Blogging from the Highlands of Scotland until I return to the Murcia region of Spain towards the end of January 2018 for about a month
'From fanaticism to barbarism is only one step' - Diderot

Saturday, 30 April 2005

Viet Nam - 30 years on

Today is the 30th anniversary of what, a little later (legally), would be the formal reunification of the country - although South Vietnam effectively ceased to exist thirty years ago today, it in fact lingered on as The Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam, under the control of the National Liberation Front (NLF) which, with North Vietnamese forces, had 'liberated' it, until the unified Socialist Republic of Vietnam was inaugurated on July 2, 1976 . Thirty years ago today, however, a tank (tank number 843 of the 'North Vietnamese' army) stormed the gates of the Presidential Palace of South Vietnam and that country ceased to exist as an independent nation:

Socialist Republic of Vietnam (1976 - to date)

Republic of Vietnam - aka 'South Vietnam' (1948 [1955] - 1974) - R.I.P.

For those interested in vexillology, there is an interesting website dealing with this topic for the former South Vietnam here

There is no escaping the fact that my emotions are conflicted at this time. I have had, in one way or another, contact with Vietnam for almost all of this period. Before I go on, please forgive the narcissism of this post, because this is [after all] a blog called 'Bill's Comment Page' - it does not pretend to be a news resource. With that out of the way, let me continue. In early March 1975 I arrived to live in a place called Djibouti, then a French 'Overseas Territory'. One of the other staff in the office there, who I came to know and become very friendly with, was a young Vietnamese man who had been adopted by a French family a little earlier, for various complicated reasons (partly to do with the former status of an Indo-China under French control) I won't detail further here, and whose father (whom I also came to know well and liked) had been a member of the diplomatic service of the former South Vietnam. My friend and his wife (also Vietnamese) had, as French citizens, come to live and work in Djibouti and managed to arrange it so that his father could live there, too - so this former Ambassador opened a very successful Vietnamese restaurant. Although I didn't know 'xxxxxxxx' particularly well on 30th April 1975, the date of the 'fall of Saigon', having been in Djibouti myself only for about two months at the time, I knew enough about his situation to realise just how poignant was this day for him and more especially for his father.

In fact, my first putative 'contact' with Vietnam was somewhat earlier than this. Some eleven or twelve years before this, whilst I was at school, I chose as a project the 'Vietnam War' as in the mid-1960s this was a major news event. As part of that project I, as a boy of twelve or so, wrote a letter to the US embassy in London asking for information about US involvement there and received back, almost by return, a huge amount of information including pretty detailed drawings of the various aircraft and helicopeters in use there at the time; suffice to say that I had more than enough material to complete a very successful end-of-term school project.

Skipping forward about ten years after 1975 to early 1985 found me having just arrived to live in Paris, where a small number of Vietnamese (and a couple of Cambodians and a Laotian, too) were also working in our office there. Indeed three or four of the Vietnamese in Paris had worked, until 1975, in our former office in Saigon, and the others had worked elsewhere in what had been South Vietnam. You learn a great deal about what makes people 'tick' when you begin to know about some of the actions taken by perfectly honest and decent people in times of adversity - 'selling' of passage out of Saigon by a former Saigon staff to friends and relatives in the place of some others of our former staff who were as a result forced to remain in the country after its surrender (one of whom, a particular friend, was subjected to coercive and permanently disfiguring treatment at the hands of the 'liberators' for information he was thought, erroneously, to possess), all of whom were later working together during my time in Paris. Yes, life is complicated - and some scars do not heal, whereas others do, at least partially.

The BBC has a particularly good 'timeline' and other material (including video and audio links) on Vietnam, accessible here - the link takes you to the events of 30th April 1975, but if you scroll within the 'Timeline: Vietnam' box, you can get an overview of events affecting the country between 1954, when Dien Bien Phu fell to the Viet Minh and 1995, when the United States restored diplomatic relations with Vietnam.

There are two excellent novels which explain, for a western reader, a lot of salient information about Vietnam and the West's (particularly U.S.) involvement with the country and Asia in general, and the naivete and lack of scruple that was too often displayed. Both were written in the 1950s. The Quiet American, by Graham Greene, is possibly at least known by title to many people in the UK, whereas the other, The Ugly American, by William J Lederer, is probably less well known in this country; both are well worth reading. I was given copies of both by my boss when I arrived to live and re-establish our company presence in Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) in April 1992, just as he had been given copies when he himself arrived there in 1962 to work in the office the company had there then.

Vietnam is a beautiful country with some lovely people; it is also a sad country. I wrote earlier in this article that my emotions are conflicted when discussing Viet Nam - it is a country I both love and loathe. It will be no secret to anyone who has read much of my blog that my sentiments on 'socialism' and 'communism' are not positive; although I had experienced some of the malign effects of these types of social and political regimes during earlier visits to China, the USSR, Poland, East Germany and Vietnam itself I had not, until 1992, lived in a communist totalitarian country (is there any other kind of communist regime? - 'no' is the simple answer) - living in a country where 'Big Brother' really does control most aspects of most people's lives is a salutary experience for someone used to life in a democracy. Naturally, as a foreigner, my life was considerably less restricted than that of most Vietnamese - at least I and other foreigners could get on a 'plane out for a bit of 'fresh air' (politically speaking) whenever necessary. Many ordinary Vietnamese felt they had to risk their lives in flimsy craft in their attempts to escape by sea, risking not just storms and sharks, but pirates, too. Vietnam today is making slow progress in the direction of improving the lives of its citizens, whilst still maintaining internal control by means of a pervasive one-party regime; read about some of the developments there in the official English-language Viet Nam News and Vietnam celebrates its 30th anniversary of reunification today.

Yes, my feelings are mixed. Nevertheless, Happy Birthday, Viet Nam!

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