Speaking Of Asia

When a war turns into a nation

Rising prosperity is changing the essence of Vietnamese character

HO CHI MINH CITY • Visiting Vietnam recently during its Tet holiday season, the mind went back to the famous military campaign a half-century ago that in many ways signalled a decisive turn in the Vietnam War.

In a series of surprise attacks launched on Jan 30, 1968 called the Tet Offensive, the Vietcong and the North Vietnamese People's Army took on US forces and the American-backed regime in South Vietnam. Americans, who'd been led into believing that they were winning the war against communism, were shocked.

In their number was the distinguished television journalist Walter Cronkite, who reported back to his home audience from Vietnam that this was a war the United States would not win. Watching that broadcast, then US President Lyndon B. Johnson is said to have remarked: "If I've lost Cronkite, I've lost Middle America."

Mr Johnson would choose not to run again for president, and the US would be completely out of Vietnam seven years later, the moment captured in footage of the dramatic helicopter airlift from the roof of the US Embassy in this city, then called Saigon.

Some 40km away, the Cu Chi Tunnels bear witness to the immense resilience of the Vietnamese - a rabbit warren of claustrophobic, narrow passages built at a minimum of eight feet below ground that stretched for miles. At its widest, the tunnels included underground sleeping spaces, infirmaries and kitchens where food would be prepared only in the early morning or late evening, so the tendrils of smoke that drifted out would be mistaken for forest mist.

For a whole generation, both in the West and in Asia, Vietnam was the name of a war. Today it is a nation of 90 million, with a thriving economy that's expanding at one of the fastest paces in Asia, led by private enterprise and foreign direct investments (FDI). And with that, some of the qualities that made up the Vietnamese character may be changing as well.


ST ILLUSTRATION: MANNY FRANCISCO

Last year, it snapped up US$16 billion (S$23 billion) in actual FDI. Trade accounts for about 150 per cent of its gross domestic product, impressive for a nation at its stage of development. Products from Samsung, the South Korean electronics giant, accounted for about a fifth of the US$176 billion goods that Vietnam sent out to the world last year. Aside from other things, Vietnam's experience offers reassurance that despite the march of automation, labour-intensive manufacturing can still work in Asia. Samsung has some 18,000 robots installed in its Vietnam factories.

Meanwhile, tourists are flocking to the country's sights and resorts where they are served by confident and polite young Vietnamese, some of whom hold multiple jobs to help out families in the hinterland.

NO ONE'S PATSY

It is the sort of boat no one would look to rock. And that perhaps goes for the practical Vietnamese too, even as they are presented with a massive foreign policy challenge - China's assertive behaviour in the South China Sea, including over islands and maritime territory claimed by Vietnam. Three years ago, when anti-Chinese sentiments rose over Beijing's assertive actions in the South China Sea, the government moved with alacrity to quell violence that saw more than a dozen Chinese killed in their factories.

These days, with Mr Donald Trump in the White House and Mr Rodrigo Duterte in Malacanang Palace, they are even more careful to finesse their foreign policy. Hanoi is also watching the way Beijing is leaning on South Korean companies to pressure Seoul to cancel its decision allowing the Americans to station the Thaad missile defence system on its soil.

Not that Vietnam could ever be anyone's patsy anyway. An unemotional pragmatism is ingrained in the national pysche. Mr Ngo Dinh Diem, who ruled South Vietnam in the 1950s, once noted that unlike its neighbours Vietnam had fewer temples. That, according to him, was because Vietnamese were too busy tilling the fields to waste energy on superstition.

Likewise, Mr Nayan Chanda, the celebrated Indochina specialist and later editor of the Far Eastern Economic Review, says he got a glimpse of their practical nature days after witnessing the fall of Saigon. Mr Chanda sought the help of his friend Hoang Tung, editor in chief of the Vietnamese daily Nhan Dan and a top apparatchik, to gain access to the abandoned headquarters of the South Vietnamese counterpart of the CIA. But Mr Tung's emphatic "No" surprised Mr Chanda. Before he could remonstrate, though, his friend offered his reasons.

"The war is over," Mr Tung said, "and there is no need to pour salt into the American wounds."

Mr Tung went on to recall that the day after the Dien Bien Phu victory over French colonialists in 1954, Vietnam's founding father Ho Chi Minh had cautioned him to not gloat about the French defeat. "We will need French help to rebuild the country," Ho had told him. Mr Tung was seeing the parallel.

SUPREME REALISTS

Last year, when US leader Barack Obama lifted the remaining restrictions on arms transfers to Vietnam, the wheel had come full circle in Vietnam-US ties, just the way "Uncle" Ho, whose visage stares down from currency notes in the country, would have wanted. Today, despite having some of the best coffee in the world, Ho Chi Minh City and Hanoi are awash with Starbucks outlets, not to speak of large-sized Pizza Hut and McDonald's stores.

The US is the largest customer for the garments, electronics and shoes that Vietnam makes and is likely to remain so for years. Yet, anyone who thinks that even South Vietnamese, traditionally well-disposed towards Americans, would be ready to be a cat's paw for Washington would be making a grave mistake. Vietnam has artfully played off US, Japanese and Indian suspicions of China to get aid and arms, and maintained its tight relationship with Russia, without getting too entangled with any of them. When Mr John Kerry made his farewell visit as US secretary of state in January, the Vietnamese Communist Party chief was in Beijing that week, being received by his counterpart , Mr Xi Jinping, who also is China's President.

That's not to say Vietnam will not defend its interests. Vietnamese construction and fortification on South China Sea islands under its control began long before the Chinese accelerated their island building in these waters three years ago. But, as supreme realists, they also know that after nearly four decades of peace, their fighting edge has dulled. Their war doctrines, honed for another era, are outdated. This is no longer the nation that sent back European colonialists, humiliated a superpower and gave a hiding to the regional hegemon that had set out to "punish" it in 1979 for invading its ally.

Also, other aspects may be weakening the national character. Corruption is widespread and growing, according to anecdotal accounts from multiple sources. On a smaller scale, I watched my driver, ticketed for illegal parking in a busy marketplace in downtown Ho Chi Minh City, get away with a payoff of 200,000 dong, the equivalent of about S$12.50.

More telling, though, was to see my airport limousine hit an old man on one of those low-powered motorbikes that swarm the roads like bees. Sent off balance, the motorbike tumbled, the man cartwheeling on the road. The driver would not listen to entreaties to stop, speeding away with a cold look in her eye.

It wasn't her fault - the man had carelessly drifted into her path - but the incident was nevertheless a bit of a revelation about the lack of fellow feeling. Clearly, Vietnamese have come a long way since they were holed up in tunnels, desperately helping each other survive.

Given the long conflicts they endured, the prolonged nourishment deficit that stunted physical growth, no one would resent seeing Vietnamese emerge into sunshine. Yet, the sense that some of this is happening on the back of greed and selfishness, those most insidious of human failings, are a point to ponder. Perhaps this is the price of living a normal existence.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 24, 2017, with the headline 'When a war turns into a nation'. Print Edition | Subscribe