With the death, at the age of 102 years, on 4 October 2013, of Vo Nguyen Giap, the last of the leaders who led Vietnam towards independence and unification in three decades of conflict that have marked not only the history of South-East Asia but also the collective memory of the West, was gone. Of poor origins, an inconsistent student and mediocre teacher, also a journalist in the years preceding the meeting with communist ideology and Ho Chi Minh, Giap remains above all “the General” for the Vietnamese, the hero of the war of liberation, the strategist who won the battle of Dien Bien Phu and organized the Tet Offensive. Successes on the military front but also essential moments to bow the Western opponent that had tried to hinder a journey both of
independence and revolution. A story, interesting also for the extraordinary dual power shared at the beginning with Ho Chi Minh, a companion of ideological elaboration in Chinese exile and co-founder of the League for the Independence of Vietnam (Viet Minh) in 1941. The solidarity between the refined intellectual and the pragmatic warrior consolidated during the war against the French, South Vietnamese and Americans was destined to end in a conflict not yet consigned to history. “Uncle Ho” left an astonished Vietnam an orphan in 1969, while Giap continued to lead the army and the Viet Cong guerillas until the occupation of Saigon on 30 April 1975. In the government of the unified country the general held the dual position of Minister of Defense until 1980, and that of deputy prime minister until 1982, when he officially retired from politics, while remaining active behind the scenes. His death, painful for many who remembered him as a co-founder of the Vietnamese state, arrived opportunely however to close a chapter in the history of the country and open another new one with full title.
The Vietnamese leadership, of which the 64 year-old Nguyen Tan Dung is an expression in as much as he is prime minister, needs to close with the past in order to focus on development and the problems generated by it, in particular the growing divergence between the different areas of the country, corruption, rising prices, and the excessive exposure of the economy and production towards exportation.
The year of the presidency of the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) in 2010, which cemented the relationship between the 10 members-countries of the organization and the major world and regional powers, was a flower in the crown of the foreign policy of Vietnam. The tensions of recent months off its eastern coast, rekindled by the territorial claims of the People’s Republic of China, are now not only a hotbed of crisis and, potentially, of conflict, but force Hanoi to seek the support of the only power alternative to the Chinese in the region, the former enemy, the U.S. In addition to pursuing closer strategic alliance with neighbors equally affected by the intentions of the Chinese towards seas rich with fish and potentially even oil and gas, as well as being traversed by some of the busiest trade routes in the world.
Behind again, albeit patchily, from the point of view of the services and the bureaucracy, Vietnam is a country where basic services are guaranteed, although not always at the appropriate level, and 90% of the population are literate and also enjoy a good life expectancy. It is true that the annual per capita income is lower than many of the neighbors and partners, but the rapid transformation of the economy is bringing 90 million Vietnamese out of underdevelopment, a goal for which the government has set the deadline of 2020, while creating at the same time new needs and fractures in society.
Contrast between city and rural areas
The cultural contrast, more than that of income, between the city and the countryside, the ethnic differences that cause discrimination and even persecution by the regime against the Christianized “mountain tribes” (Montagnards), an economy and in particular agriculture, that has been specializing even at the cost of great sacrifices to be able to penetrate the global markets, while the political class still formally pursues a path contrary to liberalism and capitalism, the corruption in contrast to the ideological integrity and pressure towards equality in poverty, the autonomy and national pride that confront the flood of goods arriving from the cumbersome and, through the centuries, frequent enemy of Vietnam, the neighboring China, together make of Vietnam a far from consolidated reality, beyond the facade of the regime.
The necessities of the ‘real’ country and that delineated by the ideology and the interests of its leadership also seem to exemplify the duality of this country.
At a great distance in time from the end of the conflict, tension remains between the austere Hanoi invaded by a river of bicycles and people, poor but dignified, where the new rich stand out distinctly, and Ho Chi Minh City, the former Saigon, vital, prosperous and enterprising. Between the two cities, significantly placed at either end of the national territory, the country deploys its potentialities and also its contradictions.
A question naturally arises: is this still a country that lives in the memory of the conflict, or is this memory a reflection of the memory of a West incapable of understanding the Vietnamese drama? “You see, we Vietnamese have different perspectives than you for what in any case was a tragedy” – a local guide said to us a few years ago. “The French colonized us and we were forced to fight them. The Americans tried to stop us from completing our national liberation and we had to confront them with weapons. We suffered but won, they suffered but lost. For this reason, we do not hate them and now they are welcome”.
So while tourists of all nationalities swarm with ever fewer constraints to Hué, Danang, Haiphong, sail the amazing Halong Bay, visit the tribal areas partially open, crowd Hanoi and Ho Chi Minh City on routes that are now only a part of the memory and increasingly of leisure and culture, the encounter with veterans of the war begging in the center of Hanoi is becoming ever rarer. Lived more and more in the indifference encouraged by the natural forgetfulness of a young and increasingly disenchanted country that wants to forget and that has the wish to start all over again.
It is not always possible to forget, though. There are perhaps three million Vietnamese still living exposed to dioxin, an essential component of Orange Agent, the defoliant used by the Americans to deprive the Vietcong of forest areas in which to operate. Of these, at least one million manifest serious consequences today and, among them, especially the 150 thousand children born with birth defects. A dramatic situation in itself, which is compounded by the state of abandonment in which many children are left and also the discrimination by peers in orphanages and schools. There are 20 thousand children housed in orphanages or public facilities and at least half of those suffer from deformities or disabilities. There are, however, many thousands who were simply abandoned. Not only the backwardness of care facilities and the scarce public resources available are called into question, but also cultural reasons, a growing hedonistic mentality and the parallel weakening of traditional social relations. (S.V.)