Virtual meanderings

Vietnam – perfect harmony or inner tensions?

Say you are at Hoam Kiem Lake and decided to visit to Ho Chi Minh mausoleum. You could take a bus ride using the public transport. Or you could jump on a scooter – drivers are on every street corner waiting to make a buck by taking you anywhere in Hanoi. Of course, experiencing Hanoi traffic in such a way is not for the faint hearted. But best of all, go on foot. After all the Mausoleum is within walking distance.

Hanoi, Hoam Kiem Lake, Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

    When you reach point C, you’ve come half way. Lenin park. Lenin park is not big, but in crowded Hanoi it is one of the few places (including Hoam Kiem Lake) to enjoy some greenery and open space… and do skateboarding if you are a young Vietnamese boarder.

Hanoi, Lenin Park

Hanoi, Lenin Park

But the more interesting location is on your left. I am talking about the Vietnam Museum of Military History. The museum yard is full of captured US gear, including hellicopters and all kinds of military equipment. But it is not what’s most interesting about it. There are the famous words a US major said to journalist Peter Arnett about provincial capital Ben Tre (a town in South Vietnam) “It became necessary to destroy the town to save it“. And save towns this way they often did. Many villages, such as My Lai  in South Vietnam were saved too. But unlike all other nations which were bombed by the US all the way through establishing a US-friendly government who never wanted to fiddle with the ‘errors of the past’, Vietnam can afford to tell its own version of the war (still). So, except the great variety of military equipment on display – which is interesting to see by itself, you can also learn details of the indigenous techniques developed by the Vietnamese to push the foreign troups out for good (such as inventing smokeless stoves to avoid telling off their presence by smoke, and many more).

Vietnam Military History Museum

Courtesy:  John Tomlinson @

   Finally, you reach your final destination. Point D – the mausoleum itself. The open grass area around it is a favorite for families with children in the evening.

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum

Ho Chi Minh Mausoleum


Visitors can pay respect to Ho Chi Minh – or rather to his balmed body – each morning. You can do so if you wish, but the more interesting place is the museum just next to the mausoleum. In that three story building documents and artefacts on display reveal Vietnamese history in the broader context of the 20th century anti-colonial struggle. After all, Vietnam was not an isolated case. There were Cambodia, Laos, China, Korea… That said, what you make up of visiting the museum largely depends on you, because to fully appreciate the artefacts some background is necessary. On the other hand, understanding what you see in, say, a Buddhist temple also requires a lot of knowledge but this does not discourage visitors from sticking their nose inside.

Ho Chi Minh Statue

Ho Chi Minh Statue inside the museum entrance

Which brings us to the point of this post. The only way to understand what is going on in a country is to look beyond the facade and identify the hidden tensions. Each country has plenty of those – just consider whichever country you are coming from. This approach has proven so useful to me that it is my second nature already –  in fact I often have to deliberately stop myself from digging deep to be able enjoy what I know is a tourist illusion. While I am no expert on Vietnam, I think this post seems the right place  to thrown in some observations.

Historically Vietnam had an uneasy relationship with China. This is one reason the French were able to take over the country by coopting the Vietnamese rulers by offering them help against the Chinese. Enters the twentieth century. The Chinese have deposed their hated Manchu rulers who lost the country to the Westerners, but there is great turmoil inside the Chinese republic because of the several parties vying for control (and the Western sharks are never too far to bargain for their own profit too). Korea is in Japanese hands. Vietnam, Laos and Cambodia belong to  French Indochina. India under British rule as well. The spheres of influence are  set. Each national resistance movement is too small, weak, ill-equipped and lacking military power to challenge the Western lords (the Chinese empire had lost the two Opium wars and a popular resistance movement – known in the West as the Boxers rebellion – had failed too).

Ho Chi Minh made a relevant point in as early as 1927

Ho Chi Minh made a relevant point in as early as 1927

Then came a game changer. The successful Bolshevik revolution (and the newly created Soviet Union with its Communist ideology) added a new dimension to the game. The ideology was anticapitalist – and all the colonizers were capitalist countries. Second – it was internationalist and promoting class struggle. This became a platform for resistance movements to transcend their nationalism and turn their attention to the colonizers and the ruling class who had sided with the foreigners effectively working against the peasants. Third – the Soviet Union was in the position to provide essential military education and various material help.

Poster of Lenin's "What has to be done" book. A museum artefact

Poster of Lenin's "What has to be done" book. A museum artefact

But it was still not enough. Then another game-changer came – World  War II. As a result of the war for a numbe of reasons the colonizers Japan, Britain and France had to dismantle their empires, clearing the stage for just two superpowers – the US and the USSR. The USSR continued to nurture its long-time partners – the anticolonial movements. As for the US , it was dead-set on doing whatever it took to install US-friendly regimes – in effect acting no different from the French before.  “To destroy the town in order to save it”.  The US devastated South Vietnam (and Laos). Yet after twenty years of war, they had to go. But don’t say they did not try hard. On top of millions of Vietnamese deaths, they’d also scorched the land with napalm and poisoned it with Agent Orange.

The Vietnamese Pentagon? The table where top military decision taken made during the war

The Vietnamese Pentagon? The table where top military decision taken made during the war

Now, time to jump to modern days. The Soviet Union collapsed. China was (and is) on the rise. From Vietnamese perspective that meant: 1) losing its protector, 2) becoming weary of China due to their troubled common past. So what could Vietnam do? Well, who else wants to check China’s political rise on the world stage? Look no further – the United States. And the two foes Vietnam and US found themselves in the same geopolitical boat. But opening up in this way certainly did not come for free.  Part of it was for Vietnam to welcome US investment. Billions of it (don’t need to wonder why – well-educated population under socialism, extremely cheap  labor, large expat Vietnamese community residing in Vietnam ready to jump on establishing busness ties). And where does this investment mostly go? South Vietnam. So, while the country’s political rule is still controlled by the North, the South has managed to gain a major economic advantage. Just look at relatively old-fascioned Hanoi in the North and the booming modern HSMC (Saigon) in the South. And economic power inevitably transforms into political power. A new generation has arrived too, that was not raised in war time. Money talks generation in a money talks world. All power players have been threading a complex danse, but those who won the war of the past seem to be in the less advantageous position at the present.

I’ll finish with a quote from a virtual community forum, written by user cayvang888:

“Northern Vietnamese is used mainly in the North – where the polical power is.  Whereas Southern Vietnamese is used more in daily settings like television programs.  When I first came back to Vietnam in 1994 and visited Saigon (HCMC), I remember turning on the television and EVERYTHING was in Northern Vietnamese.  Since then, every time I have been back, the pendulum has shifted more and more to Southern Vietnamese.  Now I go back and EVERYTHING is in Southern Vietnamese in Saigon.   The Newscast is in Southern Vietnamese.  Vietnam Idol ( yes, the same American Idol Franchise but in VN ) is all in Southern Vietnamese (including the accents of the hosts and judges). English, Korean, and Chinese movies are all dubbed into Southern Vietnamese.  Obviously, that changes when you are in Hanoi to Northern Vietnamese for the newcasts, but Vietnam Idol is still in Southern Vietnamese etc…”


2 responses to “Vietnam – perfect harmony or inner tensions?

  1. Pingback: South Sudan : Birth of A Nation « Vidur's Blog

  2. Pingback: Getting to China | A must-read « mastercopycat

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