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Vietnam: The First Year

On the veranda of the Continental Hotel overlooking the main square of Saigon, the foreign officers, the girls in elegant Western clothes, the long-haired children of the Saigon bourgeoisie are gone now, replaced by young soldiers from Hanoi and peasants who have come to town as political commissars of the revolution. They sit in the same old yellow armchairs drinking the locally made “33” beer or café filtre.

The waiters, who now serve without their old white uniforms, are all still there, except Joseph, who on April 30 last year turned out to be a Vietcong agent and now, smiling with a new set of false teeth and wearing a red armband on his green uniform, is in charge of security for the whole block. Monsieur Loi, the old Vietnamese manager of the hotel, after a public trial in which he was accused of being a “comprador” exploiter, has “retired,” and his place has been taken over by a revolutionary management committee. The hotel is no longer for private citizens or tourists. It is now the “Hotel of the Popular Insurrection,” and it is exclusively reserved for official delegations and cadres coming from the North.

On Tu Do Street girls in miniskirts still wave at the passers-by from the dark doors of open bars, young boys in tight, colored shirts still ride their Hondas. Except for a few shops owned by Indians who have left the country, the old boutiques where one can buy a cheap leather jacket or a baseball cap with the golden inscription “boss” are still open for business. The Russians, whom the Saigonese refer to as “Americans without dollars,” seem the rare patrons. The Miramar Hotel, which after Giai Phong—the liberation—was taken over by the revolutionary government, is managed by a cadre appointed by the new authorities; but along with a stream of Vietnamese experts and political commissars arriving from Hanoi it now houses a group of “obstinate” Saigon girls who still work at their classic trade, paid by the hour.

Untamed Saigon, one might think. But a visitor like myself, who left Saigon three months after the communist takeover and returns looking for places and persons he knew, soon realizes that the first impression of an unchanged Saigon is false. Under the old, hard skin of a city that has already survived so many upheavals, life has been profoundly transformed, and the revolution is turning everything upside down, as it enters families, schools, factories, and churches.

The rich wife of Senator Tran Van Thuyen, one of the “puppets” in the “reeducation camps,” still lives in her elegant villa on Hung Tap Tu Street; but having lost all her income she has opened a bicycle shop at her front gate. The whole family of N. C. Tien, a landlord of the Delta, was arrested while trying to leave the country by boat out of Nha Trang. The tricyclo driver and his family whom I used to visit in Gia Dinh during the war have gone back to work as peasants in the village of Ben Suc from which they came as refugees in 1967. (The Americans had leveled it with bulldozers to deprive the Vietcong of the support of the population.)

Nguyen Thi Man, a young girl at Saigon University who spent four years in the tiger cages of Con Son island, and whom I saw after she was freed, is in Hanoi to take a three-year course that will turn her into a can-bo (political cadre or commissar). Her father, an unemployed journalist under Thieu, is now an editor with Saigon Giai Phong. Madame Ngo Ba Thanh, a leader of the “third force” who was imprisoned by Thieu, has been elected to the new national assembly of reunified Vietnam. Her children, one of them a former drug addict, are members of the revolutionary youth organization and spend one week every month doing “socialist work” in the countryside. Whether they regret the old days or welcome the “new revolutionary life,” the people of Saigon know that the soul of Saigon has changed.

From the windows of a car traveling from Hanoi to Saigon, Vietnam looks today like a gigantic construction site. Everywhere along the 1,752 kilometers of “Highway One” you see thousands of people digging new canals, repairing dikes and bridges. Small groups work at rebuilding houses. In the North the new walls are made of mud, the roofs of straw; in the South of bricks and titles. The war left both parts of the country devastated, but the North was terribly poor and it suffered much greater damage, while the South was relatively rich. One year of peace has hardly changed this situation. The government department stores in Hanoi are still pathetically empty and people queue for a new delivery of shirts or matches. Soap is still a dream and the only kind of shoes available are still the Ho Chi Minh sandals made of old rubber tires or their plastic equivalent. In the South, by contrast, people still enjoy the leftovers of the American largesse. In Hanoi the sight of a Honda, brought back by a proud bo-doi (people’s army soldier), still gathers a crowd; in the South it is common.

Since 1965 all the surplus produced by the North went into the war effort, and with the increase in population—and the ruinous bombing of dikes, farms, factories, and over a thousand villages—the standard of living went steadily down. In the South during the same period billions of US dollars were pumped into the economy, mainly in the cities. Saigon therefore lived on wealth that was not produced by its people. The price of this wealth was the war. Now the false wealth of the past is slowly disappearing and people have to adapt themselves to the new conditions. The war is over but the price of peace is Vietnamese poverty.

Life in Saigon has become much harder than it used to be. There is no starvation but people eat less today than they did a year ago. They have to buy rice in addition to the quota sold by the government at the official price, and this costs three times more than in the past; milk costs six times more, cigarettes four times, beer twice more.

Thousands of the city’s unemployed stand in line, sometimes for days, in front of the state-controlled stores to get goods at the official price and then to sell them on the free market. A man who was queueing up in front of the old Le Loi Hotel, now turned into a government store, told me: “I get rice, salt, matches, sugar, and cigarettes, but I don’t smoke and with what I make out of reselling the cigarettes I pay for the rest.”

With their money lost in frozen bank accounts or in the monetary reform, with no new jobs available to them, the well-to-do Southerners are now selling, day by day, all their possessions. Many of the goods with which the Americans flooded the South are now moving toward Hanoi through the bo-dois, who spend in Saigon the savings of a Northern peasantry that for over ten years has had nothing to buy. At the bridge of Ben Hai, at the seventeenth parallel, the old border between the two countries, there is a continuous stream of buses coming from Saigon and heading back to Hanoi loaded with people, fans, sewing machines, and TV sets. One bo-doi was slowly crossing the bridge on foot with the frames of two bicycles on his shoulders. (This border, by the way, did not seem to be seriously policed: our car stopped but the guards who were supposed to stamp my passport were not there.)

To survive you have to produce. To produce you have to till the land.” This is the slogan the can-bos constantly repeat to the populations of the cities. Thirty thousand people have already left Hue for the “new economic zones”; half a million have left Da Nang and 600,000 Saigon. Until now the revolutionary regime has invited, encouraged, but not forced people to go to the countryside. The only pressure that has been brought to bear is the natural pressure created by worsening economic conditions. But people still cling to their old lives in the city. In Saigon, for instance, many families no longer register for the free distribution of rice; they fear that they will be asked to resettle if they do so. In the first year since the communist takeover the urban population, particularly that of Saigon, has been treated with great caution and has been granted special privileges by the new authorities. (Saigon has a larger quota per person for rice and gasoline than does Hanoi.) But according to the official estimates, as many as 8 million more urban dwellers throughout South Vietnam will have to be resettled in the countryside, and it is likely that the grace period granted to the cities may soon be over.

The problems facing the government of reunified Vietnam are immense: the South is accustomed to comforts it can no longer afford; the North is thirsty for consumer goods it could not get during decades of war and sacrifices; but the slow-moving economy has a limited industrial base. Morale is sagging in both parts of the country, but for different reasons. A year ago one sensed that the coming of peace was itself a great victory, but the joy has evaporated with the passing months. In the South peace has meant more unemployment (1.5 million “puppet” soldiers and officials of the former regime have been added to the 1.5 million jobless that already existed under Thieu, not counting the dependent families of these unemployed). It has meant that urban people have had to become peasants and to work harder than ever before.

In the North peace has not brought home the sons still in the army. Hanoi has not demobilized its forces, and could not, since there was no way to absorb new manpower in the present economy. Peace has also not yet brought about many of the material improvements that people hoped it would. Moreover, the fighting spirit that dominated the North during the war has faded. “Before, the national sport was shooting down B-52s; now it is football,” a diplomat in Hanoi said. “People here are now asking for more comfort, more goods. They see no reason why they should continue to make sacrifices.” Even families living in the center of Hanoi, let alone those in the northern countryside, have no running water and their clothing is barely sufficient. During the recent exceptionally cold winter, I was told, some people died because they did not have woolen pullovers.

In the small backyard factories of Hanoi that run twenty-four hours a day in the dim light of tiny lamps, men and women work diligently in conditions where hygiene and safety are primitive. Knowing how crippled their two economies have become, the new revolutionary authorities have renounced any radical models of development based on self-sufficiency and therefore exclusively on agriculture (e.g., the Khmer Rouge model). They have adopted an economic strategy that relies on foreign aid to help them to build an industrial base quickly. “It has become almost embarrassing,” a European ambassador in Hanoi told me. “Every time we meet a high official we are asked what we are prepared to give or to invest in this country.”

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