North Vietnam and China: Reflections on a Visit

Richard Nixon
Richard Nixon; drawing by David Levine

Early this year I went to Hanoi by way of China. After spending a week in Peking I went to North Vietnam for just over a month and then returned to China, where I stayed in Changsha and Canton for two weeks. Later I spent three and a half weeks in South Vietnam. Thus during my visits to Vietnam and the second half of my journey in China, I was kept constantly aware of the similarities and contrasts between the two countries.

That there should be resemblances is hardly surprising. In prehistoric times there appear to have been no sharp cultural or physical divisions between the rice growing peoples of the valleys and deltas in what are now south China and North Vietnam. For the thousand years between 111 B.C. and A.D. 940 Vietnam was a Chinese province. Even after Vietnam achieved political independence, China retained a dominance over its higher culture. Its central administration was closely modeled on that of China. Indeed, Chinese was the major written language, and Vietnamese literature and even folklore were deeply influenced by China.

In addition to these ancient connections, the histories of both countries show strikingly close parallels during the twentieth century. In both, peasant revolutionary movements led by Marxist-Leninist parties have gained power after long battles in the countryside in which patriotism as well as social revolution has been a major issue. Moreover, in both countries the protracted nature of the struggle has made active mass participation in the movement necessary to an extent that has never even been approached in other revolutions.

Never having been to Vietnam before and not speaking Vietnamese, I expected that a strong Chinese influence would be evident. I even hoped that it would be, so that I could use my limited experience of China to help me to understand Vietnam. I was quickly disabused. Some of the distinctions I made on my first trip to Vietnam were the result of differences I saw between it and north and central China, with which I was familiar. Later, after spending some time in the southern province of Kwangtung, I had to modify some of these distinctions. But the essential differences between the two nations remained in my mind, and continue to amaze me.

To a traveler coming from Peking, the first impression of Hanoi was of a Mediterranean city. This view was partly superficial: the French colonial architecture, the typically Latin peeling walls and gentle decay. There was also the openness of life on the streets and the general air of relaxation. But, as in so many other quick social and political assessments, the weather played an important part in forming this impression. The Red River Delta in February is overcast, damp, and cool; there is nothing like the totally constricting dry, bright, and bitterly cold winter of north and central China.

This impression of softness or even hedonism…

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