In a Grim Country

Vietnam is one of the poorest countries in the world. Many of its people are badly nourished; some, particularly children, are starving to death. Vietnam is also one of the world’s largest military powers. It maintains an army of over one million troops, a quarter of them stationed abroad—200,000 in Kampuchea, 40,000 in Laos.

Vietnam has appealed for food aid from the West. Almost none has been given. Hardly any aid of any kind reaches Vietnam now, except from the Soviet bloc. American policy, inspired by China and adopted by Western Europe, is, straightforwardly, to “bleed” Vietnam. In fact, Vietnam has gone on bleeding since the end of the war. When I went there earlier this year—my first visit to the north and my first since 1975 to the south—the place seemed as moving and perplexing as it had before, its problems still insoluble.

The poverty of Vietnam is clear at Hanoi’s airport—the customs area is a decrepit shed. The road into town is crowded with old carts full of wood and bricks and pulled by thin horses or even by people. The bridges over the river, bombed by the Americans, have still not been repaired; traffic crawls across temporary, flimsy constructions.

I was met by a guide from the foreign ministry, an intelligent and friendly man in his thirties who spent the next two weeks with me, We drove in a large Soviet car to the Hoa Bin Hotel. There is one modern hotel, designed by Cubans, just outside the city and two older ones, the Tong Nhat (Reunification) and the Hoa Bin (Peace) in the city center. The Tong Nhat has a faded, 1930s elegance; it is the principal meeting place for foreigners, and several countries actually have their embassies in its rooms. The Hoa Bin is cheaper and more run-down. The interior is cavernous and gloomy, with its walls ripped apart to expose the wiring, and a vestibule in which old Vietnamese men and women sip tea, Lao students strut around, and Russians drink vodka. It is a good place to stop and stare.

Hanoi looks like a pretty pre-World War II French provincial city whose authorities have spent no money on it for years. In the suburbs some workers’ flats have been thrown together since the end of the war for the south. Their construction is so poor that they look much older than the stylized villas built in the French days.

The state shops are empty, gloomy places, with few goods on display and those of poor quality. But in the last year the government has, in an effort to give people more money, lifted all sorts of restrictions on private enterprise. All along the streets are people selling bread, sweet corn, soup. Others refill ballpoint pens with surgical syringes. Cigarettes are sold one at a time. The most sought-after foreign brand is “555” from Britain. A man with a pack of these is rich.

In all …

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Letters

Vietnam: An Exchange December 3, 1981