A Special Supplement: In North Vietnam

The ICC flight to Hanoi spirals upward around Vientiane until it reaches its assigned altitude, and then passes through a protected corridor over an area that has received some of the most intensive bombing in history. A Phantom jet streaked close by—much to the annoyance of the crew and regular passengers—but apart from that we saw nothing in the heavy clouds until the lights of Hanoi appeared below. The passengers on the flight were a curious mixture: Chinese diplomats; Russian journalists, an Italian novelist, several Poles, and three American visitors.

We arrived on April 10, and departed on the same flight, a week later. Since my visit to Vietnam was so brief, my impressions are necessarily superficial. Since I do not speak Vietnamese, an interpreter was usually necessary, and although the interpreters were highly skilled, the process of translation is time-consuming and certainly retards communication. I will describe what I saw and what I was told. The reader should bear in mind the limitations of what I am able to report.

For a country at war, North Vietnam seems remarkably relaxed and serene. We took long walks, unaccompanied, in Hanoi and in the countryside. Occasionally, we were asked not to take pictures—for example, at the entrance to a cave in which a factory shop was hidden. Our Vietnamese hosts did not ask to develop or check any of the pictures that we took, including color photos. There was also very little security, as far as I could see. We visited Premier Pham Van Dong in a retreat outside the city, but noticed no guards or police anywhere nearby. In the city there were many soldiers sitting by the lakes, walking through the streets, or among the dense waves of cyclists. Their appearance was that of soldiers on leave. There were also many young men in both city and country in civilian occupations. I noticed only a few police, mostly directing traffic and apparently unarmed.

In the countryside a crowd of children collected around us as we walked through a remote village some distance from the administration buildings of Thanh Hoa province, where we spent the night. They assumed that we were Russians, as did the children who waved and shouted “Soviet Union” as we drove through towns and villages. We were invariably greeted with friendly smiles, and in the more remote areas, with some show of curiosity.

Everywhere we went, people seemed healthy, well-fed, and adequately clothed. There was no obvious difference between the living standards of the city and the country. Commodities were scarce. Except for a bicycle, a thermos bottle, perhaps a radio, most people probably have very few consumer goods. I don’t think I saw more than a few dozen cars in Hanoi. The center of the city looks not very different from the outskirts. The city is clean and quiet, except for the honking of the horns of trucks, warning bicycles to clear the way. I had heard that there were loudspeakers everywhere blaring news…

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