The Road to Hill 10

A veteran's return to Vietnam

Mondays at 5:30 there is joggling in Lenin Park. Tuesdays there are movies at the French Embassy. Fridays there's the Billabong Bar, behind the Australian Embassy. Saturdays is International House, where local bands play bad Abba imitations and there's a rare chance to mingle with some Vietnamese. Every third Saturday is the pinnacle of social life in Hanoi: the Swedish disco. The foreigners in Hanoi live a sort of cruise-ship life, with the Vietnamese the surrounding ocean, opaque and occasionally hostile. Their movements are restricted, their contacts with Vietnamese limited. They fight an impenetrable bureaucracy to do their jobs, and they have almost no idea of what is going on.

Among non-Communist diplomats and UN people there are few who remain enthusiastic about Vietnam. Most hate the police state, they hate the way their employees are treated, and they hate the bureaucracy. "The Vietnamese never throw anything away," a young diplomat told me one evening over drinks. "So they've simply placed each new bureaucracy on top of the one before. The French bureaucracy was laid over the Confucian bureaucracy, and the Communist bureaucracy over that. It's impossible to figure out. Even the Vietnamese don't understand how it works."

"The worst thing is what happens to your employees," one UN official said, as we ate lunch with several aid officers. "They have to fill out reports on us: he talked to this person, he met with that person, he changed money at so-and-so's. They know everything about us. And they have to report on each other. And that produces real tragedies. If they don't like someone, they'll just say he's getting too close to the foreigners, give a few vague examples, and before you know it, that person is gone. It gets very tiring after a while."

Another UN official interrupted. "We have been trying to do a project for three years. We were getting nowhere. Last month I discovered that all this time we had been arguing with the wrong agency—which no one bothered to tell us."

"Nothing is ever decided," said another. "you go out of a meeting and you feel you've accomplished something. Then the next day they start right back where you started the day before, as if it never happened. No one can approve anything. Everyone is afraid to take responsibility. So the smallest decisions get kicked all the way to the top."

"One agency brought in a special computer," a Western diplomat told me. "It was a gift for the Vietnamese government. But they impounded it in Saigon and insisted the agency pay $28,000 to transport it to Hanoi—and it was for them!"

The head of a voluntary agency, checking on its projects in Vietnam, shook his head and told me of his experience at a hospital: "They spent an hour attacking the capitalists, and then presented me with a list of what they wanted: a hundred thousand dollars' worth of audiovisual equipment for remote villages—where there's no electricity!"

During another conversation a European diplomat paused. looked out the window, and said in a flat voice: "All this is just bureaucracy. What matters is that they are evil, truly evil." He said this softly but with such passion that the whole table became quiet. When the conversation picked up again, it centered on how to smuggle antiques out in diplomatic pouches.

This disillusionment is not just the carping of bored diplomats. It's a symptom of Vietnam's most serious problem. Like Israel, Vietnam was much more popular as a victim than it is as a regional power. Despite its martial success—or perhaps because of it—Vietnam is a terribly poor country. It has the fourth-largest army in the world and a per capita income lower than India's. Its people suffer from malnutrition and curable diseases "out of a nineteenth-century medical textbook," as one Western doctor described them to me. These problems are compounded by a baby boom of enormous proportions: the population has exploded from some 38 million in the early 1970s to more than 60 million today. Vietnam desperately needs aid of all kinds, from medical supplies to developmental assistance, but the occupation of Cambodia has caused almost every country outside the Soviet bloc to terminate all direct aid. The United Nations projects continue, but even Sweden, Vietnam's staunchest friend in the West, is considering reducing its commitment.

Still, none of this pressure seems to have swayed the determination of the Vietnamese to stay in Cambodia; they have learned throughout their history that if they are stubborn enough, if they struggle long enough, they will get what they want. Sooner or later, they believe, the world will come around.

Having been part of a foreign army in Southeast Asia whose presence was considered an outrage by much of the world, I have to confess to feeling that there is a certain satisfying irony in my old enemy's being hoist with its own petard. Also, it has been particularly interesting to see the disenchantment of the left, which all but canonized the North Vietnamese during the war with us. In Da Nang I watched a film about the Ho Chi Minh Trail with a group of West German tourists. One of them came up to me later, and we began to talk.

"I was one of the radicals in Berlin in 1968," he said. "I was with Rudi Dutschke and Hans Magnus Enzensberger. Every waking moment was spent working against the American war here."

"So how do you feel now?" I asked him.

"Very strange. Vietnam is not popular with the left anymore. After the reeducation camps, after the boat people. after Cambodia—the left feels betrayed. We fought so hard for them, and they let us down."

To me, on the other hand, the Vietnamese were a formidable enemy, totally ruthless and fiercely committed. I was appalled by the boat people, by the reeducation camps, by the occupation of Cambodia, but I was not one bit surprised or disappointed. Now that I was back, I had discovered that Vietnam was bad—but not so bad as I had expected. For the politically committed, however, such distinctions are not emotionally satisfying and therefore not politically relevant: you are either a friend or an enemy, you can do no wrong or you can do no right. So the ex-protester and the ex-Marine sat in the hotel in Da Nang, he attacking the Vietnamese and I more or less defending them, far into the night.

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