The Vietnam Wars

Fighting to reclaim its devastated country, Vietnam faces a hostile China and the threat of a defeated enemy within its borders

Vietnam
Dirck Halstead/Liaison
Young people Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam.
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Translated from the Spanish by Gregory Rabassa

The most expensive medicine in Vietnam last August were pills for seasickness. The drugstores where it usually cost a little over a dollar for twelve pills were out of them, and they had begun to show up on the black market at five dollars apiece. Still, they weren't the most expensive necessity or the most difficult to obtain in order to flee Vietnam aboard an illegal boat. In Ho Chi Minh City – formerly Saigon – anybody who wanted to leave could do so whenever he wanted to if he had enough money to pay the price and was ready to assume the enormous risk.

The easiest part was contacting the organizers. In the alleyways of the public market in the broad and motley district of Cholon, where anything in the world could be bought with hard cash, the only free item was information concerning clandestine boats. Payment had to be made in advance, in pure gold, and rates varied according to age and time and place of departure. Children under the age of five didn't have to pay anything. For those six to sixteen, in order to get things started, three and a half ounces of gold had to be paid. For those nineteen to ninety-nine years old, it cost six ounces of gold. To this had to be added a bribe of five ounces for corrupt officials who supplied false safe-conduct passes for travel within the country.

Conditions in Ho Chi Minh City, as in all the South of the reunified country, were drastic. The population of Chinese origin, numbering over a million, was bordering on panic because of the threat of a new war with China. Collaborators of the old regime and the bourgeoisie that had lost its privileges through social change wanted nothing but to escape at any price. Only those with a well-tested political conscience, and there weren't many in a city that had been perverted by long years of American occupation, were prepared to stay. The rest, the immense majority, were ready to leave without even wondering what their fate would be.

An exodus of such size couldn't have been possible without a large organization with outside contacts. And, of course, without the complicity of officials. Both things were easy in the South, where the arm of the people's power scarcely had the means to prevent worse ills. The people with the best political and professional training had been systematically murdered by the previous regime during Operation Phoenix, and the North was in no condition to fill that vast human void.

The traffic in fugitives, as far as can be established, was carried out at first by five main organizations established in the fishing ports of the extreme south and in the Mekong Delta, where police control was more difficult. Intermediaries who made the initial contacts steered their clients toward the embarkation points. Provided with false safe-conduct passes, many had no baggage other than the clothes they wore and some pills for seasickness. But most of them carried their family wealth reduced to gold bars and precious stones. The trip to the clandestine ports was long and hazardous, especially for the children, and there was no guarantee of success, since it could be frustrated just as quickly by an overzealous military patrol as by a band of highway robbers.

In general, the boats were battered fishing vessels under eighty feet long, manned by inexperienced fugitives. Their maximum capacity was a hundred people, but the traffickers often crammed in over 300, like sardines in a can. A very high percentage were children under the age of twelve. Many had the good luck to elude naval patrols, the sea's bad temper and even typhoons, but none managed to escape repeated attacks by pirates of the South China Sea.

It was a real and pressing drama, and it not only deserved the humanitarian attention it was receiving worldwide, it deserved much more. But the political exploitation promoted by the United States had confused the nature of the problem and made a solution impossible.

The exodus of refugees began in April 1975, when the United States ended its presence in the country and left the vast majority of its local accomplices unprotected – in spite of having promised to bring out almost 250,000. Former army and police officers, known spies and torturers, as well as murderers in the pay of Operation Phoenix, fled the country.

The most serious problem that faced Vietnam after liberation, however, was not that of war criminals, but of the bourgeoisie of the South, who were almost all Hoa, the Vietnamese name for residents of Chinese origin. Of the million and a half Hoa who lived in Vietnam during the war, more than a million were cloistered in the Cholon district of Ho Chi Minh City. Cholon means big market, and it's not by accident. It was a fabulous capitalist island in the midst of the most austere country in the world, with all manner of nocturnal extravagances for the solace of its masters. There were gambling houses, opium dens, secret brothels – all of which have since been prohibited.

Many wealthy merchants managed to escape with their fortunes during the disorder of the first days of liberation, but the majority remained in Cholon, increasing their wealth with speculation in items of prime necessity. A near monopoly in gold, diamonds and foreign exchange was established there, and almost all the imported merchandise the Yankees had left behind had disappeared into the district. From there agents were sent into the countryside to buy up entire rice harvests. The food would later appear on the black market, priced as high as diamonds. While the rest of the Vietnamese were undergoing drastic rationing, in the Chinese suburb one could obtain – at three times the New York price-all the crap for an easy life that had maintained Saigon as an artificial paradise during the war.

By March 1978, almost all the gold and foreign exchange in the country was hidden in the Babylonic district of Cholon, and the government finally resolved to put an end to this absurdity. In early 1978, the army and police dismantled the enormous speculative apparatus, and the state took over commerce in food. No judicial action was taken against the profiteers; instead, the government paid them for their merchandise.

In spite of that, many preferred to leave, and the Hoa's double status of being bourgeois and Chinese made it easy for the enemies of Vietnam to maliciously distort what was essentially a problem of class and not of race. Until this time, the average number of illegal flights had been 5000 people a month, including as many Vietnamese as Chinese. After the nationalization of private business, the number of flights began to rise; at the same time, the proportion of Chinese on the clandestine boats rose. By the end of 1978, 20,000 had fled. Finally, the war with China in February 1979 broke the dike, and the urge to leave became a whirlwind of panic.

In that confusion, illegal departures from Vietnam by boat reached 13,400 in March, 26,600 in April, 51,100 in May and 54,900 in June. Pills for seasickness ran out in July. By that time, 164,550 people had reached neighboring countries, mainly Thailand, Hong Kong and Indonesia. How many had died at sea will never be known, in part because it has never been known for certain how many left the country.

Around that time, the press campaign against Vietnam reached the proportions of a world scandal, based on the supposition that the government was expelling its enemies and forcing them into fatal fishing boats. In fact, Vietnam had reached an agreement with the United Nations High Commissioner by which legal departures would be arranged. One of the United Nations' conditions required a resident visa for the ultimate destination; it was a bureaucratic solution for an urgent situation, therefore requests piled up hopelessly, and illegal flight ended up as the only possible way out.

I passed through Hong Kong at the end of June. The South China Sea was an immense pot all aboil. The Malaysian government had announced its intent to machine-gun the wandering boats that approached its coasts. The territorial waters of Singapore were patrolled. An innocent tourist traveling on the ferry to Macao for a last look at Portuguese nostalgia crossed paths in the backwaters of the bay with vessels loaded with dying people that the British navy was towing to Hong Kong. The government of Thailand declared itself overwhelmed by the flood of fugitives of diverse origin from across the border. Bangkok had become the news center of the world, and the lobbies of its hotels overflowed with journalists carrying cameras and heavy television equipment.

According to United Nations figures, there were 140,297 refugees there: 116,422 from Laos, 12,595 from Kampuchea and only 11,277 from Vietnam. The Thai press, however, reported incorrectly that they were all from Vietnam, and that the Vietnamese government was collecting an official fee of as much as $4000 per fugitive for permission to leave. After February, when the exodus reached its highest point, reports circulated that persecution of the Hoa had become even fiercer as a reprisal for the Chinese invasion. Terrifying photographs were published; the castaways looked like fugitives from an extermination camp. They were authentic: after several weeks adrift, done in by hunger and the elements and ravaged by pirates, the millionaires of Cholon had become just the same as any poor Chinese.

I arrived in Vietnam with my only aim being to establish firsthand, even if only for my own awareness, what the truth was in the midst of so many conflicting versions. The drama of the refugees, so immediate and so heart-rending, became of secondary interest to me, however, in light of the fearsome reality of the country.

What impressed me most from the very start was the devastation still evident from the war against the United States that had ended four years before. The Vietnamese hadn't had time even to sweep up their house. Civilian airports were full of the shells of bombed war-planes and helicopters, and all manner of scrapped death machinery abandoned in the final stampede. From the deserted highways, one could see the ashes of towns wiped off the map by napalm and the no man's land that once had been jungle, now sterilized by chemical defoliants. The irrigation canals that gave the country the look of a huge chessboard from the air were barely being put to use again. The immense, peaceful rivers, which in that month of July were beginning to change their mood because of the premature arrival of the great rains, could only be crossed by pontoon bridges or ones improvised from tree trunks, since even the historical bridges of the French colonials had been destroyed. The picturesque Long Bien bridge was a broken-down survivor. Hit several times by bombs and always quickly repaired, it continued to be the only access to Hanoi from the North. Its structure of steel, mended and remended, gave it the look of an Eiffel Tower lying down across the age-old waters of the Red River.

In a certain way, the war hadn't ended. Tons of mines and bombs that had never exploded were still scattered through the countryside. Without warning, a mine four years behind its time would cause injuries among terrified women working in rice paddies in water up to their waists. In a schoolyard, a hidden bomb would spread death among children at recess. A brace of buffalo running into an explosive charge hidden in the underbrush could wipe out a whole village. In one province alone, thousands of people had died in this way after the war.

It is estimated by the Vietnamese that the United States dropped 14.5 million tons of bombs on Vietnam, an amount several times greater than all the bombs dropped during World War II. It was the most ferocious punishment by fire ever suffered by any country in the history of humanity. In order to stop Vietnamese guerrilla fighters from hiding in the jungle, Yankee air power dropped chemical defoliants and incendiary substances that left 8 million acres sterile, perhaps forever, and destroyed or damaged thousands of hamlets. The national rail network was destroyed, irrigation and drainage works were ruined, 1.5 million oxen and buffalo were killed and 40,000 square miles of farmland were devastated. Not even schools and hospitals were safe: the leper research center at Quynh Lap was destroyed by a shower of phosphorous dropped in a single air raid.

No sooner had the war ended than Vietnam suffered two other enormous calamities: a drought in 1977 that caused the loss of tons of rice, followed by a series of floods and cyclones that destroyed even more. In this way, God completed the holocaust the Yankees had left unfinished. The consequences were a country leveled and 53 million human beings reduced to misery.

One's imagination has trouble conceiving the extent of such a cataclysm. And yet, however grave the material damages, they were not as great or as irreparable as the moral disorder. Perhaps it is there that one most notices the differences between the northern provinces, socialist for more than twenty years, and the southern ones, liberated a few years ago. Though reunited, North and South Vietnam are, in fact, two quite different countries.

Hanoi seems to have changed little since the time of the French occupation. During that hot month of July while I was there, the capital was still a peaceful city where it always seemed to be four o'clock in the afternoon. In spite of the humidity and the suffocating lethargy, one didn't have the impression of being in the tropics. Set down in the midst of drowsy lakes, with century-old trees that didn't bat an eye at the Biblical downpours, life in Hanoi went on in the official and melancholy routine one finds in the small provincial capitals of France. From dawn on, half of its nearly 2 million inhabitants went about on bicycles, pedaling unhurriedly, in a natural order disturbed only by the ostentatious automobiles of foreign diplomats. Official cars were few, and government functionaries, even some ministers, traveled on their poor-men's bicycles with a modesty and sense of social equality quite difficult to conceive of.

The city would sink into a provincial peace after six o'clock in the evening. Whole families would sleep in dark doorways, some because they had fled from the countryside in fear of a new war with China and had no homes, others because they couldn't bear the heat inside the overcrowded houses. Television began at seven: four hours of official programs, patriotic documentaries and films from socialist countries. Only soccer games would change the stolidity of the Vietnamese and arouse a passion.

At eight o'clock, in a cricketless silence, one could hear the remote and nostalgic plucking of the sixteen-string lute. The only places open were the sad colonial hotels occupied by foreigners and some taciturn tavern with four poor little tables, where the owner himself would squat to prepare a strange coffee with salt and some boiled eggs that smelled of flowers at dawn.

Seven hundred miles to the south, Ho Chi Minh City stays awake all night long, like a continuous roll of thunder. It is an enormous city, lively and dangerous, with almost 4 million inhabitants, who go about the streets at all hours because they have nothing else to do. In contrast to Hanoi, it is a noisy southern port where life is kept in a state of perpetual alarm by cyclists circulating aimlessly through the streets, the unbearable popping of motor scooters and the horns of automobiles trying to open their way through the impassable crowds. With the same anxiety that would have made Graham Greene wonder where God was in that infernal city, I wondered where the government was. The black market prospered everywhere. In doorways there were rickety little tables where American cigarettes, English chocolates and French perfumes were on sale.

At dusk the youth of Saigon gathered in the squares – dressed American style, moving to the rhythm of rock music, dreaming about a past that had gone away forever. Unlike the women of the North, whose austerity was unequaled, those of the South enhanced their natural beauty by dressing up European style. They preferred bright colors, even in their Oriental clothing, and they knew how to run the risks of flirting. Under Yankee occupation, the city had completely lost its cultural identity, becoming an artificial paradise subsidized by the military and civilian aid of the United States and tons of donated provisions. Its inhabitants ended up believing that this was life. The end of the war caught them floating in a limbo of unreality from which, four years after the last Yankee had left, they hadn't succeeded in recovering.

The cost of this delirium was stupefying: 360,000 people mutilated, a million widows, 500,000 prostitutes, 500,000 drug addicts, a million tuberculars and more than a million soldiers of the old regime, impossible to completely rehabilitate into a new society. Ten percent of the population of Ho Chi Minh City was suffering from serious venereal diseases when the war ended, and there were 4 million illiterates throughout the South.

So it wasn't strange to find in the streets hordes of delinquent children who still had not been gathered into orphan homes. They called themselves Dust of Life, and they had tattooed enigmatic labels on their arms, chests and backs of their hands: MAMA IS SUFFERING A LOT FOR ME, PAPA COME HOME, THE ONES WHO LOVE ME CAN'T FIND ME.

Nor was it strange to find, standing in the midst of an Oriental crowd, children with squirrel-colored hair, green eyes, freckled noses, pitch-black skin – the accidental children of the invaders.

Vietnam's efforts to cure these war wounds had begun the day after liberation. Once the country was reunited, the administrative, political and social restructuring of the South commenced. Ground transportation and agricultural systems were rebuilt insofar as possible, and an intense effort was undertaken to give the South back its identity.

An emergency school system was set up. Preventive socialized medicine was organized and the rehabilitation of prostitutes, orphans and addicts undertaken. War criminals were tried and many executed. Others were gathered into reeducation camps or put in jail. There was no blood bath, as had been predicted by the United States. On the contrary, an attempt was made to find a place in the new society for soldiers of the old regime and those of the bourgeoisie without a trade; new sources of work were created in order to try to absorb more than 3 million unemployed.

Still, the extent of the problem was greater and more pressing than the Vietnamese – for all their will, limitless patience and sacrifice – could handle. The truth was, the country lacked resources of all kinds for remedying a catastrophe of such proportions. Operation Phoenix had deprived the South of a vast cadre of leaders to replace the corrupt – and now irreplaceable – functionaries of the old regime. Furthermore, then-President Gerald Ford repudiated a United States promise, worked out at the Paris agreements of 1973, to pay Vietnam a war indemnification of more than 3 million dollars over five years. More still, using the plight of the refugees as a pretext, the Carter administration has frustrated Vietnam's attempts to gain other foreign aid.

That was the day-to-day reality facing the country in August 1979 while the Western press be-moaned the fate of the refugees. Yet the impression I formed after a careful and attentive trip of almost a month through the interior was that the greatest worry of the Vietnamese was not their huge economic and social problems, but the imminence of a new war with China. It was a national obsession that had impregnated the smallest parts of daily life. At the airport in Hanoi, regular flights would be delayed for several hours because the sky was filled with MIGs in combat maneuvers. Bicycles and buffaloes had to make way for streams of tanks. In parks on Sundays, in the midst of the children, the bluebirds and the smell of paradise flowers, a generation of adolescents received emergency military training. Farmers in the Mekong Delta slept with the family's weapons within reach.

An even more serious problem arose on the frontier. The Vietnamese assert that 160,000 Chinese living in that zone had passed over into China before the invasion and that many had infiltrated back into Vietnam as informants for their ancestral country. Convinced that every Hoa was a potential spy, the Vietnamese concentrated them far from the border. When the conflict was over, they made them decide between formally taking on Vietnamese citizenship, settling far from the border or leaving the country.

The certainty of a new war with China had penetrated so deeply into the social awareness of the Vietnamese that it seemed as though the years of armed resistance had produced a whole war culture. It could be seen in almost all aspects of daily life, even in art and in love. In orphanages in the South, children received visitors with military salutes, sang patriotic hymns and put on plays about victories of the past. In museums, the works most in evidence evoked themes of war and exalted valor and sacrifice. In cultural festivities, the beautiful maidens who played the sixteen-string lute sang mournful airs in memory of those who had died in combat. The novel and poetry, which the Vietnamese cultivate with a certain sacred fervor, have been fed for many years by the personal experience of war.

Yet, what surprised me most in the Vietnamese was their absolute lack of the dramatic. They always seemed happy and affectionate and displayed a great sense of humor. "We're the Latins of Asia," a high official told me. On one occasion, an interpreter was translating a fearsome story for me, while the face of the man telling it was lit by an eternal smile. I protested to the interpreter: "It can't be that this friend is saying all those horrible things with such a happy face." That was how it was, and that was how it has been. Not even the theme of relations with China has altered the legendary serenity of the Vietnamese. But they were really thinking about nothing else.

Prime Minister Phan Van Dong thought that the social tension had a historical justification. The old leader, whose seventy-four years were hard to believe not only because of his physical strength but also because of his calm lucidity, received me and my family at six in the morning, an hour when most heads of state haven't even awakened. It was a long conversation, in the style of the Vietnamese, which is modest and ceremonious at the same time, and at every turn we couldn't help falling into the subject of a new war with China. I asked the prime minister in all frankness if the irresistible tension of a coming war was provoked by the government in order to keep the national spirit in a state of permanent exaltation, or whether the risk of another Chinese invasion really did exist. Phan Van Dong answered me: "It's a risk that has existed for thousands of years." And he ended in his solemn French: "C'est un rêve imperial fou." ("It's a mad imperial dream.")

Xuan Thuy, president of the commission on foreign relations of the Communist Party of Vietnam, was more explicit in historical terms. In his house in Hanoi, lashed that afternoon by the first cyclone of the season, he explained to me that China's drive against his country had begun many centuries before, but that it had taken on new strength in the Sixties. During that period, Xuan Thuy told me, "China proposed to Vietnam a meeting with other Communist parties, with an aim to creating a new International against the Soviet Union." Xuan Thuy thought that the rejection of that initiative was the first serious incident in current relations between Vietnam and China.

I asked Xuan Thuy how, then, he could explain China's having helped Vietnam in its war against the United States. "China supported us," he said, "because it was a way of defending its own borders, also threatened by the United States. But as soon as those countries reached an agreement, China's attitude toward Vietnam changed completely."

After Nixon's visit to Peking in February 1972, Hanoi had been subjected to a pitiless bombing. Xuan Thuy believed the bombing had been the prime result of the agreement between the United States and China.

Even the military action of Vietnam in Cambodia was justified as one more episode in the age-old war. Xuan Thuy was convinced that Chinese troops planned to occupy some provinces of Cambodia, with the approval of the Pol Pot government, in order to invade Vietnam on its weakest flank. "They won't rest until they've finished us," he told me. "If you don't believe it, go to the frontier and you'll see what they're capable of."

The day before, I had gone to Lang Son, a few miles from the Chinese border. It was a demolished city, not from combat but from dynamite. The Chinese had occupied it for one day and subjected it to systematic destruction. They had blown up Communist party offices, the public library, the day nursery, industrial centers. Around the public market, where local commerce had been concentrated, all that remained was a deserted flat.

All the Vietnamese with whom I spoke agreed that a repeat of the attack was inevitable. "We're waiting for them," Phan Van Dong told me. "This time they'll find us better prepared," I was told by Foreign Affairs Minister Nguyen Co Thach. "They will attack us twice more," Xuan Thuy said, as if reciting an Oriental prophecy. And he concluded with his indestructible smile: "Only when we have defeated them three times will they understand that they can't beat us, and maybe they'll decide to make a long-term treaty of peace."

My visit to Vietnam was ending that afternoon, although I had to wait three days for the passage of the premature cyclone. One felt stuck inside a giant teakettle. The rain was horizontal over the Lake of the Returned Sword, and the first gusts of deadly wind had plucked the trees clean and destroyed the pansy beds in front of the French governor's former residence.

A committee from the United States Senate had invaded our hotel. Their mission was to meet with government authorities about the refugee problem, and they had been received with official honors. But they came prepared for an expedition in search of Tarzan. They carried plastic tanks of potable water, soda and beer of every conceivable brand, canned food, frozen fruit and vegetables, a portable bar and a field hospital with a special unit for treating snakebites. They carried all manner of insecticides and disinfectants and a complete set of fire-extinguishing equipment. All of this was packed inside protective metal trunks with the official seal of the United States, and, along with movie and television equipment, filled the hotel's lobby.

One of the members of the expedition, with that natural likableness of Yankees loose in the world, was surprised to find a Western writer in Vietnam. "Everyone's against them now," he said. In fact, artists and intellectuals in the United States and Europe who had solidly supported Vietnam during the most adverse of circumstances were now backing the campaign in favor of the refugees. So my personal conclusions – even if only for my own conscience – seemed condemned to sail against the current.

Vietnam had once more been the victim of an immense international conspiracy. Its government hadn't expelled anyone, although it was probable that at times it had conveniently looked the other way. But I was aware that in the confusion of the exodus, a great many technicians and professionals that the country urgently needed for reconstruction had left.

The government had made irreparable mistakes. The first had been miscalculating or not foreseeing the enormous size of the international campaign in favor of the refugees. The second had been blindly trusting the world solidarity that until then had not failed them, and which had let itself be confused by an almost perfect distortion of reality.

It couldn't be helped. After so many centuries of war, Vietnam had lost a great battle in a war less known but just as devastating as others the country had endured. The war of information.

This story is from the May 29th, 1980 issue of Rolling Stone.

From The Archives Issue 318: May 29, 1980
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