A woman tends her boat in the fishing village of Vung Tau, southeast of Ho Chi Minh City. (Darren Soh)
Intrigue in the South China Sea
A map of the most hotly contested territories in the waters surrounding China and Vietnam
The effect of Hanoi is cerebral. What the Vietnamese capital catches in freeze-frame is the process of history itself—not merely as some fatalistic, geographically determined drumroll of dynasties and depredations but as the summation of brave individual acts and nerve-racking calculations. In the city’s History Museum, maps, dioramas, and massive gray stelae commemorate anxious Vietnamese resistances against the Chinese Song, Ming, and Qing empires in the 11th, 15th, and 18th centuries. Although Vietnam was integrated into China until the 10th century, its political identity separate from the Middle Kingdom ever since has been something of a miracle—one that no theory of the past can adequately explain.
In fact, the Vietnamese historical imagination has a particular intensity about it. The depth and clutter of the Ngoc Son Temple (which commemorates the 13th-century defeat of the Yuan Chinese), its copper-faced Buddha embraced by incense, gold leaf, and crimson wood and surrounded by the pea soup–green Hoan Kiem Lake and its leafy shores, constitute spiritual preparation for the more austere mausoleum of Ho Chi Minh himself. Ho, one of the great minor men of the 20th century, fused Marxism, Confucianism, and nationalism into a weapon against the Chinese, the French, and the Americans, laying the groundwork for Vietnam’s successful resistances against three world empires. His mausoleum gives onto distempered, century-old European buildings and churches in what was once the nerve center of French Indochina—an iffy enterprise that Paris tenaciously tried to prolong after World War II, forcing a war with the Vietnamese that culminated in France’s signal humiliation at the 1954 Battle of Dien Bien Phu.
Beyond these edifices come the city’s latest epic struggles against fate: its screaming, pulsating business district, with hordes of motorbikes—the drivers texting on cellphones in traffic jams—and cutting-edge facades that invade an otherwise cruddy-drab jumble of storefronts. This is pre–chain store capitalism, with cafés everywhere, each different in mood and design, offering some of the best coffee in the world, and no sign of Starbucks. Despite all the history, Hanoi is no outdoor museum like the great cities of Europe. It is still in the ungainly process of becoming—closer to the disheveled chaos of India than to the alienating sterility of Singapore.
Vietnamese are now prying their way into the developed world—for the sake of themselves and their families, obviously, but also to preserve their independence against an equally dynamic China. And as it has been since antiquity, Hanoi remains a city of nervous political calculations, the price of being a potential middle-level power—the 13th-most-populous nation in the world—with a long coastline at the crossroads of major maritime routes and close to immense offshore energy deposits. On my visit there last year, I found a country seized not only with the imperative of economic development but also with the challenge of finding a modus vivendi with its age-old neighbor and hegemon—a challenge that it increasingly looks to the United States, its onetime adversary, to help meet.
That may demand that Americans, at least, shift their historical perspective and try to see the world through Vietnamese eyes. Ngo Quang Xuan, the vice chairman of the National Assembly’s Foreign Affairs Committee, tells me that the critical year for contemporary Vietnam was not 1975, when South Vietnam was overrun by the Communist North, but 1995, when relations were normalized with the United States, and Vietnam joined the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) and signed a “framework” agreement with the European Union. “We joined the world, in other words,” Xuan says, admitting that before making these decisions, “we had many hard discussions among ourselves.” For the truth is that despite their successive victories over the French and the Americans, the Vietnamese Communists, as their officials explained to me in a series of conversations over several weeks, felt continually humbled by events thereafter.
Consider: Vietnam had invaded Cambodia in 1978, liberating that country from the genocidal madness of Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge regime. Though the invasion was an act of cold-blooded realism to blunt the strategic threat posed by the pro-Chinese Khmer Rouge, it had a vast and profoundly positive humanitarian effect. Nevertheless, for this pivotal act of mercy, pro-Soviet Vietnam was embargoed by a pro-Chinese coalition that included the United States, which, ever since President Richard Nixon’s 1972 trip to China, had tilted toward Beijing. In 1979, China itself invaded Vietnam, to keep Vietnam from marching through Cambodia to Thailand. Meanwhile, the Soviet Union never came to the aid of its client state. Vietnam was now diplomatically isolated, stuck in a quagmire in Cambodia and burdened by back-breaking poverty, largely as a result of its own militarism. The Vietnamese leaders of the 1970s, wrote Singapore’s then prime minister, Lee Kuan Yew, in his 2000 memoir, were “insufferable,” priding themselves as the “Prussians of Southeast Asia.” But the arrogance, as Vietnamese leaders have told me, didn’t last. Severe food shortages and the collapse of the Soviet empire in 1989–91 forced Vietnam to pull its troops out of Cambodia. Vietnam was now utterly friendless, its triumph over the Americans a distant memory. “The feeling of victory in that war was always muted,” a Vietnamese diplomat tells me, “because there was never a peace dividend.”
“The Vietnamese don’t have amnesia regarding the war against the United States in the 1960s and 1970s,” a Western diplomat explains. “Rather, a certain generation of Americans is stuck in a time warp.” The Vietnamese have not forgotten that 20 percent of their country is uninhabitable because of unexploded American ordnance; or that, because of the defoliant Agent Orange, nothing will ever grow again on significant parts of the landscape. But three-quarters of all Vietnamese were born after the “American War,” as they call it to distinguish it from all the others they have fought before and since, and an even larger percentage have no memory of it. The students and young officials I meet at the Diplomatic Academy of Vietnam, an arm of the Foreign Ministry, are further removed chronologically from the American War than Baby Boomers are from World War II.
Another reason Vietnamese harbor relatively few sensitivities about the American War is that they won it. In a town hall–style meeting with me at the Diplomatic Academy, with a bust of Ho in the room, students and officials tell me that they have been, in fact, critical at times of the United States, but for reasons having nothing to do with the war. They’d been upset that America had not intervened against China in the 1990s, when Beijing challenged the Philippines’ ownership of Mischief Reef, part of the Spratly Island Group in the South China Sea. One student summarizes, “U.S. power is necessary for the security of the world.” Indeed, one after another, students and officials at the Diplomatic Academy use the term balancing power to describe the United States vis-à-vis China. “The Chinese are too strong, too assertive,” one female analyst says. “That is why a Pax Sinica is very threatening to us.”
Whereas America has been marginal to the Vietnamese past, China has been central. “The overwhelming emphasis of official Vietnamese history is on resistance, almost always against China,” Robert Templer writes in a pathbreaking 1998 book about contemporary Vietnam, Shadows and Wind. “The fear of domination has been constant and has crossed every ideological gap, it has created the brittle sense of anxiety and defensiveness about Vietnamese identity.” As one Vietnamese diplomat puts it to me: “China invaded Vietnam 17 times. The U.S. invaded Mexico only once, and look at how sensitive the Mexicans are about that. We grow up with textbooks full of stories of national heroes who fought China.” The Vietnamese fear of China is profound precisely because Vietnam cannot escape from the embrace of its gargantuan northern neighbor, whose population is 15 times as large. Vietnamese know that geography dictates the terms of their relationship: they may win the battle, but then they are always off to Beijing to pay tribute. That kind of situation is alien to a virtual island nation like America.