My wife Grace and I just returned from a two-week trip to Vietnam and Cambodia. This column will discuss today’s Vietnam — which has certainly changed since I was there briefly during the war — and next week’s column will talk about Cambodia.
The first thing we noticed about Ho Chi Minh City (formerly Saigon) is the chaotic traffic: mostly motorbikes and motor scooters, but also lots of cars, trucks and bicycles mixed in, and precious few traffic signals. So with these pesky two-wheelers darting all over the place, it’s kind of like driving in spaghetti. But, amazingly enough, although we saw and experienced many near misses, we didn’t see even one collision while we were there. And we didn’t even see many scratches on the cars. So, one way or the other, the system is working.
We also saw that most of the Vietnamese women driving motor scooters wore a mask over their faces, long sleeves and gloves. The reason we were given was that having the fairest skin possible is considered to be much better looking in Vietnam.
We also were told about an example of the true new Vietnamese (and American) entrepreneurial spirit. A few years ago during the bird flu epidemic, the people in Vietnam simply stopped eating chicken. Many Kentucky Fried Chicken outlets compensated by importing chickens from France, and publicizing that fact to encourage sales. But it didn’t help. So until the epidemic waned, KFC became KFF, which stands for Kentucky Fried Fish. And they got along nicely.
The most sobering experience on our trip to Vietnam was a visit to the Cu Chi Tunnels, which were dug by the Viet Cong during the French occupation, and continued during the fighting with our troops. The Viet Cong were South Vietnamese guerrillas who fought as against the U.S.-backed Saigon regime. Cu Chi was a cobweb of about 120 miles of tunnels about 40 miles from the center of Saigon. The tunnels were often three stories deep, and contained quarters for storage, sleeping and eating, as well as kitchens and rooms for medical operations. The entrances and breathing holes were highly camouflaged, and the system allowed the Viet Cong fighters to appear in and disappear from most areas above ground virtually at will.
The Viet Cong also built booby traps in the same area, examples of which were demonstrated to us. These would be holes dug in the ground and camouflaged. When our soldiers stepped on the traps they would fall upon metal spikes laced with feces that would pierce their feet, or long sharpened poles that would pierce their armpits. There were others that, when triggered, would release metal balls covered with spikes that would swing down upon our soldiers on a vine from a tree. And, of course there were homemade land mines. These traps reflected the realization that the Viet Cong could obtain greater and more lasting psychological advantages by severely injuring our soldiers.
Imagine being a U.S. soldier on the ground in this area. In the first place, you couldn’t distinguish the friendly Vietnamese from the enemy. And secondly, imagine being with your best buddy when he had his foot punctured by a metal spike or lost his legs from a land mine. It is not an accident that about one-quarter of all of the disabled homeless people in Orange County are military veterans.
Of course, hundreds of thousands of Viet Cong were killed or injured during this “police action.” The conditions in the tunnels alone were terribly unhealthy, with the dampness and the poor air quality caused by oil-burning lamps. And many of the wounded died from infections contracted simply from being in the dampness under ground. We also noted that the Viet Cong remolded the metal from the bombs that our forces dropped on them into the spikes for their booby traps, and also that some of the VC would cut some unexploded bombs open so they could reuse the metal and the explosives inside. One spark and you were history.
But all of this vividly brought home to me the commitment of the Viet Cong to kick out what they saw as foreign occupiers.
While I was stationed with the Navy in Guam from April 1972 until October 1974, I routinely saw large military trucks on our roads carrying 500-pound bombs from the Naval Magazine over to Anderson Air Force Base, where they were loaded onto B-52s. Their motto at Anderson was “Bombs on Target,” which is certainly understandable, because that was their job. But I had never before really appreciated the significance of being on the receiving end of a B-52 raid. As we could see at the tunnels area, each bomb left a crater about 30 feet in diameter and about 15 feet deep. Imagine being on the ground or in the tunnels during such a raid!
When we departed Vietnam, I was left with the thought that North Vietnam would have been far better off had it lost the war because then we probably would have poured hundreds of millions of dollars into their country to spur their economy and well-being. They would also have more freedom, and we would probably be driving Vietnamese cars. Or, on the other hand, we should have had the courage of our philosophy from the outset and not put in troops in the first place. How so? Because communism simply doesn’t work. Our guides in Vietnam routinely said that their country had moved away from communism and over to capitalism exactly for that reason, because once the subsidies from the Soviet Union stopped after its demise, they had no choice. The same thing happened to a major degree in Cambodia and Cuba — and also in China. So today the Vietnamese government only really runs its oil industry, and, of course, the newspapers and the radio and television stations.
Of course, the communist government in Vietnam committed many human rights atrocities before and after it won the war, and, although the situation is somewhat better, it continues to do so. Furthermore, although our guides often said there is freedom of speech in Vietnam, reality shows otherwise. And even though the government appears to have the money, it is not spending much of it to address the problems of creating or maintaining the country’s infrastructure with regard to paving roads, cleaning water, disposing of trash, and making toilets available. Nevertheless, one way or the other, both sides are worse off because we pursued a military solution.
On the positive side, Vietnam has radically changed for the better in almost every regard. Its government has shifted from taking a highly dogmatic and doctrinaire approach to a more practical one. Vietnam is actively trading goods and services with other countries, and is successfully soliciting investments of foreign capital. With all of that progress, it surprises me that the visa process was so cumbersome and expensive. But these are good signs because only rarely do people shoot their customers, and most investors do not place their money in countries that are not stable.
As a result of this progress, the average wage per person has increased from about $1,000 per year in 1975 to about $2,700 today. Prices are still low there, as, for example, an hour’s massage costs about $12. But who could have imagined seeing a Mercedes or a Cadillac being driven down the streets of Ho Chi Minh City by a non-government official? That is a revolution all in itself.
In summary, we had a great trip, meeting good people, seeing interesting sights, and eating good food (try some Pho noodle soup at one of our local Vietnamese restaurants). And on no occasion while in Vietnam did I perceive any rancor or ill will toward me as an American as a result of the war. Nevertheless, and after due consideration, both Grace and I have decided that we would still prefer to live in Newport Beach instead of on a self-constructed 30-foot houseboat with no toilets on the Mekong River that is floating on bamboo poles.
JAMES P. GRAY is a retired judge of the Orange County Superior Court, the author of Wearing the Robe – the Art and Responsibilities of Judging in Today’s Courts (Square One Press, 2008), and can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org or via his website at www.judgejimgray.com .