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In a Grim Country

I

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 the talks I had with officials in Hanoi, one theme predominated, and that was China. The threat from China, China’s conspiracy with the Khmer Rouge, China’s plotting with the United States, China’s collusion with the ASEAN countries of Southeast Asia—this is almost all that officials can talk about when discussing details of Vietnam’s domestic or foreign predicament. Everything tends to be explained or justified by the menace from Peking, though it is hard to say how far officials actually believe the statements they make. A visit to the Chinese border to see the damage inflicted by the Chinese when they invaded in February 1979 to “punish” Vietnam for its invasion of Kampuchea and the overthrow of Pol Pot is de rigueur for any visiting foreigner—rather like a visit to the Great Wall in China itself.

The road north to the province and town of Lang Son leads through rice fields of the Red River delta and then into steep, beautiful, and easily defended mountains. Lang Son itself is on the Chinese side of this range and there, about ten miles from their border, the Chinese stopped. They destroyed much of the center of the town, especially any government or Communist Party building. The population has since returned, but the threat of another Chinese attack is said to be constantly with them. On the hills beyond Lang Son the Chinese have installed a radar station—the great dish constantly circles, a mocking intruder, spying on Vietnamese defenses.

Outside of Hanoi, the markets in the north are bare; they have far fewer goods than one finds today in Kampuchea—no luxuries at all and very few essentials. In Kampuchea you can buy silk (made in Kampuchea), stereos, cognac, beer, lipstick, jewelry, perfume—all smuggled across from Thailand. In Phnom Penh there are photographers and radio repair shops now. There is nothing like that in northern Vietnam, nothing at all. A well-stocked stall in Lang Son has an incongruous supply of pens, padlocks, zippers, playing cards, buttons, thread, tooth-brushes, and a toy pistol. When one sees the poverty of the north one cannot fail to be impressed by the self-discipline that Vietnamese troops seem to exhibit in Kampuchea.

The destructive effects of thirty years of war on the Vietnamese economy can hardly be overstated. The problems faced in 1975 would have proved almost insoluble for almost any regime, let alone one confined by dogma. A confidential World Bank report, written after a staff survey of Vietnam and circulated in 1980, begins: “In the three decades following the end of the Second World War, almost every country has enjoyed substantial economic growth and an improvement in the welfare of its people…. [But] when the war in Vietnam finally ended in 1975, per capita production of major commodities had changed little, or fallen, since the 1940s. Except in some parts of the south the economic infrastructure is less well developed than in most developing countries and the country’s standard of living is one of the lowest.” The Bank report put the standard of living between those of India and Bangladesh.

But the opportunities of peace have been lost. The economy has, if that is possible, suffered almost as badly since the war as during it. In part this reflects the collapse of foreign aid. American money to the south ceased, of course, in April 1975, and millions of people who had lived off it lost their livelihood. In 1978 China cut off all aid to the country as well.

Hanoi had expected in 1975 to have normal relations with the US and then to benefit from peacetime American aid and investment. That did not happen—largely because in 1977 and early 1978, when the Carter administration genuinely sought to restore relations, Hanoi continued to demand “war reparations.” Although Nixon had promised economic aid in a secret (and probably illegal) letter written at the time of the Paris peace accords in 1973, this was an absurd demand to make in 1977 and 1978. It reflected the lack of judgment and arrogance which have so often characterized the party leadership in Hanoi.

When, in 1978, the demand was finally dropped, it was too late; Vietnam’s relations with China had deteriorated to the point of hostility, while relations between the US and China were improving. Zbigniew Brzezinski, in particular, was anxious to improve relations with China rather than Vietnam. Cyrus Vance and Richard Holbrooke, the Assistant Secretary of State for East Asia and the Pacific, who had made a serious effort to reach agreement with Hanoi, were overridden. 1 The splendid dowdy villa on Hai Ba Trung street, which was to have been the US embassy, is still empty. My guide pointed it out to me in a tone close to sorrow.

Aid has come from the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe, but it has been neither adequate nor even very effective; a large, though unknown, proportion of it is military not economic aid. The threats of war and then war itself have continued to overshadow the peace. The economy has been further reduced by natural disasters—typhoons, floods, and drought—which have attacked Vietnam with unusual ferocity these last five years. And added to all these disasters has been bad economic planning.

The first five-year plan (1976-1981) was almost a caricature of the 1940s Stalinist plans imposed on Eastern Europe, concentrating on heavy industry—steel, chemicals, cement, heavy machinery—at the expense of agriculture and fishing. It was nonetheless intended to make Vietnam self-sufficient in food. It did nothing of the sort, partly because of widespread resistance by the peasants to the government’s programs for collectivization and its controls on private trade. Grain production, in particular rice, was supposed to be increased 54 percent during the five-year period, but it rose by only 4 percent. Instead of growing 21 million tons in 1980, as planned, only 14 million tons were harvested. Last year, official rice rations in the north were cut to 13 kilos a month. That is two kilos fewer than recommended as the minimum by the World Health Organization and, incidentally, much less than most people now eat in Kampuchea. The UN’s Food and Agriculture Organization reckons that the country will be short 2 million tons of rice this year and has recommended emergency food aid of 384,000 tons to offset serious shortages in the central provinces.

In the agricultural cooperatives I visited in both northern and southern Vietnam I was given impressive figures for the increase in agricultural production. In fact yields per hectare fell during 1979 and 1980, in good part for lack of fertilizers. Among the main targets of the Chinese invasion in February 1979 were Vietnam’s phosphate mines, from which a large proportion of the country’s fertilizers were produced.

Between 1976 and 1980 real Gross Domestic Product grew at only 3 percent a year instead of 14 percent as planned. The population is growing at 3 percent (fastest in the south where there is almost no contraception) so this means no increase in real wealth per person. People are poorer now than they were during the war. The average income in Vietnam today is only $160 a year.

Among the poorest people are government workers. Their salaries start at only 60 dong a month. They are allowed to buy 13 kilos of rice a month at a very low price—0.40 dong a kilo. On the free market in the north rice costs up to 10 dong a kilo. But there is not much meat available at controlled prices. On the free market meat will cost about 25 dong a kilo; a chicken will cost 50 dong, close to a month’s wages.

After rice the most important staple food in Vietnam is fish. But the fish catch has fallen drastically in recent years, from about 610,000 tons in 1976 to about 350,000 tons in 1980. As a result the Vietnamese were able to eat an average of only 9.5 kilos of fish last year; in 1976 they had had 16 kilos. What happened? Fuel and nets have been short, but boats have been shorter still. Loaded with people, they have sailed away.

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    Holbrooke believes that Vietnamese intransigence over “reparations” reflected in part very bad advice given them by leaders of the American antiwar movement who insisted, with scant political acumen, that such an acknowledgement of US guilt both should and would be made by the Carter administration. Aid would certainly have followed recognition anyway.

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