Monday, May 19, 2008

The trip to Ho Chi Minh City provides an opportunity to reassess Vietnam

A drive through history, part two

VASANA CHINVARAKORN

A land rich in history: Ho Chi Minh City has witnessed the rise and fall of successive regimes. Now the largest city of Vietnam, it attracts huge investment from multinational companies, returning well-to-do Vietnamese expats and tourists from around the world, including Thailand. — PHOTOS: VASANA CHINVARAKORN AND CHAGORN SOPAPORN

Sometimes, the shorter a distance is, the longer the time it takes to traverse. That seemed to be the case at the Moc Bai border crossing where we were waiting for the Vietnamese immigration officials to process our paperwork.

To kill time, the three children in our group started using the walkie-talkies to take part in a three-way quiz. The adults simply dozed off or looked out of the windows.

But there was nothing much to see - except Vietnamese officials at work. And they were quite meticulous. For each and every car we Thai tourists drove into this country, and there were 26 altogether, the border staff checked the engine thoroughly, before proceeding to spray the tyres with insecticide. Last but not least, the Vietnamese travel agency that would take care of us for the next two days pasted their company's stickers on the doors of our four-wheel drives and SUVs.

The less than 2km of no man's land between Cambodia and Vietnam took us about two hours to cross.

"I bet it would have been much faster for those who want to smuggle cars into the country!" joked one driver.

But the most strenuous part of our 2,756km journey was before us. No, it was not the bumpy road through Cambodia, where we had stopped at Angkor Wat and the other splendours of Siem Reap. Nor was it the rugged Highway Number One that brought us from Phnom Penh to Moc Bai.

The outskirts of Ho Chi Minh City, with its chaotic sea of vehicles, especially motorcycles, meant we had to stick together like a flock of flying geese in a hailstorm. We had to be fast - and relentless, making sure that no one entered our line of vehicles.

Thanks to our captain's manoeuvring and close coordination on the walkie-talkies, every car in the convoy finally reached the stadium named after the nearby international airport of Tan Son Nhat. For the rest of our stay in Ho Chi Minh City, we would be riding in coaches instead. To drive through and around the largest city of Vietnam (which according to our guide has about four million motorcycles and another million cars), in a large group like ours, would have been a stupid, if not suicidal, idea.

Someone then remarked how Ho Chi Minh City, formerly Saigon, was once nicknamed the "City of the Sinful". This statement prompted one curious boy to ask: "So why do we still go there then?" His innocent voice drew a big laugh from everyone.

Indeed, the purpose of our caravan, tracing the history of Indochina, would not be complete without a visit to Ho Chi Minh City, once also known as the "Paris of the Orient". It was originally a fishing village on the Mekong delta, and saw the rise and fall of successive regimes. From life under the Cambodian kingdom (thus the former Khmer name of "Prey Nokor", from which some etymologists argue came the derivative "Saigon"), the settlement was annexed by the Vietnamese in the 17th century and served as the capital of the French colonial government of Cochin China about 200 years later. It was run by the US-backed South Vietnam republic during the Cold War, and finally reclaimed by the Communist National Liberation Front army on April 30, 1975.

The famous Cu Chi tunnel, about an hour's drive from Ho Chi Minh City, showcases a variety of `traps' reflecting Vietnamese ingenuity and the people's fighting spirit.

The historic significance of that date depends on which side of the fence one is on. Some refer to it as the "fall of Saigon", but our Vietnamese guide, who introduced herself by the Thai name of Ratchaneewan, said the Vietnamese prefer to celebrate that date as Reunification Day, the day Vietnam became a whole country again, proving to the world (once again) that it could challenge any nation in the world, regardless of its size or resources.

On that day in 1975, Vietnam sent the US scuttling out of the country in packed helicopters. In 1954, the formidable French bases at Dien Bien Phu were besieged by Vietnamese nationalists, thus ending almost a century of French colonial rule. Further back, in 938, General Ngo Quyen defeated the massive navy of imperial China through a clever tactic that would be repeated again in the 13th century by General Tran Hung Dao, when he successfully resisted the mighty Mongol fleet. On both occasions, the Vietnamese planted wooden poles with iron tips in the river bed which would be hidden by the high tide. As the Chinese/Mongol invaders were lured to the area, and the tide receded, they found their vessels impaled on the protruding poles, effectively disabling them.

Intriguingly, the Vietnamese outwitted the Siamese forces with a similarly cunning strategy. In 1784, a Vietnamese prince named Nguyen Anh sought help from the king of Siam in his bid to claim the throne. By some accounts, Rama I dispatched 300 ships with about 20,000 soldiers (some say 50,000) to the Mekong delta. The Vietnamese defence, however, managed to dupe the entire fleet into running aground before they launched a sudden assault, resulting in only 2,000 Siamese troops surviving the battle.

Most Thais have never learned of this, though. Instead, Nguyen Anh was portrayed in Thai history textbooks as a hero in exile. Called Ong Chieng Sue, the Vietnamese prince came to seek political asylum in Siam in 1782, during which time he helped his Siamese patron to fight the Burmese and later the Malay rebels. After his return to Vietnam, where he established himself as emperor Gia Long, Ong Chieng Sue continued to send "golden trees" as an expression of his gratitude to the king of Siam.

Actually, earlier that morning as we were leaving Phnom Penh, we were reminded of a similar gap in how we, and our neighbours, perceive the past, and how that past continues to undermine the present. Historian Charnvit Kasetsiri pointed to the Thai embassy, with its reinforced double steel fence. Passers-by used to be able to look through the old fence at the buildings inside, he noted. But since the riot on January 29, 2003, when hundreds of Cambodians stormed and torched the Thai embassy and other businesses believed to belong to Thais, new security measures have been adopted.

"Such an incident [the torching of embassy] would be considered extremely rare in foreign diplomatic circles between any two countries," he noted. Today a thick piece of steel serves as a partition that supposedly protects, and divides, the residents within from the outside world. Will the day come when we are able to transcend the borders in the minds of the two countries?

Or has that thing called "nationalism" been ingrained so deep, making citizens ever gullible to manipulation by vested interests? The 2003 riot, for example, was incited by a rumour about a Thai actress demanding the return of Angkor Wat to Thailand. At present, the long-running dispute over the ownership of the stone shrine at Preah Vihear on the Thai-Cambodian borders is threatening to cause another flare-up between the two countries. Charnvit proposed a thorough revision of the history curriculum in Thailand, which he said is quite biased and tends to portray neighbouring countries as inferior and untrustworthy.

The statue of Uncle Ho at the Historical Museum in Ho Chi Minh City. An inscription behind shows his famous words urging the Vietnamese to try their best to preserve the unity of the land their ancestors sacrificed their lives for.

"We usually portray ourselves as a peace-loving nation," he said. "On the other hand, we never say how many times we have invaded and looted the capitals of others.

"And there are some types of tourists who behave as if they have never left their houses," Charnvit shared his concerns.

"They show off, act loudly and arrogantly, as if they can buy anything with their money. This is ego-centric tourism, one without historical perspective. And it is dangerous."

On the other hand, the Thai historian said the Vietnamese have the sort of latent defiance that keeps them from kowtowing to anyone, let alone their neighbour to the west. Even when the country seemed to be torn apart by Western superpowers, sometimes with our own government as accomplice, its people demonstrated again and again their unsurpassed spirit to fight.

The famous Cu Chi tunnel, about 70km from Ho Chi Minh City, is a testament to such Vietnamese ingenuity. Now a major tourist destination, the former battleground showcases a variety of different traps devised by the Viet Cong that hark back to the wisdom of ancient times.

In a way, Vietnam at that time was like a huge pitfall for the US - and for Thailand, too. Historian Charnvit pointed out how the Thai ruling elite, from the Pibulsongkram regime to Sarit and the Thanom-Prapass dictatorial governments, took an active role in supporting their US ally. In return, military aid poured into the Kingdom and a number of roads and other pieces of infrastructure were built. At one time, there were up to 48,000 US soldiers and 600 US war planes in Thailand, at different military bases in Udon Thani, Ubon Ratchathani, Chon Buri, Khon Kaen, Nakhon Phanom and Nakhon Ratchasima, to name just a few. As the Nixon administration tried to appease growing public discontent at home through a promise to "Vietnamise" the war, more and more Thais were recruited and given incentives to fight their Indochinese neighbours instead. Our Vietnamese guide, Ratchaneewan, remembered that a Thai platoon called Jong-arng Suek (Queen Cobra) was once stationed not far from Ho Chi Minh City.

The so-called Indochina War had ramifications beyond Southeast Asia though. Charnvit said it literally penetrated every home in the US, through TV broadcasts and other media. Importantly, during his graduate studies in the US in the late '60s, Charnvit said he was exposed to different, more diverse, sources of information about the Vietnam War. The experience was an eye-opener, in particular, he learned how Thailand allowed US forces to use its territory to launch bombing raids on neighbouring countries.

"Like most people, I originally looked at the Vietnamese as the bad guys. Over time, though, I came to realise it was us [the Thai government] who were the baddies."

One casualty of the war was the large number of Vietnamese expatriates, called Viet Kieu, who were ordered to leave Thailand in the '60s. This was in sharp contrast to the period under Pridi Banomyong's government that offered explicit support to the Vietnamese refugees fleeing French persecution during the early phase of the Indochina War. Others who managed to stay on were subject to abuse and condemnation as sympathisers of the communist government of North Vietnam. Meanwhile, those who returned to Vietnam had to go through a difficult period of readjustment. Charnvit said one of his classmates at Suan Kularb College had to drop out and return to Vietnam. Nguyen Chi Thong has since contributed to the land of his childhood by writing a Thai-Vietnamese dictionary.

Our Vietnamese guide shared a similar fate. Ratchaneewan said her grandfather had to take the whole family back to Haiphong in 1967, at the height of the Vietnam War.

"I remember the deafening noise of the [US] planes dropping bombs over our heads - I was so scared," she reminisced.

"The first English word we learned was 'Go', and the second word was 'Out'. At the time, the Vietnamese hated the US so much we had no desire to use English."

What a contrast to now. As our coaches made their way through Ho Chi Minh City, we passed an English language school, where emerged a big crowd of young Vietnamese boys and girls. Ratchaneewan said parents nowadays tried hard to send their children to expensive international schools. A privileged education would enhance the chances of landing well-paid jobs with the foreign companies flocking to invest in Vietnam, said the guide.

"So, in a way, the Vietnamese may have won the political wars over the French and the Americans," Charnvit commented. "But in the end, it is the Americans who seem to be prevailing in the economic war."

Stepping off the bus at Ho Chi Minh City's central landmark, the statue of Uncle Ho amid a group of children, we found a middle-aged lady selling cheap photocopied foreign language books at a nearby road junction. Was this another Vietnamese challenge to the new regime of intellectual property rights (but one had to hurry as the street vendor could disappear at any time)? Among the piles was Bao Ninh's award-winning novel, The Sorrow of War, a moving account of a soldier reminiscing on the bloody Vietnam War. "We all shared a common sorrow," he wrote, "a sublime sorrow, more sublime than happiness, and beyond suffering.

"It was thanks to our sorrow that we were able to escape the war, escape the continual killing and fighting, the terrible conditions of battle and the unhappiness of men in fierce and violent theatres of war.

"It was also thanks to our mutual sorrow that we've been able to walk our respective roads again. Our lives may not be very happy, and they might well be sinful. But now we are living the most beautiful lives we could ever have hoped for, because it is a life in peace."

Basking in the amber light of a street lamp, the smile on Uncle Ho's statue certainly had an enigmatic look.