The glass ceiling for women in Vietnam, to me, is as high as the sky for most.
Recent stories about sexual assault and other violent crimes against young girls and women not only caught the public attention but also gave observers glimpses of a patriarchal society which has remained – for centuries – the same in term of gender equality.
On May 28, 2018, Phụ Nữ (Women) newspaper published an online story, detailing a groping incident three days before, where the victim was one of the biggest music stars in Vietnam, Mỹ Tâm. As one of the most beloved pop singers in the country, known to many of her fans as the Queen of Ballads, Mỹ Tâm probably has one of the largest fan bases, if not the largest.
But none of that great fame was able to protect her from being a victim of sexual assault.
To add insult to injuries, Mỹ Tâm was assaulted while performing on stage at a private event in front of the whole audience, yet all she could do was to retreat to the backstage.
No one came to assist her; no one confronted the perpetrator who was mentioned in the article as an “important official.” The only kind gesture to show some sympathy for Mỹ Tâm was the fact that someone dared to make a report to the press.
It is still a big taboo for women who accuse men of sexual harassment and assault in a country like Vietnam because there would always be the fear that the public may not be sympathetic toward the victims.
It is true that when compares to other East Asian countries like its neighboring Japan, Vietnamese society shows signs that it is catching on to the #MeToo movement where people publicly support the victims.
The recent alleged rape allegations made by an intern at Tuổi Trẻ newspaper helped demonstrated this point.
But in a culture where, for thousands of years, women have been taught and praised for being able to keep quiet of their sufferings while making sacrifices for the sake of others, victim-blaming in most cases should come as no surprise.
People may not defend the perpetrators, but they will judge the women if they don’t fit the “proper” Vietnamese woman standard.
On April 27, 2018, dancer Phạm Lịch publicly alleged rocker Phạm Anh Khoa had made improper sexual advances at her. About a week later, another female dancer Nga My and an unnamed stylist also made public allegations against Pham Anh Khoa for sexual misconducts. And while Khoa eventually apologized for his behaviors on May 15, 2018, he only did so after UNFPA dropped him as one of its goodwill ambassadors, his appearances on TV were canceled, and a rock concert in Hochiminh City pulled the plug on him.
The public backlash against Khoa began after an NGO that works to promote gender equality in Vietnam, CSAGA, organized an event for him to explain his side of the story.
People quickly pointed out that CSAGA was given Khoa a platform to normalize improper and illegal behaviors against women because he was not acknowledging any faults, he was explaining that his conducts were “industry standards.” Phạm Lịch recently told reporters that she could not find any work for the past month after making her allegations against Khoa public. It is not too far-fetched to infer that she is likely being punished by the industry for breaking the silence on sexual abuse.
Both Khoa and CSAGA apologized immediately after the backlash, but with his half-hearted attempt to explain himself, Khoa inadvertently opened the pandora box and revealed a culture of subtle victim-blaming in Vietnam.
Such a culture became even more vividly portrayed just last week when a nude model alleged that a famous artist had raped her at work. Many commentators online, including democracy activists and lawyers, shifted the burden of proof to the alleged victim and insisted that she must prove she had forcibly fought back during her ordeal or it would not be rape.
No means no simply was not enough.
The victim’s credibility was questioned, and her job as a nude model took away a significant portion of public sympathy. People, women included, scoffed at her story when information surfaced that the perpetrator allegedly had used a condom.
Just this week, the case of alleged child abuse against Minh Tiệp, a sports newscaster at the national television broadcasting company VTV shows how victim-blaming extends to cases involving teenage girls as well.
When first asked about the alleged abuse, Minh Tiệp used the media to paint the victim, his 15-year-old sister-in-law, as a “bad girl.” She was, according to him, someone who has been dating as early as in 6th grade and always talked back at him and his wife, her older sister, while they were trying to teach her right from wrong.
A member of Vietnam’s National Assembly – Phạm Tất Thắng – played down the case as “one of those that should be dealt with by the family,” even after the father of the teenager told newspapers that Minh Tiệp slapped his daughter. Mr. Pham is a Vietnamese congressperson who belongs to a committee which deals with culture, education, women, children, and teenagers matters.
These stories should not come as surprises once you realized that they all attempted to portray the victims as being “improper.”
Because the “proper” Vietnamese woman only dresses and speaks in an approved manner, she will not work certain jobs, and above all, she endures her sufferings for the sake of others. She will not bring attention to herself and definitely keeps quiet about her injuries and her pains if they would bring shame to her family.
This proper woman thus is a virtuous one who would sacrifice all that she is for the well-being of her loved ones, and for that, she has been idealized, worshipped and expected to be placed on a pedestal throughout Vietnamese history for future generations of girls and young women to follow.
We were taught folklores like Quan Âm Thị Kính, a woman who was being misunderstood all her life, wrongfully accused of crimes she never committed and yet she never tried to explain herself. She would keep her mouth shut and endured the injustice until the day she died, and only after death that her name was cleared.
Then there was the story of Thiếu phụ Nam Xương, a lady wrongfully accused of infidelity by her husband who left for military service and returned home years later. Again, just like Thị Kính, talking back and explaining herself were not the options. And like the other story, our heroine could only use death to prove her innocence, so she killed herself.
Being demurred, forcing oneself to bite her tongue instead of speaking up, and learning the ability to suffer in silence and not complaining are virtues that aspiring young girl was told to keep.
I grew up in such a society for the first 12 years of my life, and despite being raised by parents who would raise other people’s eyebrows for the way they let me speak my mind and shout back at them when I think they were wrong, I had mastered those virtues by the age of 5. I was often seen as a quiet girl, sitting properly and politely with a half smile on her face, whose voice was rarely heard when visiting homes of my parents’ friends. I had convinced myself then, that conforming to societal norms would be the best and easiest way to save myself and my parents from unnecessary headaches.
For the next twenty years though, my life drastically changed as my family immigrated and I was growing up in the West, adapting to a new set of values. I have grown up to become a Westernized woman, one that my parents’ old friends from Vietnam could no longer recognize as the same quiet and demurred child they have met back in the home country.
But who could believe that it only took less than 15 months of living in the old settings among Vietnamese people to morph my 30’s something-year-old self back to my pre-teen’s personality?
I work in the NGO sector, and one would have thought that I must be among comrades who promote the same values as mine – gender equality included – but I have found that I needed to put in twice the efforts compared to my male counterparts in most things that I do. I always felt the need to prove my self-worth to others, and I was constantly looking for approval. Even in my field of work – where people often believe they are somewhat more progressive than the rest of society – it still seems as if the “seats reserved at the table” are only offered to women who fit the “proper” descriptions.
So I bit my tongue instead of speaking back and letting others know how I felt, how I did not agree with them, and how I thought that they were wrong. I sacrificed my happiness to keep others happy. I had changed so much that I could not recognize myself when I stared at the woman in the mirror on the wall one day in the middle of Southeast Asia, and I broke down, completely.
If life was this difficult for me – a woman with an advanced degree from the West – imagine how it would be for those who have fewer opportunities and those who never had the chance to live outside of Vietnam.
While I was lucky to get out of that environment to save myself a trip to the emergency room for depression treatment, it dawned on me how high the glass ceiling is for most Vietnamese women. The #MeToo movement has brought many important issues about women’s rights to the discussion table in Vietnam, and I hope gender equality will now receive the attention it deserves.
Farmer’s Death Sentence Upheld On Appeal: New Climax For Land Dispute In Vietnam?
The Social Republic of Vietnam is known to be notorious for its land management system since the day of its inception.
‘People’s ownership of land,’ whilst sounds misleadingly progressive, has never meant spatial justice for Vietnamese citizens nor intended to guarantee national housing security. Government leaders, alongside with pro-government scholars, often and explicitly, assert that the so-called ‘People’s ownership of land’ is a necessary evil to preserve economic growth.
Under this system, the local government can act as a proxy (or to lend support) to investors, corporations and impose price controls with regards to buying land and property from ordinary citizens for commercial and/or industrial purposes, without the application of any market mechanism. Indeed, the system does accelerate the land-acquisition process, but it also entails corruption, nepotism, and large-scale internal displacement. Unsurprisingly, in 2017, after decades of reforms, 70% of all national administrative complaints and accusations are still land-related.
And again, the story of unresolved land dispute conflicts repeated in Dang Van Hien case.
Long Son Commercial and Investment Company (Long Son), an investor granted the right of using land by the provincial authorities of Dak Nong, decided that it was time to carry out an all-in attack on any farmer who involved in land disputes with Long Son and was not willing to comply with its eviction demands.
It is also noteworthy that these long-lived conflicts between the company and the involved farmers, including defendants Dang Van Hien, Ninh Viet Binh, Ha Van Truong, have all been reported to the competent officialdom, but the farmers only received silence back.
The position of the local government, until now, is still unknown. However, it was these eight years of constant terror tactics and threats made by Long Son toward the farmers, reportedly, that had led to the tragic ending of three deaths and several other injuries in October 2016.
On October 23, 2016, armed with ‘primitive weapons’ and several bulldozers, over thirty workers of Long Son Company advanced into the farms on the disputed lands, leveled half thousands of cash crops and surrounded the farmer’ houses in groups.
The farmers then responded with their improvised firearms. Dang Van Hien fired his gun in the air with the hope of dismissing the crowd. The attempt was unsuccessful and triggered further escalation from Long Son’s employees with rocks and bulldozers approaching. Desperate and probably was also in fear, in the end, Hien and Binh shot aimlessly into the group of workers even after they turned around and ran away. Three persons were killed and 13 others injured.
In the first trial by the lower court earlier this January, when the court announced the verdict that Hien received the death sentence for the murders, the attendees turned the courthouse into chaos. Unfortunately, the court of appeal has recently agreed with the first-instance court and upheld the judgment. And again, the villagers from Hien’s neighborhood reacted with outpouring outrage, and in a sense, out of despair right at the court’s doorsteps.
Legalwise, the court’s decision now faces widespread criticism from lawyers and independent scholars where most of them concur that the punishment for Hien is too harsh and unnecessary. It was the responsibility of Long Son, whose actions in the past eight years were both unlawful and provoking, which have caused the farmer’s retaliatory measures. Some are also pressing on the fact that both the trial and appellate courts have failed to consider the numerous mitigating factors in favour of Hien under Vietnam’s Penal Code. These include the fact that Hien voluntarily turned himself in and he and his family have made financial reparation to the victim’s families.
Politically speaking, the court seems to be, arguably, insensitive about the nature of the case. Land disputes have been and will continue to be the most problematic social conflict in Vietnam, and an unconvinced judgment like this will only consolidate public notion on the relationship between interest groups, crony capitalists, and the government.
On the other hand, some believe the judgment is deliberative. Activists contend that the judgment is a signal to landowners and dissidents alike, warning them that any conduct deemed to be challenging to the ultimate authority of the government in distributing land and assigning land purposes will never be tolerated in Vietnam.
Nevertheless, if the President of the Socialist Republic of Vietnam, Tran Dai Quang, refuses to grant Dang Van Hien a reprieve this week and the competent judicial branches also fail to request a reconsideration of the case by compelling a trial by cassation, Hien could very soon be the first farmer getting executed due to a land dispute in the history of the Communist Party’s ruling in the country. And that would be a very worrying sign for the deterioration of land administration under the current regime.
To Tell or Not To Tell Them About My Personal Assets: A General Secretary’s Dilemma
In a surprising move right before the 7th Party Central Committee plenary meeting, a group of Vietnamese Communist Party (VCP) members and citizens have publicly demanded – in a letter – that the General Secretary, Nguyễn Phú Trọng, discloses his personal assets in according with the VCP’s own rules.
The demand was quickly spread on social media in Vietnam in the past three days.
The plenary meeting, which commences on Monday, May 7, 2018, in Vietnam, concentrates on discussions involving the integrity, capacity, and merits of the Party’s strategic personnel.
The timing of both the letter and the plenary meeting is at the high of the anti-graft campaign initiated by the Party’s chief in the past two years, right after his power was successfully consolidated at the last Party’s Congress in 2016.
For a long time, the question concerning personal assets of Party’s leaders and high officials has been on the mind of the people in Vietnam where corruption is high.
But this is probably the first time that a group of Party’s members publicly asking the Head of the Party to be transparent about his own assets and declare them.
Mr. Trọng, of course, could keep silent and does not have to respond to the letter.
Dr. Nguyễn Quang A, a long-time dissident intellect and one of the signatories of this letter, is not optimistic either: “I believe it is highly probable that he would not respond at all”.
While Trọng could continue to stay in his safe zone and only respond to the public and the press in pre-arranged conferences as he has done in the past, this time, there are three important reasons for him to consider responding to this written demand from his own comrades.
Trọng should have his assets declaration form ready because the laws required him to do so.
Vietnam’s laws required that officials – which include the VCP leaders – have to prepare an annual assets declaration form.
Accordingly, “officials are defined as Vietnamese citizens who are either elected, appointed, or approved to hold a position or title, according to their terms in the VCP’s system.” – (Article 4, Vietnam Law on Cadres and Civil Servants).
Trọng is not only the General Secretary, he is also a current member of the National Assembly.
Vietnam’s laws then also require that all candidates running for the National Assembly have to submit assets declaration forms prior to the election.
This is done in according to the 2012 amendments to the Law on Preventing Corruption.
If Trọng refuses, he indirectly declares he is above not only the law but the Party as well.
As the General Secretary who famously declares: “the Constitution (of Vietnam) is the most important legal document after the VCP’s Manifesto,” Trọng must act according to the Secretariat of the VCP’s Decision 99/QD-TW, issued on October 3, 2017, where it clearly states that the assets of all Party’s leaders “must be public for the people to know.”
One must understand the crucial role of the Secretariat in the VCP and how powerful this body is to appreciate Decision 99/QD-TW. According to the VCP’s rules, this is the body which governs the daily operation of the Party. Mr. Trọng is also a member of the Secretariat.
If he refuses to comply with the Secretariat’s decision, then he has violated the core principle of the Communist Party: centralized democracy. The VCP operates in a system where the minority must obey the majority; subordinates must obey upper management; an individual must obey the organization.
Thus, while an individual may disagree with a decision of the Party, that individual must still “strictly complies”.
As a person who dedicates his life to sustain the Party, Mr. Trọng must know that this principle decides the VCP’s survival. If he doesn’t respect it, then he has put himself above the Party.
No one will believe Trọng is committed to fighting corruption when he refuses to be transparent about his own assets.
Transparency International ranked Vietnam as the second most corrupted country in Asia after India in March 2017.
The VCP’s chief has initiated an ambitious campaign against corruption in the past two years, a Vietnamese version of Xi Jinping’s “killing tigers, swatting flies.”
Earlier this year, he reaffirmed such commitment to weed out corruption at all levels by famously declared there would be “no off-limit zones” for the campaign.
The slogan “Burn the Furnace” became well-known to many Vietnamese, where corrupted officials are seen as “wood logs” ready to be thrown into the fire.
Trinh Xuan Thanh – a more famous “wood log” who was sentenced to life in prison earlier this year – gained international attention when German police alleged that Vietnamese secret services had kidnapped Thanh in broad daylight in the middle of Berlin last summer.
Vietnam insisted that Thanh came back to Vietnam voluntarily to turn himself in.
While the international community may think that repairing a deteriorating diplomatic relationship with Germany is crucial for Vietnam, such task is still secondary when compares to maintaining the VCP’s legitimacy with its own people.
The public in Vietnam is clearly divided over Trinh Xuan Thanh’s case.
One of the main reason for those who support the government’s conducts – including the alleged kidnapping – in such matter is because they want to believe in the commitment of the Party and of Mr. Trọng in fighting against corruption.
But their belief does not come blindly.
An important question has been lurking among the public in Vietnam – and yet no one has dared to raise it – was whether Trọng has ever committed corruption himself and if that is the case, then would he be prosecuted as well?
An even more important question concerns over the legitimacy of this “Burn the Furnace” campaign initiated by Trọng. Is he really committed to fighting against corruption or is he using such a campaign to target and eliminate other factions within the VCP?
For now, most people in Vietnam probably would not go that far to question Trọng’s intention over his anti-graft campaign, but they do want to know whether he is a “clean” official.
And for this, Trọng would need to be transparent about his own assets by providing to the public his assets declaration form according to laws.
Social activist Nguyễn Anh Tuấn comments, “whether Mr. Trọng is transparent about his own assets will say a lot about the legitimacy of the anti-corruption campaign he has initiated”.
“If he is transparent about his assets, then it is great because his subordinates would have no excuse to delay declaring their own. The public and the press will have some basis for monitoring officials”.
“On the contrary, if he ignores the people’s request this time, then they have reasons to question his commitment to fighting corruption”.
North / South
- The Vietnamese would like to thank the author, Mr. Will Nguyen, who has given us permission to republish his article, North/South, which was first published in New Naratif.
April 30, 2018|I’ve always been into the idea of counterparts—“separate but equal”, to borrow the politically dangerous phrase. Captain Planet, Sailor Moon, The Mighty Morphin’ Power Rangers—these shows were always particular favourites of mine as a child because each contained an episode or arc where analogues to the good guys arose: Captain Pollution and his team of toxic “planeteers”, the Four Sisters of the Black Moon, or the Dark Rangers. I find the inherent sense of balance in counterparts intensely satisfying, like yin-yang writ large.
As I’ve grown older, this affinity for correlates extended to international politics, in particular, ideologically-opposed, directionally-split countries, i.e. North and South Korea, or East and West Germany.
The time when the modern Vietnamese nation-state existed as two separate entities naturally possesses a particular gravity in my mind, as I’m sure it does in the minds of many overseas Vietnamese. After all, that pair’s existence, its mutual antagonism, and one’s annihilation of the other is single-handedly responsible for the dispersal of Vietnamese people across the globe, a burst of human photons in one of many collisions between communism and anti-communism.
I was born in America; unbeknownst to me at the time, all the Vietnamese I ever encountered were former citizens of the Republic of Vietnam (i.e. South Vietnam) or as I’d known it, Vietnam. There was no alternative, no other. The yellow flag with three red stripes were ubiquitous and the only representation of Vietnam I knew.
The “right” and “wrong” anthem
Encarta Encyclopedia 97 provided me the first hint of another truth, of another “Vietnam” – the “evil” one, I would quickly learn. I remember doing a project in fifth grade which required us to produce a “country profile” on a nation of our choosing. I referred to the CD-ROM encyclopedia and, without giving it much thought, copied out the red flag with yellow star, Vietnam’s official flag as listed within the country’s entry.
My grandmother was the first to “correct” me, scolding me as Encarta played “Tiến Quân Ca”, the national anthem of North Vietnam from 1945-1975, and after the war, the official one of all Vietnam. That was not the “real” anthem, she told me. The information in that article was “wrong”. When I asked her what the real anthem was, she hummed “Tiếng Gọi Công Dân” – the national anthem of South Vietnam from 1948–1975 – a tune I was much more familiar with.
As I finished up my project, I asked my mother to look over my work. What she did, whether intentional or not, resounds with me to this day. Rather than make me remove my drawing of the yellow-starred red flag, she had me draw South Vietnam’s red-striped yellow flag next to it, presenting both flags as equally valid.
It took me at least another two decades to realise this, but my mother’s simple gesture was both an extremely powerful teaching moment and a representation of my intellectual angst with the overseas Vietnamese identity. It was my first taste of the concept of contradictory but co-existing truths.
Growing up, I never gave that distant land of Vietnam too much thought; the framework for that place and its people had been set up for me. We (the southerners) were the good guys; they (the northerners) were the bad. Everything we said was true; everything they said was lies. I never wondered why we were the ones living in another country.
College, membership in an active Vietnamese student association, and a kind-hearted Vietnamese professor ushered in a new era of knowledge for me. I began taking my first steps toward balance, and further steps towards the truth… or rather, truths.
North to South
In Vietnam, “nam tiến”, literally meaning “march to the south”, refers to the expansion of Vietnam southwards, from the Red River Delta down to the Mekong River Delta. This development shapes Vietnam’s long-standing stereotypes between northerners and southerners. Contrary to people who like to compare the shape of Vietnam to a bamboo yoke or the letter ‘S’, I like to think of the state in more metaphysical terms: a past-oriented north that flows to a future-oriented south.
The Red River Delta is held up as the “birthplace” of Vietnam, the traditional seat of culture and politics. The northern region and its people are perceived as conservative, ascetic, and prone to resource and food shortages. This has bred a northern character that prizes resilience, indirect communication, the concept of “face” (linked to the concept of one’s honour and prestige), and a muted cuisine that uses fewer herbs and spices.
As the state advanced into Cham and Khmer territory, a separate centre of power began developing in the south, attracting those drawn to “frontier” life and a multi-cultured existence. By virtue of self-selection, Vietnam’s expansion south drew the free-wheeling, the forward-looking, the liberal, the cosmopolitan. The south was more abundant in food and resources; Saigon – formerly known by its Khmer name Prey Nokor and currently by its Sino-Vietnamese name Ho Chi Minh City – drew traders from the world over, and life was on the whole, easier and more prosperous.
These historical circumstances have defined what it means to be a southerner: we speak with a relaxed drawl and in a straightforward manner, we cook flavourful, vivacious, eclectic dishes, and we possess a progressive, open outlook that embraces global trends. It was no surprise that the south Vietnamese eagerly adopted American dress, customs, and culture during the 1950s – 1970s.
But it isn’t just a matter of character traits and cuisine; regionalism in its extreme form has repeatedly led to Vietnamese killing Vietnamese. Historian Huy Duc describes Vietnam as a home “whose walls are made of flesh and blood”. It’s not just a metaphor.
North versus South
A civil war in the 17th century proved to be an eerie foreshadowing of events three centuries later. The north and the south were split into two separate polities: “Đàng Ngoài” and “Đàng Trong”, literally the “outside” and the “inside”. The Trinh lords ruled over the north, the Nguyen lords the south. In 1802, the southern Nguyen lords ultimately triumphed over their northern Trinh rivals, uniting the country under its Southern aegis. Inklings of this contentious period still remain in our language: to this day, Vietnamese still say they are going “out” to Hanoi and “into” Saigon.
The 20th-century civil war between North and South was a reverse iteration. The 1954 Geneva Accords split Vietnam into directional counterparts once more – a communist north versus a democratic south – with nationwide elections set to unify the country in two years’ time. Ho Chi Minh was predicted to win. Knowing this, Ngo Dinh Diem declared the formation of an independent southern republic that technically was not signatory to the Geneva Accords and thus un-beholden. The United States supported the non-communist South Vietnamese government, pouring in financial aid. The northern victory in the Vietnam War in 1975 unified the country once more, but different perspectives persist. Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 – the day the People’s Army of Vietnam and the Viet Cong captured Saigon – is described either as a liberation or an invasion.
Depending on who you talk to, 30 April 1975 is described either as a liberation or an invasion
My mother regularly reminds me I’m from the south. When I first began taking Vietnamese language classes in college and started pronouncing my v’s, qu’s, and final consonant n’s, she and my eldest aunt jested that I’d “become a northerner”. In class, I quickly learned that much of the Vietnamese I spoke at home was heavily marked by southern vocabulary used pre-1975. The enormous amount of South Vietnamese who had transplanted themselves in the 1970s and 1980s had led to the creation of communities that were essentially living time capsules.
The southernness of my spoken Vietnamese comes and goes depending on how inebriated I am, but the pride is palpable. On the first day of my advanced Vietnamese class at the College of Humanities and Social Sciences in Ho Chi Minh City in 2012, the professor asked me where I was from – “Will là người gì?”
Without thinking, I responded, “Will là người nam (I’m a Southerner).”
Taken aback but pleasantly surprised, the professor said that, in her 30 years of teaching, she’d never heard such a response from a “foreign-born”. I quickly corrected myself – “Will là người Mỹ gốc Việt (I’m a Vietnamese-American)” – but the identity ambiguity persists.
My investigation of the history between the north and south often involved prodding fellow southerners with sensitive topics. Once, I asked my Vietnamese professor in college in the United States about one of the war’s alternate names in Vietnam – “Chiến tranh chống Mỹ cứu nước (The war to resist America and save the nation)” – which heavily implied that we southern Vietnamese were imperialist collaborators. (For the record, the first South Vietnamese president, Ngo Dinh Diem, and his brother, Ngo Dinh Nhu, were both assassinated with tacit American support for not being compliant enough.) It was a mind-blowing experience to later see the phrase in propaganda posters on the streets of Saigon.
I had, of course, to thoroughly research the other side as well; I read numerous books and watched countless interviews from individuals on the Communist side, both those based in Hanoi as well as those hidden away in the jungles of South Vietnam.
On my first trip to Vietnam in the summer of 2007, I took liberties during my research project on gay culture in Saigon to randomly ask locals their thoughts on the war, on life post-1975, on their current government.
“These colorful billboards… on every corner. They’re so strange, aren’t they?” That was how I broached the topic with the motorcycle drivers. Casual. Open-ended. The propaganda signs, with their blocky, solid-colored, Soviet-style imagery, were a genuine curiosity to me. They were government-sanctioned, overtly political signs, exalting the Communist Party’s leadership in history, in the South’s “liberation”, in developing a “modern”, civilised Vietnam. And they were literally everywhere. As we drove by the myriad signs peppered around the city, I would use the occasion to ask the moto-drivers their opinions of the political status quo.
“They’re a bunch of liars.”
“They don’t really care about the people.”
As one driver zoomed past a particularly large mansion, he told me that it was the residence of a prominent Communist Party member. There was a consistent sense of cynicism among these working class motorists.
An older, southern woman’s story was particularly interesting, as she was old enough to have experienced the “liberation” and the years that followed. I met her through a family friend of my mother’s. (My mother had been terrified for my safety; I was the first family member to return to Vietnam since they fled, and I would be traveling completely alone as the child of a “collaborating” family.)
Upon arriving at the house, I was impressed by how large and modern it was. It had granite countertops, hardwood floors, and classic, imposing cherrywood furniture. This was luxury by Vietnamese standards; with at least four motorcycles sitting in the spacious courtyard, it was clear this family was relatively well off.
Auntie and I were sitting in the living room having a casual chat about our families, when the conversation turned to what life was like immediately after 30 April 1975.
At this point, she got up to close all the doors and windows, drawing the curtains. She whispered for the rest of the conversation. Her family had been businesspeople during the Republican era, accumulating a good deal of wealth. After the Communists came to town, local party members, aware of the family’s affluence, found an excuse to confiscate the house. It was impossible to dispute the move, so the family decided to work within the new system, establishing enough political connections to eventually reclaim the house within a decade or so. There was a healthy dose of disdain for the powers-that-be in her stories, but her family’s resilience, tenacity, and resourcefulness overshadowed all else for me. It was an injustice corrected through cunning manipulation of an alien political system. That she was still paranoid about being overheard 20 years later speaks volumes of the pervasive and oppressive surveillance state the Vietnamese live under.
A different perspective came in the form of a Northern shopkeep at a propaganda poster shop. She’d noticed my many visits to her shop, and figuring out that I was Việt Kiều (overseas Vietnamese), took the initiative to engage me in conversation about history and politics.
I was taken aback but excited by her friendliness and eagerness to help me understand Vietnam. She told me to ask her anything I wanted. Aware that I was part of a Southern family that had fled after the war, she knew I’d been served a healthy dose of skepticism regarding Communism and the current political regime, and tried her best to argue for the other side. She’d moved to Ho Chi Minh City, she said, after its liberation.
“When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive”
I got straight to the prickly issues. Why had so many people from the South fled? What of the re-education camps? How can the powers-that-be call the current system “democratic” when there’s only one party in charge?
“People fled because they feared retribution,” she said. “When you work against the victors, you are naturally apprehensive when they arrive.”
The re-education camps, she went to on say, were not all that bad: “The ones I visited even had nice gardens and flower beds. And in any case, you have to understand the situation that the new government was in. You had an entire population grow up under an enemy’s regime. When you come to power, you have to make sure this group cooperates, you have to make sure this group is educated in the ways of the new regime.”
Her answers started to waver, though, when it came to the current “democratic” system. “We have elections. We have voting. We have representatives who form a national assembly,” she said.
“Yeah, but all that stuff doesn’t really matter when you can only pick representatives from one party,” I argued back. “If everyone is forced to follow the same ideology, the same ideas, choice is a moot point. True democracy involves multiple parties.” She disagreed, insisting that because the organs existed, democracy existed in Vietnam.
Conviction and democracy
To be sure, truth is a sensitive topic on both sides; I’d had just grown up entrenched in the anti-communist camp rather than the anti-capitalist one. Various attempts to remedy the situation have led to some rather awkward moments. I remember a conversation between my aunt and my mother where my mother said she had to give credit to the Communist government for keeping the country together and growing the economy at an appreciable clip, but my aunt quickly retorted that my uncle – who had served in the South Vietnamese army – would have maimed her if he heard her talking like that.
I’m still researching today, adopting a less polarised, more nuanced approach to the war and its competing ideologies than perhaps my mother would like. During a BBC interview, southerner Nguyen Thi Binh, former foreign minister of the Provisional Revolutionary Government of the Republic of South Vietnam and prominent Communist figure at the Paris Peace Accords, was asked for her thoughts on Vietnamese dissidents and their desire for a better nation. She retorted: “How are they any different from me?”
The dichotomy of “good versus evil” had been so deeply ingrained in the narratives of north and south that, until I heard that comment, I’d never really thought of it that way. These people, these Communists, laid down their lives for their ideals, for their country, and perhaps most meaningfully, for their countrymen. Can, or should, we cynically believe that those who fought on the northern side sacrificed the spring of their lives, and sometimes their lives altogether, simply to gain power at the expense of their fellow Vietnamese?
What, on the other hand, was the South fighting for? Trudging through American history books, one would be hard-pressed to find any real, fleshed-out answer beyond “the domino theory”, a theory that argued that the fall of one country to Communism would lead to a domino effect among its neighbours. Reading such material, it was hard not to buy into the (Hanoian) idea that South Vietnam was a propped-up American creation. In fact, the more I researched, the more I realised that it was a deep sense of ambivalence among the southern population that lead to South Vietnam’s embarrassingly quick demise.
When asked why they were fighting and what they were fighting for, South Vietnamese soldiers often turned out not to be very firm believers in their own cause. Boots and uniforms stripped off and abandoned in place by soldiers deserting on 30 April 1975 testify to that fact.
The wartime South Vietnamese population might not have been able to answer the question of “what are we fighting for?”, but the next few decades of economic mismanagement and political oppression after unification would provide a resounding answer, especially for those not able to escape the country.
By the early 2010s, after nearly a decade of research and reading, my viewpoint had matured from “acknowledge that our side may have been ‘wrong’, and then find out what happened on both sides” to “never lose sight of the fact that democracy as the South attempted to espouse it trumps the totalitarian communism adopted by the North.” Both were foreign, imposed ideologies, and the fact that one conquered the other has no bearing on virtue. As the Vietnamese author and political dissident Duong Thu Huong so eloquently put it: “Beauty does not always triumph.”
Though film and media are thoroughly dominated by northerners, southern defiance is coming to the surface. “We only learn how to cherish things when we’ve already lost them,” the 2017 trailer of Cô Ba Sài Gòn (The Tailor) begins. The southern voiceover is immediately followed by a close-up of Saigon’s city hall, with the camera focused squarely on the flagpole – there the flag of South Vietnam flutters. Yellow with three red stripes. It is subtle but perceivable for those who look for it.
A slow zoom-out, followed by shots of economic prosperity and vibrant displays of traditional áo dài to emphasise the blossoming of Vietnamese culture under a “fascist”, “puppet” regime. That these scenes managed to make it onto the big screen directly undermines the communist narrative of Saigon needing to be “liberated”. A particularly salient question asked among dissidents, both in and outside the country, is “who liberated whom?” Did the impoverished North really liberate the wealthier South? Or was it the other way around? Moreover, what exactly did the South need liberating from? A comfortable, prosperous, peaceful life?
The film champions the preservation of the áo dài – the traditional Vietnamese outfit – over Western fashions in 1960s Saigon, but the subversive message, wrapped in the garb of an innocent movie about fashion, is unmistakable. For South Vietnam, the loss is more political than cultural: no longer do citizens possess freedom, democracy, and a vibrant civil society. Even if imperfectly practised in South Vietnam, greater freedom of expression brought prosperity and a society of better quality than what Vietnam has today. Many Vietnamese, unable to express dissatisfaction with the status quo at the ballot box, vote with their feet. Leaving the country is the dream for those who have means to do so; Hanoi readily acknowledges that Vietnam suffers from brain drain.
Even so, it must be acknowledged that the war was a manifestation of North and South both wanting the best for the Vietnamese people while choosing drastically different paths. It would be unforgivably cynical to believe otherwise, to view either government as monolithic entities not made of Vietnamese individuals who loved their country. The root of the conflict stemmed from both sides competing to be the only good. Both the North and the South had causes they believed to be just – a fact which native and overseas Vietnamese have yet to fully accept.
On paper and in diplomatic circles, there is only one “true” Vietnam. Although the Republic of Vietnam ceased to exist after 30 April 1975, it lives on in the hearts and minds of millions of Vietnamese who abhor communist totalitarianism. It lives on in its enforced absence within Vietnam’s national discourse. A silent, de facto ban of the yellow flag with three red stripes, of any positive mention of the southern republic, of anything related to the former state is, in a way, perpetuating South Vietnam’s existence. And if history is any indication, the South remembers.
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