LAST summer my wife and I traveled through two of the most miserable parts of Asia -- Burma and Vietnam. We were in Burma just as the antigovernment protests were beginning, and what we saw made the subsequent upheaval there completely unsurprising. But what we saw in Vietnam made the lasting bitterness and contention over what America did in Vietnam seem, if not surprising, way out of proportion. The Vietnam War now seems much less important in Asia, where it was fought, than it does back in the United States. In most of Asia, including Indochina, America's role in the war is part of the dead and uninteresting past, as the Korean War was to most Americans a few years after it ended. America is the only place where the Vietnam War is still going on.
I went to Vietnam as part of a group tour, to my chagrin. In theory it is easy for American journalists to get into Vietnam these days. Vietnam is desperate for Western currency. Even the tourists and advisers from the USSR and other Soviet-bloc countries, who make up most of the foreigners on the street, have to settle their hotel bills in American cash. Because of the Western trade boycott and a general collapse of Vietnam's economy, tourism is practically the only way for Vietnam to get foreign currency. And so for at least two years Vietnam has been trying to entice Western tourists, especially Americans. (It is already well established as a vacation spot for Eastern Europeans. The resort concept is less ludicrous than it may sound: the Vietnamese coastline is spectacularly beautiful, like California's. ) At the same time, Vietnam has been letting in Western journalists as a sign of its general openness and, it hopes, as a way to build interest in the tourist trade and, eventually, in normalized relations with the United States.
In keeping with this policy, the various Vietnamese embassies I dealt with continually assured me that there was no objection in principle to my obtaining a journalist's visa. This would satisfy my journalist's dignity, by letting me specify what I wanted to see; an interpreter-chaperon would take me around the country. But in practice the months rolled by and the embassies never got the required "word from Hanoi" about the visa. I gather that this distinction, between principle and practice, is the crucial one in all dealings with the Vietnamese government. In principle there is no reason why any of the half-American Amerasians should still be stuck in Vietnam, since America has agreed to accept them and Vietnam has supposedly agreed to let them go. But in practice it is common to see them singly or by twos in small villages of what was South Vietnam, and by the score in big cities, like Da Lang and Saigon (as Ho Chi Minh City is still frequently called, and as I. for conciseness, will call it here). Vietnam has no reason in principle to keep them, but in practice it is slow to issue exit visas.
Except in rare cases, the only way into Vietnam without a journalist's visa is on one of the group tours run by the state monopoly, Vietnam Tourism. (Tickets are sold by travel agencies around the world, of which the most experienced is Diethelm Travel, in Bangkok, but the agencies must act as fronts for Vietnam Tourism.) Joining a tour wounded my vanity as a reporter and offended my sense of individualism, which is sharpened each time I run into a group of Japanese tourists massed behind a leader holding a flag. Also, Vietnam Tourism pushes its monopoly advantage to the hilt, charging about $100 a day for food and lodging whose open-market value must be about $15.
But as it turned out, the group-travel approach had its advantages. For one thing, the group was small -- only nine people besides my wife and me, just enough to be crammed uncomfortably into the rickety Russian-made mini-bus on which we spent most of the nine days of our trip. Also, every member of it had some ulterior motive for taking what was not exactly a relaxing journey. One traveler was a German priest, thoroughly disguised behind a slapstick comedian's manner, who would sneak into Catholic churches at each stop and try to make contact with the local clergy. A mild-mannered banker turned out to have been stationed near the DMZ as a Marine in 1968. A novelist from England had just finished a book set in Vietnam during the war. She wanted to visit Vietnam before the book came out, so that on her publicity tour she could tell people that of course she'd seen all the places she had written about. A chaplain from the Belgian Army seemed to have memorized the history and after-action intelligence assessment of every combat engagement in Indochina since the late 1940s. And so on.
The group tour also forced us to see a lot of territory in a short time. We flew first from Bangkok to Hanoi, and then two days later to Da Nang, halfway down the country. There we switched to the Russian bus and drove north to Hue, forty miles south of the old DMZ. Then, over the next four days, we drove down the length of what had been South Vietnam, to Saigon, following Highway 1, the famous "Street Without Joy." The road was rough, the bus leaked when it was rainy and was stifling the rest of the time, the hotels had rats and spiders in the rooms and, in Dalat, bats flapping outside the window. The journey combined, in short, the good and the bad of driving across the United States in a beat-up car, stopping briefly at fleabag motels. It was similar in the time it required and in the resulting grubbiness and fatigue but also in the satisfaction of seeing how the topography and cultures fit together.
Finally, although this is not a high-minded way to judge, a group tour gave me a more visceral sense of Vietnamese politics than I might have received as a privately escorted journalist. China has figured out a brilliantly cynical tactic that still has not dawned on most other centrally controlled societies: you can get much better PR for your country if you give visitors liberties you'd never dream of allowing your own people. China's population is repressed in numerous ways, but Western visitors usually aren't. They come out with a better impression of China than they would have if they were treated "normally" -- and are much happier than most people would be after a spell in the hands of Vietnam Tourism. I know that it sounds petty to complain about minor indignities -- being told what you can and cannot look at, being fed obvious lies by the guides -- in a country where people still languish in re-education camps. (As an example of the lies: one guide told us that a monument in Hanoi. which actually commemorates the shooting down of the plane that Senator John McCain flew during the war, was a kind of "friendship' memorial. ) Vietnam is more self-revealing now than it will probably be soon, when it learns how to humor its visitors; and what it reveals is a very controlled society.
JUST before we left for Vietnam, there were news reports about crop failures and famine in the north. We saw no signs of that in our brief excursions around Hanoi, and nowhere in the country did we see colonies of squatters living on the streets in total destitution, as a tourist does in Manila. If you knew you were going to end up on the very bottom level of a society, I suppose you'd have to choose Vietnam over the Philippines and India. The most dismal group we saw was at a famous temple in Da Nang, built by the Cham people. The Cham are a Malay-like race, influenced by Hinduism, who ruled central Vietnam until they were conquered by Vietnamese invaders from the north five hundred years ago. They live on in bedraggled groups in Vietnam, and around the temple were some forlorn-looking Cham children with big bellies, dirty faces, tattered clothes. One toddler had been born with no right arm -- a strange deformity, leaving a perfectly smooth surface where the shoulder joint should have been. Another little boy walked over and urinated in my direction while saying "Lien, Xo" -- "Russian."
The problem of Vietnam's economy is that the average level of existence is so low. The farming system is more brutally primitive than anything else I've seen in Asia, including China, Burma, and rural Java. Growing rice involves a lot of hand labor wherever it's done. Even in supermodern Japan it's not unusual to see people stooped over in the fields during the most labor-intensive stages of the rice cycle: transplanting the little seedlings into the paddies, and cutting the mature stalks and tying them into neat bundles. In Vietnam every stage seems to rely on human labor. In the arid central part of the country, between Da Nang and Nha Trang, the paddies are irrigated in more or less the way the ancient Egyptians did it. Boys stand over well holes, dip buckets into the wells, and haul the water out bucket by bucket to slosh into the paddies. Once or twice I saw a crude mechanical threshing device, resembling a large grinding wheel. As the wheel spins, women hold sheaves of rice against it and the mature rice grains are stripped off. Exactly once in nine days I saw a tractor in a field. People, sometimes with buffaloes, did the rest of the work themselves. Highway 1 is the main, and usually the only, north-south route in the country. For most of its length rice grains are laid out in foot-wide swaths along the side of the road, to dry in the sun.
What was South Vietnam still seems like a different country from the North -- more commercial, more casual, seemingly less wrapped up in political correctness. The main market in Hanoi had little to offer except local vegetables, a few plastic tools, and the incongruously colonial-looking green pith helmets that most northern men wear. (Hanoi's market also featured several tubs full of live bullfrogs while we were there. Two market ladies chatted with each other while lopping the frogs' legs off with strokes of their cleavers. ) In Saigon there are rows of "shop-houses," the tan-colored buildings with red-tile roofs and open storefronts that are found throughout Southeast Asia, and stores selling paintings, lacquerware, and a few cheap imported calculators and digital watches. In Hanoi there are virtually no private cars -- the streets look the way China's must have looked fifteen or twenty years ago, dense with bicycle traffic but very quiet. In Saigon there are lots of motorcycles and a few private cars, including original Mustangs and other veteran American models. Still, no place in Vietnam has anything like the bustle of a typical Southeast Asian trading center.
There is a lot of talk about price reform in Communist countries these days, which takes on a more vivid meaning when you see what unreformed prices are like. In both Vietnam and Burma the exchange rates and the market systems are so skewed that a lot of energy goes into figuring out what anything costs. The official exchange rate in Hanoi is a wildly unrealistic 368 dong to the dollar; at a government-run store in Saigon a dollar was worth 2,800 dong. At three post offices, in Hanoi, Da Nang, and Saigon, I was quoted three different postage rates for letters to Western countries. I asked the guide in Da Nang, How can the price of stamps vary from city to city? "Oh, many things cannot be explained!" he said cheerfully. "Especially about prices!" At the "Cuban hotel" in Hanoi, built a few years ago by Cuban engineers, imported Heineken beer sells for seventy cents. (This is the in-principle price. In practice only dollar bills are accepted, and there is no change.) Alongside is locally made beer for 2,800 dong a bottle, equivalent to $8 at the official rate offered at the same hotel or $2 at Hanoi's black-market rate.
I would not bet on Vietnam's staying poor forever. From what I can tell, its economic problems are mainly political rather than cultural in origin. That is, people seem to be exerting themselves purposefully much of the time, just as they do in Korea, Hong Kong, and Japan -- but in Vietnam they are held back by the insanities of Communist pricing and production policies. Even the Vietnamese government says the system must be reformed, and when it is, Vietnam will probably thrive.
Reforming the rules, though, will pose the same difficulties for Vietnam that it does for the rest of the Communist bloc, because the regime is so obviously intent on maintaining thoroughgoing political control. This seems to weigh more heavily on the North than on the South, but it is never easy to ignore.
The Soviet-style cult of personality that surrounds Ho Chi Minh is one sign of political control. Ho's picture is on all the dong bills. Murals in which he beams down at happy toilers and rosy-cheeked maidens seem to be at every crossroads and town square. And his mausoleum! Hanoi is a surprisingly gracious-looking French colonial city, with sprawling big-eaved houses that might have been transplanted from Lyons. But near the city center is a grassy plain the size of a soccer field, behind which sits a squat, blocky, pillbox mausoleum labeled, in big letters, CHU TICH [President] HO CHI MlNH. Stone-faced honor guards in white uniforms goose-step into position. Even to enter the building we had to line up in two columns, stand up straight, and march in, keeping formation. The ex-Marine had his arms crossed on his chest; a uniformed Vietnamese soldier stepped up and shoved the man's arms down to an at-attention position. Inside the building, on an elevated, elaborately cushioned bier, beneath two enormous red flags -- one of Vietnam, one of the Communist Party -- lies a waxy semblance of Ho himself. Despite the guide's reassurances, I couldn't quite believe that I was looking at the actual corpse, especially considering that Ho died four years before the mausoleum was built. But this claim was no less plausible than anything else the guide said. "Because of our love for President Ho Chi Minh, the people of Vietnam have designed the mausoleum in the shape of the classic lotus-blossom pattern that is so important to our nation." At this a murmur broke out in the group. Classic lotus blossom? It looked more like the classic Stalinist monstrosity pattern. Just behind the mausoleum was the only large-scale construction project I saw anywhere. "And this will be the new President Ho Chi Minh museum.... "
A more important barometer of repression is the status of the Catholic Church. Tolerance for religion, like tolerance of any sort, seemed to increase as we moved south. In the North the padlocks are taken off the church buildings only on Saturday nights and Sundays, whereas the big cathedral in Saigon is apparently open all the time. The guides told us that of course there is complete freedom of religion, but it certainly did not look or feel that way. In one city my wife and I accompanied the incognito priest as he crept away from the guide's surveillance and went to a churchyard. He rapped on the door, which was opened a few inches by a Vietnamese priest. The priest blanched when he heard that we were from the West -- not Russia, as he would have assumed on sight -- but then motioned us in when the German said that he was also a priest. Inside, the German said that he had a large supply of Vietnamese-language Bibles back home and would be happy to send them. "You must have the approval of the authorities," the Vietnamese priest said, as if he thought we'd been wired by the Vietnamese government and were there to entrap him. Two or three minutes after he had let us in, he said, "This conversation must now finish. Please leave now and do not mention it to anyone." I don't know exactly what retribution he expected, but he was obviously afraid of something.
It may not come as big news that Vietnam is poor and oppressed, but other things were surprising to me. They all had to do with the reason that most Americans are curious about Vietnam: to learn what it can tell us about ourselves and our war.
The fundamental surprise was how few signs there are of America's presence. If you didn't know that the United States had put so much time, money, hope, and despair into Vietnam, you'd never guess it from the looks of the country today.
The Philippines announces the long-term presence of the United States in a million ways: street names, people's names, styles of architecture, clothes. In Vietnam most traces of "the American war" -- as they call it, to distinguish it from "the French war" -- are gone. Language is one illustration. You wouldn't expect to find English-speakers in the North, where Americans never were, but even in the South they are rare. In the North and the South alike French is more useful than English. The oldest French-speakers are the best, having gone to colonial schools -- but English-speaking among the stratum of people now in their thirties and forties, who would have learned from the Americans, is not there. Maybe the English-speakers have left; maybe they're hiding what they know. In their absence English usually crops up in obnoxious contexts. Outside the main post office in Saigon sat fifty market ladies selling fifty identical selections of picture postcards. When you bought from one, you made enemies of all the rest. The English novelist exposed herself to this cruel math by buying a pack of postcards. As she walked on, the next market lady glared up bitterly from beneath her conical hat and said, "Asshole!"
Language is part of a much larger truth about the relative impact of the French and the Americans. Countless places in the country tell you unmistakably that the French were here -- with place names, the Catholic churches, and the layout of the resort town of Dalat and the old colonial capital in Hanoi. The American barracks and aircraft shelters are usually crumbling and deserted.
There is much less physical evidence of the war than I had expected. Now I may have been missing something, because I had never seen Vietnam before and had no before-and-after perspective. For instance, as the bus jounced along one particularly craggy stretch of Highway 1, 1 assumed that it was just another bad road, like so many in Burma. The Belgian expert quickly pointed out that the road had been damaged by artillery during an engagement between the French and the Viet Minh, thirty-five years earlier, and had never been repaired. Also, we did not see any of the highland or forest areas that were subjected to the heaviest defoliation and reportedly are still wastelands. But we saw many areas that had been battlegrounds, and the relics of battle were few. The walls of the famous Citadel, in Hue, are pocked with buffet marks -- but from ten yards away they look merely weatherbeaten. On the long drive down the coast from Da Nang to Nha Trang there is a boxcar-shaped trailer resting on a cliff, with US ARMY and a big white star on the side, but it was the only large piece of leftover materiel I saw. On street corners in Saigon children sometimes wash themselves using old American helmets turned upside down as basins. The courtyard of the Military Museum in Hanoi contains the crumpled wreckage of an American B-52 (plus that of a Chinese fighter plane, shot down in the border war in 1979). Some of the trucks lumbering along the roads say Dodge or even Desoto on the front, but the great majority are Russian. In the famous Cu Chi district, outside Saigon, there are dozens of bomb craters, most of which have filled with water and become small round ponds. But this was one of the most heavily bombed parts of the entire country. In most other places, notably including Hanoi, there is no damage that immediately calls attention to itself. I'm sure that in reality there is damage. But if you weren't constantly thinking, Wait a minute, this is Vietnam! the surroundings would not remind you that Americans had ever thought this was an important place.
The Vietnamese seem less interested in chewing over the meaning of the war than Americans do. Indeed, when guides, museum officials, shopkeepers, or passers-by said "the war," they seemed to mean something that started in the late 1940s and ran through the early 1980s, involving fighting against the French, Americans, South Vietnamese, Chinese, and Cambodians, successively. At the major military exhibits I did not detect any tone of contempt in the descriptions of American (or French) combat efforts. For instance, in Cu Chi the Viet Cong had built more than a hundred miles' worth of tunnels in an elaborate network that reached right under a major American base. A slight, intense-looking woman, who said that she had lived in the tunnels for almost ten years, explained that the tunnels had been designed to endure saturation bombing by B-52s and assaults by the fearless American "tunnel rats." "The Americans trained Hispanic soldiers and others of short stature to fight in the tunnels," she said, through a translator. "But through skillful use of booby traps their efforts were repelled." The emphasis was on how stoic and ingenious the Vietnamese had been to overcome all that firepower, not on the failure of the Americans. I got the strong. feeling from most of the guides (we dealt with five in all) that they were much less fascinated by this ancient history than the visiting Americans were. One guide seemed totally bewildered when we asked to go to Cu Chi instead of the attraction usually chosen by Vietnam Tourism: as I remember, it was listed in the brochure as a "relatively prosperous rug-making cooperative."
THE main explanation for the Vietnamese attitude is probably that they won the war, so they don't have to keep brooding about the hows and whys of what they did. But when I noticed their relative indifference to events that are twenty years past, it connected with a clear impression I'd developed in the preceding two years in Southeast Asia.
In my conversations with officials in a number of the "domino" countries -- Thailand, Malaysia, Singapore, Indonesia -- and others in what Americans think of as Vietnam's general neighborhood, like the Philippines and Korea and even Japan, I've realized that something has been missing. Nobody has ever brought up America's years in Vietnam -- how terrible it was that we lost the war, how it changed the Asian balance of power for America to pull out, how wrong it was for America to get involved in the first place, or anything else of the sort. Vietnam, as a country, is a huge factor in Asian politics. It is important because it has occupied Cambodia for so long (and implicitly threatened Thailand), because it has allowed the Russians to encamp at Cam Ranh Bay (threatening everybody), and because it keeps emitting so many refugees. But the Vietnam War, as we think of it, is not important.
Let me elaborate on this, since it may sound incredible to Americans. In Malaysia, which spent most of the 1950s defeating a Communist insurgency, and in Thailand, which spent most of the late 1970s doing the same thing, people have not shown any interest in America's Vietnam War. Once I had dinner with the director of Malaysia's military-intelligence bureau. The only thing he wanted to talk about was whether the Japanese would re-arm. In Japan and Korea, where people are obsessed with the decline of American power, and in the Philippines, where America's power seems like God's, no one has asked me how America could have let itself lose in Vietnam, or argued that America should have toughed it out to win, or mentioned the subject at all. In some of his speeches Lee Kuan Yew has said that America's withdrawal from Vietnam has been destabilizing, but I take him as the exception that proves the rule. Most of the time when Lee talks about a historic shift of power away from the United States, he is talking about a shift in trade balance and debt, something that happened under President Reagan, not under the long-gone Johnson and Nixon. One evening in Kuala Lumpur my wife and I met a number of well-to-do Malaysians plus two former Vietnamese refugees who had escaped at the last minute, made it to the United States, and were now stationed back in Asia as bank executives. We pressed the Vietnamese for juicy details of what it had been like in Saigon and how they had coped in the United States. The Malaysians could not have been less interested in these reminiscences -- they were angling to get loans.
The Vietnamese obviously care more about their war than their neighbors do, but what I saw reinforced the conclusion I had reached in the neighboring countries: the Vietnam War will be important in history only for what it did internally to the United States. What it did internally is immense, but the effects may be easier to deal with if we recognize that we are talking about something Americans did to one another, not an event that changed world history.
By fighting the war but not winning it, the United States probably changed Asian history in one important and grievous way. If it had either stayed out of the war or hung on indefinitely, perhaps the Khmer Rouge holocaust in Cambodia would never have taken place. But the overall balance of power in Indochina now is probably about the same as it would have been if the United States had never become involved. The Cambodian and Laotian sanctuaries were maddening to the American military, because tongues of those countries' territory lap into Vietnam. For the same reason, they would probably have seemed intolerable to the Vietnamese. "Really, it is force majeure for our army to be there," said the one non-propagandistic guide we encountered. "Because of the geography, our borders could never be secure with a hostile Cambodia." Maybe without the United States, Pol Pot would never have come to power -- but it seems a stretch of logic to hold America responsible for his becoming a homicidal maniac.
Of course, the United States might have preserved both Cambodia and South Vietnam from the North if it had won the war. But without rehashing twenty years' worth of arguments let me say that a short visit to modern Vietnam made this seem an even bigger "if" than I had thought it before. I will never, never understand how an American politician, strategist, or general could have seen this place and thought that a Western army could outlast the locals in an extended ground war. The Vietnamese seem fierce There's a sweetness or gentleness or fecklessness at the core of most of the surrounding cultures -- Filipino, Malay, Burmese, Thai. These Vietnamese did not seem sweet or gentle to me: they seemed ferocious and tough, even in peacetime, even when they were smiling and trying to please us as visitors. The nearby countries that did vanquish their Communist guerrillas relied on nationalistic and ethnic tools that were turned against the French and the Americans in Vietnam. In Malaya, for example, the Communists were overwhelmingly ethnic Chinese, which greatly simplified the job of isolating them in a mainly Malay population. The same factor worked against Americans in Vietnam. And of course there is the notorious Vietnamese terrain. I am not exactly making a fresh point, but the staleness is the point. Even though I've heard for twenty years that this was a bad place for Americans to fight a war. I found myself walking around saying, "My God! How could anybody think this could be done?"
If we exclude the possibility of outright, conclusive victory, then the difference America made in Vietnam was to delay everything for ten years -- "everything" consisting of the North's conquest of the South and the advent of communism. Conceivably, that might have been worth it, although it's hard to see how. Asian countries are over the Vietnam War because they've recognized how little difference it made.
A further surprise had to do with refugees. For more than a dozen years Vietnamese boat people not only have changed the ethnic mix in America, Canada, and Australia but also have been the prima facie evidence against the Vietnamese regime. What kind of deplorable country must they be running if everyone wants to leave? In the case of Cambodia under Pol Pot, using refugees to draw dire conclusions about the regime was clearly justified. But after seeing Burma and Vietnam back to back, my idea about the meaning of the Vietnamese boat people has changed.
Let me illustrate this with the story of "Raymond." The most emotional moment of this trip came in Saigon. After wriggling away from the guide. my wife and I walked to the front gate of the old U.S. Embassy. This is the gate everyone has seen in the heartwrenching pictures, with Vietnamese trying to claw their way into the embassy on the day before Saigon fell. The embassy looks as if nothing has been touched since then. The upper prongs of the gate are still slightly askew from all the hands that pulled on them. The embassy itself looks gutted and deserted, although a guard said that a state petroleum organization used some of the offices. Right in front of the gate a family of Cham people had made a squatters' home. A teenage boy was sleeping in a hammock slung across the gate. His mother crouched next to him on the ground, occupied with what was apparently some food.
While we were walking toward the gate, we heard someone calling to us from across the street. We turned and saw four Amerasians, all men in their early twenties, beckoning us to come over.
One of the oddest and most unsettling things about meeting Amerasians is how strongly dominant the Western genes seem to have been. It's probably just the sharp contrast with all the Vietnamese faces on the street, but after one glance you feel as if you know exactly how their fathers looked. As we walked over to this group, I thought I could see the faces of four American soldiers, two black and two white, who had been in Saigon twenty years before.
Most of the Amerasians we met, including three of these four, knew English of only the "Hey, Joe!" variety. As soon as the fourth, who said his name was Raymond, began to speak, my wife and I stood dumbstruck. On an American street he would have looked like an ordinary black American. What we could hardly believe is that he also sounded identical to an American speaking street English. "How ya doin'," he said. "You gotta help me get out of here."
That day and the next he told us his story. He said that he called himself Raymond after the last name of his father, a military policeman from Philadelphia. He was born in 1964 on a U.S. Army base and lived there with his father and Vietnamese mother until he was four. Then his father went home, passing him and his mother on to another American soldier, also black. Raymond said that he had grown up on the base until age eleven, never going to school but being taught to read and write by the soldiers. Just before the fall of Saigon, he said, his mother had sent him out of town, to Pleiku, to stay with an aunt. When he came back to the city, a few weeks later, his mother shunned him, because he was such flagrant evidence of her fraternization with the Americans. He was an eleven-year-old boy without any place to live. The police arrested him and sent him to re-education camp, and there he stayed for the next twelve years, being moved from camp to camp, until he was twenty-three. He said that he had been released the previous fall. By the time he got out, his mother had died, and since he lacked any proper "household registration," he was an illegal resident in his own country.
Many people in Saigon have stories to whisper to visiting Americans about the deep ties to the United States that qualify them as refugees. You quickly become skeptical about these self-serving tales, and there are grounds for skepticism about Raymond, too. Some of the other Amerasians have claimed that Raymond was really in his early thirties, not his twenties, and that his father was a black man posted with the French forces. That would surprise me, considering the way Raymond sounded, but even if true it wouldn't matter. Raymond was an Amerasian in the way that counted: other Vietnamese treated him as one. The Vietnamese government has promised to issue an exit visa so that he can leave, "but it don't happen," he said. "I'm afraid I'm never going to get out. I know I can make it if I get to the States."
There were two conclusions to draw from Raymond's story, I thought. One is that Vietnam treats many of its people very badly. After he was let out of camp, Raymond was left with no legitimate way to support himself -- according to American refugee officials I spoke to, the problem of household registration is a widespread and serious one in Vietnam, condemning people to a semi-outlaw existence. Amerasians are specially despised, as half-bloods and because of their American connection. "Kids be telling us, your daddy bombed our family, your daddy killed my sister," Raymond said.
The other conclusion, though, is that bad treatment does not automatically make people into refugees. To say this the other way around, the people who do leave by boat are not necessarily the ones who have suffered most. They may simply be the ones for whom this gamble makes the most practical sense (as it does not for Raymond, who can reasonably hope that one day an exit visa will come through). This, I think, is the caveat to bear in mind when thinking about Vietnamese boat people. Life in Vietnam, though terrible, may not be that much worse than life in many other countries. The rewards for leaving may simply be better.
From what I could see, life in Burma is, for most people, fully as hopeless as life in Vietnam. Burma does not have enormous reeducation camps, but then most Vietnamese are not in the camps either. For many Filipinos, life is worse than it is for nearly all Vietnamese. China is both poor and repressive. Bangladesh has every problem a country can have. But Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos are the only Asian countries from which hundreds of thousands flee. Why? The basic reason, I think, is that if Burmese or Filipinos leave, they're sent back home. They're not presumed to be political refugees, they're not processed for resettlement in the West. For them, becoming a refugee is pointless; for a Vietnamese, it is a risky but sensible step to take. This is not an argument against accepting Vietnamese refugees, which I think is good for America, or an apology for Vietnam. But it is a reason to stop using the outflow of boat people as proof that Vietnam is worse than anyplace else, or as retrospective justification for the war.
ONE final point about Vietnamese-American relations: In the years since Vietnam decided to let Americans back in, there has been a nostalgic tone to much of the reporting from there. The war is over; the hard feelings can be put behind us. Maybe two countries that meant so much to each other twenty years ago should have a special relationship again, two veterans sharing the bonding of the battlefield. Perhaps the Vietnamese are slightly nostalgic for Americans, as some Americans are for their experiences in Vietnam.
The main evidence that a special relationship might be possible between America and Vietnam is that the Vietnamese now hate the Russians more than they hate Americans. To go to Vietnam is to find yourself suddenly within the Russian sphere. Signs at airports, hotels, and so on are typically written in Vietnamese, Russian, English, and French, in that order. The heavy equipment, the imported goods, and the foreign faces on the street are mainly from Russia. I would estimate that 95 percent of the Vietnamese children who saw us immediately yelled, "Lien Xo! Lien Xo!" This is pronounced "lee-en so," and usually not in a welcoming tone. One street-urchin type in Saigon said that the Russians were unpopular because they were so stingy -- "Americans without money." In Nha Trang we ran into a group of Czech advisers, helping to set up a factory, who reciprocated the hostility between Asians and Eastern Europeans. They showed us their steamer trunks full of Czech sausages and bread. "Pffffahhh! Who could eat the food of Vietnam? It is fit for dogs! They are lazy and they cheat. I spit on their country!"
CLEARLY, the Vietnamese, for their part, have figured out that they must mend fences with the West to improve their economy -- as China and Russia are doing. But I saw no sign of fondness for anything American except money. For the French there may even be nostalgia, since they have left so much deeper a mark. But every time I heard Vietnamese talk about "friendly" relations with America, the punch line was money: trade, investment, even a mammoth rebuilding plan.
Many Vietnamese seem to think that if diplomatic relations are normalized, America will come back strong with aid. You can't blame them for hoping this (the last they saw of us, we were made of money), and it's a natural inference from the idea that the two countries should have a special relationship once again. It would be better for America to take the specialness out of the relationship -- including the special ostracism of Vietnam. It doesn't make sense to try to ostracize Vietnam forever If we have had an embassy in Moscow even when it was the "focus of evil," what's the harm of having one in Hanoi? Normalized relations might even be useful for straightforward business purposes, as Japan has learned. (I did not see a single Japanese in Vietnam, but every manufactured product I saw in the hard-currency store in Saigon was made in Japan.) But when opening relations, we should treat Vietnam as just another "bad country," one more of the needy, repressive nations with which the world unfortunately abounds. We do our best to live with bad countries, and we hope that they'll become richer and freer, but we don't kid ourselves that we have much in common with them.
So it should be with Vietnam. It can be another Burma to the United States. If everything goes well there, it can be another Thailand. It should be nothing more.