Tag Archives: Vietnam War

Vietnam’s Stark Choice: East or West

For decades, Vietnam has walked a tightrope between East and West, as Communist Party factions jostled over whether to align more with China or more with the US.  China’s latest aggression in the East/South China Sea escalates the skill challenge — and may even threaten the survival of Vietnam’s ruling acrobats.

Although Vietnam has an ugly history with both countries, the pro-China faction has generally prevailed in Vietnam’s government.  Vietnam has evolved as a Chinese-style state-controlled capitalistic autocracy.  China has been allowed to exploit Vietnamese natural resources.  China dominates trade between the two countries.  And China even gets favorable treatment in Vietnam’s schools that teach about the horrors of the American War but gloss over (or don’t mention) the more recent border war of Chinese aggression.

But there’s evidence this week that the dynamic may be changing.  The Chinese embassy in Hanoi was the setting for the largest anti-China protests in recent history, and the Vietnamese government permitted it.  Vietnamese officials worldwide have been loudly protesting China’s contention that it owns the South China and all the resources within it — and Vietnam’s diplomats have been working overtime to line up supporters, including the US.

Meanwhile, China may not be the biggest problem the ruling party faces in Vietnam.  A bigger problem may be its own citizenry: nearly 100 million mostly young, restless, entrepreneurial people who are increasingly enamored of Western culture, products, and political ideas.  Many of them are highly educated, blogging, Facebook-users who are watching closely to see whether their government is capable of handling China.




The Problem With Curious Boys in Vietnam

People who visit Vietnam for the first time often comment on the ingenuity they witness on the street as curious craftsmen and repairmen work magic with their hands.  But every day, it seems, curiosity ends in tragedy.

Today’s tragedy is about three boys who were tinkering with a land mine left over from the war that they found on a construction site near the central Vietnamese city of Danang.  It was mid-morning, and the boys were taking explosives out of the mine casing when their curiosity took both of Phan Van Hieu’s hands.  He’s 11 and recovering in a hospital.  The boys suffered other injuries as well.

Authorities in Vietnam are well aware of the danger unexploded ordnance poses to  people in the countryside, especially curious boys.  In this case, the area where Hieu was hurt was a former military base that supposedly had been cleared of mines before people were allowed enter it.  But you can’t always get every mine.

It’s estimated that more than 16 million acres (one fifth of Vietnam) contain 800,000 tons of unexploded bombs, shells and landmines — concentrated in six central provinces and the city of Hue.

Since 1975, unexploded ordnance has killed more than 40,000 people and injured 60,000.  That’s a relentless human toll of more than 3 deaths and 4 injuries a day.

The New American Invasion Into Vietnam

Twenty Thirteen is shaping up to be the year the USA overwhelms Vietnamese culture as McDonalds, Starbucks, and (probably) Harley Davidson join already established soft drink, pizza, and fried chicken conglomerates in an onslaught of American consumerism.

The invasion is just beginning.  Vietnamese consumers are wholeheartedly embracing US products, but this isn’t welcome news to those who think about the well-being of Vietnam’s environment and its nearly 100 million people.

Before Starbucks opened its first outlet in Saigon this spring, the makers of Coke, Pizza Hut, and Pepsi announced major expansion plans.  This summer McDonalds joined the crowd after years of speculation that its entry into Vietnam was not a matter of if but rather when and where; resentful speculation included the rumor that Hanoi’s immensely popular Bobby Chinn restaurant had to move and ultimately close because McDonald’s muscled the owner out of his prime real estate.

This fall US-based Harley Davidson is said to be recruiting staff for its first official showroom in Ho Chi Minh City after “unofficial’ dealers have been importing and selling the motorcycles for up to $40,000 apiece (including 100% import tax) for years.

Starbucks plans hundreds of cafes.  McDonalds can have as many as it wants because the company selected the prime minister’s son-in-law to run its Vietnam operations.  Harley Davidson is already popular in one of the world’s biggest two-wheel cultures even though the company doesn’t officially operate there.

The American companies are latecomers to the Vietnam market, and they will find enormous success there, as Kentucky Fried Chicken and Coca Cola have before them.

But skeptics will raise the question of just how good (or bad) the news is for Vietnam and its consumers.  Vietnamese health researchers already have linked the country’s rising incidence of childhood obesity to American soft drinks.  How good can American fast food be for a population accustomed to fresh produce, seafood and chicken soup made from chickens that were alive yesterday morning?  And what will be the impact of ear-shattering, bulky, macho, born-to-be-wild American motorcycles on a quiet culture that thrives on bicycles and modest motorbikes?

The last American invasion of the Vietnam countryside escalated exactly 50 years ago and did a lot of damage.  Will history judge the 2013 invasion as harshly?




Yellow and Gold in Spiritual Vietnam

Today as Vietnam observes Reunification Day, this post is excerpted from my recent sermon as a guest speaker at a church service in the US.

You think “Yellow”, I Say “Gold”

You may not think of Vietnam as a spiritual place.  My purpose today is to change that.  Vietnam inspires me.  I love its people — their culture; their optimism; their patience; their celebrations; their sense of balance; their intuitive nature; their humor; their energy; and their spirituality.

top_site_international_businessMany people are skeptical.  Vietnam is deeply imbedded in American hearts and minds — and not in a pleasant way.  This week the Vietnamese celebrate reunification, the outcome of war.  If you Google Vietnam images, one of the first pictures that comes up on your screen is that of a frightened child running naked down a street in her village during an air raid.  You have seen the movies and heard the music.  One of America’s most popular songs ever is Born in the USA by Bruce Springsteen:  I got in a little hometown jam, So they put a rifle in my hands, Sent me off to Vietnam, To go and kill the yellow man.

Vietnamese singer Pham Quyen Anh invites us to take a closer look:  “You think yellow, I say Gold; it’s the color of my real skin.”  It’s a good thing the song is in English.  It doesn’t make sense in Vietnamese.  In Vietnam, the language integrates humans with their surroundings.  Asian people and gold, the precious metal, both have skin – and the color of that skin is gold.  So yellow and gold are the same color.  The literal translation of the Vietnamese word for blue is “the skin of the sky.”  And green is “the color of leaves”.  The words convey spiritual connectedness in a way western culture does not.

Maybe this is not very significant.  Maybe it is.  Think about race relations.  In the 1970s American culture was forced to consider the connotation of black and white, and we made progress when black pride emerged.  What about yellow pride?  It’s a problem because our dominant culture associates yellow with caution — and cowardice.

As with color, Vietnam turns some of our ideas upside down.  Let me tell you about the day I arrived in Hanoi a decade ago.  After I checked into the hotel, I decided to walk to the lake in the heart of the ancient city.  A beautiful public park surrounded the lake, and surrounding the park was a wide boulevard.  The boulevard was like a race track that ran counterclockwise.  It was an endless stream of speeding motorbikes, and there were no traffic lights or crosswalks.  There didn’t seem to be any rules.  There no four-wheeled vehicles – just a river of two-wheelers – some packed with produce, chickens, appliances or entire families.  I stood on the curb wondering how I was going to get to the other side.  Then I watched a woman next to me; she was heavily laden with a yoke with two baskets filled with fruit and vegetables, and she, too, wanted to cross the boulevard.  So she did.  She stepped into the oncoming traffic and step-by-step made her way to the other side.   Following her lead, I stepped into the river of traffic.  And like any river, it just kept on flowing.   Nobody stopped.  Nobody slowed down.  The motorbike drivers didn’t seem to even notice me.  But an amazing thing happened. I didn’t get run over.  My fellow human beings just drove around me until I arrived at the park.

Crossing the street in Vietnam forces you to accept the Vietnamese idea that the universe is basically a safe place.  And Vietnamese traffic is a metaphor for a more universal concept than that.  It is emblematic of the Gaia hypothesis – which postulates that the planet earth is not what we think it is – a giant ball with billions of human inhabitants and quadrillions of other living things; instead, the earth is but a single living organism and each of us is to the earth what each of our cells is to us.

What I like about the Gaia hypothesis is it forces us to face our interconnectedness.  If we are part of a larger living entity, it makes it more difficult to segregate and isolate ourselves.  Maybe we are special and virtuous — but, really, how different are we from our misguided neighbors?

If we accept the Gaia hypothesis, then our inter-connectedness – our collective unconscious — becomes more meaningful.  Perhaps we humans unknowingly synchronize our thoughts and actions, just as the cells do in our body.  We like to think of ourselves as rugged individualists, but what if in fact we work together in ways we don’t understand?  If so, maybe that helps explain why a river of motorbike drivers acts like a tiny capillary on our body, each blood cell behaving independently, but at the same time flowing in harmony.  Consider a giant school of fish or a flock of birds:  They function like the motorbike drivers in Hanoi, each making independent decisions – without running into objects or pedestrians.

Of course, the Vietnamese way of thinking and driving comes in part from the country’s Buddhist and other ancient spiritual traditions, and it is counterintuitive in our culture of “trust but verify.”  We learned to watch out for traffic, and that is why Hanoi’s visitors from the west are afraid to cross the street even though the traffic is really like gentle stream.

Balance and harmony are other Vietnamese values.  Work hard, celebrate holidays like there’s no tomorrow, and say yes even if you mean no to preserve harmonious relationships.  Don’t judge others, and take a nap at noon on the floor of your workplace, wherever it is and whether you are a laborer or the CEO or a farmer.

There are tens of millions of farmers in Vietnam, and all of them place enormous value on family.  Respect your parents, and their parents.

One day when I was in Saigon more than two years ago, I bought a bottle of water at a tiny convenience store about a block from my hotel.  As I paid for the water, I noticed behind the counter there was a very old woman on a bed and children playing elsewhere in the room.  A year later, staying at the same hotel, I walked by the convenience store again, and there was the same family, the same children a year older, the same old woman in the same bed and seemingly in the same position.

This is the Vietnamese system of elder care.  And it raises a question worth pondering:  When you are on your death bed — as this woman seemed to be –would you rather be in a nursing home a mile or a thousand miles from your family — as might be the case in America — or in the same room with your great grandchildren where you could watch the activity on a busy street?

Last fall, I visited again, and this time the old woman was gone.  It is likely her great-grandchildren were in the room when she died, and because of that the children learned more about the cycle of life and connections of the generations – and perhaps of the universe as a whole — than most of American children will.   And earlier this year the old woman observed the feast of Tet along with the rest of the family because her living relatives most likely believe her spirit remains in the household.

Who are we to question such beliefs, and, more importantly, why would we want to?  The writer Bruce Weigl, a Vietnam Vet, is wistful about Vietnam giving up its culture to be more western.  In his book — The Circle of Hanh — he writes about a return visit:

 As our car made its way through the crowded streets (of Hanoi), I could see that the slower pace encouraged by the wide sidewalks and narrow streets of the past was changing before me.  I don’t know what we lose when we move too quickly through our lives, but I know that loss is great.  

The loss is great – because Vietnam is a spiritual place with lessons lurking in daily life.  In my case, these lessons all came together one afternoon when I was sitting on a park bench at the lake in Hanoi.  A young man walked up and asked if he could practice his English.  I invited him to sit down, and we talked.  His name was Hoang, and he told me his story.  It was similar to the story I have heard many times.  He grew up on a rice farm in the north of Vietnam, his family was very poor, and he came to Hanoi to get an education.  His university was about a mile away and sometimes he came to the city’s old quarter to get an odd job working for a shop or a restaurant in the tourist area so he could earn a little money for food and incidentals.

As we were talking, an elderly woman in rags limped up to us and held out her hand for money.  I barely noticed her, but Hoang gave her his complete attention.  He asked her a couple of questions in Vietnamese.  And then he pulled out his wallet and opened it to reveal that is contained only a single note of Vietnamese currency that was worth a little over a dollar.  Then he handed the money to the woman.  As she moved on, I asked him why he gave her his only money, and he said:  “Because she needs it more than I do.”

Hoang and I talked some more, and I told him I had to get to an appointment, and he thanked me for helping him improve his English skills.  As we were about to part, I took out my wallet and handed Huan Vietnamese currency worth about $3.  I told him I wanted him to have a good meal tonight.  He seemed wounded and angry by my gesture, and he said:  “I cannot accept that.”

I said: “Why not?  You need it more than I do.”  And he said, “My father taught me never to accept money that I did not earn.”

How different this encounter might have gone in America.  We are so wealthy, but how many of us are able to achieve the success of Hoang’s father – a man who most likely works harder than I ever have and may earn $1 a day or less.

Hoang showed courage and confidence approaching me to practice his English.  His encounter with the woman was striking because he has been taught to treat   people who are older, poor and handicapped with great respect.  Where I saw  yellow, he saw gold.

The message from Hoang’s father about self-reliance – never accept something you didn’t earn — seems anachronistic in our culture of entitlements,  but remains important.  And perhaps the greatest of the father’s gifts to his son was the trust that allowed Hoang walk off into the dark streets of Hanoi with an      empty wallet but with his integrity — and trust that the universe would take care of him.

Vietnam seems comfortable embracing a universal trust that springs from centuries of spiritual traditions in one of the world’s oldest civilizations.  It’s that trust that led the woman with the basket of produce into the oncoming traffic in Hanoi.

Perhaps you recall four years ago when President Obama gave his first inaugural address.  In the speech, he honored American war veterans and mentioned four famous battles – Concord, Gettysburg, Normandy and Khe Sanh.  Khe Sanh is a village in Vietnam.  Today near that village is a modest memorial to the marines who fought there, but for the most part nature and farmers have reclaimed Khe Sanh.  Much of the old air strip there is now part of a coffee plantation.  Coffee beans have replaced artillery shells in Khe Sanh, and in this way coffee has become a metaphor for the dreams of Vietnam – and maybe even the dreams of all of us.

The Perils of Being a Vietnamese Child

Last week eight schoolgirls drowned in Vietnam, where children are valued and loved but more vulnerable than their peers elsewhere.  Six 13-year-olds were swimming in a river on the South Central coast when one of them cried for help and her friends tried to rescue her; the same day, two 10-year-olds were swept away by strong river current 600 miles to the north.

Alliance for Safe Children says Vietnamese children are twice as likely to drown than average for the world.  Vietnam’s vast river systems and coastline invite tragedy, and swimming isn’t part of the school curriculum.

Children in Vietnam face other perils as well, some outgrowths of poverty and others related to their country’s exposure to the Western world.  Among these are exploitation by employers, nutritional deficiencies, child trafficking, educational roadblocks, and unexploded war ordinance.

Nutrition experts say 11% of Hanoi’s children younger than 11 are overweight.  Thanks to fast food and soda, they consume up to 125% of their caloric need but just 60% of calcium required for their physical development.  Their diets are also deficient in iron and iodine.

Education experts point out many poor families in Vietnam keep their children out of school because they can’t afford the uniforms, textbooks, and fees — or the tuition for high school.  Many children end up wandering the streets selling lottery tickets.

In some parts of Vietnam, children are at risk because of previously unexploded war ordnance, which has killed or injured more than 100,000 farmers and children in fields over the past 40 years.

As with all countries, Vietnam’s promise is its children.  Vietnam’s challenge is keeping them healthy and safe.

Vietnam’s Tired Anti-American Propaganda

CBS started a controversy last weekend when it sent Amazing Race contestants to the B-52 wreckage in Hanoi that celebrates Vietnam’s triumph over US imperialism 40 years ago.  The American Legion said the episode promoted communist propaganda and disrespected Vietnam veterans, especially the men who were shot down in the aircraft decades ago.

But there’s an irony here.  Even as the wreckage memorializes the defeat of the USA, history shows the Americans achieved their central goal there: economic freedom.

CBS showcased one of Vietnam's ugliest sights
CBS showcased one of Vietnam’s ugliest sights

Vietnam is governed by a Communist Party that doesn’t tolerate much criticism, but free enterprise, more than communism, rules the economy.  And the cold-warriors that aimed to stop the spread of communism at the China border prevailed in the end.

Today, Western tourists who visit Vietnam’s many war memorials and museums subject themselves to intense propaganda.  These sites and the high school history books demonize Americans and glorify the Communist victors.  But the message is as obsolete as the wrecked aircraft that serves as its emblem.

In fact, Vietnamese people for the most part worship American culture and technology.  As a whole, they crave the fruits of free enterprize.  Diplomatic, and even military, relations between Vietnam and the US are warm and getting warmer.

I hope Vietnam’s leaders consider getting rid of — or at least toning down — the tired, hostile propaganda the permeates their otherwise spectacularly promising country.  What purpose does it serve to provide CBS with war wreckage as a backdrop when the network should be showcasing world-class art, wildlife, cuisine, temples, commerce, and beaches?

As for CBS, here are places the network could visit to showcase the Vietnam of today — Vietnam slide show — and if the network insists on the war theme, the site pictured below would be more appropriate.  It’s one of scores of cemeteries for Vietnamese war veterans, this one in the central highlands city of Buon Me Thuot.

Powershot 1360


Revisiting the Wounds of War in Vietnam

Many first-time American travelers to Vietnam are surprised when their hosts welcome them without a hint of resentment lingering from events 40 and 50 years ago.  To older Americans, especially, the Vietnamese seem to have short memories and a remarkable capacity to focus on the present.

Even so, potential Vietnam investors may benefit from reading two remarkable new publications — a book and the op-ed opinion piece below — to avoid letting the 50-year-old Vietnam/American War hinder their business relationships in one of the world’s most dynamic frontier markets.

The op-ed piece appeared in the Wall Street Journal on Thursday of this week and was written by John McCain — who may have a deeper understanding  than any other American how far US-Vietnamese relations have come since he was released as a prisoner of war in Hanoi exactly 40 years ago.

The book that has been gaining attention is Nick Turse’s grim account of the American conduct toward civilians during the Vietnam War.  It’s a story that is hard to read because it has been buried, unacknowledged, in the American subconscious.  Like a painful memory of childhood, the story Turse documented has haunted our culture for the past half century.

In the conclusion of his book Kill Anything That Moves, Turse observes: ‘The true history of the Vietnamese civilian suffering does not fit comfortably into America’s preferred postwar narrative — the tale of a conflict nobly fought by responsible commanders and good American boys, who should not be tainted by the occasional mistakes of a few bad apples in their midst.  Still, this is hardly an excuse for averting our eyes from the truth.”

Today, an American investor acknowledging the past may be better prepared to earn the trust of his Vietnamese counterpart.

For his part, McCain recounts how he has come to admire and respect Vietnam and the Vietnamese over the years since he was released after five intense years in prison.

Here’s the remarkable article that appeared in Thursday’s Wall Street Journal by John McCain:


Forty years ago on March 14, my fellow prisoners of war in North Vietnam and I, dressed in cheap civilian clothes that had been provided to the 108 of us for the occasion, boarded buses for Gia Lam airport on the outskirts of Hanoi. A big green American C-141 airlifter was waiting there to fly us to Clark Air Force Base in the Philippines.

At the airport, we lined up in formation according to our shoot-down date, and we tried to maintain a military bearing as cameras whirred and clicked and a noisy crowd of Vietnamese observed us. American and Vietnamese officers sat at a table, each holding a list of prisoners.

When it was time for a prisoner to step forward, representatives from both militaries called out his name. They called my name, and I took a few steps toward the table and saluted. A U.S. naval officer returned my salute, smiled and shook my hand, and escorted me across the tarmac and up the ramp into the plane.

I made the trip with two of my closest friends, Air Force officers Bud Day and Bob Craner, whose example and encouragement I had relied on for over five years. A few minutes into the flight, the pilot announced that we were “feet wet,” which meant we were now flying over the Tonkin Gulf and were in international air space. Everyone cheered.

I doubt that any of us expected we would ever return to the country we had yearned to leave for so long. It was hard to say goodbye to each other at Clark, and our farewells were very emotional.

We made promises to stay in frequent contact, which we would do over the years, until death began to thin our ranks. There were no mixed emotions, however, as we took our leave of Vietnam, and no desire to renew the acquaintance in the future.

As it turned out, I would return to Vietnam. I’ve been back many times since the end of the war. It’s a beautiful country, and the Vietnamese are welcoming hosts. Most of my visits have been for official business: accounting for American POW/MIAs, helping to facilitate the normalization of relations between our countries, and promoting a future relationship that will serve both countries’ interests.

I’ve made friendships with people who were once my enemies. I’ve become fond of a place I once detested. I am pleased that America and Vietnam have made so much progress in building a productive, mutually beneficial relationship in the wreckage of a war that was a tragedy for both our peoples.

Today, old grievances are being replaced by new hopes. Increasing numbers of Americans visit Vietnam every year—including three U.S. presidents while in office—drawn to the country’s spectacular natural beauty and friendly people. Bilateral trade is more than 80 times greater than it was in 1994, when the U.S. lifted its trade embargo. This has benefited the people of both countries and enabled millions of Vietnamese to lift themselves out of poverty.

Similarly, the two countries’ defense relationship has evolved to an extent that was simply unimaginable even a decade ago. Our militaries exercise together, and Cam Ranh Bay is again a port of call for the U.S. Navy. Indeed, the USS John McCain, a Navy destroyer named after my father and grandfather, recently made a port visit into Danang, which shows that if you live long enough, anything is possible.

And yet, when it comes to the values that Americans hold dear—freedom, human rights and the rule of law—our highest hopes for Vietnam still remain largely just hopes. The government in Hanoi still imprisons and mistreats peaceful dissidents, journalists, bloggers, and ethnic and religious minorities for political reasons.

It still maintains sweeping laws, such as Article 88, that give the state nearly unlimited power over its citizens. The government still hasn’t taken modest actions that could put Vietnam squarely on the right side of internationally recognized human rights, such as ratifying and implementing the Convention Against Torture.

In a positive recent step, the Vietnamese government has begun a dialogue with Amnesty International and suggested that Vietnam may finally reform its constitution to better protect civil and political rights for it citizens. I sincerely hope so—for while great relationships can be built on the basis of common interests, as the U.S.-Vietnam one is now, the best and most enduring partnerships always rest on a foundation of shared values. In this challenge, as in every other challenge that the two countries have overcome together, I intend to remain Vietnam’s dedicated friend.

Our countries had a difficult and heartbreaking past. But they didn’t bind themselves to that past, and they are now traveling the road from reconciliation to true friendship. This promising prospect is among the biggest and most satisfying surprises of my life, one that I expect will astonish me more in the years ahead.

Mr. McCain is a U.S. senator from Arizona