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Imagining Vietnam
A feature article by Robert Templer

Shadows and Wind
Robert Templer
Little, Brown
London 1998

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Larry Hillblom was in love. The American tycoon, who had made his fortune as the ‘H’ in the air cargo firm DHL, was known for his taste in underage Filipinas. This affair, however, was different from the matches arranged by well-paid Manila mama-sans. It was a much more expensive romance that began in 1990 with a visit to the Vietnamese town of Dalat. Hillblom fell in love with this pine-scented colonial resort of Swiss chalets and 1930s nautical modern villas with curved balconies and porthole windows. The reclusive millionaire wanted a piece of Dalat.

Skirting the US economic embargo, Hillblom pumped $40 million into renovating the Dalat Palace Hotel, built in 1922 to attract visitors to this hill station in the cool low mountains north of Saigon. When the town was founded by the French it was thought the climate and clear mountain air might heal those wracked with tuberculosis or fatigued by the constant heat. Dalat won the Emperor Bao Dai’s imprimatur as the fashionable location to summer and Air France advertised the hotel as the place to stay for tiger hunting in the highlands. The airline commissioned colourful posters of fierce Montagnards armed with spears. The minorities that populated the mountain areas were for the French an ideal of noble savagery that provided a perfect contrast to their image of the Vietnamese as sly and inscrutable.

The Dalat Palace Hotel might have been one of the most impressive establishments in Indochina, but by the time Hillblom visited in the 1990s it was decrepit and uncomfortable, a gloomy, rat-infested pile ignored for nearly half a century. Hillblom decided to renovate not just the hotel but a number of other buildings and sixteen of the villas that lined the mountain roads. But he never lived to enjoy what he had created. A week after the hotel reopened in 1995, Hillblom was killed in a plane crash near the Pacific island of Saipan. His body was never found.

His hotel is insulated from the outside world with acres of perfect lawn and is run by a huge staff of Vietnamese and expatriates, many of them dressed in something approaching period costume of the 1930s. A water filtration plant big enough to supply the entire town was installed along with generators to guard against power cuts. The plumbing, once known for its creaking reluctance to furnish anything other than a trickle of brackish slime, was replaced with brass fixtures from which gushed very modern torrents of hot water. Striving for authenticity, Hillblom initially refused to allow televisions in the rooms, although the French management company, Accor Pacific, eventually persuaded him to change his mind. Nearby, the oldest golf course in Vietnam, originally built for the amusement of Bao Dai, was expanded and planted with the delicate European grass craved by Asian golfers. The hotel’s restaurant, decorated with antique cabinets, crystal chandeliers and marble, served a rich haute cuisine of imported ingredients. At the bottom of the sprawling front steps, a chauffeur in a peaked cap spent his days polishing a 1930s Citroen to a depthless shine.

With Hillblom’s seemingly endless spout of cash, scores of architects, engineers and Swiss-trained hoteliers manufactured the perfect fabrication of colonialism as a period of sumptuous comfort and effortless superiority. The hotel strove to be more than a rootless box for tourists. It was remade to evoke a time of brilliantined hair, Vuitton trunks and tennis whites all set in the luminous and mythical landscape of ‘Indochine’, a place as distant from the realities of French colonialism as it was from contemporary Vietnam.

The original hotel had never taken off, indeed the grand building overlooking the town’s lake was a mirror of the economic dreams and failures of French colonialism in Indochina. Dalat had been promoted initially as a sanatorium and then as a potential administrative capital. A plan for the town was drawn up by the architect Ernest Hebrard, one of the foremost urban planners of his time. Dalat was supposed to be a strictly controlled and segregated area for the French only; the Vietnamese needed permission to live there and were confined to a few areas on the edges of the town. Hebrard’s plan was not popular among the colonial residents, who ignored his well-organised if antiseptic scheme and built a rambling town of nostalgic cottages modelled after those in the Alps and Alsace.

Tiger hunting and cool summers did not attract many guests to the Palace hotel; it began its slow decay just after it opened. To keep it afloat, the owners petitioned the colonial government, which had already subsidised its construction, for permission to open a casino. The civil servants sweating away in Hanoi had little sympathy and refused to allow the owners to save the hotel with gambling. Photographs from the 1930s show it as slightly austere and pinched, certainly not enormously comfortable. The menus were not lists of gastronomic indulgence but offered the starchy foods favoured by stout colonials. The hotel’s slight grasp of metropolitan French sophistication and grandeur must have been a sad echo of the lives of its patrons.

Hillblom had little interest in the real history of his hotel; he wished only to create a fantasy of colonial times. In purely business terms, the investment was a disaster. He poured $40 million into a hotel in an almost unknown town six hours drive from the nearest international airport. The eighteen expatriates and 170 Vietnamese employed to service the forty-three rooms had little to do. The bell-boys, dressed in pillbox hats and braided uniforms, lurked in the marble lobby while maids in black-and-white dresses polished untouched silver and changed the unused sheets.

After Hillblom’s death, his Hong Kong-based company Danao, through which he had channelled his illegal investment in Vietnam, was struggling to finance the renovations of another hotel in Dalat. Hillblom’s $500 million estate was caught up in a tangle of legal battles that pitted his chosen beneficiary, the University of California, against a string of illegitimate children he was said to have fathered with bar girls in the Philippines. Without regular infusions of cash to sustain it, the hotel struggled. By 1996 it was laying off staff and cutting rates. Most of the rooms remained empty.

In the 1990s Vietnam was attracting a new generation of fantasists and dreamers. The new arrivals were looking to wallow in nostalgia for places and times that had never been. They were drawn to their vision of ‘Indochine’ and ‘Nam’, the mythical landscapes of the West’s past interactions with Vietnam. These pioneers arrived, like the first colonisers hundreds of years before them, with a rich array of preconceptions. They were nervous about their reception in this once hostile land but they were carrying trinkets that the natives craved and they had an unshakeable belief in the civilising power of market economics.

They were coming to a country they thought they knew well. Its images had been intensified in hundreds of movies and hours of news footage; these pictures of Vietnam lingered like retinal burns. There were dense jungles and sleepy rivers. The cities were lush and colonial with ochre and cream-coloured buildings, shaded streets, cafés and colonnaded hotels. The countryside was a picturesque mix of thatch and bamboo houses surrounded by glittering rice paddies. This rural idyll provided the perfect contrast to chains of bombs exploding above the jungle, the face of a man as he is shot in the temple by a policeman or a burned girl running naked from the clouds of napalm that boil up behind her.

It was ‘Nam’, man, and they were back. They’d gleaned the language and attitude from the cinema and a frayed copy of Michael Herr’s Dispatches. They were ‘in country’, on their ‘second tour’, they lived a ‘few clicks’ out of town. Vietnamese were cool this time around, they were looking for a deal, they loved Americans. This was the new frontier, the lucrative wreckage of Communism’s latest collision with capitalism. It was the land of opportunity, millions could be made by a lucky few who got in early and figured it out.

For some, Vietnam was emblematic of something in their own lives – a lost youth or a political consciousness honed in opposition to the war – and this lent it an importance that marks it out from other Southeast Asian countries. The importance attached to Vietnam by its recent history has if anything hindered a richer understanding of the country and its people. In most of this history the Vietnamese are invisible to the West, they are little more than ciphers. Both the French and Americans from across the political spectrum projected their views on to them, forcing them mostly into two camps; they were either innocent victims or the faceless components of a vicious Marxist war machine.

These layered fantasies were bound to come unstuck when Westerners once again confronted Vietnam. French film director Jean-Jacques Annaud experienced a typical reaction when scouting locations for his film The Lover. He was searching for the ‘real Indochina’, for the romantic landscapes of Marguerite Duras’s novel. But instead of the lush country he imagined, he found ‘poverty and overpopulation’ that left him stunned. ‘The fancy white villas have been replaced by grey prefab council housing. The broken streets are swamped by the compact swarm of backfiring scooters,’ he wrote in his journal about the making of the movie. The cities weren’t to his liking but he had hopes for the countryside which he imagined as ‘untouched, still Asian’.

But even the peasants were not picturesque enough for Annaud. ‘No, [the countryside] too is socialist. Looking for green, we find grey… The Mekong, laden with motorboats with corrugated iron roofs, looks more like a freeway outside Mexico City than the legendary river flowing all the way down from China.’

Reality may have been a disappointment but Annaud found that ‘our memories sifted away the dirt, the pollution, the everyday troubles.’ In this ‘tired museum, weary and unique,’ he was able to create a $30 million vision of colonialism, albeit a modern confection of pale linen dresses, opium smoking men and sinewy coolies. French colonialism in the pearl of the orient was never as stylish as it was in movies such as Indochine, The Lover, Dien Bien Phu, and The Scent of Green Papaya, a number of French productions that would rehabilitate Vietnam as a land of colonial and erotic adventure.

Decades without contact heightened the allure of rediscovery in the rash of Indochina movies that were mostly critical and box office hits. They were officially applauded by the authorities in Hanoi. The Scent of Green Papaya, a movie by the French-Vietnamese director Tran Anh Hung, was even nominated for an Oscar as best Foreign Film from Vietnam, even though it had been filmed entirely in studios in Paris where it was cheaper and easier to recreate ‘Indochine’.

The most lavish movie, and certainly the most influential in sparking the rush of tourism to Vietnam, was Indochine. Starring Catherine Deneuve as a plantation owner, it was a huge hit, winning an Oscar, a Golden Globe and five Cesar awards in France. Its panoramic sweep across late colonial history was overlaid with a luxurious portrayal of life in the 1930s. The number of visitors soared from just around 30, 000 in the late 1980s to more than 1 million in 1994. They came in search of the authentic Vietnam seen through the eyes of film-makers who had infused it with a French sense of loss and regret for the end of colonialism. Without irony, travel agents advertised the most heavily bombed country in history as unspoiled; the discerning traveller, they advised, should get in early before it was ruined.

With its return to the world fold nearly complete, the government proudly declared that at last Vietnam was ‘not just a war but a country’. Indeed it was no longer just a war but a country where Deneuve might spend her days dressed in tight jodhpurs disciplining the plantation workers before slipping into a silk ao dai to drink pastis on the terrace of the Continental Hotel.

‘Indochine’ is not a large imaginary space in comparison with ‘Nam’ which stretches across a wider and more varied topography. ‘Nam’ can be a place for suffering or redemption, a site of brutal US imperialism or a Communist gulag holding ‘our boys’ in bamboo tiger cages. Over the scorched earth and dense jungles of its terrain wander figures as diverse as Susan Sontag and Danielle Steele, Oliver Stone and Oliver North. Nam has its own journals and university courses, political lobbies, heroes and enemies. A quick survey of a university library in the United States will turn up thousands of volumes, almost all of them about the war. A far from exhaustive survey of American movies produced a list of around 400 that feature Vietnam or veterans of the war in some significant way. A search on the Internet calls up an unmanageable number of entries; indeed the world Wide Web has given new energy to ‘Nam’. There is now a ‘virtual ‘Nam’, supplying everything from a complete list of Americans dead from the war to advice in which bars offer the most authentic ‘Nam’ experience in Ho Chi Minh City.

‘Nam’ is a steamy condensation of life in the Saigon of the 1960s with sex, drugs and a rock and roll soundtrack. It is bound up with images of war, the smell of napalm in the morning and a chirruping hooker patois – ‘love-you-long-time-you-be-my-big-honey’. Many of those in search of this world are looking to recreate Vietnam as an erotic playground populated by woman whose national dress, the clinging ao dai was designed to give an alluring glimpse of what might be on offer. More than a few mid-life crises reached their apogees in the bars off Saigon’s notorious Tu Do street (now Dong Khoi street), the epicentre of male fantasy in Vietnam since Graham Greene wrote The Quiet American in the 1950s. This was where the authenticity of ‘Nam’ was both created and challenged in bars with names like Apocalypse Now and B4 75, where to the pulse of 1960s music, young Vietnamese women again run their hands over the wide backs of shorn-haired Americans.

Vietnam in the 1960s is not just exotic, it is stylish. This is particularly the case in Saigon – nobody calls it Ho Chi Minh City – an emerging centre of media created urban chic. It is the place to be if you are young and adventurous and have a trust fund. The New York Times featured it in its Sunday magazine in January 1997 under the apt title ‘Saigon: The Sequel’ throwing in a few barbs at the collection of thrusting hustlers that had congregated there, but mostly draping the place in some comfortably worn nostalgia.

The Loud Americans were back – big, bad and posturing, according to this widely read piece. The author, Michael Paterniti quickly throws in obligatory references to Greene to suggest that the predicaments of American expatriates in Saigon have not changed since the 1950s and 1960s. He even includes a story about a young American’s naive love for a woman who may or may not be a hooker. Vietnamese are all unsurprisingly portrayed as venal – slyly observing and manipulating the outsiders but remaining mysterious and unknowable.

The writer dutifully includes a quote from a US veteran on how Americans ‘met Vietnamese in whorehouses or in battle, but we never treated them as humans’. Following decades of journalistic tradition in Vietnam, the author avoids meeting them at all, preferring just to recycle old images of Vietnamese. For Paterniti, Saigon is corrupt and criminal, it doesn’t fit the supposed Confucian mould of Vietnamese society, it reeks of shit and greed. Northern Vietnamese, who are in the opinion of the writer clearly more cultured, view the city as a ‘psychedelic Sodom’. Any woman with an apartment or a Honda Dream – a small motorbike that emerged as a fetish object of the new consumer age – clearly earned it on her back. In a highly suspect anecdote, a woman working in an antique shop propositions the writer. Reading from a collection of English phrases written in a notebook, she asks him if he ‘will be the one to buy me a Honda Dream’.

Towards the end of this article, which stretched across ten pages of one of the most prominent publications in the United States, the writer finds some redemption for Vietnamese, who are so noticeably absent from his writing up until then. An American veteran living in Saigon tells him he sees ‘people who want a little money, parents who want a better life for their children. I see innocence and energy. When I look deeply enough here I see the beginnings of America.’

Most of the pioneers of Vietnam’s latest opening to the world soon find that it is neither an optimistic proto-America nor a silken fantasy of opium smoking and sex. It doesn’t take long to work out that Saigon is not the rouged and pouting temptress of lore. There is a pulsating energy, an echo of the imagined edginess of the past, but the bars tinkle with syrupy muzak rather than throb to The Doors. Most Saigonese are not the slick operators and hookers that Paterniti surmised but a range of families all dealing with the complexities of rapid change in their society. Saigon is no longer the charming mix of colonial grace and 1960s kitsch but a late twentieth-century urban disaster-in-waiting with many of the failings of other cities in the region. It has become a vast sprawl of concrete crossed with canals and rivers so polluted they bubble under crusts of garbage. By the mid 1990s, Saigon had the fastest growing economy of any major city in Asia but with this had come a tense web of problems that were hard to avoid. You might be back in Nam but it didn’t always feel that way.

The layers of cultural sediment that make up ‘Nam’ sit so heavily on Western visions of the country that it can hardly be considered in any other light. Writers, film makers and photographers consciously or otherwise reproduce the same images over and over. Not only does this compressed view exclude most Vietnamese, but it has stifled any view of the Vietnamese that deviates from the widely accepted myths. They have been restricted to permanent walk-on parts in history and fiction, as sex workers, apparatchiks, guerrillas, corrupt generals and untrustworthy servants.

Ideas about Vietnam are powerfully ingrained. This is most obvious in the many American movies about Vietnam where the people appear only as small armed men in black pyjamas. But the distortion persists beyond these works of fact or fiction that dehumanise Vietnamese as the enemy. Even those works that set out to be sympathetic, such as Frances FitzGerald’s Fire in the Lake have contributed to the reduction of Vietnamese culture and society to a series of enduring stereotypes. This book, winner of a Pulitzer Prize and a national book award in America, had an enormous influence on the way Vietnamese are seen because it was one of the first to try and establish their place in a conflict that was dominated by stories by and about Americans. Its ambitious attempt at a cultural analysis of Vietnamese people and the war has seeped into much of the subsequent writing on the war. Unusually for a non-fiction work, it remains in print and widely available twenty-five years after its first publication.

FitzGerald sets out to establish Americans and Vietnamese as ‘reversed mirror images’ – essentially opposites whose difference explain their misunderstandings and conflicts. FitzGeralds’s Americans are endowed with creativity, optimism and a competitive spirit based on a myth of the frontier and of eternal conquest. Her Vietnamese live in a world of physical and mental constraints, hemmed in by mountains and enemies. ‘For traditional Vietnamese the sense of limitation and enclosure was as much a part of individual life as of the life of the nation.’

Vietnamese ‘live by constant repetition’ with a grasp only of place, not time. She writes:

In this passage of time that had no history, the death of a man marked no final end. Buried in the rice fields that sustained his family, the father would live on in the bodies of his children and grandchildren. As time wrapped around itself, the generations to come would come to regard him as the source of their present lives and the arbiter of their fate. In the continuum of the family ‘private property’ did not really exist, for the father was less of an owner than a trustee of the land to be passed on to his children. To the Vietnamese the land itself was the sacred, constant element: the people flowed over the land like water, maintaining, fructifying it for generations to come.

By presenting Vietnamese as mysterious Asian opposites of Americans, FitzGerald no longer has any responsibility to find out anything more about them. Americans are caricatures of heavy-handed bellicosity; Vietnamese therefore must be contemplative and peace-loving. Americans are driven by a sense of historical mission; the Vietnamese are reduced to passivity by their lack of history.

Her ideas, presented in a ringing, authoritative tone but with only the sparsest evidence, say little about the Vietnamese. By presenting herself as a sympathetic liberal counterweight to those who wanted to bomb the country back into the stone age, she stakes a claim to explaining the ‘true nature’ of the people, a highly dubious intention in itself. FitzGerald’s Vietnamese are devoid of all diversity or individuality; they remain trapped in a fixed intellectual and physical landscapes, completely beholden to the ageless and unbending forces of Confucianism, colonialism and village life.

FitzGerald assumes that all Vietnamese accept a single cyclical version of history and that they scour this for precedents that justify their current actions. She ignores, or is unaware of, earlier civil conflicts and of how contentious different readings of history have been in Vietnam. She portrays Vietnamese as passionately hostile to outside invaders but says little about their capacity for assimilation or how they react to their own rulers. Her assumption is that they are all good, obedient Confucian Mandarins or subservient peasant farmers.

What FitzGerald constructs is essentially the same as the French colonial picture of Vietnam as the dullard offspring of a richer Chinese culture. Vietnam’s own complex history of conquest, integration, passivity and resistance does not figure here. The rich mix of religions and political beliefs, the evolving and changing social structures, the influences of colonialism and Vietnam’s neighbours other than China are all left out; FitzGerald and many others prefer not to muddy their clear Confucian vision with any distractions.

Far from being stuck in their villages, tending their ancestors behind walls of bamboo, Vietnamese have for centuries been travelling, trading, migrating, conquering, fleeing, expanding and exploring. Village life has evolved over time and customs vary in different parts of the country; the appearance of unchanging closed worlds is deceptive.

Ninh Hiep just outside Hanoi illustrates some of the changes. At first glance this Red River village appears the archetype of the insular communities that FitzGerald describes. Densely packed together, the houses have high walls and enclosed courtyards. The town’s gates could once be closed off against the world. Ninh Hiep has seen periods when it was best to huddle together to protect the village from hostile forces. It has, however, also had a long history of complex contacts with the outside world. It has a 900-year history of providing court doctors and was a training centre for itinerant healers. For centuries it has been a centre for selling silk and for trading medicines as far away as north-eastern China.

FitzGerald’s work cements in place a view of Vietnamese as childlike and accepting, lacking an indigenous intellectual tradition and of being swayed by the most simplistic needs and ideas. Any Vietnamese who steps outside her framework is described as aberrant and somehow not truly Vietnamese; she doesn’t consider that her framework may be misplaced. It is telling that she does not quote many Vietnamese by name; they are simply emblems such as ‘an old man’, ‘a soldier’ or ‘a National Liberation Front cadre’. She may have been protecting sources with anonymity, but she doesn’t make this clear. Instead, their lack of identity forms a tense contrast with the Westerners she quotes who are given names along with a sense of history and individuality.

FitzGerald’s ideas could be dismissed if they were not so enduring; her eloquent and well-written Orientalist fiction has proved a tenacious barrier to the broader understanding of modern Vietnam. It is journalists and writers, not Vietnamese, who unfortunately live in a world without history where the same ideas are endlessly re-circulated. A quarter of a century after the publication of Fire in the Lake, FitzGerald is more often cited than challenged; this is not because of the worth of her book but because of a failure to approach Vietnam afresh. FitzGerald’s ideas about the country’s history of resistance to foreigners, the influence of Confucianism and the way Vietnamese see history are simply taken as fact and repeated.

Writing on Vietnam has been dominated by a small group whose exposure to the country occurred during a time of intense conflict. The Vietnam they wrote about then, and in many cases still write about now, was a country vivisected by the Geneva Agreements of 1954 into rival nations, both of which were struggling to find new political and social identities in the wake of nearly a century of colonialism. That troubled time is taken as base point of Vietnamese life, a standard by which everything is judged. There is a tendency to see the reforms of the past decades as having taken the country back to the days before 1975; Saigon in particular is seen as returning to that time. This ignores the changes that have occurred in the post-war years. The realities of modern Vietnam have not much interested any of these writers. For them, the country will forever be ‘Nam’ and their only vision of it can be seen through the prism of the war and its myths.

William Prochnau’s book Once Upon a Distant War, the Iliad of heroic journalism in ‘Nam’, was a critical triumph when it was published in 1995, twenty years after the fall of Saigon. The book chronicles the Vietnam experiences of a number of well-known journalists such as Peter Arnett, Neil Sheehan and David Halberstam. Prochnau, a reporter who covered the war, is not out to challenge any of the most cherished and powerful journalistic fantasies; the book opens with the ubiquitous image of the innocent reporter striding off the plane at Saigon airport into ‘this little Asian trouble spot’. From that moment on it is inevitable that he been seduced and corrupted by a city that Prochnau describes as ‘not simply exotic. It was erotic. And narcotic.’

Prochnau lays down a blistering fire of clichés in just the first few pages of his drive-by reporting. The women are ‘tiny, porcelain, ephemeral images of perfect grace’ with ‘raven hair and flowing white ao dais … that so remarkably enhanced their femininity’. There is a supporting cast of saffron-robed monks, ‘Hindu money-changers’ and Chinese ‘with three-strand beards and opaque eyes who introduced visitors to the ancient pleasures of the poppy’. The countryside is ‘a poet’s panorama unchanged in centuries’ populated by tribesmen and the followers of exuberant religious sects.

Reporting on the Vietnam War has become such a mark of distinction for journalists, particularly those in the United States who are now television anchors and senior editors, that it is almost sacrilegious to challenge it. Prochnau doesn’t even try; his book, like so many about the war, exists only to celebrate a world of journalistic myth in which the young heroes challenge powerful governments with the Pulitzer Prize-winning articles. Many of these journalists did transform American journalism with their writing at that time; they were often brave and critical. Their post-war writing has, however, taken on a very different attitude as they struggle against the evidence to put the most positive possible spin on the country and its government.

FitzGerald’s work sometimes seems like a template for writing on Vietnam. In Prochnau’s book, the people are grounded completely in their landscapes, hidden behind their bamboo hedges that represent their closed minds or lurking in jungles which terrify the unprepared American GIs but are a natural habitat for these born warriors.

But for Vietnamese soldiers, the jungle was no easier a habitat than it was for the Americans. Vietnamese are more used to cities and paddy fields than the mountains of the Central Highlands. Thousands died of malaria and almost all suffered other illnesses and permanent hunger. Bao Ninh, a former North Vietnamese soldier who wrote the acclaimed novel The Sorrow of War, described the forests of central Vietnam as alien and morbid, a world of phantoms and damp nocturnal terror. ‘Here when it is dark, trees and plants moan in awful harmony. When the ghostly music begins it unhinges the soul and the entire wood looks the same no matter where you are standing. Not a place for the timid. Living here one could go mad or be frightened to death.’

Bao Ninh and other writers have punctured many of the inflated ideas we have about Vietnamese soldiers; these myths were a comforting fiction for the Americans – that they were up against an almost inhuman and unbeatable enemy. The image of Vietnamese soldiers as ant-like automatons programmed to fight is undermined by these stories of desertions, drug use, draft evasion and overwhelming fear. In the world of opposites that FitzGerald and others have established, the US military in Vietnam was a drug-infested, anarchic mob with no understanding of the reasons for which they were fighting. The Vietnamese were a rigorous fighting force, tightly disciplined and motivated. Bao Ninh revealed a world in which Vietnamese were not all heroic; many did not understand really why they were fighting. War, it seems, was grim, terrifying and chaotic for all sides.

The creation of ‘Indochine’ and Nam’ would not be possible without some complicity on the part of powerful Vietnamese officials. Rewriting the past to make it less confrontational and softening the edges of conflicts with France and the United States suited the government after 1986 when it was desperate to resume contacts with the West. All the French movie productions were done with the approval and encouragement of the Ministry of Culture and Information in Hanoi. These cultural commissars, normally so sensitive to any perceived colonial slight, decided that these movies might be useful in promoting the country’s new open face to the world.

They were not always so lenient. Most producers who sought permission to film in Vietnam were rebuffed by the ministry, which kept a close eye on the ideological content of scripts and rejected many, including the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies. Britain’s 007 had spent too much time fighting communism to be seen ordering a martini in Hanoi. Tran Hung Anh’s film Cyclo was filmed almost covertly with officials unaware of its brutal presentation of Ho Chi Minh City. Far from being adopted like his early nostalgic vision of Vietnam in The Scent of Green Papaya, Cyclo was banned and attacked in the official media for ‘blackening’ the country’s good name.

Creating a playground of colonial and war memories was a way for the government to mend broken ties and to sell the country to tourists. It had the beneficial side effect of isolating foreigners from the widening ideological, economic and social strains that afflicted the country. Visiting journalists and film-makers were allowed to indulge in nostalgia as long as it kept them away from revealing any present-day tensions. Barbarian handlers – the cadres who controlled the activities of foreign film-makers, writers and journalists – were more co-operative with projects that had a historical theme, hence a profusion of articles about the Ho Chi Minh Trail and Khe Sanh, site of a major battle between American and North Vietnamese forces. Journalists who had covered the war and were perceived as ‘friends of Vietnam’ in the official parlance, were given good access; they could be relied on not to stray from the path of hazy Namstalgia.

A number of American reporters of considerable journalistic heft – Sheehan, Morley Safer and Dan Rather among others – produced books on their returns to Vietnam in the 1990s that all covered similar ground and rarely wandered into areas that the Vietnamese government saw as off-limits. Dan Rather’s recollections of his return with General Norman Schwarzkopf were somewhat sour; the others were less mean in spirit but they all remained aloof from the concerns of modern Vietnam.

Guilt and sadness – the original meaning of the word nostalgia – inflected their writing, which tended to offer only the most gentle criticisms of the government. Journalists who were known for deftly challenging the assumptions and statements of their own leaders lost their edge when faced with Vietnamese officials. Instead of addressing contemporary issues and tensions, many of these journalists produced naïve accounts of the policies and personnel of the Vietnamese government. Stanley Karnow, author of a best-selling history of the war, wrote a profile of General Vo Nguyen Giap for the New York Times Magazine that unquestioningly swallowed the general’s tendentious version of history. Far from being just the adored hero of Dien Bien Phu and celebrated victor over the United States, Giap is a contentious figure in Vietnamese politics, admired by many but also vilified for what is seen as his cowardice in the face of Communist Party hardliners.

The many facets of the former defence minister’s story completely passed Karnow by; the two grand old men were too busy buffing each other’ egos to pose or answer the difficult questions. Karnow’s portrayal added nothing to our understanding of a complex man. To find an interview with Giap in which he was pressed with difficult questions about his explosive personality, his tactical failures, his vanity and his indifference to battle losses, one has to go back to the renowned Italian journalists Oriana Fallaci, who wrote about him for the newspaper L’Europeo in February 1969. They did not hit it off; she described him talking ‘for forty-five minutes, without letting up, in the pedantic tone of a professor lecturing some rather unintelligent pupils. To interrupt to ask a question was a hopeless undertaking’.

Fallaci’s portrayal of Giap is startling when compared with the recent depiction of him as a warm and avuncular figure. He comes across as ferociously driven and indifferent to the suffering of his people. When Fallaci asked him ‘So then, general, how long will the war go on? How long will this poor people be asked to sacrifice itself, to suffer and to die?’, Giap responded ‘as long as it’s necessary. Ten, fifteen, twenty, fifty years. Until we achieve total victory, as our president, Ho Chi Minh, said. Yes! Even twenty, fifty years! We’re not in a hurry, we’re not afraid.’

Giap’s staff, aware of the chilling tone of his words, later tried to bully Fallaci into publishing only the official text of their interview which left out the problematic parts; they were particularly angered by her challenge to him over the effectiveness of the Tet Offensive in 1968 during which troops attacked South Vietnamese cities but were almost obliterated in a counter-attack. When Fallaci, who had been intensely critical of the American military involvement, refused to restrict herself to the heavily censored and wooden answers prepared by Giap’s staff, she was denounced in Hanoi as a tool of the Central Intelligence Agency.

Fallaci’s critical portrayal was a rarity. Giap was a powerful seducer of the foreign media. He loved to reminisce; in his quiet, sibilant French he would dazzle journalists with his stories of founding the Vietnamese People’s Army in the northern highlands in 1944, and his victory at the battle of Dien Bien Phu. He always put on a masterly show with a grace and polish that made it difficult to challenge the sprightly old general; he was history incarnate. Journalists would be invited to his large villa in the city centre where Giap would introduce his family. Stepping into the garden, he would pose for photographers under a flowering tree. If it was in blossom, he would break off a small branch and present it to the journalist. Few journalists realised that they all witnessed identical performances and heard the same speeches.

Giap is often portrayed as single-handedly responsible for the victories over the French and the United States. It is an idea he does little to discourage as it conveniently sets aside the intense debates, both ideological and strategic, that raged among the dozens of other senior military figures involved in the war. Giap often lost the internal struggles in Hanoi; his power faded from 1954 onwards and by the late 1960s he was under constant challenge from rivals.

In 1980, he was stripped of almost all powers; his job for the next few years was to head a national family planning campaign. A sardonic rhyme that circulated in Hanoi in the 1980s included a line about a victorious general whose job was now to insert IUDs. Giap’s eightieth birthday in 1991 passed almost unnoticed as there were none of the special ceremonies or honours that this hero might have expected. Even his supporters started to desert him; many were bitter that he had not stood up to the ideologues who dominated Vietnam from the 1960s to the mid 1980s. Giap was among the few who could have challenged them but he chose a comfortable retirement instead. Few of these stories made it into the portraits by journalists who went back to ‘Nam’.

So much written by journalists who parachuted into Vietnam was wide of the mark and often a product of desperate wishful thinking. A profile in the Los Angeles Times of the lawyer Ngo Ba Thanh, once a leading non-communist opponent of US intervention in South Vietnam, described her as ‘one of the precious cultural bridged’ between the Western world and Vietnam. Three years before this article appeared in 1992, Thanh had led a movement in the National Assembly to kill a law that might have allowed private ownership of the media and offered the press a greater degree of freedom. As a leader of the official lawyers’ association, she campaigned hard to restrict the operations of foreign lawyers operating in Vietnam, a move that hindered investment from abroad. Thanh was known in Hanoi not for her liberalism but for her hostility towards the West and foreign businesses.

These reports are reminiscent of the books produced by American anti-war activists and writers such as Susan Sontag and Mary McCarthy after their brief and closely-regimented visits to Hanoi during the war in which they described a socialist paradise. McCarthy was even struck by the rareness of acne among Vietnamese youth, which she took as a sign of a higher moral existence. These writers at least had an excuse for their weak grasp of the country; almost nothing was known in the West about North Vietnam at the time. Nowadays there is no justification for the superficial coverage, the unquestioning approach to the government and the thinly researched history. Part of the problem is the emphasis on reporting by the returning heroes of ‘Nam’ who rarely do more than reminisce about their youths. Creating the image of Vietnamese as mysterious and unknowable lets these writes off the hook; nothing else need be said. Even the hard-bitten Neil Sheehan, writing in the New Yorker in 1995, went so far as to describe the Vietnamese leadership as ‘the idealistic revolutionaries of the rainforest’, a phrase that seems strenuously naïve in the face of the harsh realities of their rule.

Vietnamese officials trusted to meet with foreign reporters spun the same lines and seemed to relish their stereotypical roles as Marxist Mandarins, heroic military strategists or idealistic revolutionaries. A central part of Vietnam’s political culture is about presenting a façade to the outside world. In the past it covered its chaotic political division with the image of rigorous Confucianism or strict Marxism. It has softened its appearance now but it has not dropped its guard; officials are dedicated to preserving the images. They portray themselves to the outside world as mysterious and inscrutable, fluent in elliptical oriental wisdoms and masters of a society that outsiders could not possibly fathom. Thus they ensured that journalists and writers spent more time examining a past over which the government could exercise some control rather than a present that is slipping away from them.

Copyright © Robert Templer 1998

This story may not be archived or distributed further without the author’s express permission. Please read the license.

This electronic version of Imagining Vietnam is published by The Richmond Review by arrangement with the author and his agents, Rogers, Coleridge & White/Literary Agency.

All rights enquiries to David Miller <[email protected]>


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