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A Special Supplement: In North Vietnam

According to an interview with Dr. Vennema in the Ottawa Citizen, the province

…had become a “no man’s land” with half the population in refugee camps, children starving and much land and foliage destroyed. His patients were constantly telling him of the shootings of their family and friends, and every time he treated a child for war wounds, “five more were brought in.”…Clair Culhane, who worked in 1968 as an administrator in the Canadian TB hospital in Quang Ngai, said a report filed from the hospital in April ‘68 mentioned the difficulties of working in an area with Americans “who boasted about the brutalities and massacres they were engaged in.”3

Shall I send my interpreter, Mr. Tri, the books now appearing about the My Lai massacre, or about the incomparably greater atrocity of the war itself in Quang Ngai, or any other part of the country that resists American rule?

Mr. Tri knew about most of this, and spoke of it with uncanny calm. It is remarkable that one senses no hatred, no hostility toward Americans, but rather a great curiosity about American life, sympathy for the “difficult situation” of those in the peace movement who are forced to “struggle against their Government,” even sympathy for the soldiers and pilots who are misled into participating in the “sale guerre” of the Americans in Vietnam.

In Thanh Hoa province, near the province capital, we visited a factory buried inside a mountain. Between thirty and thirty-five men and women work there with machine tools, making parts for buses and trucks. Generally there are two people at a machine, one a skilled worker, one an apprentice. Over tea and beer, in one corner of the dank and dimly lit cave, the manager told us how, during the “air war of destruction,” the entire factory had been dispersed to such sites as this one. The mountain itself had been heavily bombed, but there was no damage to the facilities inside the cave, which was hewed out by hand while the bombing proceeded.

Afterward, the workers in the cave grouped themselves at the end of the table where we were sitting and, as a welcome greeting, sang songs, patriotic and sentimental, and declaimed poems. The whole experience was intensely moving. As I left, I swore to myself not to speak or write about it, knowing how a sophisticated Westerner might react. Let the reader think what he may. The fact is that it was intensely moving to see the spirit of the people in this miserable place, working, in the face of all of the obstacles that American power can erect, to defend their country and to find their way into the modern age.

We left the factory on an unpaved road through the heavily cratered fields, and went on to a remote agricultural cooperative far from the main highway. Over more tea and beer, the mayor, a young woman who looked to be in her mid-twenties, provided us with details about production and village organization, and answered some questions about their plans and hopes. Two-thirds of the workers in the village are involved in handicrafts, mostly weaving. They hope to receive machinery from the state for this industry, now partially collectivized. The fields are intensively cultivated, as we could see when we drove past, and like most other villages in the country, they have now achieved two harvests a year in their rice fields, more than doubling former production levels while at the same time diversifying their crops considerably. The road to the village and the fields within its range are lined with young pine trees, planted during a recent reforestation campaign, the signs of which are visible everywhere.

We spent several hours in the co-operative, visiting a small dispensary and two schools. The dispensary, clean and fairly well-equipped, had sections for Western and Oriental medicine. Outside the Oriental pharmacy there were baskets of many different types of herbs, most of them from the garden of the dispensary. All children are now born in the maternity section of the dispensary.

The wards were empty when we were there. A few patients were in the clinic, and in the maternity section several women were chatting with a young mother whose newborn baby was in a crib in the next room. We were told that the traditional diseases (malaria, trachoma) are virtually non-existent. They intend to maintain traditional and Western medicine side-by-side, but I noticed that in the Oriental section the practitioners and the pharmacist were considerably older. There is a larger district hospital for more serious cases. I did not ask whether the large provincial hospital, destroyed during the air war, had been rebuilt somewhere else.

We sat in a mathematics class (seventh grade, children of twelve to fourteen) for some time. There were forty-five children studying geometry. I looked through some of the children’s notebooks, which contained neatly done, quite advanced algebra problems. The lesson was lively. Children tried to work out proofs of theorems as the teacher sketched their proposals on the blackboard. The level was remarkably high, easily as advanced as anything I know of in the United States. It was particularly striking to find such work in a remote village, barely a generation removed from illiteracy.

We were told that literacy among adults has been virtually universal for some years, and that in this agricultural province of two million people everyone receives ten grades of schooling4 and about 800 students go to the university each year, while about 200 go abroad, most (perhaps all—I am not sure) of them to Eastern Europe. In principle, they are largely expected to return to the village. The war, however, has disrupted the intended normal pattern.

We were later told that this was an average village economically, neither among the poorest nor among the richest in the area, and I gather that our visit was intended as something of a gesture of encouragement for the villagers. The peasants have private gardens, and there is a free market alongside the state market—literally alongside, as we saw later in Hanoi, where both markets are housed under one roof. On street corners in Hanoi one still sees peasant women selling their produce. However, there seems to be little incentive for the peasants to use the free market, since agricultural prices set by the state are, I understand, set artificially high in accordance with the policy of equalizing standards in country and city.

There are still some peasants who have not joined the cooperatives, but apparently not many, the advantages of joining being rather obvious, including not only state assistance but also the benefits achieved through mutual aid. Along the road to the village we saw groups working on irrigation projects, constructing large earthen dikes and channels, and the completed irrigation works from earlier projects could be seen everywhere. The larger irrigation projects are constructed by the state; local projects are developed under regional organization and by the villages themselves.

In principle, the cooperative is expected to put aside 1 to 5 percent of its income from agricultural production and a varying percentage of its income from other production for development, presumably under independent village-based initiative. A general meeting of the cooperative makes decisions about such matters and sets the rate of accumulation and the program for development, deciding, for example, whether to build a school, to work for extra profits, and so on. An annual meeting of all adult members selects an administrative committee for the cooperative.

We were also told that in traditional Vietnamese peasant society there was a certain degree of mutual aid and some communal land, and also considerable village and regional independence. Land holdings were limited in size by the “law of the king.” Under the French, this changed. Free ownership of land was permitted, and large plantations were developed as well, particularly in the South. Catholics were particularly privileged, and many priests and archbishops became great landowners. Large feudal holdings grew “where the stork can fly and never get tired.” There was very little development, either industrial or agricultural. Now great efforts are being made, apparently with success, to expand agricultural production and to develop regional industry that is related to local needs.

The New Zealand geographer Keith Buchanan has discussed the early achievements of the Vietnamese revolution in a general review of problems of development in Asian peasant society.5 He concludes that

…the achievements of the North Vietnamese in the economic field have been considerable and they demonstrate to the rest of Southeast Asia the conditions under which real economic progress is possible. The achievements in the socio-cultural field, more specifically in the field of minority policy, have been equally striking and these, in the long run, may prove of even greater relevance to the neighbouring countries of Southeast Asia.

Of course, he was writing before the bombing destroyed most of the early achievements of industrialization.6

The process of regional diversification was spurred by the air war, and is now apparently to be maintained and extended. It is surely a very healthy development. “The price may be higher and quality not always good, but goods are produced for local needs and self-supply in each province,” we were told by Hoang Tung when we discussed these questions back in Hanoi. Special attention is given to training skilled workers. Heavy industry will have to wait, as present plans are to develop agriculture and small industry related to agriculture and local needs.

The country has rich supplies of metals, coal, and other material requirements for industrialization, and can develop ample hydroelectric power when the threat of bombing is removed. In view of the remarkably high standards of education and health extending to the remote areas as well as the urban centers, there seems every possibility that industrial development can be realized, and that North Vietnam can be spared a Manila, a Bangkok, or a Saigon—an artificial consumer culture for a minority of the privileged in the midst of urban slums and rural stagnation.

Although there appears to be a high degree of democratic participation at the village and regional levels, and some degree of leeway for independent planning at these levels—limited, to be sure, by the exigencies of war—still major planning is highly centralized in the hands of the state authorities. As Hoang Tung explained, the Central Committee of the Lao Dong Party sets the general lines of policy. These plans are implemented by governmental bodies selected by the National Assembly, which also drafts specific plans. The ministries are responsible to the Assembly, which is chosen by direct election from local districts that extend over the entire country, including the mountain tribesmen, who are well represented. The managers of local enterprises are selected by the government ministries that are in charge of various branches of the economy.

  1. 3

    January 12, 1970.

  2. 4

    I did not think to ask whether this is also true of the many mountain tribesmen in the province, who are said to retain much of their original culture. Our guide for part of the trip was the assistant province chairman, a member of the Muong minority of hill tribesmen, the minority that is said to be closest in cultural pattern to the Viet lowlanders.

  3. 5

    See Keith Buchanan, The Southeast Asian World, London, 1967.

  4. 6

    For a detailed investigation of rural Vietnam, see Gérard Chaliand, The Peasants of North Vietnam, 1968; English translation, Penguin, 1969. See also the report by Richard Gott of a seven-week trip, Manchester Guardian, February 24-27, 1970.

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