovation seems omnipresent. During a two-week stay I was approached by no fewer than five young entrepreneurs who, handing me their business cards, asked if I might be interested in joining an Internet or computer partnership.

Joining the new global economy presents Vietnam with enormous challenges. In interview after interview I heard Vietnamese ask aloud: How are we to access needed foreign capital, necessary for development, without turning over to foreigners our natural resources and national sovereignty?

Limits of religious expression

On the eve of U.S. Secretary of State Madeline Albright’s visit to Vietnam in September 1999, leaders of the four major Vietnamese religions issued a joint appeal on behalf of freedom of religion. They charged Hanoi of abusing government-declared religious rights. One of those who signed the document was an old friend, Redemptorist Fr. Chan Tin. Years ago, during the war, he documented the human rights abuses of the Saigon regime, working on behalf of students and political prisoners. Since the war, he has continued his human rights efforts, but has directed them at the communist government.

Vietnam limits religious activities. Religious instruction, for example, can only take place on church property. Hanoi does not allow private schools and for years has been suspicious of church intentions. At the same time, many Catholics say there is more breathing room for religion in today’s more relaxed Vietnam. In recent years some Catholic leaders, including Archbishop Pham Minh Man of Ho Chi Minh City, have cooperated with government officials, attempting to chart areas of common concern. Vietnamese Catholic nuns, forbidden to openly proselytize, have been increasingly allowed to engage in social work and now staff orphanages and day care centers.

In addition to Tin, the 1999 document was signed by Venerable Thich Quang Do for the Buddhists, the Rev. Le Quang Liem for the Hoa Hao Buddhists and the Rev. Tran Quang Chau for the Cao Dai church. Fr. Tin, in a January letter to overseas Vietnamese, complained bitterly that the Hanoi government was pressuring the men to renounce their accusations.

South Vietnam was forced in 1975 to adjust to the realities of life under the communists. Throughout the war, U.S. propagandists waged a multi-million dollar campaign to convince the South Vietnamese a “bloodbath” would follow a communist victory. The campaign fueled fear and anticommunism and deepened an already serious political division. Communists killed senselessly during the war, but afterwards, nearly every analyst agrees, there was no bloodbath.

Instead, former Saigon government officials and their supporters were carted off to “re-education camps” where life was harsh, to say the least. The South, meanwhile, never adjusted to the communist farming collectives. Unlike the North, it had no history of extended social cooperation. By all accounts, life was hellish -- the stories of relatives attest to those desperate times -- in much of Vietnam from 1975 to the mid-1980s.

The legacy of Agent Orange

From 1962 to 1971 the United States sprayed 12 million gallons of the Agent Orange defoliant over more than 10 percent of then South Vietnam. Some 14 percent of the area’s forests were destroyed, according to United States figures. Broad stretches of the landscape are still bare of trees.

Dubbed Operation Ranch Hand, U.S. military C-123 cargo planes blanketed the South Vietnamese countryside with Agent Orange. The 12 million gallons included in its chemical mix 375 pounds of dioxin, a mere trace of which has been found to cause cancer. Agent Orange, named after the orange bands around the 55-gallon drums that contained the chemical, was banned in the United States after it was linked to deformed fetuses.

Vietnamese say that millions were exposed to Agent Orange and that hundreds of thousands have since suffered from cancers, other illnesses and birth defects.

One morning I drove to an orphanage on the outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City with a Catholic priest, Fr. Phan Khac Tu. Several nuns worked at the Phu My orphanage, which is filled with physically and mentally disabled children, rejects from society and families who simply cannot afford their care.

No one knows how many, if any, of the children of Phu My are victims of environmental pollution. Even if money were available for studies, finding precise causes for deformities might prove elusive. Many Vietnamese, however, say the country has been forced to attend to a disproportionately high number of disfigurations -- and some blame the U.S. chemical warfare campaign.

I cannot say the rows and rows of anguished children I saw at Phu My are the latest U.S. victims. I can say we must not walk away from these children.

The strongest evidence so far that some areas of Vietnam remain contaminated by Agent Orange became public last year in a report by a Canadian environmental research group Hatfield Consultants. Its five-year study in Quang Tri province in central Vietnam found high levels of dioxin in the soil, in fish, in animal tissue and in the blood of people born after the war.

“If such data were collected in most Western jurisdictions, based on similar sampling levels, major environmental cleanup and more extensive studies would be implemented,” the report said. “As Western-based scientists, we can hardly recommend less be done in Vietnam.”

The Vietnamese have conducted their own limited surveys, finding higher cancer and birth defect rates among Vietnamese who lived near former U.S. military bases and higher birth defect rates among families of exposed veterans. Vietnamese scientists have long argued that serious studies are needed, but they do not have the money to conduct these studies.

A U.S. Air Force investigation into the effects of Agent Orange began in 1982 and is scheduled to conclude in 2006. A General Accounting Office report charged last year that the Air Force waited eight years before releasing data it obtained in 1984 on the linkage of Agent Orange to birth defects in veterans’ children, that the military deliberately withheld information from interested scientists and veterans and that scientists asked by veterans’ groups to take part in the study weren’t allowed to do so until 1990.

The effects of Agent Orange in Vietnam are complicated by efforts to rid the countryside of unexploded bombs and land mines. Scientists are beginning to worry that exploding these ordinances are further unsettling dioxin contaminants. Old bombs, artillery shells and land mines litter the wasteland just south of what was once the demilitarized zone and continue to kill innocents a quarter century after the last mine was planted. Since the war’s end it has been reported that close to 3,000 people in the region and 2,000 elsewhere have been killed by land mines, unexploded artillery shells and cluster bomblets. Several years ago the United States offered a $750,000 mine-clearing and training program, but Hanoi refused saying they did not want uniformed American soldiers based again on Vietnamese soil.

Tom Fox is publisher of the National Catholic Reporter Publishing Company.

National Catholic Reporter, April 28, 2000