What remains: Vietnam in my heart

Pham Thi Hoài
28 April 2005

How is it that Vietnamese and Americans can now shake hands, but Vietnamese continue to refuse to offer a hand to their fellow Vietnamese?” Pham Thi Hoài, the exiled Vietnamese novelist, writes a bittersweet memoir of the sorrows of war and hopes of national reconciliation.

Like clouds floating in the sky, the war was already there when I was born. I did not have to get to know it; instead, it had to come to terms with my birth. Every day for fifteen years, I looked up to see the war floating slowly by. I was not an unlucky child: most of those clouds were pink. When storm clouds appeared, they only made the ones that came after seem more rosy.

I was born and raised in northern Vietnam during the 1960s and 1970s, and experienced the war as a natural, even a colourful part of life. It remained this way even when it meant bombs dropping rapidly on evacuation areas, and even when I could no longer recognise friends and schoolmates who had lost their arms and legs. During the war, death sparkled and winked at me, as if to say “see you tomorrow”. It seemed to me that, barring some unforeseen change, the war might continue forever like clouds in the sky.

With the liberation of Buon Ma Thuot in mid-March 1975, morning lessons began with “progressive” students undertaking the honourable task of affixing to the map of the country a small red flag with a single yellow star, right at the spot of the most recent liberation. Hue, 26 March; Danang, 29 March; Phan Rang, 16 April; Xuan Loc, 21 April...

The colour of red was overwhelming. It swept through the south so quickly that I worried I would not get my turn. On 27 April, holding a paper-and-toothpick-flag poised over Ba Ria, I cried like everyone else. But mine were not tears of victory. I knew nothing of the price of victory. My tears were tears of farewell. The war had known me. Now it was my turn to get used to its departure. Who would replace it to wink at me? What would remain after the war?

Whose victory?

The first post-war decade was marked by a continuation of the wartime subsidy system, the regimentation of daily living, and the reign of hardline ideology. It was also marked, in 1978-79, by military conflict on the western border with Cambodia and on the northern border with China. This and the continuation of the cold war turned our newly-achieved national independence into international isolation, and transformed our recently unified country – north and south alike – into a territory riddled through and through with poverty, backwardness and repression.

When I lived in Hanoi during the early 1980s, I imagined that I would give birth to a child whose official biography would begin as follows: Like clouds floating in the sky, the post-war era was already there when I was born. Everyday I looked down, observing the slowly floating grey clouds of the post-war...

But the mid-1980s saw the introduction of doi moi (renovation policy, Vietnam’s equivalent of Gorbachev-era perestroika). It took the winners ten years to realise that victory was not something that could be eaten. In 1994, the embargo on Vietnam was lifted and the normalisation process between Vietnam and the United States began to accelerate.

It took the US twenty years to sign a peace treaty with its own past. For the US today, the Vietnam war belongs to history. It is only used once every four years as a fruitless test of the morality and patriotic spirit of presidential candidates, or as a point of comparison with other wars that the United States is fighting, or ones that it will likely fight in the future.

Thirty years after the war, people often say that history has formed its scar, let it rest in peace. There is no reason to excavate relics unrelated to the present. Let’s look to the future!

I belong to a small group of people – a minority most likely – who cannot make such a statement with ease.

Thirty years after the war, the small paper-and-toothpick-flag feels heavier in my hand than ever. Yes, the death of 4 million people and 1 million soldiers belong to history, as do the plight of several million orphans and widows, the physical and psychological wounds of tens of millions, the seventy-six million litres of chemical poison and the thirteen million tons of bombs and bullets.

But the most severe legacy of a war that achieved unbreakable records of inhumanity endures, simply because it has never been included in the conventional list of the legacies from that war that must be overcome.

The result of the Vietnam war was a complete victory for the communists. The war was the mother’s milk, the school and the testing-ground of Vietnamese communism. It provides historical justification for the indispensable leadership of the Communist Party, endowing it with the “mandate of heaven”. Communism found a special route to the Vietnamese throne through this remarkably bloody mandate. The war is gone, but the claim it represents remains. To this day, the legitimacy earned thirty years ago is constantly reiterated, repeated, reaffirmed, validated and deified. War-era heroes continue to monopolise peacetime authority; war-era military leadership is reborn as totalitarian control.

The Communist Party knows well that while many things can change, the myth of its “mandate of heaven” must remain intact, especially because every other element of its ideology has been betrayed unapologetically or been revealed as bankrupt. How can the war be consigned to history while the mandate derived from that war endures?

Thirty years after the war, all of our foundational cultural values have lost their validity and the noblest ideas of communist ideology have become a joke. No space has emerged for basic western democratic values or for the positive dimensions of modern globalisation.

Instead, Vietnamese people face a morass of social problems: rampant corruption; violation of the rule of law; perversion of morality and dignity; the collapse of medical and educational systems; the dizzyingly rapid increase in social inequality; the ticking time-bomb of ethnic and religious conflict; the danger of chaos in a huge and neglected countryside; a destroyed and polluted environment; the impoverishment of spiritual life; the impotence of the intelligentsia; the prevention of cooperation between different social groups; the crisis of belief and of hope.

The totalitarian system in Vietnam has had enough time and enough opportunities to prove that it no longer has the authority to solve these problems. Can one place the Vietnam war into a museum while continuing to follow the Vietnamese totalitarian system towards the future? Is dictatorship a worthy price for peace?

The next long march

The Vietnam war did not result in the collapse of the United States. Rather, it led to the disappearance of the southern Republic of Vietnam, a nation that once dominated half of the country and which was no less legitimate than its brother in the north.

After liberation, however, southern society was subjected to intense repression: prison, concentration camp, the seizure of property, discrimination against bi-racial children, the purge of intellectuals, the destruction and prohibition of southern culture, the complete erasure of numerous careers and many lives. These are not the actions of righteous winners. Nor are they evidence of the superiority of the new regime in relation to its recently vanquished enemy.

Thirty years after the war, the country has never once acknowledged the painful exodus of almost 1 million southern Vietnamese, the “boat people”. It is as if they are no longer Vietnamese and have been excommunicated from the unified nation. It is as if the country belongs to only a single group of Vietnamese but not to another. It is as if they believed that national feeling can grow naturally from out of a deep hole of division and hatred, like a rice plant growing out from a trench.

It is easy to say: the war-wound has begun to heal, don’t dig too deeply into it. But it is not a wound. It is a tumour for which time is not the miracle cure. On the contrary. The war originated from national division. Should such division continue to endure thirty years after the war? How is it that Vietnamese and Americans can now shake hands, but Vietnamese continue to refuse to offer a hand to their fellow Vietnamese?

Thirty years on, the darkest shadows of the Vietnam war are still with us. They are still floating slowly and unceasingly, like clouds in the sky. Unless something changes.

Translated by Nguyen Nguyet Cam and Peter Zinoman

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