Shadows and Wind: A View of Modern Vietnamby Robert Templer
In Shadows and Wind, Robert Templer paints a fascinating and fresh picture of a country usually viewed with hazy nostalgia or deep suspicion. Here is Hanoi, an increasingly tense and troubled city approaching its millennium but uncertain of its direction. Here are people emerging from a long wilderness of malnutrition, discovering a new lifestyle of leisure and luxury. And everywhere are the anomalies that burst the bubble of optimism: a vastly expensive luxury hotel sitting empty in an unknown town six hours from an international airport; museums crammed with fake exhibits. And there remains the one-party Communist state, still wrapped in secrecy and corruption, and making for an uneasy bedfellow with the rapacious capitalism it now encourages.Drawing on hundreds of interviews in Vietnam and years of research, Robert Templer has produced the first in-depth examination of the problems facing modern Vietnam. Shadows and Wind is essential reading for anyone who wants to understand the Vietnam that now has emerged from a century of conflict with both foreign powers and with itself.
Far Eastern Economic Review
- Penguin Publishing Group
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Read an Excerpt
Two great wars have passed and the medals now shine only during ceremonies. The great feats of the past have now been catalogued away in libraries where we can view them from a distance and in perspective. As doubt and boredom set in, our appetite for achieving heroic deeds has diminished and in this vacuum we now turn to half-baked entertainment instead. Money now holds the key to success and around me everyone dances around the money axis.
Pham Thi Hoai
The Crystal Messenger
I am too young to have seen the Vietnam War on television or to have read about it at the time. Before I first went to Vietnam in the early 1990s, my views of the country had been formed by American movies and books about the war. I expected a place ravaged by conflict but instead found that the war was no longer a central feature of life. A lack of memories of that time was something I shared with most Vietnamese.
More than half the population of Vietnam was born after 1975 when a demographic bubble swelled up after the uncertainties of previous years. Everyone there has lived with the aftermath of one of the longest and bloodiest conflicts of this century. It ran in many forms from the Revolution of 1945 and nine-year war to free themselves from the French through what Vietnamese call the American War, to the conflict with China in 1979. Vietnamese troops were fighting in Cambodia until 1989. These conflicts have had an enormous impact on Vietnam but for most peoplethey are now history. The concerns of Vietnamese lie in the present and the future.
I arrived in Vietnam in February 1994 to work as a journalist for the French news agency Agence France-Presse. It was a time of optimism and recovery. A week before I arrived the United States lifted its economic embargo that had been in place since the 1950s. Hanoi was bustling with investors who thronged the lobbies of smart new hotels. There was much talk of opportunities on this new business frontier. The government was mending its relations with former adversaries and recovering from the collapse of the Soviet Union. People were getting their first taste of an emerging consumer society and were enjoying new freedoms that had been unthinkable just a few years earlier. There was an overwhelming sense that the future was just going to continue getting better.
The little ironies of life under Vietnam's new economic system -- Market-Leninism, Socialism with Vietnamese characteristics, there are many possible names for this peculiar hybrid of Leninism and rapacious capitalism were of little interest to most Vietnamese. They were mostly too driven by new entrepreneurial imperatives to pay much attention to the dusty world of politics. There was more interest in finding niches that exploited the mix of Mammon and Marxist symbolism.
Luu Quang Quyen practised what was likely to be a dying trade and yet he was making a killing doing it. The artist, who sported the straggly beard, beret and drooping cigarette that are de rigueur in Hanoi's mildly Bohemian circles, owned a workshop that made hammer and sickle signs and other communist emblems. The gold plastic hammer and sickles, pieced together by eight women working at the back of his small shop, sold for about $10 each. That added up to an income for Quyen of around $2,000 a month, a fortune in Vietnam, where for example teachers earn just $30 a month. The graduate of Hanoi's top art college saw his business take off in the early 1990s on the back of a bulk order for army insignia. He soon worked out that there was a market among tourists looking for communist kitsch. `They're beautiful and political. What could be better in Vietnam?' said Quyen, holding up a large shining star. `I don't know why, but tourists really like them,' he said, adopting a look of mock seriousness and puzzlement. `Except our Russian friends, funnily enough.'
Quyen's shop was on a busy stretch of Nguyen Thai Hoc Street, not far from the Temple of Literature, a cluster of old wood-and-tile buildings dedicated to the worship of Confucius that was founded in the eleventh century. Adjacent to the temple is an abandoned lot where the Quoc Tu Giam, a national academy of Confucian training, stood before it was demolished and moved to the new imperial capital of Hue in the nineteenth century. Now the area is surrounded by advertising businesses that use it to paint signs. It is not unusual to see this derelict ground, once the centre of learning and culture in Vietnam, filled with the shrieking scarlet of Coca-Cola billboards propped up to dry against the crumbling brick walls.
Amid the pace and noise of urban life, the dissonance of a once impoverished artist growing rich off Communist emblems or a symbol of capitalist America intruding into the heart of Vietnamese culture seemed to hit foreigners much more vividly than Vietnamese. Few local people had the time or urge to ponder these incongruous images. Most Vietnamese simply felt that their lives were much better since the government had shed the heaviest baggage of Marxist-Leninism and abandoned central planning. Reforms had broken down many social and economic barriers and given more people the right to do what were once privileges for a political élite. People, or at least the growing number with some money, could now travel at home and abroad, they could open businesses, educate their children at private schools and universities, visit their choice of doctor and buy more of what they want.
The envelope of personal space in which they could read, write, worship, perform or create had expanded by degrees. No longer completely at the service of the state and obliged to produce a relentless optimistic view of their country, artists and writers could produce more genuinely affecting, even melancholy work. `One of the biggest changes,' said a Vietnamese painter, `is that now we are actually allowed to be sad.'
Economic reforms, known in Vietnam as Doi Moi or `renovation,' had opened up some doors of opportunity and shortened the reach of some state powers. Officially Doi Moi began in 1986 at the Sixth Communist Party Congress. Its origins go back earlier, even to the late 1960s when officials began to question the efficacy of central planning and offer market alternatives. But the changes introduced after 1986 had not been reversed like earlier experiments with the economic market and their impact had created an aura of hope in a country once crippled with disillusionment.
Everything was open to `renovation' and the revolutionary changes it brought. Doi Moi made its mark on literature and movies, sex and food. `People even talk about the "Doi Moi" of personal relationships, of marriages,' grumbled the writer Pham Thi Hoai, who is often described as a young star of `Doi Moi literature'. But there really was a `renovation' of the personal sphere. The wheels of life began to spin faster and they meshed less often with the controlling gears of the state. A vast bureaucracy that once aspired to monitor the lives of millions of people no longer cared as much what they did as long as they stayed out of politics.
But under the glinting surface of the new Vietnam was the old darker country, a place of poverty and repression. Reforms had changed the lives of those in the cities but had not always improved the situation in the countryside where 80 per cent of people lived. Hanoi went in just a few years from being a dusty and slow city, dimly lit at night, to a bustling, glitzy place, draped in neon and throbbing with commerce. However, just a few miles outside the city centre were villages that had seen few benefits of reform.
The optimism of the early 1990s proved short-lived and indeed it had evaporated when I left Vietnam after three years. Reforms had become bogged down in the incessant debate over how much Vietnam should open up. Expectations, raised by a decade of economic growth, had soared beyond what the government was willing to allow. Investors had soured on the country, put off by corruption, bureaucracy and the myopic view of officials. Many aspects of cultural and political openness that appeared after 1986 had been reversed, creating a climate of disappointment and impatience.
I packed up to leave the day before Tet, the Vietnamese new year, in February 1997. Everyone was busy with the final preparations for the holiday. Outside my house in the centre of Hanoi, a crowd of flower sellers had formed an impromptu market. Hanoi is drained of colour at that time of the year when the constant drizzle forms a scrim that creates a diffuse world of greys and browns. But this was a cheerful scene, splashed with colour, noisy and fragrant. Unfortunately a harder reality intruded and provided what will be for me an enduring image of Vietnam, a thin slice of life that reflects a wider problem.
A young man, dressed in the green trousers and shirt and pith helmet worn by farmers, cycled up with two panniers filled with watermelons and stood waiting for customers. Minutes later he was followed by two policemen on a sky-blue motorbike with a sidecar After bellowing orders for the crowd to disperse, they singled out the man with the watermelons and ordered him to load one of his panniers into the sidecar. He protested, so one of the policemen struck him hard on the face in a sudden blow that sent a ripple of shock through the crowd. The officers looked around at the others with expressions that challenged anyone else to dispute their power and then roared off with one of the baskets of watermelons. The man was left struggling with his unbalanced bicycle, which soon overturned in the road, spilling the remaining melons into the gutter as the ceaseless, hooting traffic swerved to avoid them. The young man bit his lip and pulled his helmet down over his face to hide emerging tears of frustration as he scrabbled around collecting his fruit. He had lost his pannier and half of the money that he was saving for Tet. He had pedalled his heavy load for three hours to sell the fruit in the city. There was no avenue for redress. This was just one of thousands of petty injustices inflicted every day by the police and other servants of the state.
When these incidents pile up, they leave a dull aching sense of the problems in Vietnam that cannot be ignored. It was no longer possible to brush over the failure to deal with many of the enduring economic, political and cultural constraints in a country where the relationship between the state and the individual was still so unbalanced. Unlike the nations of Eastern Europe, Vietnam has not tried to put in place the atmosphere of openness that was needed to tackle these issues. Instead it remains an often intolerant one-party state, one of just five Communist nations left.
This is not a book that aims to explain Vietnamese people; they are too diverse and complex to be compressed in that way. It is an attempt to examine some of the strains of life in contemporary Vietnam the important issues facing a government that clings tenaciously to power and a people who aspire for more than their rulers can offer. I was much influenced by conversations with Vietnamese friends who steered me towards areas often outside the conventional interests and demands of my work as a foreign correspondent. The problems examined here corruption and the difficulties of urban life, a stagnant political culture, freedom of speech and religion, the rising threat of AIDS, an emerging youth culture and the overseas Vietnamese are all among the most pressing issues, throwing up debates at all levels of society.
The Vietnamese government devotes some effort to restricting the activities of foreign correspondents. Offices are monitored, Vietnamese staff harassed and intimidated. Foreign reporters must get permission to travel and are supposed to give five days notice if they wish to cover a news event, an impossible demand. Requests to travel to an outlying province were frequently dismissed with a curt word that all officials there were too busy to see anyone. It was an explanation that never meshed well with the somnolent lives of most bureaucrats. When interviewing officials, particularly senior members of the government, journalists were obliged to send in their questions in advance. Any found distasteful were simply ignored; the others were often answered in writing, phrased in such wooden language that they were indecipherable. There were also many officials who did their utmost to help and were open about the problems they faced; unfortunately they sometimes suffered for this.
Working in this environment means it was often impossible to identify individual sources of information. It was also very difficult to pin down particular officials associated with a policy; all decisions were presented as if they were the unanimous word of all parts of the government. In reality there were many wide fissures but it can be tough to isolate where exactly they lay so it is difficult to avoid referring to the government and the Communist Party as if they were completely monolithic institutions.
To go outside those areas hemmed in by the official line and expand a view of the country beyond that put out by people who are authorised to talk to foreigners, I have used a wide range of documentary sources ranging from reports in the official press and leaked documents to banned novels and poetry. Fiction in countries like Vietnam often proves a richer source of information and more closely reflects much public opinion than the government-controlled media that all too often has been the sole source for so many foreign books on Vietnam.
In the summer of 1997, the shaky foundations of Asia's economic growth began to give way, starting with revelations of the perilous state of Thailand's banks. A growing feeling of insecurity sent currencies and stock markets plummeting. It soon spread across the region, hitting Malaysia, Indonesia and South Korea. Even the safe havens of Singapore and Hong Kong suffered sickening lurches in their markets. Vietnam was slow to feel the pain as it did not have a traded currency or a stock market, but it too began to experience a marked decline in foreign investment. Soon the whole basis of the so-called Asian miracle the decades of extraordinary economic growth was under question. Authoritarian governments had once been justified because they had brought prosperity. The problems of corruption and the tangled webs of `business contacts' had been brushed aside because they oiled the wheels of commerce. Now the conventional wisdom turned against these ideas. The new prescription for a prosperous region was open government and full accountability.
This was not the remedy sought by the Vietnamese Communist Party. The country's reforms had already been drifting as the leadership bickered, but at the end of 1997, the Party elected a conservative general, Le Kha Phieu, to the top post of General Secretary. He was a dedicated Party man who had climbed the ranks as a political commissar in the army. With his suspicion of the outside world, he represented a part of the ruling élite who feared their power would be eroded if they opened their country further. His position was supposedly balanced by a prime minister and a president who were optimistically tagged as reformers, but Phieu's appointment had a deadening impact. It signalled another step backwards, another diversion from the road most Vietnamese wished to travel.
Meet the Author
After graduating from Cambridge University Robert Templer worked in Taiwan, Hong Kong, and Afghanistan. A regular contributor to the Guardian and Sunday Telegraph (London), he is a recipient of the prestigious Soros Fellowship and now teaches at the University of California at Berkeley.
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